‘Feeling passionate about your research is essential and yet, traditionally, academic work should be rational, methodological, and dispassionate’
Last month, Nobel Prize winning scientist and academic, Tim Hunt made a sexist comment about women in scientific laboratories. His remarks implied that women were distracting in the workplace and that they were too emotional for the academic life. While crying when you receive criticism may not be appropriate in a professional setting, Professor Hunt’s comments reflected a long held idea that academic research should be objective and free from emotion, and that women are particularly unsuited to academia.
I call this the paradox of academic passion. I am a theologian and I, like many of my colleagues in the arts and humanities, and indeed in other disciplines, work predominantly on my own. My research lives and dies with me. Feeling passionate about your research is essential and yet, traditionally, academic work should be rational, methodological, and dispassionate.
Guardian Women in Leadership provides insight on gender diversity for progressive thinking organisations, as well as career advice and inspiration for senior women. Sign up now to become a member of Women in Leadership and receive exclusive benefits.
I am currently writing a PhD and in one chapter I touch upon a sensitive issue that is very close to home. One of my supervisors encouraged me to think about whether or not I would be able to defend this part of my work without getting emotional. My other supervisor encouraged me to think about why being emotional might be seen as wrong and whether I wanted to challenge that perception. Why shouldn’t I feel deeply and passionately about my research? Professor Hunt might suggest that an emotional woman is unsuited to academic research, but I would argue the contrary: that the emotional woman (and man) are exactly what academia needs.
There is the beginning of a passionate, emotional rebellion in the academic world. Researchers are starting to realise that allowing your emotions and passion for your research to be seen in your academic work might not be such a bad thing after all.
The battle metaphor reigns supreme in the academic context. A researcher puts forward an idea in a thesis or a conference paper and then “defends” it. Rigorous challenging of ideas and robust debate are essential to academia, but I believe that this battle prevents creativity and big thinking. When you know your idea will be attacked, you put forward the smallest, most defendable idea you can. In contrast, accepting passion and emotion as essential to good research would encourage creativity and bravery in the academic world.
Being passionate about your research is a great motivator. Many researchers work alone every day and there may be no one else doing work even remotely connected to yours. Caring deeply about what you do and allowing your passion to push you onwards can help you overcome the challenge of research. Anecdotally, the PhD students I know who struggle most with their work are those who are recruited onto projects already running – it’s harder to feel passionate about someone else’s work.
Finally, allowing passion and emotion into your research and writing yourself into your work gives an authenticity to your academic voice. It allows you to be honest about why you’re doing the work you’re doing and why you care. It helps your readers to understand why they should care. It makes your biases clear. More than anything, it makes your work far more interesting.
I believe it is no longer the rule that all academic research must be dispassionate and objective. Writing yourself into your research, being open and honest, being emotional, all this makes for research that is valuable and meaningful. Tim Hunt’s comments were sexist, but he’s also mistaken about the place of emotion in academia. An emotional, passionate woman isn’t a distraction in the academic world. She is exactly what that world needs.
Source: The Guardian