I am trying the conference thing again. It’s probably better than spending the next week or so in the office with everyone around me trying to absorb the pressures of the start of term. Still I am conscious that depression has kept me on the sofa much more than I would like and that anxiety levels have been generally high. I am working on the re-set but it’s not easy. So when I set off yesterday it didn’t seem like a great idea to be heading into people and give a paper based mostly on personal experience and reflection.
Travel was a bit irritating because the trains into Bradford and then back out to Preston didn’t match at all. I sat at Bradford interchange for 40 minutes watching the world go by…. that’s another story! Then I got on my little train and pootled towards Lancashire through the familiar northern landscape. It suddenly felt important to be staying in the north. Safer, less pressured, more familiar. I watched the hills and fields come and go and longed to be out there breathing the fresh air. I went over my paper. I stared into space and then a few blokes with dogs got on the the dogs were scary and I hoped they would get off at Preston so I didn’t have to go past. I was also suddenly very aware of my own privilege, of what having a job and a secure income at a level where worrying about money isn’t a thing really means; how rare that is in these northern towns I was passing through. I felt both lucky and powerless.
Preston. I walked from the station to the hotel to leave my bags and realised that some time out before people would be good. I found a Costa coffee and had a peppermint tea and bar of dark chocolate. I like Preston. It’s real. It’s a bit of a dump of course, there’s the university and there’s poverty and not much else but the people are real, they are friendly and welcoming and I couldn’t help smiling all the time. I belong in towns like Preston (or Keighley), it feels right. I slowly walked up to the university passing huge building sites and lost in my thoughts. I registered, I bought books, I chatted to one or two people and then it was time for session 1 and my paper.
The session started with Caroline Strevens (Portsmouth) ‘Challenging Assumptions:revisiting the Law Curriculum’ and her paper was packed full of fabulous ideas centred around self determination, motivation, mindsets and teamwork being the answer. I do think self determination theory is useful and it can tell us something about how universities get things wrong by undermining academics and their intrinsic motivation and how we get this wrong with our students too and basically force them to focus on extrinsic motivating factors… I am not sure about teamwork being the answer. I don’t know enough but as an introvert and someone who quite likes working alone and did as a student I wonder…
Then it was me. My paper reflects on two of my publications from 2008 and 2009 both written in the 2007/08 academic year and suggests that I was perhaps rather naive then and got some things wrong, not least arguing for a time turner to make the academic job doable. Instead, I suggest in this paper, we should make better use of an invisibility cloak and marauderers’ map (I do indeed solemnly swear that I am up to no good) to help us do things our way and defend against the dark arts (of neoliberalism, managerialism , marketisation, metrics, ranking, the glorification of busyness…) I am actually really looking forward to properly writing this one up.
The third paper in the session was be Steven Vaughan (UCL) and was, as always, a treat. I love the way Steven presents, it appears easy and effortless and pulls you in. The paper was one I had heard before but that didn’t matter. Steven told us about his work on the structure of LLB programmes and in particular the core subjects. I have often asked why the core is the core. In fact I ask my students and part of me loves the fact that we don’t really know, that it seems to be a historical accident and one which we can’t rally justify on pedagogical or legal grounds. The core is the core because it’s what was predominantly being taught when the core was decided but there were other subjects in contention too. What I find utterly fascinating though is that colleagues often find it impossible to imagine something else. That when you ask them to design a law degree starting with a blank page they start with what they now understand to be the core but they can’t articulate why.
I can write about what I would put in a law degree another time but for now let’s just say I’m not wedded to the core, I wouldn’t teach in the current modular silos and I am not sure I would make anything compulsory other than a sort of legal skills, methods etc course. I see logistical argument for first year compulsory modules but I am struggling for pedagogical and legal ones. But I digress.
I had coffee, there were too many people, I briefly considered going back to the hotel but then just went to the next legal education session instead. It wasn’t a great choice. The papers were just not really my thing. The first was by Roland Fletcher (OU) about apprenticeships and I think I was tired and stopped listening properly. The second was a panel on workplace focused law degrees and while what they were doing seemed quite interesting there is something about the focus of law programmes on providing legal experience to the exclusion of all others that annoys me. It perpetuates the myth that what we do is about our students becoming lawyers and that a degree is/should be about employability. Of course I am being unfair here, they might be doing all sorts and just sharing this particular aspect. I would have liked more on the literature and context though rather than just a ‘here’s what we are doing’ sort of thing.
I went back to the hotel, dumped my bag and checked in and then went back for drinks and dinner. They were fine, conversation was easy because I was with people I knew and people I was content to just listen to. The entertainment folk singing went on for a few songs longer than I felt happy with and I was glad for some air and me time on the walk back. I slept badly. I woke early. I wondered about going for a run but it was raining cats and dogs and the bed was comfy and I felt achey. I didn’t want a battle in my head, I wanted a slow morning. And that’s what I’ve had. Nearly time for SLS Day 2 now!
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.
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)