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We need to talk about the ‘hum’

Academia, Olivia Kirtley

We need to talk about the ‘hum’

Photo by Sergey Zolkin ©. Unsplash. Used with permission.

By Olivia Kirtley:

Recently, I watched a superb TED talk by doyenne of Primetime TV, Shonda Rhimes. In the talk she discusses ‘the hum’; this sense of perpetual drive, passion and industriousness. She loves the hum, she is the hum. One day, the hum stops. She feels restless, exhausted, disconsolate and, in a sense, grieving for the loss of joy in her work. Unlike many episodes of Grey’s Anatomy however, this story has a happy ending. Shonda takes a breath, she plays with her children, she keeps putting one foot in front of the other, and one day, the hum returns. She had a dip, a temporary period of being lost in the wilderness, then once rested and restored, she returns to her path.

It struck me that there were many similarities between the feelings she described, and the highs and lows of the life academic. We love the hum, in a lot of ways, we are the hum. The conferences, the late nights, the relentless cycle of publications, grant applications, meetings, job hunting- a relentless cycle in and of itself for the multitude of academics on temporary contracts- and the myriad other tasks one must accomplish as a researcher. Sometimes the hum stops, and when it does…we are all too afraid to talk about it. Occasionally, when someone does take to Twitter or the Higher Education columns of certain popular newspapers to talk about it, they are lambasted for daring to air their discontent; surely this means that they are just not passionate enough about their research? If they are having a tough time, don’t they just need to work a bit harder to get ahead? Sometimes the hum stops. We don’t talk about it and bluntly, it’s killing us. Mental ill health is soaring amongst the academic community; tales of burnout, major depression, suicide and self-harm are, very sadly, not difficult to come by in this population. An excellent blog post by Dr Siobhan O’Dwyer throws this into sharp relief. Behind a lot of funded (and unfunded) grant applications, behind many accepted (and rejected) publications, is a trail of missed meals, of sleepless nights, of sedentism due to being too busy to go to the gym or for a walk, of poor physical health because there’s no time to go for a medical appointment.

Last week a Twitter hashtag, #AcademicSelfCare, caught my eye. As has so often been my experience with Twitter, far from it being the repository of vacant wonderings that some people think it to be, it is in fact host to a huge variety of supportive communities. In this particular instance, researchers talked openly about how sometimes it is hard, and various things that they found helped to get them through these times. There was no finger-pointing, no hum-loss shaming, just support and an overwhelming message that ‘you are not alone’. Crucially, there was also recognition that losing one’s hum is not an indication of a lack of passion or work ethic, and equally that having a hot bubble bath and going to a yoga class is not going to just magically fix everything.

What are your experiences of losing your hum, restoring your hum, and #AcademicSelfCare? Have you been ‘hum-loss shamed’?

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