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)
Today is a pretty big day. No, it’s not a special occasion, I have in fact done very little and nothing has happened – but it is still a big day. I started working in the HE sector some time in August 2004. Ever since that day I have not taken all of my annual leave. Every year it would get to the end of the leave year and I’d have loads left – like double figure days left.
Not this year. My leave year ends at the end of August and today I took my final day’s entitlement. I have used up all of my leave. All of it. Every single day. And I plan to do the same again next year and the year after that and the year after that and every year until I stop working. I love my job. I have been tempted today to read some work related things. It is hard to separate out academic me from me me and there is considerable overlap but I drew the line at a Public Law textbook today – even though I was genuinely interested in how that particular book deals with the rule of law. Anyway, I digress.
So, annual leave. Over the years I never felt like I needed to take it all. I felt like I had plenty of downtime and plenty of time away at conferences and work related stuff. I was young and stupid. Conferences are work and exhausting. Meetings away are not like going on holiday even when they can be combined with an couple of hours getting lost in the Natural History Museum. Not only did I not take all my annual leave, the leave that I did take was often not actually really holiday and switching off. I’ve finished papers from sun loungers (and hospital beds for that matter – fucking idiot); I’ve written teaching materials in hotel rooms and exam questions on flights. I’ve read research papers while sipping a frozen margarita and my holiday reading was always always work related. The downtime I imagined I was having was just that – imagined.
But the thing is, I don’t think that’s sustainable. Well actually I know it is not. It leads to complete exhaustion over time and it makes it so so hard to recover because you unlearn how to relax and have to learn all over again. I have taken all my annual leave and I have felt pretty good all academic year. I have not been ill (I think I might have had a day with a slight tummy issue), anxiety and depression have been mostly fairly low and certainly manageable and my work is, I think, better.
I was away for all of July and most of that was holiday with a short conference stint in the middle. I took my work email off my phone and I didn’t look at it. I took my conference paper and a chapter I was working on with me to look at during the conference period. I didn’t read. Yes that’s right. I did not read. I spent time listening to the sea and the rainforest; I spent time just being; I spent time letting my mind toddle off to wherever it wanted to go; I spent time with Kath and I spent time with me. Less doing, more being. It brings perspective.
I know so many academics who use their annual leave to get stuff done – work stuff I mean. People who actually take a week off to write their teaching materials because they can’t make the time during the day job. That’s wrong. Something is very wrong there. Others who do all of their research during their annual leave. Also wrong. I get cross when I see people in the office on their annual leave and they’ve come in because ‘I just need to do this’. I’m not cross with them. I’m cross with a sector that has normalised overworking to such an extent that the sentence ‘I’m on annual leave but I’m here because I just need to finish x’ doesn’t sound wrong, it sounds normal.
So what did I do with my last day of annual leave in this leave year? Well I didn’t jump out of bed when I woke up but lazily and luxuriously stayed in bed with the cats. When I did get up I went for a long run which felt naughty because long runs are not a Monday thing. I had coffee and watched a TV programme I had recorded in the middle of the day. Then I went to a yoga class and then I watched Snow white and the 7 dwarves – just because. I’ve never really seen it all in one and I’m running the Dopey Challenge in January so I wanted a reminder as to why I like Dopey. I drank more tea and sat with the cats, I pottered about putting bedding and clothes away and books on shelves. I spent time doing nothing at all stroking a cat until I realised that I must have stopped and the cat had long gone.
I have loved today precisely because it wasn’t anything spectacular. It was more being than doing and the doing bits of the day were a being sort of doing. Mostly I loved it because I just left my brain alone. I didn’t ask anything of it and it rested, ready for me to call on it again tomorrow.