So it’s been six months since I blogged here, which is frankly atrocious. Having said that, it doesn’t really feel like six months, because everything is whooshing past at such a rate (although interestingly, while we all like to agree that time is speeding up as we get older, the evidence for this is equivocal).
Anyway, time to fill the void. Hi, void. How are you?
VOID: HI, CHRIS. WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN?
I’m coming to that, but I need to tell you some stories on my way there.
VOID: OKAY. I LIKE STORIES.
(Aside: are you following @FEMINISTHULK on Twitter? You should; CAPS LOCK has never looked so attractive.)
This post is coming out of several conversations I’ve had recently about what it’s like to be an academic, and how academics spend their time. I think a lot of this is really not transparent to people who don’t work inside academia; a lot of the time, I don’t think it’s all that obvious to students, either.
You can’t write a grant proposal whose aim is to make a theoretical breakthrough.
“Dear National Science Foundation: I plan on scrawling hundreds of pages of notes, mostly hitting dead ends, until, in Year 4, I hit pay-dirt.”
Lots of research is by nature theoretical and speculative, the kind of thing you just need to chew on, indefinitely, until you make a breakthrough. But increasingly, funding bodies are turning away from this sort of thing in favour of applied research. Indeed, there’s a massive hoo-hah about HEFCE‘s new Research Excellence Framework (the thing that used to be the Research Assessment Exercise — that is, the attempt to objectively measure how “good” a university department’s research is) and exactly what they mean by ‘impact’.
It’s pretty hard for theoretical research to have impact. (I guess the clue is in the word ‘theoretical’.)
in what feels like no time at all, two decades have flown by, and (if you’re “lucky”) you’re the bread-winning star at your university and research discipline.
But success at that game meant you never had time to do the creative theoretical leaps you had once hoped to do. You were transformed by the contemporary academic system into an able grant-getter, and somewhere along the way lost sight of the more fundamental overthrower-of-dogma and idea-monger identity you once strived for.
Mark’s a theoretician, an absurdly talented one (I can’t even envy him for that, because he’s such a nice guy) — if anyone should be able to thrive within academia, it’s him. But he’s gone, because universities are changing from environments in which academics are free to consider ideas and theories into income-seeking machines.
Wait — you thought universities were about educating people? Well, keep reading, but you might want to be sitting down.
Mark’s experience is different from mine — he’s a theoretician, and I, after many years of not knowing how to describe what I do, have finally started calling myself an applied cognitive psychologist. (My mind is much better at applying theory to existing situations than it is at coming up with entirely new ideas about how the world works.) But what our experiences of academia have in common is that it’s hard to find anyone who will reward us for doing the things we do best, even when those things are ostensibly pillars of academia.
Example? Sure. Here are the things about my job that people senior to me notice whether I am doing:
* Authoring research papers (preferably in high-impact journals)
* Bringing in money through grant funding
* Bringing in money through other means (such as knowledge transfer or consultancy work)
* Attracting negative feedback from students
* Giving a class lower- or higher-than-average marks
* Completing the requisite admin tasks required for my teaching
* Meeting my personal development goals for the year
* Turning up to the relevant staff, admin and committee meetings
Here are some things about my job that nobody senior to me will notice whether I am doing unless something is on fire:
* Teaching well (unless I am namechecked by students right in front of them)
* Reviewing and revising my lecture notes from one year to the next
* Keeping up to date with developments in the theory and practice of teaching and learning
* Being involved in learning and teaching projects at a university-wide level
* Innovating in my teaching (and encouraging or helping others to innovate)
Above all, as I found myself explaining to an incredulous American friend last week, it is pretty much impossible to get promoted on the basis of being a stellar university teacher. I don’t actually think I’m a stellar teacher — but what I’m saying is, there’s no real incentive even to try, because all I’m doing, in striving for teaching excellence, is making work for myself: not only do I have to try to squeeze all this teaching innovation in, I also have to find time to do and write up my ‘real’ research.
So what have I been doing since February? I can’t believe I’m about to type this, but here goes:
leaving the office on time, and going to the gym.
This would be the bit where I proudly announce that I now have a life, right? But actually? I’m exhausted. And it’s not from going to the gym. I’m exhausted because it’s nearly impossible to do my job inside contracted hours if you care about teaching quality. Or if you have many research projects on the go that might one day lead to publications; I have about five of these, and they eat up time and money with no guarantee that the results will ever be publishable, assuming I even have the time and energy to write them up.
(Disclaimer: the above graph is purely conceptual, being based on no data whatsoever, but I think most academics would recognise it.)
Did you know that academics are estimated to work somewhere in the region of 50 hours a week? Why? Well, as I can now attest from personal experience, it’s the only way they can get anything done.
So where have I been? Mostly, trying not to have a breakdown. Trying to balance having a life with conducting teaching and research to a high standard. Trying to find a balance between using the summer to write up my research findings and taking the vacation time I’m owed (and which I never have time to take during term, because, hello, teaching and admin). Trying to rationalise what I can do, and what I can’t. Practicing saying ‘no’.
It is hard. And the students are back in just over a month and I do not feel rested at all, and I haven’t done half the work I hoped to. And last summer was exactly the same.
So, void, that’s where I’ve been. Interesting times.
It’s not all doom and gloom. I’m learning things about myself, like for instance that I’m a ninja copy-editor — when you give me your poorly-written paper to co-author, I will turn it into something sublime, geeking out for hours while my fourth cup of coffee in a row goes cold. (Now I just need to figure out how to work this way with all my co-authors.) I’ve embarked on a big e-learning project, more about which soon. And I’m slowly getting more clarity about what I want and don’t want in my job. These are all good things.
And the gym? I’ll definitely keep going to the gym. Being fit is great, but more importantly, you should sponsor me to run a half-marathon for charity :)
Thanks for listening; it’s nice to be back.