On 1 September 2018 I started my first ever lecturer job, ten years after beginning my doctorate. For the last five years I had worked in a professional services role at the university at which I had completed my doctoral studies (you can find out more about my career path here). Thus, for me, 2018 was a year of great change, and – in between Toblerone consumption and sofa sessions – I have spent twixtmas reflecting on the last few months. Below, I have jotted down some of my thoughts, in the hope that they may be of use or interest to early career academics currently contemplating/ striving towards/ moving away from a career as a university lecturer. My musings might also make good reading for academic line managers and others involved in the induction of new lecturers.
I was pretty nervous about teaching as, although I had been doing it for ten years, my experience was very Oxford-centric and, as is well known, Oxford likes to do things a bit differently. Most of my teaching had been one-to-one or one-to-two; my only experience of teaching larger groups was at the couple of summer schools I had worked at. My experience of lecturing was even scanter. Despite having given many a conference paper, and being a fairly confident public speaker, I had never written and delivered the kinds of lecturers that were expected of me in my new job. And my new job required me to write (from scratch) and deliver (to c. 100 first and second year students) two lecturers per week. I was also module convenor, so the buck stopped with me. I would be lying if I said that this was an easy task – it was not. But there were moments of sheer joy – when my students asked me insightful questions that hadn’t even entered my head previously, and when they proffered new and on-point analyses of a text that I was very familiar with. However, the pressure really got to me around the mid-point of the term; with writing the lectures, monitoring the online discussion board, plus my seminars and all the other tasks I mention below, I was feeling pretty exhausted, both mentally and physically.
Just as I was beginning to feel dreadfully drained, the bright light of reading week began to shine – a week without teaching, a week in which I could get ahead on my lecture-writing, lightening my load for the second half of term. Alas, it was not to be. It turns out that marking is, in many ways, even more exhausting than teaching. My marking experience, to date, had mainly consisted of handwriting comments on the weekly essays of my tutees, which we would then go through together in our next tutorial. I had to learn how to use a totally alien – and at times infuriating – online marking system, mark according to a School-wide marking criteria, and make my comments as useful and personal as possible in the relatively small amount of time I had to write them. I have been told, by some academics more senior than I, that I will get quicker and quicker at marking as I start caring less and less about what I write. I find this troubling as I believe that essay feedback, especially on first year assignments, is a vital part of how students learn to write, analyse, argue, and gain confidence in their abilities as critical thinkers and literary critics. Perhaps giving us more time to mark, or re-thinking the nature and/ or number of assignments we assign, would be a better way forward.
The week after reading week, the inevitable happened – I got sick. I wasn’t badly sick, it was just a nasty virus that obliged me to stay in bed for a couple of days. In my previous professional services role, this would have been no big deal; if I had no immediate deadlines, all I would have had to do is email in, cancel or rearrange any meetings, then return to the office when I was better to carry on where I’d left off. In academia, things are different. I was required, with the help of the School’s admin. and timetabling teams, to reschedule all of my missed classes and teach them all the following week. This meant that I had around ten hours of extra work during a week in which it would have been prudent to take things easy. I was also granted an extension on my marking, enabling (forcing) me to finish it off over the weekend. I may sound rather bitter about all of this and, having recently read Adam Kay’s This is Going to Hurt: Secret Diaries of a Junior Doctor I am all too aware that academia is an easy life compared with that of NHS workers and other shift workers, but it’s clear that something needs to change if we are to prevent mass burnout within the sector. To be fair to my colleagues, those higher up are beginning to realise that asking lecturers to make up all of their teaching the week after they’ve been sick is perhaps not the best plan, so it looks like change is afoot. I’d be keen to hear what our students think about what is the best way to make up for missed classes due to tutor absences. I had very low attendance at most of my rescheduled classes, as the extra contact hours would have meant less hours for the students to get all of their reading and independent study done on time.
One aspect of my job that I was completely unprepared for and have, at times, found overwhelming, is personal tutoring. I was assigned 30 personal tutees and asked to see them each at least three times last term. They were all first years so had a range of typical first year problems, from home sickness, to generalised fear about university life (both the academic and social aspects), to realising that they had chosen the wrong degree. Many of my tutees also experienced more worrying issues, from overbearing parents to possible eating disorders and mental ill health. It was made clear to me, from the personal tutoring booklet I was given, that I was only the first port of call and that students were to be passed onto senior tutors or welfare teams (who have both been brilliant) if needs be. In practice, however, things are never clear cut – it felt like an immense weight on my shoulders, for which I have no useful training, to decide whether or not a student needed professional support or was just suffering from the usual feelings that leaving home and starting a new life chapter can provoke. The university does offer personal tutoring training (which I shall sign up for), but only after you’ve already had to deal with some of the most difficult issues which, inevitably, happen at the start of term.
An additional challenge, for me, has been the transition from having a 20-minute bus ride from my house to my office to having a c. 2.5 hour commute each way. I always knew this would be hard and, at times, it has been. In actuality, however, the commute has not been half as bad as I’d feared. There was that one time that all of my possible trains were cancelled (I managed to get a bus), and that time I had to go straight from the train station to be with my toddler in A&E (she was fine). But, other than those two occasions, it’s been plain sailing (riding). I usually manged to get (some) work done on the train and, though I probably shouldn’t admit it, I’ve quite enjoyed having one night in a guesthouse per week, away from my toddler and husband, if only because it has meant that I can stay up a little later to get my work done! It’s allowed me to separate my work from my home life (I’ve only had to work over the weekend twice this term). In financial terms, however, it’s been dire. My season ticket for the train cost the same as a month’s salary, and that’s on top of my guesthouse expenditure and all the Uber’s I’ve needed to take in order to get to and from the train station on time.
Another big change, for me, has been moving from an open-plan office with colleagues who work together closely to being in an office with one other person who rarely occupies it and doing most of my job on my own or with students rather than colleagues. This being said, our small Liberal Arts team, and the colleagues I have met at Departmental events, School or Faculty events, or in the corridor have been amazingly friendly and welcoming. I’ve also been lucky enough to win some internal funding for a new research cluster which has been a great way to get know people with similar research interests. One thing that I’ve been pleasantly surprised by is the way that Departmental/ School/ Faculty events encourage inclusivity and engagement between postgraduate teachers, lecturers, admin. staff, and more senior academics, meaning that I’ve been able to meet a wide range of colleagues. One of my goals for 2019 is to make more time for coffee dates with my colleagues – so get in touch if you’d like to meet!
Research? What research?! Despite ostensibly having one dedicated research day per week, I have been able to do very little actual research this term. I’ve set up a research cluster and sent off a few conference paper proposals, but that’s pretty much it. I am told that this is normal, so fingers crossed for next term!