Unwholesome intentions in academia

Unwholesome intentions should not go unnoticed.

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Buddhist philosophy talks about the nature of human minds. From that perspective, intention matters. A good intention leads to some positive change in one way or another, and the positive change can in reverse bring out good intentions. Ill intentions lead to many undesirable issues, which in reverse can bring out the ill intentions; it is a mental loop, due to the self-reflective nature of human minds. When one gets trapped in an unwholesome mental loop, it will take some efforts and wisdom to get out of that. This observation also applies to academia. The current academia is facing many levels of challenges and issues — which are undeniably interconnected — depression, stress, burn-out, misconduct, intimidation, overspecialization, harassment, hierarchy, and all kinds of sloppy practices and sabotage behaviours. All of those issues are very relevant to our unconscious part of the brain, which is not a topic that people can talk about openly in many cultures, which, in return, entrench those issues. Examining each of these issues one by one is not feasible in one article, because it needs the multiple perspective analysis of human minds with the help of mindfulness, and also the creativity in using languages to describe them. Therefore, in this article, I only cover the perspective of intention, which I hope can cast light on the current issues and trigger more thoughts and reflection from you. In particular, I would like to name a few questionable intentions prevalent in the academic environment, though I could not list all of them. Those intentions are questionable, but may not be necessarily problematic in some situations. However, in general, these unwholesome intentions, as part of the cause and effect chain, contribute to many of the undesirable scenes in academia.

  1. I am doing a PhD to get a degree, to get a title by doing whatever I can do and tolerating whatever I can go through.
  2. I want to get a publication, that’s it. As many as possible, so I could put it on my CV, you see, I am a researcher because I have published papers.
  3. I am doing a PhD to show that I am smart. I am a professor; I am better than others.
  4. I want to have this sort of result; I should do whatever I can do and reason to get this result.
  5. It is good to give gift authorship to that professor, who is famous so that it can smooth over the publication process a little bit.
  6. It is good to receive gift authorship to form a good relationship so that we could churn out more publications together in the future.
  7. I am a professor, I should be omniscient, I must be better than those PhD students, and I should hold them in contempt.
  8. I am your supervisor, and I should have my name on your paper, if not OK, I will intimidate you because I know you care about this PhD degree.
  9. I am your supervisor, even I don’t know your paper, but I can label it as a bad paper, and this prejudgement makes you feel diffident as a consequence, and you have to rely on me to “supervise” you to give you a proper judgment.
  10. I will try my best to make those stuff sound scientific; actually, we can make anything we want sound scientific.
  11. I will ignore this part in my paper since nobody else can notice it.
  12. Micro-aggression, not out of kindness.
  13. Jealousy.
  14. Aversion to some people.
  15. Compare myself with others
  16. I think what I am doing is the best, and unfavorably judge others’ work.

(More to add…)

Those unwholesome intentions may lead to some results people want to achieve, especially in an academic environment wholly based on those sorts of unwholesome intentions — a corrupted setting. This environment gives the people an illusion that those intentions work well and make them stick with those intentions, which in reverse perpetuates the issues. It is a big loop.

External measures that are being taken to change the academic climate may not work well unless something within people’s mind is altered, such as those unwholesome intentions. Unwholesome intentions and harmful habits can easily be masked as culture, a “smart” strategy to legitimize those problematic thoughts. It is another ill intention to play this sort of word game here. Instead, we should establish and defend proper philosophical academic values that everyone could act on to counteract those unwholesome intentions. Unfortunately, it is too ideal to implement. Besides, individually, getting rid of those ill intentions is very hard, some of which has been part of their deep-seated biases. Mindfulness is an effective way to help this, but being mindful requires efforts and cultivating mental skills, which won’t come easy to many people, especially when they tend to judge a lot.

So what is my conclusion? The conclusion here is not something I had hoped for, but I have to say, getting academia out of this debased state (a big big loop) is never easy, due to the nature of human minds, compounded by the current culture where unconscious part of the mind is not sufficiently openly discussed and the frustration (also a fact) that science cannot do much about human minds, especially the unconscious part and many people still rely on science to get answers.

However, we can still do something, that’s, to speak up for the proper values, especially when one is going through something like misconduct, intimidation, harassment. Speaking up is a process of confrontation to let the ill intention meet the values, which is an inevitable conflict. This process also helps one get rid of the unwholesome intentions by sticking to the proper values. Doing this benefits not only oneself but also the whole academic environment. You see, it promotes another loop, due to the self-reflective nature of human minds. However, speaking up requires mental courage, which should be cultivated first. OK, let me stop here, or else I will be writing forever.

(Cico finished this article on a cool evening, after reflecting on his motives to speak up recently. He knows he cannot do much, but that does not mean he won’t do anything)

Philosopher, Doer, Generalist, Zen Mindfulness Meditator, Mathematician, PhD Candidate

When the self comes to a stop, truth simply makes its appearance.

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