What It’s Like to be a “Recovering Academic”

I grew up in academia, first as a student, then as a professional, then again as a student, and then again as a professional as jobs, vocations, and life shifted. I thought academia was truly my niche and that I’d be in it forever.

Then I made the very conscious decision one day to leave academia entirely. That was almost two years ago.

Those two years have been a self-rehabilitation, wherein I’ve discovered I’ll always label myself a “recovering academic” because of my experiences in being in, as well as departing from the ivory tower.

Recovering Over Recovery

“Recovering” is an interesting way to pose a departure from a certain career path, because most jobs and careers don’t require rehabilitation. I use the word recovering in my departure from academia like how addicts refer to themselves when going through rehabilitation and reintegration. It’s how I also referred to myself when I departed from religion, labeling myself a “Recovering Catholic” for life.

In recovery from something, either addiction, a way of life, trauma, or a certain identity you held onto, you know that within your psyche holds the imprints of certain behaviors, ways of thinking, worldviews, choices, and habits.

Recovery isn’t instant, it’s a long-drawn-out process where you have to re-wire your thinking and change the way you react to certain stimuli and triggers. Recovery doesn’t always have a definite beginning or an end, where you’re “recovered”. Thus, in my experiences, I’m still recovering from literally growing up in academia, and integration into the world outside the gates has been a process I’ve reflected on daily since I made the decision to seek other paths.

When you’re “in” academia, you don’t just see it as a job. You become academia. Your behaviors, ways of working, methods of relating to people, and rules of engagement become imprinted into your identity as an academic. By being within the walls of the ivory tower, especially in senior or tenured positions, you’re given a certain pass to embrace the worldview, behaviors, and quirks and way of interacting with others with the generally accepted belief that in genius is insanity. I’ve seen a lot of excuses made for people’s negative and unorthodox behaviors, just because they’re “academics”. I never bought that.

I Was Where I Thought I Belonged

My whole career in academia I was tasked with bridging the gap between what the academics were doing, and the rest of the world. I saw the underbelly of academic employment within the HR department which gave me more lessons than I could count. As a community engager, my favorite part of my academic career, my job was to show what was relevant within the institution to the outside world and bring intel from the real world back through the gates.

I got myself more educated so that I could talk the talk of academics and that would give me some validation as a worthy professional by the letters following my name. I thought that would help me straddle the two worlds better. Sometimes it did, but oftentimes I found myself hiding my heart in favor of presenting only my brain.

Then Shift Happened

I was proud of my job and my institution, and the strides I’d taken to position myself as a real-world person amongst the academics with an academic mind, yet I always struggled with this. In many of my performance reviews, the issue of being “too concerned with outside the institution” became an ongoing issue. Who was I truly loyal to, and did I truly align with the values of an academic institution?

I got the chance to find out through a life-altering work-related trip to East Africa that became the defining moment where I asked myself “where do I belong”? I acted as a human and not as the academic I was supposed to, and I got myself in trouble with the ivory tower.

This moment was when I realized that the way I am experiencing the world is incongruent with my position within the academy. I found that I could no longer force myself to look at everything academically because my heart and humanity stood in the way, and I wasn’t going to squash the human in me in favor of the academic. I left the job I thought I’d have forever.

Further attempts to devote my professional work to serving the community and the academy at the same time failed miserably. I found that the academy just didn’t always work well beyond their gates, while being faced with the true and harsh reality that universities just aren’t that relevant. Most people see academic institutions as mere places within the city that they don’t understand that serves a purpose only for those who were privileged enough. Ouch. Time for a reality check.

I Ran…. FAR

I left in pursuit of a new home, new way of seeing the world, and a new career in entrepreneurship.

I then learned that you can take the girl out of academia, but you can’t necessarily take the academic out of the girl, hence why I call myself a recovering academic.

Every day in my career as an educator and writer, I look to universities, research centers, peer-reviewed journals, and academic bodies of knowledge to validate the information I take in and disseminate through my work. In my mind is engrained the idea that I can’t truly know something to be true unless some researcher within their lab, office, or home computer looked at it in a scientific and academic way and published it in a paper that will give me that proof I look for in everything.

