When words don’t work – an activist in academia

By Just Agatha, who loves chococinos, a drink made of coffee and chocolate.

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August 12, 2021

Giving a damn about my work is both a privilege and three heavy army deploiment duffle bags through the desert. Zeal drags night owls from beds when early morning duties call. It holds up early birds when the midnight oil burns with ambition and obligation.

But it can also cause over-investment in an institution that could not care less about the individual or the ideal that brought the institution to fame to begin with.

I naively appealed to my superior’s sense of logic that a certain newly dreamed-up system will be detrimental to staff morale and student performance. I drafted e-mails using cautiously selected phrases, titbits of gentle persuasion and tickertapes of emotive touches. My e-mails sang.

Nothing.

I decorated my face in the best that cheap make-up has to offer. If my electronic petitions cannot be successful, then I shall face the enemy in the flesh. Like Joan of Arc I shall confront my adversary eyeball to eyeball.

Arranged around a massive boardroom table with sprinkles of bosses in expensive suits, I felt less like Joan of Arc and more like Jo of Canoe. And my words – my pride and sharpest tool – staggered out of me like too many children squeezed from a G-Wiz.

My nemeses stared at me from unimpressed, bored facades. My words had moved no-one. I felt opportunity slip from my hands. I had to act. So I did what any professional law professor would do. I stuck my tongue out at them and left.

So…I’m having some wine tonight. Nothing sooths the savage beast like the aromas of fermented grape. And nothing smoothes the sharp edges of potential disciplinary consequences like the sting of alcohol…

August 22, 2021

The biggest problem with academia – and there are a loo-full of problems in academia – is that the best and brightest in research are appointed to leadership positions.

While the best and brightest in research are often great and inspiring leaders, my experience has been that the best and brightest in research will just as often devastate a faculty with the same ease with which they publish research results in accredited scholarly journals.

About two years ago our dean of faculty called me into her office. Our departmental head was retiring and I was expected to take up the position of Department Chair.

A clear ‘fuck no, I’d rather sing in front of an audience‘ formed in my mind, but at my age the layer of social polish has thickened, and a gentle but definitive “I decline, but thank you” escaped my mouth.

She insisted.

I cried.

Let’s move on.

I’ve never lingered under a misconception of who I am. I’m no leader. I’m a soldier and will give you my life, but I don’t want to put up with those things leaders step up for. Besides, I’m one meeting away from needing bail money.

The chair position was filled by the most senior member of staff: a quiet, unassuming man with an incomparable publication record and who just happens to eat souls in his spare time.

Last week this Chair of ours called us to a meeting in which he spent two hours informing us of our collective uselessness. We don’t work hard enough; real academics don’t take weekends. We don’t prioritize appropriately, our excuses are outdated, our time management skills couldn’t find a flame in hell.

This from a man who teaches one class for every nine we teach.

When I was a little girl I was seduced by the idea of serving a great leader. I watched movies of military greats, political heroes and of a blue-painted William Wallace atop a horse, screaming for freedom. I read books on the Great Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Ghandi and other leaders who managed to rally a great mass of people behind a common cause. I imagined what it must feel like to one day work for a leader that could entice from me my very best.

I’ve spent this weekend feeling utterly worthless. I know I work hard and I know what kind of character my line manager has, but it didn’t stop me from feeling that I’ve let down my faculty and my students. It doesn’t matter that my manager is a tool. He is my manager and his words stung.

Maybe I’m childish in my wish to serve under good leadership. I’m old enough to dictate my own career and emotions, damnit!

But I can still remember what I was capable of under Great Leadership, the few times I’ve experienced it. It rises me early and focuses my eyes on common goals. It dares me to believe I’m greater than my history would suggest. Great Leadership has made me feel part of something outside of myself. It pulls me out of my own, imprisoning thoughts and thrusts me into opportunity and possibility.

Instead of finding the best and brightest in research and bestowing upon them the wreaths of leadership, perhaps it’s time academia find proven leaders. People who tend to people. People who fling our ambitions into the heavens and make us bigger than we really are.

Until then, I’ll just be here…my useless self…on top of a horse…William-Wallace-less.

Time for chococino…the tequila bottle is empty…

Just Agatha, lonelinessandchococinos.com

How teaching changed my life

Lucia Rotheray, based in Switzerland, reflects on the significant personal growth and satisfaction she has experienced through pursuing a career involving teaching. The piece was first published on her site.


For many academics, teaching is something we’re made to do in order to pursue our dreams of research. We’ve all heard (or been) people complaining about how preparing lectures or exams or holding office hours is taking up time in our already busy schedule.

But while it might not have been our main career goal, teaching does become a rewarding part of a difficult job for many academics. In a twitter poll I posted through @realscientists, I was pleasantly surprised to see that 54.5% of respondents enjoyed teaching and another 23.7% wanted an opportunity to teach – meaning that only 21.8% actually felt negatively about it overall!

I started teaching a few years before I gave my first maths lecture, and I’ve tried all sorts from music classes for kids to business English for employees to undergraduate maths lectures. All of these experiences come with their stuggles and stresses (except maybe music for kids, that’s just cute) but they all also taught me a lot both professionally and personally. Today I’d like to share some of the best things that have come out of teaching for me, and maybe inspire some of the teaching-weary to take a new look at this aspect of academic work!

It taught me how to take charge of a situation

The perfect class of students who are all motivated, helpful and focussed….probably doesn’t exist. When we teach we have to learn to deal (in our own ways) with people who are unfocussed, distracting or combative. We have to get comfortable being in charge of a room and having some authority, even over people who would have authority over us in other situations (for example when we teach people who are older, more professionally experienced or from a “higher” social class).

This experience has changed the way I view myself and given me a kind of confidence I could never have learned from a book or theoretical course.

It taught me communication skills I can use in everyday life

As a teacher or tutor it is important to recognise students’ individual strengths and work out how to communicate the same ideas to a variety of people. This has taught me how to be more patient and try to see the strengths and values of different people I interact with.

The sensitivity training of CELTA and the experience of helping students through stress and exam nerves has also made me more comfortable, calm and hopefully patient when talking to people about difficult topics.

Teaching English and German as second languages has also made me more aware of how I speak and how I can modify my language to communicate with people at different stages of learning. This can be difficult, but it also encourages creativity and trying new ways to express myself.

It improved my language skills

The day I taught my first class in German was the day I realised I was definitely not fluent. But of course I had no choice but to keep going, and the experience of teaching provided both motivation and practice to help me improve my language skills. Encouraging the students to (politely!) correct my spelling and grammar also provided a way to get them talking to me more in class: win-win!

It taught me how much I value human connection

For a long time I thought of myself as a loner, an introvert, a people-hater. Teaching has taught me that this is not the case. The part of my job which involves engaging with and helping people is the part I enjoy the most, even though it is time consuming and sometimes draining. Now as I look for my first post-PhD job I know that I want in-person engagement to be a big part of it, so that even when I’m working hard I know I will feel rewarded and nurtured by the people I work with and for.

Let’s be clear: I’m not claiming that I am now a perfect person. But I am better at accessing my calm, open, engaged side and this has postively affected my life beyond the classroom.

Notes

My teaching experience includes private tutoring for sciences, languages and music, language classes for teens and adults and lecturing and tutoring maths at undergraduate level. They all feed into the above discussion, but lecturing and tutoring have dominated my experience.

CELTA is a training course for English teachers which is regulated by Cambridge University and runs all over the world. I took it in 2015.

by Lucia Rotheray, 8 July 2021

Edelweiss, Zermatt (Pixabay, Creative Commons)