On having “no experience of the real world”

I know one shouldn’t feed the trolls, and that it’s bad manners to shout about the difficulty of one’s middle-class job in this seriously screwed-up world, but the latest sneer from the Stupidist movement has  caught me on a sore point. So, for the record…

I’m a junior academic. In the course of my work, I manage budgets and people. I co-ordinate teams spread across the major urban areas of Scotland. I plan and deliver complicated programmes of activity for hundreds of participants. I control groups of two hundred excitable teenagers, in which I have to keep an eye open constantly for sexism, homophobia, and sectarianism, and shut them down politely but unarguably. I painstakingly tease out the issues affecting the study and the lives of angry or despairing students from a dozen or more countries — issues that include poverty, bereavement, mental illness, the atrocities of Daesh, and the idiocies of the DWP and the UK Borders Agency — and I help these students steer their lives through the labyrinth of official procedures and back on track.

I’ve had to learn a bit of accountancy, a bit of charity law, a bit of equality law, a bit of employment law, a bit of data protection law, and to stay on the right side of all of them under pressure. On a regular basis I take decisions that will make people unhappy and expose me, if I’m not careful, to complaints that could get me sacked; I’ve successfully defended myself against these. I draft press releases and policy documents. I have to reconcile the competing interests of schools, exam boards, employers, and the students themselves, and I try at the same time to reflect on what those interests really are.

I have supplied expertise to, and prepared people for employment in, sectors as different as the oil industry, primary education, merchant banks, and the Merchant Navy. (I don’t claim to be happy about all of these, but they’re a fact.) I’ve carried out research on floods, tsunamis, and drug delivery. In the course of my travels with work I’ve had to bribe officials for the paperwork to remain in or leave a country; I’ve had to navigate washed-out roads in a West African thunderstorm, and free a car grounded on a dirt track in Siberia. It’s a small department, but I can still think of one colleague who’s been a professional footballer and another who’s been a pop musician; one who’s been an officer in a Middle Eastern army and one who’s defected from a Communist state. For my part, I’ve had dealings with members of the military, the security services, government officials, vice-presidents of a major corporation, and MPs. And, for some reason, it’s only the MPs who seem to feel entitled to tell me that academics have no experience of the “real world”.

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