As a recovering academic, I’m stuck in this ironic, polarized, yet whacky pattern of identity and behavior where I want to be so critical of an institution I always felt was so far away from “real life”, yet I still look to the academic way of thinking on any issue within the world external to the academy that I work on or act within.

Someday I’ll get that balance, as I find the distance from my old identity and build new relationships and discover a new career trajectory. While I’m almost certain that there isn’t a future in academia for me, I am in so many ways thankful of holding that position within the institution where I was able to walk the line between the academic world and the rest of the world. It helped me think, be critical, and ask questions. It helped me find my place in the world (for now). It helped me be more thoughtful and intentional, recognizing people’s perceptions dictate everything.

I always think about how knowledge and information effects real people and will always defend the pursuit of quality, vetted information over crap you read on the internet. I’ll always dabble in the areas of research, knowledge translation, and will be a forever advocate for the open access movement. I’ll always be a nerd, and someone who thrives on knowledge, research, data, information and the pursuit of curiosity. I just don’t need any more letters following my name to prove it.

My name is Anne-Marie Fischer Moodie, and I’m a proudly recovering academic.


Pay attention to the man behind the curtain of international learning

When I worked within international learning programs in the university setting, many things kept me up at night, and ultimately led me to reconsider my career in international learning, but one issue that I struggled a lot with was the lack of authenticity in the construction of some of these international learning programs.

North American higher education institutions are touting the “Internationalization” flag with, in my opinion, a lack of resources, know-how, and mostly time to carry out authentic, ethical and meaningful international partnerships that actually produce results for the institution (students) and the host communities involved. This idea that I am bringing up is nothing new. We’ve thankfully seen some great critical perspectives come into the purview of the public about these programs in recent years. I love Talya Zemach-Bersin’s perspectives shared in the 2008 article “Why American Students Abroad Can’t Be Global Citizens” that questions the whole “why” of it all, and in 2015, CBC’s Doc Zone came out with the documentary “Volunteers Unleashed” that looked at the phenomenon of voluntourism: programs designed to combine international tourism experiences with the promise of making global impact (worth a watch!).

For many years, and until recently, I was involved in sending university students abroad to work on service and engagement projects within host communities touted with the idea that a student could “give back” to the global world while engaging in an authentic, integrated cultural experience among the locals. The idea universities would sell the students was that through true integration within local communities (usually only for a week), and providing a service based on “defined” community needs, they would make true impact on the global level, and in turn, be provided an enlightening and transformational learning experience. Truthfully, it hurt to say it anymore, but it was my job to.

Universities work from strategic plans. Within these strategic plans includes a quota or goal of sorts for their International programs. For X year, the academies will accept X number of students (cha-ching!) and send out X number of students, with exponential growth year after year. It provides great PR.

University staff and the departments that make up the university (i.e. student life, housing, etc) are usually tasked with meeting these outcomes. They recognize that with quantity you have to risk quality, and thus, this is why universities turn to (usually for-profit) third-party providers* that provide “canned” experiences, designed for large groups, and designed to meet Internationalization missions of higher educational institutions. The spots with the third party providers are committed to before the students have been recruited to fulfill them. With this magic number of students to send abroad to be met in mind, students are recruited into these international learning programs at both the co-curricular (non-academic) and curricular (course-based) levels at a price (of multiple thousands of dollars), with the idea they will provide a much needed service to a community in the Global South or third world who needs them. They are recruited, are accepted into the program and pay a fee to participate. They are provided orientation, reflection exercises and lessons on intercultural communication, cultural humility, and all the wonderful things that universities sell as global citizenship (a term still so engrained in my own vocabulary). The students go on these experiences, participate in a highly scheduled roster of activities, and are put in service situations with people in host communities who “need them”** so that these students can fulfill resumes with eye catching experiences that they’re told employers eat up. The students come home, with a promise and a dedication to save the world, but then altruism gets replaced with ambition, and in more cases than not, the student resumes on his or her own path from their academic to professional lives, and their international experience, and the people they worked with, becomes a distant memory. Only in some cases with the structure of the academic year allow students to have adequate debriefing experiences to help draw out the learning that the universities expect of them. Then rinse and repeat for the next year.

