Why I have a problem with the “top” discourse

It’s usually once a day that I browse through Twitter or other social media sites and see the word “top” connected to academia somehow. Most of the time, this word drives me completely mad. I stopped to think for a moment why that is.

To get to the core of my thinking and frustration with “top”, I need to share a bit of background information. I come from a small Finnish town called Hollola. Internationally, it is known for absolutely nothing. If someone is a fan of winter sports, then the city of Lahti might say something to you—and Hollola is around there.

Although Finns are usually quite reluctant to describe Finland as a class society, it certainly still is one. I definitely grew up in a working-class family. My parents have a secondary education, my grandparents do/did not. As an early-career higher education researcher, it is of course interesting to do some self-reflection based on research on the effects of one’s socioeconomic background on educational paths. For example, according to a study by Acacio-Claro et al. (2017), parents’ and grandparents’ socioeconomic status predicted adult education level for people born in Finland between 1985 and 1995. So, already when I was born, it wasn’t extremely likely that I would ever get a PhD. I knew few people who had completed the Finnish matriculation examination before I decided to leave the comfort of my hometown and go to secondary school in the neighbouring city of Lahti. Before entering the university, I don’t think I had ever spoken to anyone who had gone to a university, besides some of my teachers.

However, the same study by Acacio-Claro and colleagues showed that school achievement, health, and social support in adolescence had a positive effect on adult education level. More importantly, these factors decreased the effects of socioeconomic circumstances. And this is where the stars aligned for me: The Finnish comprehensive school—grades 1-9—was (is?) incredibly good, even during the economic recession of the 1990s. Class sizes were fairly small, school meals were free, teachers were motivated and skilled. Moreover, everyone went to the same school – no division to private and public schools.

What motivates you to learn?

I would say that education and learning were both something that definitely appealed to me already in my early school years. I did my homework diligently, asked for extra assignments from my teachers, started cramming for exams 1-2 weeks before, and was generally good in all subjects (except in crafts, which is why I still don’t sew). In addition, my parents were incredibly supportive and helpful with my studies. They never “demanded” anything or “rewarded” good grades with money, for example.

It’s still quite difficult to describe what motivated me to do well. I definitely felt satisfaction if I got great grades, but I’m quite sure there was also something else. Maybe just a general will to learn and know more? Maybe it also had something to do with books. What my mother would often do was to take us kids to the public library, which also happens to be fantastic in Finland. Every kid got a local library card in their first grade (and it looked like this). The library was also next to my school, so I went there several times per week to borrow books. I read a lot of novels, especially Nancy Drew, but also comics. The reading hobby of mine would continue throughout my education, and to today—although I always feel like I don’t have time to read as much as I would like to.

“Top journals”, “top scholars”, “top universities”

Fast forward a couple of decades: I’m sitting by my laptop, early in the morning, about 2,000 kilometres away from Hollola, watching the sun rising above the Alps. I’ve completed a BA, an MA, and a PhD, all in the set “target time”. I work for two different universities and I love both my jobs. I also think I’m pretty good at them.

And yet, almost daily I encounter a discourse which, to me, feels like it’s undermining all the hard work I’ve done since I could read my first word—the one of “top” this and that. We have “top universities”, which have “top scholars” working in them, and those top scholars produce “top publications”. To find out what or who these tops are, we have equally delightful rankings to tell us who or what is more “top” than the other. Our success as individuals is increasingly measured in numbers.

I’m not saying that I haven’t benefitted from being “at the top” at times—of course I have. I was among the “top 11% of applicants” who got in to study English at the University of Jyväskylä in 2007. I’ve also received several prizes and awards for being the “top of my class”—I still have the binoculars I got at the end of the 9th grade, for my “excellent performance in chemistry and physics”. To get a specific job, I’ve had to be the very best, not the second best.

What I’m wondering, though: how long do I have to keep convincing other people of my skills, or my “worth” as a scholar or even as a human being, now that I’ve reached the qualifications that I want and need to do the type of job that I love?

Of course, if I want to aim “higher” in academia, which generally means a permanent position or a professorship, I will have to “be the top something” quite a few more times. That’s fine. What’s not fine if, day after day, I have to hear how it’s just the “top” that matters, or that it’s the “top” that we should continuously strive for and care about in whatever we do. It doesn’t and we shouldn’t. My teachers in Hollola definitely hadn’t graduated from top universities, and yet, there they were, educating a bunch of Finnish working-class kids to go far and do just fine in their life. It’s thanks to those teachers that I became fascinated with all kinds of subjects; history, geography, chemistry, and languages—especially English.

I’d also argue that the “top” discourse is extremely harmful to early-career scholars who already feel pressured by the demands of modern academia. Academic jobs (or any jobs) are tough to come by, employment contracts are short, and the salaries aren’t always that great. Pressure to publish is ever-looming, and a 6-week summer holiday (yes, that is a thing in Finland) is somewhat of a utopia. If on top (no pun intended) of all this we need to constantly worry about reaching the top, when halfway up the mountain would do just fine, for now, it simply won’t end well.

Instead of the pressure to be at the top, we need support networks, and we need compassion, especially now that it’s been a year since the first COVID lockdowns began. So, as a concluding thought, I’d like to encourage all early-career researchers, whether in higher education research or in another field, to not think of their own accomplishments in terms of whether they are “above” or “below” those of others. Yes, society often imposes this on us, and we have to find a way to navigate these impositions, but that doesn’t mean we have to embrace or accept them. We can resist those impositions and question them at every opportunity given. After all, this is what being an academic is all about—questioning and challenging the world around us.

For senior scholars, in turn, I would say: Stop spreading and strengthening the “top” discourse. And no, it’s not just business, it’s damn well personal.

Melina Aarnikoivu is not (and most likely never will be) a top scholar. She doesn’t work (and most likely will never work) in top universities. You can follow her on Twitter, where she only has some hundreds of followers.

Photo by Les Anderson on Unsplash

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