Well I am no longer on sabbatical. Not that it felt like I ever properly was really. I had a semester without teaching but it didn’t feel like a sabbatical and I pretty much hated it. That’s as much my fault as anyone else’s although there are things the institution could have done better. There was the very late notice that meant there was no time to clear the decks or plan, there was the inability to really cover my work while I was gone resulting in literally hundreds of emails about stuff I wasn’t supposed to be dealing with, there were the unrealistic expectations about what can be done with a sabbatical where there has been almost no notice of it and there was me, totally underestimating just how exhausted I actually was from keeping my head above water in the run up. I could spend time and head space unpicking all of that. Maybe I will but for now I wanted to share how I feel in the sabbatical aftermath.
In spite of having completed a journal article, 3 book chapters and 3 funding applications as well as having planned and delivered a couple of conference presentations and started a project on writing skills, it feels like I did nothing. I know I did loads really but some of the questions and comments I’m getting reinforce the notion already so dominant in my head that I am not good enough, that this was a missed opportunity, that I simply should have done so much more. I had that under control until over the last couple of weeks or so a series of emails and discussions highlighted that there are aspects of work I explicitly said would need to be covered while I was away, that have not in fact been covered. They have just been left. Things I thought were being dealt with and handled have just been put to one side waiting for me to come back to. All of these things are now overdue, some of these things are now urgent (well as urgent as things ever are in a university setting) and, rightly so, people waiting for these things to be done are frustrated particularly as it seems they have been assured that I will in fact do these things.
All of this made me think about how we deal with colleagues being away – away for whatever reason – annual leave, sickness, maternity, sabbatical, whatever. We are really bad at this. I’ve seen countless emails from colleagues supposedly on leave. I have seen even more out of office replies that refer to people being on annual leave and therefore only checking emails intermittently – WTF checking emails intermittently on leave and apologising for it? WTF. I know plenty of people who work through sick leave because they feel they have no choice and I have heard people say maternity leave can be a great way to just get this or that finished (I don’t see how new parents function never mind work – having just spent the weekend with two young children I need about a week to recover and I slept well and just did the fun stuff). In a way my sabbatical shows how we have created a culture where working constantly is easier than taking time out. If work just waits for us while we are gone coming back to work after a period of any sort of leave is daunting, overwhelming and actually impossible. But in HE it’s difficult for other people to do our work. Most of the time I can’t cover for my colleagues any more than they can cover for me. I can’t finish their papers or their research projects, I can’t really deal with their personal tutees where the intervention or contact might be anything other than a routine administrative type query, I often can’t even teach their classes because I don’t have the expertise or because I am quite likely to be teaching at the same time. I can’t pick up their marking because I’m drowning in my own or because then the process supposedly lacks transparency and clarity somehow and I can’t help with their committee work because – well because I’m not on the committee… Being collegiate and throwing colleagues who are going under a lifeline is almost impossible and where it is, taking that lifeline is even harder. Lifelines come with expectations and/or consequences it seems. If I do this for you then I must expect something in return, there’s a price to be paid. Or taking the lifeline is a weakness, something that can be used to show how awesome one person is because they could cope with their work AND did all this stuff for someone else who really just needs to pull their socks up. Taking a lifeline might lead to discussions with management. Best ignore the lifeline and sink just a little bit deeper because – you know, it’s not so bad really.