I don’t want to paint all international learning programs with a bad brush, as I have been witness to some incredible programs that are still continuing that ARE actually making meaningful global connections that I’ve been able to evaluate first-hand with the host community and the students involved. I still remain proud to have been involved in such authentic moments of exchange and experience, and I am happy to be affiliated with a new institution whose international learning programs I have become a big fan of. Within these programs, the third-party provider is left OUT, and the relationships are built directly between university staff and/or faculty member, and a host community abroad. This process requires a huge degree of time, money, travel, and thorough process of negotiating the partnership and understanding what each party hopes to get out of the experience. These programs also don’t stress that they are bringing something as a service, but rather, position these as opportunities for true exchange where not one party is more advantaged than the other. These programs are still built on the premises mentioned above of quotas, economic exchanges, and designing of experiences, but when these experiences are made with a high degree of intention and host community participation, where the host community’s outcomes are placed before the student outcomes, better outcomes truly are produced for all involved.

How an international learning experience is advertised can make all the difference. If you are going to another country to strictly observe or learn from them, name it as so. If your international learning experience represents more of a tour rather than a true engagement experience, name it as so. It’s OK to travel abroad without an altruistic purpose. It is not OK to travel abroad with stated altruistic purpose that it is inauthentic, and doesn’t represent altruism at all. Let’s all stop kidding ourselves by placing fancy names on things to make it sound better than it actually is.

While it may appear to the contrary, I do not think that international programming within higher education programs that tout themselves as engagement experiences should stop, however, I can pose a few questions to those considering international learning, as practitioners or participants, that may allow these experience to move towards a place of authenticity:

  • What is the source of the partnership? How was the connection to an international host community made? Why was it made in the first place?
  • Are resources available to ensure that proper time is spent visiting the host community in advance, building relationships, and understanding opportunities for true engagement?
  • Are students provided universal financial access to these programs? Are students with disabilities accommodated in these programs?
  • Are host community participants given the opportunity to participate in similar experiences within North America? (i.e. read about fair trade learning)
  • If working with a third-party provider, is it a for-profit or nonprofit? What are the margins for overhead vs. financial contributions made to the host community?
  • Is host community impact measured? Are impacts reported? Whose testimonials are being used to recruit students into these programs – the students or the host community’s?
  • Exactly how is this North American presence building community capacity within third world countries? Is it at all?

Tough questions that make you think, don’t they?

The truth can’t be denied that universities will continue to increase their numbers of students going abroad; everywhere you turn, another university in North America is smattering the news with a renewed dedication to internationalization, and the buzz words: integration, global citizenship, service, international development, transformation, new perspectives, new horizons, intercultural, are not showing any signs of dying.

I wish and hope for the future of international learning within higher education to be less based on numbers and more based on impact. For funding to be provided so that relationships can be developed first-hand between universities and host communities rather than having to turn to sterile, canned packages provided by those who profit off the international and altruistic missions of universities and the eager willingness for host communities to accept these students for their own economic benefit. For a unification of the scholarly attention that is being paid to the true impacts of international learning and the practitioner, quota-based approaches. For international learning programs to move away from canned alternative reading week/spring break co-curricular opportunities to international engagement through discipline-specific, curriculum based international experiences that require rigour in the planning and intentionality in the building of the partnership. I wish and hope at the core of it all that we can all just be authentic and transparent in our intentions, actions and strategies as people of the world, and the institutions that facilitate our mobility across cultures and continents.

*Third-Party providers are usually for-profit (but some are non-profit) companies and organizations that provide international learning opportunities as a service. These organizations claim to have created true partnerships within host communities and constantly work to design student activities around community-defined needs at the time. Universities can pay these third-party providers a per-student fee, and in turn the third-party provider will organize all aspects of the travel experience. I do not agree with some of the practices of some organizations, but have witnessed some excellent and ethical practices by some organizations, namely Solidarity in Action (Canada-based) and Amizade (US based)

**Another blog post for another day will be the activities that students can sometimes be engaged in as part as service trips. Many times, students will be placed in remote villages that do not have access to medical services, and students (aka children) are placed in situations where they are wearing medical scrubs and providing basic medical triage activities after being trained for only a few hours. The host community does not understand that these students are not trained medical professionals, yet the students clothing leads them to believe they are. I don’t think I have to write much more to highlight how wrong it is to extend a scope of practice to a third-world country where that wouldn’t be stood for in North America.