It Gets Better: how vocational educators can stay sane and relevant in H.E.

The persistence of the myth that “those who can’t do, teach” is incredibly damaging. Academics who spend more time and effort on their teaching than on their research are often looked down on — not by their peers (most of whom tolerate, even champion their passion and innovation), but by senior colleagues and managers – the people who make hiring decisions, funding decisions, promotion decisions. If you don’t work in the education faculty, geeking out on learning and teaching is very, very unfashionable, and marks you out as that poor relation of HE, the vocational educator.

My friend S recently completed her PhD, and is looking for work in academia. She’d like a teaching-focused job, because teaching is her passion: she gets it, and is by all accounts a stellar and highly-valued teacher — exactly the kind of person you’d want teaching your kids when they go off to university.

Getting a lecturing job these days is hard. A decade ago, I landed a permanent lectureship in one of the newer universities, straight out of my PhD and with no publication record. Man, those were the days — S is now competing for jobs against people who already have lecturing experience and a string of academic papers to their name. With excellent references, she gets interviews; but while a passion for teaching used to be very persuasive, now it’s all about your publication record — and S doesn’t really have one.

S doesn’t care so much for research (though this may just be a phase; coming out of my PhD, I didn’t either). She cares about teaching — her PhD is essentially educational research. She loves to watch students learn and develop their confidence; she likes refining the teaching process to make things work better next time around. She enjoys having meaningful discussions with people at conferences about how to change education for the better. She doesn’t believe that the impact of educational research should be restricted to people who read academic journals.

Talking with S rang a lot of bells with me.

I went back to my desk and started writing S an email to suggest ways in which her work could have an impact beyond the traditional academic route of publish-publish-publish, but very quickly realised it was turning into another link-heavy infofest that’s really a blog post. So here it is, and maybe it will even be of help to other people, too.

Be yourself. Start by reading this piece by Jo Van Every, in which she talks about how to make being an academic work for you:

“If your idea of a great academic career involves being a fabulous teacher and the pressure to publish seems unreasonable, [then] you should not even apply to Research Intensive institutions even in a bad labour market.”

Jo works in Canada, but the prevailing HE climate and infrastructure there is very like that of the UK. Jo’s job is to help academics make sense of our jobs as they are, and to help us shape what we want them to become. I chat with her sometimes on Twitter, where she’s @jovanevery; she’s a sweetie, and her website is full of great advice that will leave you feeling more in control of your career and less like you’re caught up in a system that doesn’t always speak to your values.

Acknowledge that academia doesn’t encourage sharing or nurture team players. Jo’s post points to a brilliant essay by Lee Skallerup:

“While more and more scholars are using sites like Academia.edu or SlideShare, and even self-publishing, this type of sharing isn’t rewarded when it comes time for decisions on hiring, tenure and promotion. We are taught instead to hoard our research and findings to share with a potentially smaller audience in venues with more ‘prestige’. Why not work to improve Wikipedia in whatever field you specialize in? [...] But because the medium is ‘crowdsourced’ instead of peer-reviewed, career-wise, my work there would be meaningless.”

Boy, do I hear that. To paraphrase Alanis Morissette, it’s like 10,000 Slideshare views, when all you need is a peer-reviewed publication. The REF definition of ‘impact’ might never be broad enough to encompass this stuff; meanwhile, a lot of people remain disenfranchised because they’re not producing ‘the right kind of work’.

You don’t have to fight the system, though if you’re feeling punchy, Lee Skallerup’s blog is a great place to start. But there are other ways of getting your work out there.

The absolute best thing you can do is connect with other people who share your passions.

1. Connecting with like minds will remind you that you are not alone — on your worst days it will reassure you, and on your best days it will inspire you.

2. Connecting with others will ensure you valuable exposure outside academia, and this will lead to opportunities you would never have been given in HE.

3. Innovation through conversation. While a lot of science is just about trudging alone through the mud, translational research needs people who are willing to sit at the sometimes-uncomfortable-but-never-dull junction between subject areas, and spot how the patterns in one field relate to another. The border between education and science is one such interface, and it’s a rich seam to be mined.

