Finding Your Purpose in HE

Like many of us, I came to higher education because I believed that it was a profession that could allow me to foster community and be part of social change. But I have often struggled with the feeling that both my work and institutions fell short of the goal of making the world a better place through research and teaching.

Finding Your Purpose” is a workbook that I developed for justice-oriented scholars who are struggling to align their work with their values. Justice-oriented scholars can be instructors who try to counter mis-information or bigotry in their classrooms. They can be librarians who work to create networks of care. They can be students who lift one another up, or researchers whose writing challenges systems of violence and oppression. 

As Anne Helen Peterson has described really clearly, especially as we enter the third year of the coronavirus pandemic, I think a lot of us in and beyond HE feel disillusioned with work. The goal of “Finding Your Purpose” is to help us navigate that uncomfortable space so we can feel like our lives, our work, and our values are more closely aligned.

“Finding Your Purpose” is influenced by the writing of adrienne maree brownMariame Kaba, and others who talk about hope and change as a daily practice. For me, the idea of a justice-oriented scholar is aspirational. It is for everyone whose work turns towards justice.

How can we find our purpose?

The “Finding Your Purpose” workbook offers one approach to finding purpose at work by thinking about the people who inspire you, the communities you belong to, the values that guide you, and the work that gives you pleasure.

“Finding Your Purpose” is a workbook for individuals, but I’ve found it can be really powerful to do the work with others. This project has driven home to me just how much we need a sense of collective purpose as we face the many overlapping crises facing our profession and our communities, from climate change to racism and transphobia.

What if we find our motivations are at odds with the professional context we find ourselves in? 

I don’t know a lot of people who feel like their motivations are perfectly matched with their professional context. So we all navigate that in different ways: by adjusting how we do our work; by creating change in our workplace; or by seeking new professional opportunities elsewhere. “Working your wage,” as people like @saraisthreads call it, is one way to do this. So is organizing with a union. So is applying for new jobs or even exploring a new career. 

One of my favourite outcomes from this project is when people say it helped them set better boundaries at work, so that they were able to focus more closely on the aspects of their jobs and lives that are meaningful or satisfying or joyful. 

How can educational developers help those we work with find their purpose?

When I worked with the Visionary Futures Collective, a pandemic advocacy group, we followed a three-part model of social change: transparency, vulnerability, and collective action. 

Transparency means making the reality of our working lives more visible. Surfacing the fact that many of us struggle to find purpose at work, even in a values-driven profession like higher education, is really powerful. I wish I had understood that especially early in my career. 

Vulnerability is about creating a space where people feel safe working through difficult feelings and experiences. This requires building reciprocal and trusting relationships. The Collective Responsibility Labor Advocacy Toolkit has really useful resources for thinking about how we prepare to talk honestly with one another, especially under conditions of unequal power. I think this is an essential precondition for talking about what purpose-oriented work can look like. Finally, collective action is what happens when we get together and try to create change. We all have to figure out how to navigate these broken systems for ourselves. But I hope that in doing so, we can find a way to ease the harm these systems cause and create more space for justice-oriented scholarship to flourish.

Hannah Alpert-Abrams is a writer, speaker, and justice-oriented scholar who has published broadly on technology, labour, education, and the humanities. She is a founding member of the Visionary Futures Collective, the Academic Job Market Support Network, and the Postdoctoral Laborers. Her newest project, “Finding Your Purpose: a Higher Calling workbook for justice-oriented scholars in an unjust world,” is freely available online. Find her on Twitter @hralperta

6 thoughts on “Finding Your Purpose in HE

  1. Good morning,

    This is really helpful, thank you. I have wanting to find something to work with colleagues who have joined us during and since the pandemic, particularly as they struggle to the end of another hard term, and this booklet is something that I look forward to using with them.

    Many thanks,

    Helena Knapton (she/her) Learning and Teaching Development Lead Senior Lecturer in Education Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy University Learning and Teaching Fellow Internal Reviewer (UKPSF D1-4) T: 01695 650873 Ext (7873) Edge Hill University St Helens Road, Ormskirk, Lancashire, L39 4QP

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    [The Times and Sunday Times Good University Guide 2022 Modern University of The Year]


  2. It’s a great idea to reflect on our purpose in doing the work we do – and it’s something that speakers at events often focus on. In applications for Advance HE fellowships for example (especially at Senior or Principal level), it can help people grapple with their underlying beliefs and how they translate into the way they work with students, colleagues and their wider community.

    However, I’m really not clear about what ‘justice-oriented scholarship’ is. The article mentions “instructors who counter mis-information or bigotry in their classrooms”. I’d hope that was pretty much all of us in HE, though there will be different views on exactly what constitutes either. We do our best, but try to remember that our own views could be wrong. “Students who lift one another up” – I honestly don’t know what this means. There follows a circular clarification which states that justice-oriented scholarship “is for everyone whose work turns towards justice”.

    What do we mean by “justice” in HE discourse? I *think* it’s fair to say that much academic discourse which labels itself as justice-seeking would be identified as in some respects left-wing. I consider myself broadly left wing. But I think *most* people believe in justice, with the exception of a few outliers who have highly socio/psychopathic tendencies. This holds regardless of a person’s politics. Most people want things to be fair as they understand the idea – we do our best, but try to remember that our own views could be wrong.

    I get the feeling that many in HE appropriate the term “justice” and interpret it a way that accords with their politics. They then deny that others with different views are also pursuing what they see as justice. And that’s not fair. Or just. We don’t own justice.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I was similarly confused; a line from the actual workbook (quote below) makes this clearer and I would like you hope that’s what ‘we in academia’ do anyway. Although that is probably more an idealistic view than the reality for most? To me that’s the point of the article; as the author says they don’t know many where motivations meet job?

      ““Justice-oriented” can be similarly expansive: it describes
      the daily labor of working to move a particular corner of the world
      towards good. ” (p.6)


      • Thanks for your reply, Nathalie, and for pulling that quote from the workbook. “moving a particular corner of the world towards good” hasn’t really helped in terms of formal definitions, but I suppose it allows us each to have a practical, subjective focus to work towards. Provided we can accept that everyone will have a different conception of what ‘good’ is, and that we ourselves might be wrong then I guess it works as everyday guidance.


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