Dark Academia: A Reflection on Six Years at University

Ever sentimental and inspired by punkacademic’s brilliant piece, ‘No one here will save you’, I thought I’d write some bittersweet thoughts about moving away from the university bubble for the first time in six years and going remote. I’ve neglected this blog since becoming a freelance writer professionally, but I wanted to take the time to write an unfiltered reflection on my time at university, and in my own words.

To those who know me personally, my time at university has been incredibly challenging. While the context and circumstance of many of the difficulties I’ve faced has been somewhat unique or even comical – one notable example was beginning my first year, unknowingly having just moved into a former brothel – many of my experiences are frighteningly common.

In late 2020, I decided to relinquish my anonymity and use my platform to condone my former institution, the University of Sussex, for its handling of my domestic abuse case. It was a report filed alongside with two other women alleging violence and rape against a man who had admitted them in writing, on multiple occasions. A case seemingly so simple and clear cut had numerous delays, was grossly mishandled, and appeared to favour the perpetrator at every turn.

Since whistleblowing a vague outline of my experience on Twitter, I became flooded with endless similar stories from students and staff at the institution. I spend days going over them, devastated that so many people had felt let down in ways remarkably similar to me. Moments of validation, feeling like I wasn’t alone and had been heard, were met with terror at how prevalent the culture of sexual misconduct at universities really is.

As a writer, I feel I’m allowed a certain scope to be candid in a way that other people can’t. I am cis, white, middle class, and afforded the privileges of a job that incentivises me to write about these matters and earn a living from that. There are countless people who don’t have a voice, and can’t have one. Perhaps that’s why I feel compelled to write about injustice in academia; I can write without fear of professional repercussion to the same extent I know others are desperate too.

In October 2021, I released a piece titled ‘Sussex University supports ‘gender critics’ while sexual violence festers’ which I’ve linked for reference. The piece garnered half a million unique clicks from my tweet sharing it alone, and was met with yet more eerily similar accounts. The university reached out and requested some minor corrections, some of which were easily disputed and others I put in place.

Reading the contents of the piece may illuminate how utterly broken our university reporting system is and my specific grievances with the institution. I hope it also explains my insistence on condoning Sussex as a university. I was never offered an apology for my experience, my burning questions (many of which I knew the answers to already) about procedural irregularities left unanswered.

As an institution, Sussex is not unique. The legacy of the Warwick and my current university, Durham, group chats linger to this day. As a collegiate institution, Durham is faced with its own set of unique issues, as well as a cultural reputation exceptionally well accounted for in DSU’s Culture Commission report. I’ve written a thread breaking down the most resonant comments here.

My experience at Durham, however, radically differs from Sussex in one respect. I can’t speak highly enough of the departments and institutes I’m affiliated with, which include English, Philosophy, the Centre for Research into Violence and Abuse, Gender and Law at Durham, and the Institute for Medical Humanities. The kindness and compassion within these spaces make me exceptionally proud to be a student (and faculty member) here. My colleagues represent what my university experience should have always felt like, teaching me that education, joy, and professionalism is possible in a university setting at a groundwork level.

But, like countless other young academics, my eyes have been opened and I fear I can’t go back. When you begin to recognise the cultures and patterns that foster particular behaviours towards marginalised people, it’s exceptionally hard to unsee it. The microcosm of university is so bizarre and unlike any other work environment I’ve been part of, and it’s one that – to quote the Culture Commission – fosters a “general sense of apathy and […] peers who do defend and excuse misconduct out of an uncompromising sense of loyalty”. My decision to move from Durham was a simple one. Through whisper networks, I’ve learned all I need to about the culture here. And like Sussex, hearing of endless tales of students seeking and unable to find help has taken its toll on me.

This post was inspired by an Independent article published today which claimed two students have been suspended by their university for sharing an image featuring abhorrently racism and racist imagery. According to the institution’s guidelines, student behaviour that “results in the damage of its reputation” is prohibited. In a media-stoked “free speech crisis”, we mustn’t forget that students and staff are being silenced. But it’s not in controversial debates or provocative lectures, but through an archaic disciplinary system that issues NDAs to survivors, buries complaints, and suspends students for telling the truth.

My ardent dedication to condemning toxic university cultures online isn’t one of hatred or anger. It’s because I want change, to see things better, and as Sara Ahmed testifies throughout Complaint!, that’s rarely achieved through closed doors.

I often wonder if I’ve risked my academic future by so boldly writing of the institutional injustices that go on. It’s a fear I live with everyday, but one that I have to remind myself is irrational. If I’m left without a voice to speak up when things aren’t right, then this isn’t the profession for me. I’m passionate about research, educating, and literature first and foremost, and simply want to pursue a career doing so, and as an unfunded doctoral student, mind you.

But whether I can do this in a space that will ever be safe remains yet to be seen.

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