Academic Tantrums


This is not research related but rather a quick post on something that I have been thinking about over the weekend. In the last few months my beautiful and intelligent toddler has alternated from being a complete delight to acting like something reminiscent of a mixture of Regan from the Exorcist with Damien from the Omen thrown in for good measure. In a rather amusing attempt to chart her toddler’s motivations,  a mother from Australia charted all the reasons for a tantrum inside a 12 hour period. From such rational (!) reasons like the shape of sandwich to the weather, the list made me feel a lot better since suddenly realizing the complete insanity that takes place in my house is a completely normal and shared experience was a liberating feeling. Over the weekend just some of the reasons we had tantrums were:

  • Her father asked her nicely if she would like breakfast
  • She wanted pink socks
  • I gave her pink socks
  • I would not let her eat quavers for breakfast
  • She wanted to feed the ducks
  • The ducks did not eat the food she threw to them
  • She would not put her hat and gloves on
  • She was cold since she did not have hat and gloves on


This got me thinking about academic tantrums and the shared experience we all feel in the working environment. I used to work with some people who threw the closest thing to serious tantrums that I have ever seen in the work environment. By this I mean almost shouting unreasonable and often highly ridiculous demands (“I should be allowed to email during meetings despite everyone been told not to because I am special” was my favorite one and then sulking and being unpleasant whenever their own way was not given). This not only led to a horrid work environment but, frankly, really damaged this person’s professional standing inside the whole unit. What I found notable was that this person’s behavior was always linked to his or her (!) own subjectivity and never once about the wider work environment unless it directly impacted them. These were people who never gave a s**t about anyone else. I have found that those who are most prone to unreasonable behavior at work are often those colleagues who are most likely to screw others over in their desire to scramble to the top and/or avoid any admin work.

Yet, aside from the manic few, there are the shared complaints we all have that reflect the wider work environment rather than any individual personality type. I would would love to throw an on-the-floor screaming fit many times in the working day over the conflicting pressure we are under. We don’t, as social norms and the fear of getting fired (usually) prevent us from doing so but the underlying reasons are often not dissimilar to my daughters. For the most part it is compete frustration we cannot 100% control the environment around us. I mean, who has not felt the desire to scream over the following:

  • Students don’t attend meetings
  • Too many student attend meetings and we get nothing else done
  • We don’t get recognition for our research
  • People recognize our research and ask us to do stuff (talks, reviews etc.) as a result
  • We need to ensure academic standards
  • We need to ensure that all students do well on the modules to ensure our teaching reviews are good – academic standards are often left behind in this
  • We want research-led teaching
  • Research-led teaching confronts us with the reality not all students love our research topic as much as we do

The list can go on…..

The complicating pressures on us at all times in the working day can lead to a real sense of unbalance and stress and it is this stress that feeds our primitive desires to throw fits, complain and metaphorically lash out at anyone/anything we think, often erroneously,  may be able to control it. Think about how many times you have heard colleagues (and yourself!) complain about ‘the university’ as it we are in some way separate from it.

How do we deal with tantrums with toddlers I think gives us insight into how to deal with academic ones.

– A firm schedule. Take a research day, turn off email, put a do not disturb sign on office door – do the same each week where possible and keep to it.

– Participate in the wider debates. I have found the unhappiest staff are those who don’t engage with their wider school/colleges etc. This ranges from professors to postdocs. The most frustrating people I have ever encountered were a couple of teaching fellows/temporary staff who never tried to understand the system and the pressures schools and other individuals were under and therefore did not tailor their behaviour accordingly. This meant they continually did not get jobs due to their own actions and reputation for very poor collegiality (incidentally there were all male and I think there is a lot more that can be said here but perhaps another day). Whilst the temporary staff life is tough – making demands that schools can never meet due to wider pressures and policies, does not help your own case.

– Model academic behavior – in short, be nice to your colleagues and students. If anything, this is my resolution this year – everyone has merit and deserved respect so try to treat them accordingly.


I may return to this debate later.


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