Well actually, it is. I know not everywhere is like this. And maybe I am exaggerating but I also fear that much of this will sound too too familiar to far too many of us. I have seen so many comments on social media about people dreading their inbox, being overwhelmed coming back off annual leave, not knowing where to start… I am looking at my pile of work to do. I am roughly 3 weeks behind I reckon based on the work I was expecting. That’s pretty good going. That’s within normal range for me and that feels ok and under control. It’s within touching distance. Now add in the work that I thought had been covered and done or covered and progressed. Well that’s the tipping point. That’s what makes all of it an impossible task. If I do that now I won’t meet a couple of research deadlines and I won’t get my teaching materials done in time. If I don’t do them? They won’t go away and clearly no-one else is going to do them either. It’s hard to argue they are not my job because now that I am back, they are. I could be awkward about this but then I spend hours and energy that I don’t have on arguing about not doing something which ultimately does need doing. I could insist someone else does it thus chucking them under the proverbial bus or I can just try my best to get things done. I can try and count on my fairly newly acquired self-preservation skills, I can add in some additional therapy sessions (and at £50 a pop that’s a privilege not everyone can afford!) to help me remember that in our job nobody is ever going to stand next to me bleeding from a major artery and that therefore everything can wait, everything can get done in its own time and I can hope that that’s enough. But really? Is academia really a place where we should get by on self-preservation, therapy and hope? I don’t think so. I think we need to do better.
My twitter time line is full of threads about mental health in academia, I am thinking about my own mental health a lot and about the limits of what is and isn’t possible or acceptable, I am running the London Marathon for Mind…., there are mental health initiatives everywhere – about talking to each other, looking out for one another, being more resilient, training, knowing how to cope, reducing stress. It just goes on and on. Everything is, it seems, about mental health. My academic friends are doing their best not to give in to absolute cynicism and to protect their mental and physical health while still meeting the demands of our employers. Often they put on a brave face, in private, over coffee, in emails and social media private messages that face slips. But those are their stories to tell, not mine, so let’s make this about me. I’ve been realising something, it’s not exactly a comfortable realisation but the more I think about it, it is absolutely true: Academia broke my brain and it can never go back to pre 2015.
Ok I’m not making sense. Let’s start at the beginning. Remember 2015? Remember the day I was sat on the sofa with a brain so so poorly that it couldn’t process the words my girlfriend was saying to me? The day I experienced my brain shutting down and refusing do process anything else until it had had a proper rest. Remember that? Why would you. I do though. Since that day and the period of sickness absence that followed and the rebuilding of some sort of academic career that followed that I have heard time and time again that none of it was my fault, that it’s not me and that academia needs people like me. I only ever half believed that it wasn’t about me and that me being ill was not my fault and I really have no idea what ‘academia needs people like you’ really means. So, the uncomfortable realisation: It is about me and it is about academia and it is about academia and me. Academia simultaneously needs people like me and has no place for people like me. And by people like me, I actually just mean me because I know about me, I don’t really know about anyone else.
So to be clear, all bollocks aside, I know I am good at my job. This is not a post about imposter syndrome (though I am very familiar with that too) or looking for some ‘oh but you’re brilliant’ sort of affirmation and ego stroking. I don’t much care whether you think I am good at my job or not because deep down I know that I am good at the things I value and that are important to me. But the things I am good at are not really the things that are valued and/or made possible in academia anymore – and maybe they never were. Maybe I have a romantic notion of what academia should and could be. Maybe and maybe what I feel, think and experience is shaped by the institutions I have worked in and things are different elsewhere. Maybe. What is clear to me though is that what we have now is not good for any of us, staff or students.
I love teaching. But what we do is rarely about teaching these days. It’s about learning outcomes and module specifications and textbooks, it’s about progression statistics and good honours. It’s about pass or fail and it’s about assessment. In an age where information is easily accessed we still have content heavy degrees and lecture theatres full of students who are rarely expected to really think. That makes no sense to me. In a system which thrives on consistency and metrics, what I do doesn’t fit. Taking content out and asking students to read, reflect and think makes things less predictable in the classroom, draws on a different set of skills, takes a risk and sometimes makes my student evaluations drop. I’m supposed to care about that. Instead I care about the student who tells me she felt empowered by being asked to contribute to the discussion in lectures. A third of my students have failed my module. I am supposed to care about that. I do. I care deeply but not because of my module statistics but because it means that there is a third of my students I haven’t managed to reach effectively – and partly that’s my fault, partly that’s the fault of colleagues who don’t ‘get’ what I am trying to do with the module and partly it’s the fault of the system that fails so many of our students by admitting them in the first place and then not supporting them properly. I already have reams of notes on what needs to change for the next iteration of the module – but I won’t have the time to make even half of those changes.
