28 March 2019 Volume :7 Issue :8

The UKZN Griot. Stress, Illness and Early Retirement

The UKZN Griot. Stress, Illness and Early Retirement
The last offering of The UKZN Griot in UKZNdaba Online as the publication prepares for a new column set to feature various voices within UKZN.

Academic work has a rapidly increasing half-life while the half-life of academics is becoming a serious problem. Unless this is arrested there will be none of us left. 

But the madness – what I diagnose as academentia - continues. Here is a letter from the Editor of the journal Visual Anthropology, a retiree, to his editorial board:

Dear Colleagues,

… Universities are expecting people to perform or perish … Denmark, for example, declared that 1 book = 2.5 articles, and that edited volumes and reviews don’t count for anything … What it means for reviewing is that you Editors might get your best results by pursuing senior or retired experts who are no longer concerned with chalking up points; alternatively, you may have some luck with graduate students, who also may be very up to date on the literatures.’

Globally, academics are wilting under stress: 60-80 hour working weeks, and not surprisingly, dying prematurely, falling ill and taking early retirement, with B&Bs being the preferred option. Ex-UKZN Professor Gregory Kamwendo was assassinated at UniZulu, allegedly for exposing a campus-based syndicate issuing fraudulent PhDs [1].

Campus massacres are common in the United States. On February 12, 2010, an assistant professor of Biology at the University of Alabama shot six colleagues at a routine departmental meeting. The Chronicle of Higher Education’s website debated the larger, often unspoken context of stressful academic work culture.[2a] [2b] [2c] Anonymous Academic, published in The Guardian in March 2014 describes the funeral of ‘J’ a British PhD student who committed suicide. The blogger wondered if the stress of doctoral work had caused his colleague’s suicide. The blog attracted a massive response.[3]

We all know colleagues who have died too young. We all know that academia actually does make one ill. Just ask any health service provider in Durban and Pietermaritzburg. Just consult the articles listed below. No, they are not peer reviewed. They are cries from the heart.

Why not peer-reviewed? Because few - other than retired academics - are available to do peer reviews any more. It’s only the published article that counts. Doing peer reviews detracts from actually writing, submitting and arguing with editors who want an appropriate review. And, when reviewers take a year to assess a single submission, we know we are in trouble. The epidemic of recent article retractions – especially in the sciences - is indicative of the managerial push to publish and perish. This is not fake science but potentially good science managed badly.

Thank God for the Academy of Science for South Africa and the Department of Higher Education and Training that do not stipulate minimums nor offer equivalence ratios between formats. Quality, not quantity; increased research capacity, not depletion through exhaustion, and global competitiveness, not parochial myopia, should be driving criteria. But who is listening? The Danish degrading of books and edited anthologies serves no-one and ramps up intolerable pressure on journals.

Let’s not again mention the predators opportunistically servicing this insanity. Soon those of us who are voluntary editors will balk as we who are the unpaid cash cows enabling our authors to feed the publication subsidy millions into universities while we work on shoestrings, with little or no recognition from the institutions that employ us.[4] Even our authors think of us just as cogs in a machine. ‘Write, you fool,’ might be the auditor’s instruction; do not edit, do not peer review, do not engage your peers through commentary, book reviews or interventions - the exemplar resisting this instrumentalism is the South African Journal of Science. Only production-line products - ‘accredited’ of course - will count and be counted. And so academentia takes its toll.

Some manager somewhere will decide that machines can be programmed to conduct peer reviews. Since they will not be human, but post human, they will assess articles without fear or favour, immediately and thus will Elon Musk’s warnings about artificial intelligence come to pass. Soon, as with the predators, academics will be paying machines to write their articles also, and cybernetics will be king. And so, academics will be supplanted as the machines read other machines. 

To conclude with Chisolm’s Third Law, Corollary 4: No matter how long or how many times you explain, no-one is listening.

That’s how I feel. Academics, administrators and support staff always comment (reflectively) on my columns, management hardly ever!

The Griot column terminates today. It has been running for 10 years and all good things must come to an end. Back copies will soon be compiled into a single table and made available on the SAHS web page.

The column generated many hundreds of responses, was syndicated and re-reported on other websites, cited by various scholars; and a number of the columns have been revised into chapters, articles and a book that will be published later in the year. 

During the same period as the Griot was published I noticed a similar trend amongst my colleagues internationally where academics from a variety of disciplines increasingly are resorting to satire to characterise academentia, that is now a global pandemic. A cure must be found.

My thanks to UKZN Corporate Relations for facilitating the column, for its support and its managing of a very important institutional public sphere through a very difficult period of transition. And, what is most remarkable is that Corporate Relations kept the presses turning even through the arson attack on its offices some years ago, having to relocate, reorganise and regroup.

Now that’s real commitment and professionalism. The value of UKZNdabaOnline cannot be over-estimated.

Everyone should be writing for it.

Keyan G Tomaselli is Distinguished Professor, University of Johannesburg and Professor Emeritus and Fellow, UKZN.



[2a]The demoralisation of SA’s Academic Staff, http://www.politicsweb.co.za/opinion/sas-demoralized-academic-staffby a former UKZN staffer,

[2b]The Travelling Supervisor, The Witness, 8 June 2018, p.8 by a current UKZN staffer;

[2c]and the obedient robots once known as academic staff. http://www.scottishreview.net/JillStephenson118.shtml


[4]See Perverse incentives and the political economy of South African academic journal publishing‘(Click on title) or access via https://www.sajs.co.za/article/view/4341


Further Reading

The demoralisation of SA’s Academic Staff


By a former UKZN staffer.

The Travelling Supervisor, The Witness, 8 June 2018, p.8. By a current UKZN staffer .… and the obedient robots once known as academic staff.


http://www.theguardian.com/higher-education-network/2014/mar/06/mental-health-academics-growing-problem-pressure-university?CMP=fb_gu http://www.educationviews.org/dark-thoughts-mental-illness-rise-academia/, by Academics Anonymous, the blog that started this discussion

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