Below, I’ll try and elaborate on these points, based on my own experiences; if anyone would like to share their experiences of edu-networking in the comments, then that would be lovely.

Academia can be a lonely place, so take charge of your personal learning network. Even when you’re collaborating with colleagues, academia mostly consists of getting your head down and getting on with it, alone. This can be a good thing: geeking out is virtually the raison d’être of academia. But in between those inspirational, accidental conversations over coffee or in the corridor, there are often some pretty long spells in which you don’t really talk to anyone about anything of substance. This is partly about the pressure of time: it’s hard to have “OMG, yes! We could do …” conversations when you have a pile of essays to mark, an inbox the size of Mount Fuji, and are starting to forget what the faux-wood of your desk looks like beneath all that paper. But I suspect it’s also because academia self-selects for people who are actually quite happy to lock themselves away in an office or lab for days at a time.

This is where the personal learning network (or PLN) comes in. If you are the kind of person who feeds on thought-provoking, inspirational discussions about learning, then even if you have the best colleagues in the world (and mine come pretty close), you are still not going to be having these conversations as often as you’d like. Some of the best conversations arise through the friction of differing experience, and a lot of the time, the people you work with share the same experiences, the same knowledge, as you. Also, they might not prioritise a discussion about educational change over getting a paper written, or fighting their inboxes. Luckily, we now have the Internet — and the bits that aren’t full of cat pictures and porn are absolutely packed with people who thrive on conversations about how to make education better. This is your PLN; you just haven’t met them yet.

The great news for you is that Twitter loves anyone who can talk passionately and accessibly about education. Most people think of Twitter as a social networking tool, and certainly if you want to exchange meaningless statements about what you ate for breakfast or the reality TV show du jour, then there’s plenty of that going on. But what’s less well known is that there are also really dynamic professional networks emerging, centred around things like learning, education, and technology. This facet of Twitter is probably invisible when you start using it; if you don’t know anyone else who’s into what you’re into, then it’s hard to find the good stuff. But once you start following people who are talking about, and linking to, the things that interest you, then that’s when it all really takes off. If you’d like to get the general flavour of how Twitter works, watch this 2.5-minute video, made by the very fab Commoncraft.

I’ve been on Twitter for about 18 months, and in that time I’ve met some stellar people, had many great conversations, and been invited to speak at meetings and conferences. Twitter is an always-on edu-conference that I can dip in and out of as my time and my job allow. Note that most of my tweets, and those of the people I follow, actually provide links to content that isn’t limited to 140 characters; things like blog-posts, newspaper articles, and so on. Not that there isn’t value in one-off, pithy comments; but there’s a real culture among educators on Twitter of sharing information, and that’s one of the things that makes it so special. As with most professional networks, you get out what you put in; if you regularly tweet the good stuff, people will start to ‘follow’ you (not as stalkerish as it sounds) — if you tweet it, they will come.

Blogging is another great way of connecting with people. The obvious advantage of blogging, relative to short-form media like Twitter, is that it allows you to rehearse more complex arguments, which other people can then comment on in ways that exceed 140 characters. Blogging is also great for self-reflection; a lot of the time, I don’t fully know what I think about something until I’ve tried writing about it for an hour. Writing about your thoughts and experiences allows you space to be yourself and to tell stories; those moments of insight into what-this-person-is-really-like are the cement that binds your PLN together. In this way, blogging is a great tool for rounding out your online identity, since it’s easy to hitch your Twitter account to your blog presence, such that tweets appear on your blog, and when you blog, it appears in your tweets. People who find one source and like what you’re saying can easily track you to the other place and see what’s going on there.

Your PLN isn’t technology-specific. Obviously, blogging and Twitter aren’t the only ways of connecting with other educators. There are discussion groups on LinkedIn, actual face-to-face (f2f) conferences (and unconferences), Skype, text-chat widgets embedded in people’s blogs, and the good old-fashioned telephone: I’ve used all of these at various points to talk with people about the things I’m passionate about. I’ve also rolled up at conferences already knowing several of the attendees because we’d already chatted online; it’s nice not feeling like a complete stranger.

