Monday, 7 January 2013

New Year Resolutions for a Balanced Academic


 

Today was my first day back at work, and I have to be honest I came with something of a spring in my step.  Despite the break I had managed to get some good work done so had little to fear from my email's inbox, and even better I had downloaded some of the cheerier songs from The Muppets soundtrack that had me fair skipping through the Stratford centre.

Of course, arriving at work to discover that a colleague had passed away the day before makes it difficult to sustain that level of enthusiasm, and as the day progressed my mood darkened and a more philosophic bent took its place.  Although it seems horrendously self-interested, the death of a colleague not much older than yourself makes you suddenly very aware of your own mortality.  I will not bore you with some of the more miserable and nihilistic thoughts which have revolved around my skull, but instead inform you that I have decided to do something I have never done before.  I have decided to make some New Year resolutions relating to my academic career.

Read:  The last year I must admit my reading habits and degenerated.  This is perhaps in part because of the nature of engaging more and more with an online community.  In the past, my morning commute was accompanied by a book which I either needed to read or wanted to read.  Lately it has been exclusively accompanied by reading through the various blogs I subscribe to, Twitter feeds, journal articles, or listening to one of various podcasts (when I can’t keep my eyes open).  There are certainly advantages to this, and I do tend to feel more ‘current’ these days in terms of my subject, and educational developments in general.  However, there is a lack of depth to this kind of reading: A tendency to flit through topics like a tourist on a round-the world cruise, going ‘ooh’ and ‘ahh’ at various interesting developments.  What I have missed, is becoming engrossed in a detailed and extended study of a topic.  My resolution, therefore, is to work on balancing the breadth of reading online, to the depth of reading longer studies.

Renew:  I have been teaching in a number of key areas for a few years now, and while I still find most of them enjoyable to teach there are some that seem to be in need of servicing.  This is not because the topics are boring, but because teaching is a cumulative experience: The more you teach, and the more you read about a topic, the harder it is to approach the topic with the kind of fresh and clean lines which make it most comprehensible to students.  I remember starting to teach modules for the first time, and generally it involved many hours of panic-stricken reading and preparation – but initially, like a good essay, it required a simple structure designed with the student in mind, so that each new topic logically built on the last and related to assessment stages clearly.  Some of my topics appear to have evolved very convoluted structures, and frequently I find myself doing ad-hoc re-designs of modules as I realise students are looking at me rather blankly.  My resolution, then, is to take a step back.  To wipe the slate clean with some of my more familiar topics in order to start again, or even perhaps to teach something altogether new and fresh.

Research:  Connected to renewal, is the need to research.  Rejuvenating modules which are in danger of becoming stale means putting in some proper hours of study in – finding previously under-explored topics, new controversies, and looking for different angles.  It is sometimes difficult to squeeze the time to do this from a timetable, but there is a trick which might work for any of you HE in FE lags who have difficulty persuading your College of the importance of such activities:  You can legitimately call it ‘professional development’, and add it to your staff development or IFL logs.  Additionally, I have already blogged about the tip-tap of impatient fingers waiting for me to get back to work on my Phd. which continues to collect dust in a drawer somewhere (about which I am still procrastinating manfully), and will be working on an HEA research project relating to student retention.  My resolution then, is one way or another to spend more time in the library.

Rationalise:  Given today's events, to be perfectly honest this is not a resolution to start doing something new so much as a resolution not to stop doing something.  It is inspiring to be surrounded by vibrant and enthusiastic academics, but with the best will in the world I am probably past being able to exert the kind of dedication to career development which enables them to publish at such an alarming rate.  This is not to do with age, but priorities. If you are not particularly interested in becoming a Professor of this-that-what-not-or-the-other at some Russell Group University, I am not sure why every waking hour should be dedicated to work and study that is career-related.  In fact this is a frequent gripe about Higher Education as a career choice.  Why should it be so impossible to finish a working day at 5pm, especially when you have a family life to balance?  I am fortunate in having been able to balance this as well, perhaps, as I could expect.  Certainly it has required the deliberate refusal of opportunities to improve my career / research options, but ultimately I have not regretted any of the decisions I have made.  My resolution is try and keep the balance.