Because you see, time is not something we have in academia. In a job where thinking, reflection, reading, more thinking is key, you’d be surprised at how little of that actually happens. My biggest fear, other than spiders maybe, is my brain packing up on me again like it did. It is impossible to explain – but imagine someone has changed the language that everyone speaks, the script/alphabet everyone uses is different and everyone seems to know but you. People are interacting normally around you and talking to you but you don’t understand. I don’t ever want my brain to go there again. But academia takes it in that direction because everything and I mean EVERYTHING in modern academia seems toxic to it. You see, this is about me. It’s about having a brain that is too broken and tired to keep fighting the battles that academia needs. It’s a brain that refuses to see resilience as a permanent state. I can’t give up. I can’t not work on building better sessions, modules and courses. I can’t not try to encourage colleagues to try new things in the classroom, I can’t not be a mentor, I can’t not try and build a better law school all round, I can’t not be me BUT I also can’t keep having the battles that make it possible to do those things. I’m stuck – unable to do what is required of me because I cannot act like or help produce little worker drones.
Research is the same. My brain is and always has been, even before it broke, slow. It needs time to let things whiz around a bit. I do actually think that every now and again my brain can be quite brilliant, that it can see connections and make sense of things in a new way that is valuable to others and worth sharing. It can produce insights and it understands stuff that sometimes doesn’t make sense to others. I think I can write and write well. I think sometimes I have something to say. Do I say it in a way that hits the metrics I need to hit as a modern academic? Probably not. Am I interested in things a modern academic in a modern university needs to be interested in? No, probably not. Do I bring in money? No. Do I do research that could bring in money? Not really. Is my research impactful (is that even a word)? Who knows!?! Is it valuable – well I think it can be. But there’s no time. No time to spend thinking about things deeply. No time or inclination to allow me to think deeply about something esoteric and a bit odd which might turn out to be really important. No time to read, think and reflect. Demands are such that research gets squeezed into the odd day, an evening here and there, a weekend. But my brain can’t do evenings and it can’t do weekends. It broke doing that. It won’t, can’t, do that again. My brain is not good at being squeezed into tight time scales, it makes it work too fast and then it panics and then what could have been isn’t.
I’m reasonable at admin and management stuff. I can do it and do it well if I see the point but I am not very good at doing things that I see as pointless or idiotic. And there is lots of pointless and idiotic admin in academia. It’s increasingly bureaucratic and a fabulous example of work and task creation and the glorification of busy-ness. This is not what I want to spend what little brain power I can muster each day on.
So I am and have always been a good enough academic. Not excellent, not amazingly brilliant but an academic who can teach, research and stay on top of admin duties. Good enough. But good enough is no longer good enough in academia. We all have to be world leading, in everything we do, all of the time. I don’t think I’m up for that. I’d like to help others be world leading, shine, reach their potential and step out into the limelight. I’m more of a behind the scenes kind of girl but academia is not about behind the scenes…
So where does that leave me? Well that’s an interesting question. Sometimes I just want to leave, walk out of the university doors and never look back. Sometimes I think things aren’t so bad and I am just having a crappy day. I’ve sat on this blog for weeks trying to work out if I am just having a bad day…, sometimes I really really want a management position like Head of School or Dean or something because part of me still believes that all of this can be done differently – but maybe my brain is too broken for that. So for now I just want to keep doing good enough. I want to keep teaching and I want to keep researching and I want to keep doing it my way. I’m not striving for excellence or brilliance. I’m striving for good enough with a sprinkling of disaster and pinch of brilliance and I am aiming for survival in a sector which is fraught with difficulties. I think I am aiming for riding out the storm and contributing, in what little ways I can, to turning academia (back) into calmer waters.
