Published 18 May 2020

#LifeUnderLockdown: Jenn Chubb writes about academia and empathy

Academia and empathy

I read an article today about how research assessment (the REF in the UK) should attempt to in a sense move towards assessing the ‘empathy and grit’ of researchers, rather than just the traditional means of performative research assessment; where the focus is on outputs (publications) as the main component, alongside ‘impact’ and research ‘environment’. In some senses, one could argue that the emotional aspects of academic life are in some ways rewarded in the rather meagre weighting that is applied to the latter two elements (impact and environment) of the REF, but in all truth, how much does the system (and  its institutions) really value and acknowledge the emotional burden of academic life and the individual circumstances that surround it? Perhaps all too often our vulnerabilities and fragilities are pushed aside in the face of a demanding performance driven environment. Thankfully there are now steps to address this through policies, research on research and in practice, which is a real positive for the sector.

As I said, the article I mention was focused on the REF - the system for assessing the quality of research in UK higher education institutions - which, as it happens, has been delayed because of the pandemic and with good reason. For many, the REF is emblematic of a higher education system that represents hyper-competition and is indicative of a less than ‘empathic’ (and instead more)  bureaucratic, aspect of academia in the modern age. For others it is a way to get their research heard for its societal impacts and might also act as a performance incentive.

The timing of this article is no coincidence. If the lockdown is teaching us anything, surely it’s that there exists a need for more kindness in research and by proxy the evaluation of its academics. So, whilst I initially balked at those two words sitting alongside each other in a sentence; ‘assessing empathy’, I actually believe that this – empathy - is a vitally important component of academic life - in and indeed, out of lockdown.

Now for some, lockdown actually might in fact result in increased productivity, perhaps many of us are getting round to writing those papers that were gathering dust in our minds, but for others, and particularly for those with caring responsibilities, it’s actually not that easy and certainly not a level playing field at all.

So, this got me thinking about what examples of empathy and grit I have seen reported in academic circles. People have been writing about how the academic community has been treating each other during lockdown on social media and elsewhere. We hear how academics note that there is increased patience, praise, collaboration, appreciation, truthfulness and care across the research system, and a sense that the present academic self (if you like), far extends the ‘academic identities’ that we present when we only focus on what can be measured – such as our publications. I’ve observed some of these things too at the Labs and at our university. The VC’s well-meant and regular emails to staff have been reassuring, at least to me and the opportunities to join endless quizzes run by staff and students have been in abundance. In DC Labs we have played games, built online platforms to bring the office back together so we can pretend we are at the water cooler in real-life and shared book recommendations and more.

Some of the examples I have seen about academic life under lockdown have also been very fun. There are examples where people are showing themselves in lights we might never have seen before. Our very own Head of the English Department’s video went viral during lockdown and my cats have figured in more chats over the past 7 weeks than is probably healthy… (disclaimer - there is no such thing).

Maybe in some ways we are revealing more of our real selves to one another. I think on the whole this might be a good thing, as communication helps us to feel part of a community. My cello made its way into my office the other day and by proxy, a zoom call. It became quite the talking point for people who didn’t know that I play. On the flip side I have had colleagues apologise to me for how they look or for the state of their rooms. In the case of my cello of course, there is an argument that I should simply be more organised and put things away…

But who really is that organised just now? It’s hard and we are all just doing our best. We must instead remember that the virtual background feature in Zoom is there for a reason and to be utilised ;)

And that’s where I come back to empathy and indeed, grit and resilience. Some of this is really really hard. We are showing ourselves as we are and who we are on any given day can frankly change at a pace in these uncertain and anxiety provoking times.

Perhaps we don’t wear our ‘work armour’ on our zoom calls, perhaps sometimes though, we do and because we need to in order to feel normal or in control. Perhaps today we hide our video because we don’t want to stare back at ourselves all day long and that’s ok too. More importantly, perhaps we are starting to see those vulnerabilities in each other too and picking up on those cues that show other people’s fragilities. Maybe we’re just exhausted but we need to look out for each other’s wellbeing.

I do not mean then to idealise this situation whatsoever, because for as many virtues demonstrated in the research culture, there are probably as many vices. But perhaps, post lockdown, we will be more mindful of what (and who) helped us during this time and when we (inevitably) return our attention to having to ‘perform’ for the purposes of assessment and, as the daily pressures of academic life go back as they were before all this, we remember what we have - and are - learning about the virtues we share as people, beyond the old ivory tower.


Personally, my copying strategies have had varying degrees of success, but it’s been interesting to find what works. As an example, I’ve been doing some fairly structured, but light running, playing in my band (in socially distanced acoustic lockdown sessions) and hanging out with my cats.

Here’s me doing the latter. Over and out.