Some of this does take time; growing a network isn’t something you can do overnight. But it’s hugely valuable. Lee Skallerup again:

Through social media, I have reached a broad audience of academics, teachers, parents, professionals, non-profits and other people who are interested and care about education. I have been invited to contribute blog posts for a number of different sites. My writing has been featured on other sites, UVenus included. Suddenly, not only am I working on a topic I am passionate about, it seems to matter.

Sometimes it’s scary, being asked to contribute to something in your role as an ‘expert’, but that beats feeling irrelevant and disenfranchised every time.

And they will ask you to contribute. A background in learning-related science is perceived as genuinely valuable by learning professionals from other fields. There seems to be increasing emphasis, in the wider education community, on evidence-based practice. Obviously, as a scientist, I think this is brilliant. Oh sure, it sometimes gets misused, like when educators talk the science talk but don’t walk the walk. But there appears to be a real appetite for understanding the mind and brain, and for working out how education can make best use of all this new knowledge: brain-imaging, contemporary behavioural science, and all the rest of it. And they need people like you to act as guides and interpreters; there has probably never been such a good time to get your edu-sci nerd on.

Something I didn’t really expect was that speaking at a conference outside academia is not like attending an academic conference. Perhaps the most obvious difference is that, as a speaker, you probably won’t have to pay the conference registration fee. Depending on the conference and your role in it, the organisers may even cover your travel and accommodation. If you are a non-academic reading this and thinking “so what?”, pause a minute to consider that, for most academics, finding money to cover conference registration, travel costs, and accommodation is non-trivial. Very few departments will fund attendance if you are not presenting work, many departments cannot afford to send you even if you are presenting work, and some academics end up paying their own way, in part or entirely, just so they can go to the conference and gain valuable exposure. Everyone pays the registration fee, which typically runs $200—$700.

Your knowledge and skills have financial value, too. One of the reasons I think vocational educators are treated poorly within higher education is that nobody perceives them as being able to make a financial contribution. You want money and prestige? Bring in a research grant.

Except, it’s not that simple. The expansion of higher education, along with cuts in research and education funding, means that there are ever more people competing for their slice of a rapidly-shrinking pie. And grant applications aren’t just something you can dash off in a morning — depending on what you are proposing and the number of moving parts involved, it can take months.

Which brings us to the slightly euphemistic-sounding Income Generating Activity: increasingly, universities are looking to bring in money in ways other than grant funding and bums on seats. This is where you come in, because your background in education research applies to, well, just about anything. Want to work with teachers to improve classroom education? Develop a course for Lighthouse. Want to partner with industry or professional bodies to improve some facet of their business while also earning your department some much-needed money? Speak to your institution’s Knowledge Transfer people about consultancy work and knowledge transfer partnerships. Educational science has a lot to offer the professional world: public and private sectors can both benefit. (They’ll respect your Ph.D., too.)

Lastly, you are not alone. At the risk of hijacking a good cause, I’ve been blown away by Dan Savage’s recent It Gets Better project, aimed at reassuring LBGT teens that life really does get better, and to hang on in there and not give up hope. The trials of higher education are orders of magnitude less serious, but I kind of feel the same way about those: I want to say to vocational educators in HE everywhere that it really does get better. Reach out; social networking will change your life if you let it.

2 Comments

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2 responses to “It Gets Better: how vocational educators can stay sane and relevant in H.E.

  1. Brilliant (and not just because you said such nice things about me).

    BTW, I used to work in the UK. And have inside experience of how the RAE (as it was then) and other financial pressures on institutions play out in hiring, and other internal issues.

    Otherwise, yes, this is all good. And lots of people outside higher ed are interested in learning. I think there maybe really interesting things going on in corporate training, for example. Certainly worth trying to find out.

    • Jo, I’m always happy to point out your awesome website/advice column to people :)

      Sometimes I forget that you’re a former UK-er. As for the RAE/REF, plus ca change …

      I think there is a tremendous amount of enthusiasm out there for the knowledge and skills that professional educators have at their fingertips. It needs to be easier to get people in a room (meanwhile, I guess the internet will have to do) so that everyone can figure out what they need and who is best place to give it to them.

      Thanks for stopping by! :)

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