Anyway, I think you get the idea. Something has to change I think because too many of us are breaking. Once broken a little bit of our sparkle is lost forever because we have given just a little too much. We’ll always hold back because if we don’t we risk going back to that dark place that does not guarantee a way out, that doesn’t guarantee a tomorrow. Academia should not be about holding back. It should be about going all in with an idea and seeing where it takes us collectively and supportively, working in collaboration or on our own, with our students or with each other. That’s the academia I want and we all need – we’ve got a long way to go and for now I’m coming along, walking the line between trying to make it better and breaking and hoping that that line holds!
Academic Year 18/19 is here. Properly. The students have arrived. For some freshers’ week starts Monday, for some it’s just been and ‘proper’ teaching starts. Of course some courses (and therefore colleagues) have been ‘back’ a while on courses that don’t fit the traditional undergraduate timetable. I love and hate this time of year in equal measures. I love the buzz it creates on campus and at the same time find the busy-ness tiring and sometimes stressful. I like the promise that every new academic years hold – the promise of inspiring and being inspired. The promise of me keeping on top of emails and filing (ok that’s a promise I have long learned not to believe) and of deadlines not yet missed. This time of year signals the start of that all too fleeting time we have to try and engage and inspire, to share our knowledge and to learn from our students, to share a tiny part of their journey and to not fuck it up.
I think about the first year students arriving. In a couple of weeks I will have literally hundreds of them sitting in a lecture theatre in front of me. How do explain to them that the structures that we work in are far from ideal, that there are too many of them and not enough of us, that we all do the best we can but that that often isn’t good enough because it can’t be because, well just because. How do I explain that we are exhausted before term has even started because our jobs get ever more ridiculous every year. How in all of that do I make clear the most important thing of all – that all of them matter, not as student numbers that generate income, but as individuals who will change the world? I can’t wait to meet them but there is also something niggling. What would I say to them if I could reach each one of them individually? I think maybe this:
I may not know your name because I have over 300 new names to try and learn and I’m not good with names. Sometimes I may not recognise you as one of my students as I rush across campus to get to the next class or meeting because I wouldn’t notice my own mother in that moment – my mind is on what comes next not on the right now and once term starts I am perpetually late. It might take me longer than it should to reply to your email because I get too many every day and try as I might my inbox isn’t controllable. I may forget to call you back or I might miss your voicemail because, if I’m really honest, I don’t like the phone and I’m avoiding the phone, not you. I will get frustrated at your lack of preparation, because I will have spent hours preparing and thinking about how to best help you understand and think about the issues we’re dealing with and I’ll be frustrated with myself for not having been able to hold your attention and interest. I will get annoyed when you push me for the right answer (which doesn’t exist) and ask me what’s being assessed and what isn’t – but its not anger at you, it’s at a system that has created a culture where almost everything is about the test result and almost nothing is about the pure pleasure of learning. I want to say sorry for all of those things now and I want you to know this: I see you, each one of you, in that sea of faces in the lecture theatre. You are not a student number, you’re you and I wish there was the time to get to know each of you as you. I want you to know that it’s a privilege to be part of your journey and if I can contribute just a little bit to that journey being a successful one then this job, insane as it is, continues to be worth doing.
I also want you to know that you’re enough. University can be an amazing, exciting, wonderful place but it can also be lonely, dark, scary and it can be easy to get lost in that sea of faces around you. Make it a place to find, not lose, yourself. Please don’t ever presume I’m too busy to care, please never be worried about emailing me or coming to see me, never be scared to ask for help. I am where I am because I always had help, at every step of the way. I now have the privilege of being able to pay that forward.
Now go be whoever you want to be and change the world
Jess (or Dr Guth if you must, but not Miss, never Miss)