What is authenticity?

The other week I found myself telling my class a familiar anecdote about submitting my PhD for what must have been the seventieth time in 7 years (this is not an exaggeration: 10 classes per year x 7 years).  I’ve always used anecdotes as a way to try to connect to students and coachees, as I believe they express something authentic about attitudes, values, or motivations.  Yet I found that I had reused the anecdote to the point that I felt the phrasing speak for me, and I wondered then if the story was still truly connected to the past event that had spawned it. This got me thinking – what is authenticity in academia?

Kernis and Goldman’s 2006 model of authenticity is an interesting starting point to think through how to define authenticity in an academic context.  They posit that authenticity consists of 4 key things:


Such as being increasing knowledge and trust of our feelings, emotional responses, and being cognisant of what our strengths and weaknesses are


Where our actions fit with our values and who we are

Unbiased progress:

So in other words, what we do with that awareness – we take that knowledge of our feelings, responses, strengths and limitations and we evaluate ourselves as objectively as we can

Relational Orientation:

Where we have trusting, close relationships with others who see us for what we are.

So to be authentic, we need to know ourselves, to be capable of stepping outside of ourselves and reflect on our feelings and behaviours, to act in a way that fits with our values, and to confide this in others.  Ironic then that telling the anecdote itself wasn’t particularly authentic, but listening to my discomfort around its familiarity was.  If I could sense that discomfort, maybe my class could… maybe the anecdote was no longer fit for purpose, no longer authentic (and here I am confiding this to you dear reader!).   

Reflection on authenticity is one thing.  But if we scratch the surface, authenticity in academia becomes more complex. Arday and Mirza argue in Dismantling Race in Higher Education (2018), that the attribution of ‘authenticity’ to minority groups becomes an onus on these groups to transform the structures of academia from within.  Furthermore, what authenticity is for an individual in academia may not sit comfortably with the competitive nature of grant applications and academic success, the precarity of short term contracts and audit cultures.  A key finding of recent academic work into academic authenticity is that perceptions of authenticity are inextricably intertwined with the performance of academic labour (Archer, 2008; Cannizzo, 2017).  Authenticity emerges in researching, and passion for that research.   This is something I have seen time and again, where what is defined as ‘identity’ and ‘important’ in academia is ‘research work’; life and work outside of academia are marginalised to the detriment of wellbeing as there’s not time or space for them. What happens though if we start to uncouple ‘authenticity’ from academic labour?  What if we begin to think of authenticity in academia in relation to the ‘whole person’ rather than the enterprise of producing research?  (Could I begin to tell other kinds of ‘non-work’ anecdotes!? Or imagine connecting differently to my students?)  How could it be possible to begin to build this kind of authenticity into academic life?  Here are some non-exhaustive suggestions: 

This is our ‘temporal’ autonomy (Cannizzo, 2017).  Clearly this is a challenge for most of us, particularly those with short term contracts and caring responsibilities.  But what happens here if we shift out of the perspective of short-term task completion and take a long view of what we want to achieve?  Moran and Lennington in The Twelve Week Year (2013) suggest building a strategic block into every week which is ‘zoom out’ thinking time for whatever is most important for you.  What would be the impact of including such time in your week?  What would it mean to devote time to increasing your self-understanding?

A number of recent studies have looked at the beneficial impacts of coaching and mentoring on authenticity.  Benefits included raising profiles, building transformational relationships (Jackson, 2019Lewis & Olshansky, 2016) fostering collaboration; building a sense of belonging and legitimacy (Nunez et al, 2015).  This takes us back to that idea of ‘relational orientation’.  There’s so much incredible and inspiring work around building authenticity is out there – such as Hooks’ Teaching to Transgress; Stewart’s Quietly Visible; Brown and Leigh’s Ableism in Academia to name a few.  Who are the people that you need to find?  Maybe it’s amongst your peers, maybe it’s a mentor.  What kinds of relationships do you need to grow and develop your self-awareness?  How could you begin to build them?  What first steps could you take?

What are the environments you thrive in?  According to Jackson and Cannizzo, having the right environment is key to developing authenticity.  So here, it’s worth thinking about who the kinds of people are that you want to work with.  And what you are doing when you work best.  Where you work well.  What habits support that good work.  Furthermore, are there ways in which you might bring more autonomy to what you do, and make more space for the best of what is? How can you inhabit your thrive zone more?

This is where your values don’t sit well with your behaviour.  Perhaps you were advised to deal with a student in a certain way and that felt wrong, perhaps you feel fraudulent as you had to relentlessly celebrate your successes in your promotion application.  Recognising where actions and values are incongruent is a good step towards understanding ourselves, evaluating how we are getting on, and recognising how and where we might want to grow or do things differently.  Here we can reflect on Kernis and Goldman’s idea that authenticity brings costs as well as gains. If faced with the same situation again, what would you do differently?  Why would you make this choice? 

One thing that stood out to me in some recent research with Graduate Teaching Assistants (GTAs) and Hourly Paid Lecturers (HPLs) was that any sense of nervousness, imposter syndrome or worry about teaching disappeared for the Graduate Teacher Representatives when they were standing for and representing the interests of other GTAs and HPLs.  The GTA reps found standing up for others, and in particular being entrusted with their stories, very empowering. (Another plus for the idea of relational orientation).  Whilst situational politics complicated this picture somewhat, a strong way in which authenticity emerged in this research (i.e. awareness of values, evaluation of action) was through the representation of others.  So, in what ways do you or could you stand tall for others?  What would it mean for you to represent others’ interests and be entrusted with their stories?  What difference could you make? 

Ultimately, authenticity in academia will look different to different people as values are different, backgrounds are different.  I’ve highlighted the positives of the benefits of reflection, support and autonomy for building authenticity.  You’ll also have seen that there’s a potential cost to authenticity: not all kinds of authenticity might be recognised or rewarded.  Okay, so they may not be recognised now, but what where and how can we make opportunities for that authenticity to be recognised and rewarded?  Finally, the authenticity that is possible for some is not always an option for all.  Nevertheless, attuning to what makes you tick is a good first step to potentially transforming things for others too: authenticity is inspiring.  If you have been encouraged by what you have read, you might like to ponder what has inspired you, and where can you create small steps that will allow you to create more authenticity in your academic life?  Who can you inspire?   

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