guilty, as charged


I’ve been thinking about guilt lately. Academic guilt. And why I seem to feel it – a lot.

The most recent guilt ridden occasion was just last weekend. The week before I’d been away for four days at a conference. I’d left home at 5 am on Tuesday and arrived back at 2 30 am on Saturday. Gah. Just the way the flights worked out. But it did mean that on Saturday I couldn’t do much more than get my laundry done. Shattered doesn’t really describe it. And on Sunday I got up quite early, blogged, did slides for two presentations I had to give on Tuesday and sorted out some urgent research project admin. That took me to a late lunch and then I stopped. Stopped but feeling guilty that I hadn’t done more.

Guilty that I hadn’t

  • responded to a colleague’s paper that I’d promised to read
  • read and fed back on a long thesis chapter I‘ve had for about two weeks
  • finished the reviews on a special issue

Let alone

  • written a very overdue review of two books
  • revised two collaborative research papers that have been stuck for quite some time
  • done any more on a book which is due alarmingly soon
  • gone back to the draft paper I am co-writing with a PhDer….

I could keep adding to the list of things not done, but these are the particular set that were associated with feeling guilty.

Now, I’m pretty sure that if I asked a number of my colleagues they would come up with a long to do list too. The details would be different, but in common would be things that are urgent that aren’t done, and things that are nearly as urgent and should be done. But would they feel guilty about them? Is there a pattern in what I feel guilty about? Because, you see, not everything on my to do list induces guilt.

My guilt comes from the fact that I haven’t got to things where other people are involved. People that are important to me. It’s the people I’m letting down that matter. I don’t feel particularly guilty for instance that I haven’t quite sorted out my ORCID although I can see that it could be helpful. I don’t feel guilty that I haven’t recommended any books to the library or that I haven’t checked lately to see if my online profile is coherent. No. My guilt happens because I am holding up other people and potentially causing them to lose time, adjust their schedules, scrabble around to fill the gap that I have created. This kind of guilt is a low level feeling of worry, of unhappiness that I am harming, or will harm another person.

And my guilt goes beyond the current situation. Although I do get things done, the guilty feeling remains. Guilt seems to be an endemic academic emotion, well, certainly for me. I am never caught up. I always have people hanging on what I am not doing. Therefore, I compel myself to work on the weekend, regularly, as means to keep a vague check on the list of things that affect other people, the list that I can’t ever actually completely manage.

So I’m pondering. Is guilt integral to the performativity of the contemporary academy? Is it an essential emotional companion to the intensification and acceleration of academic work? If emotion sits between ‘structure and agency’, then system is certainly implicated.

Well –  maybe yes and maybe no. If all I had to do was to satisfy abstract bureaucratic measures then I wouldn’t be nearly so keen to get things done. It is, perhaps somewhat perversely, a kind of resistance, a desire for academic relationships that are pushing my guilt…

So there is no point telling me to take time off. Nor to adopt some fancy new kind of time management system. Nor to try out some kind of life hack. Nor to say no. Nor to just make better choices. I know all this and I can actually do all of those things thanks very much – my point here is that I choose not to – because guilt is not about personal management… Academic guilt as I experience it is not amenable to simple and rational intervention, because (certainly in my case) it is a response that comes from a commitment to maintaining a sociality and relationality that is fragile and undercut by competition, audit and abrasive organisational cultures. It is deeply, and at the same time as personal, profoundly structural and systemic.

Well that’s my current theory.

Guilt keeps me working on those things that might support collegiality, a gift economy, a more generous academic culture… and yes, it’s clear how this is also simultaneously made risky when it’s impossible to meet promises and expectations.

I guess I’m just wondering aloud, and in public, how widespread academic guilt is. Is it now a common form of academic emotional labour?  How important is guilt, driven by an ethic of care, to the regulation and completion of academic work in the contemporary university?


Image credit: Thomas H, Flickr Commons

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in Emotion, emotional labour, guilt, Uncategorized and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to guilty, as charged

  1. Linda Henderson says:

    Interesting blog to contemplate. Does guilt have to be a part of the relationships we must/need to protect in the contemporary university? Some interesting reading to be found on this here:


  2. Emma Dyer says:

    Thought-provoking post, thank you. I was wondering how you feel when other people don’t manage to keep promises that they have made to you? Your post led me to reflect that I often don’t realise that other people also might feel guilty when they don’t do something as promised, perhaps because guilt is something that is often concealed and self-managed rather than shared. Could honesty about our priorities help or would that lead to resentment from others?

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Tessa Hochfeld says:

    This captures the source of my academic guilt exactly. I find I am constantly letting someone else down via delayed or late commitments and I take more advantage of those with whom I have a closer academic relationship, making me feel worse…


  4. RH says:

    Do subsistence farmers feel a similar guilt when their families are at risk of starvation and they don’t think they have done all the work to prevent it?

    As long as your work requires collaboration and interpersonal dependency, while also not physically being possible to complete in the given time, you will always feel guilty.

    Resource competition, limited positions and grants for to many academics, then almost guarantees a creep towards excessive workloads.
    Guilt naturally follows.

    At least this is what academia looks like to me.
    Perhaps the best solution would be to surgically alter academics brains so they are incapable of guilt or empathy.
    I’m not joking when I say that this seems like the least ethically disturbing solution to the guilt problem.


  5. Beverly L. Bragg says:

    Maybe academic guilt is a carryover from our undergrad / grad school endeavors? A good portion of my time in college was spent preparing for group work, presentations or seminars, in multiple classes, which often left little time to concentrate on individual assignments. My thoughts were I’d rather let myself down than a classmate whose grade depended on me doing my part.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Jo VanEvery says:

    I think Emma is onto something. Because the list of types of advice people give are all focused on the individual, e.g. you could take on fewer expectations. But this guilt is likely felt by ALL parties to the academic relationship. And all parties to the relationship likely think that these relationships are important.

    How do you, as a GROUP of collaborators, address this issue in your discussions about the project and the division of labour. Can you, as a group of people in a relationship you all value, mutually agree to also value the basic self-care needs of each member of the group and support sleeping when exhausted (or even to prevent exhaustion, but when exhausted might be a good place to start), taking one day off per week, etc.

    And find a way to communicate with each other about your ongoing commitment to the project without harming yourself to avoid harming others. It seems that your guilt is based on ASSUMED harm (or potential harm). And you might find that if you communicated about your struggles and vulnerabilities with your collaborators, there are occasions when the collaborator is fine for the whole project to be delayed.

    You might also find that the collaborator’s guilt is based on their perception of your work habits.

    I think maybe getting out of comparison and competition mode into a more solid focus on caring for each other and working in relationship might lead to different outcomes. But it means talking about the emotions and process, not just the outputs and inputs.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. lenandlar says:

    A couple of thoughts. We take on too much to start (it’s part of being the nice educator thingy I think) and yes I think there’s that little bit of extra expected of us sometimes. And over the years this little extra became the norm. I presently have a paper to review (voluntary) and a thesis to third-mark(voluntary) and it’s making me feel the guilt. Not good for us in the long run. We have to learn to say no, nicely.


  8. Reblogged this on The Academic Triangle and commented:
    A lot of academics I know are in similar positions to this. Looking at this from the perspective of guilt is pretty unique though!


  9. This is an excellent post, and yes I did read it and think “wow, this is my life”!


  10. Pingback: Reading List (17/10) | Philosophy and Madeleines

  11. Pingback: Holiday Reading: Best of 2017 | Sphinx

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s