Graduation! (not mine)

Today was my department’s winter graduation ceremony, and despite three years as a lecturer it was the first one I’ve attended in which I wasn’t receiving a degree (first everybody had Covid and so we had no graduations, and then I had Covid last summer and missed that one).

I went in without too much in the way of expectations – I’d had an unproductive day for mental health reasons (no big deal, it happens sometimes) so I wasn’t in a great mood, and I was anticipating a slightly boring ceremony, but wanted to support the students.

I was wrong. It was a joyous affair. It was wonderful to see my former students cross the stage and stand in front of their friends and families with proud smiles on their faces. Wonderful to see those who had excelled throughout, and those who had struggled a bit along the way. In the reception afterwards I was able to congratulate them in person (sometimes with difficulty – the music was loud!); many of them introduced me to their families, took selfies with me, etc.. Graduation selfies have worse lighting than field trip selfies, but much smarter clothes šŸ˜‰

I left after some hours with a big happy smile on my face, lifted up by other people’s celebration. So now I shall look forward to future graduations… and if any of today’s students are reading this, congratulations again!

Posted by simon in Professional updates, Reflective

Reflections on teaching in the pandemic

During this academic year, as well as teaching through a pandemic, I have been working on a PCAP course (Postgraduate Certificate in Academic Practice). A few months ago, as part of the assessment of this, I had to write a number of reflective case studies about my work. These were linked together with a reflective introduction which was quite heartfelt, looking very briefly at the experience of pandemic teaching as a new starter in the context of established theories/models about early academic life. I’m not wholly ashamed of that introduction and I thought it might be of more general interest, and so I’m posting it here with minor edits. It is, of course, very basic: I am no expert in this area and make no claims to novel insight!

The early years of a lecturerā€™s first permanent role are generally expected to be hard, for multiple reasons: the new academic is coming to understand their new role and identity (Simmons, 2011, Wilkinson, 2018) while also learning the systems of their new institution and, often, developing a large amount of new teaching material. Kugel (1993) described new lecturers initially focusing on self, and then subject. Only later do they shift to considering students, and hence transition from a teaching-led to a learning-led way of thinking ā€“ which in turn leads to consideration of more sophisticated pedagogies.

Covid-19, and the resulting emergency shift to online teaching, has added to this load. Watermeyer et al (2021) speak, based on a large survey, of ā€œacademics bruised by their experience of emergency online transitionā€¦ A story of trauma in the face ofā€¦ profound professional and personal disruptionā€¦ Of self-concept on trial and in tattersā€. The emergency introduction of blended learning has upended Kugelā€™s progression by forcing staff who are in their first year of teaching, who are still developing self and subject knowledge, to engage very firmly with learning-led approaches. It is not clear whether this is beneficial for students, but it has surely increased the level of rapid adjustment and assimilation of ideas that Simmons and Wilkinson described.

This research feels quite pertinent to my own situation as a new starter. Much of the material that I have been adapting for emergency online learning is material that I have never taught before, and I have been learning to navigate the systems of a university in flux without any knowledge of how those systems work in normal times.

Goffman, as cited & described by Wilkinson (2018), discussed university teaching through a theatrical metaphor. He described ā€œbackstageā€ contexts in which lecturers can stop performing, and ā€œstage talkā€ where they discuss performance techniques with colleagues. Wilkinson discussed differences in how much backstage space is available for a woman in a male-dominated field, but it is also interesting to consider how these concepts may differ ā€“ and how this might affect the development of professional identity ā€“ in a year when lecturers are working from home, and are connected to students and peers only during clearly designated periods when their webcams are on.

Posted by simon in Reflective

Six months in

Dear reader, if you ever get the choice, I do not recommend starting your first permanent academic job in the year of a pandemic.

The first year of a job is always hard: you have to create teaching materials for the first time, you have to try to get yourself set up for research and, if like me you’re taking over leadership of a degree programme, you have to figure out a lot of “how stuff works at this institution” and build relationships with a lot of people in a hurry.

That’s the baseline. But thanks to COVID, workload for anybody with teaching responsibilities has increased dramatically beyond that level. We’ve been working really hard to deliver a good learning experience through a “blended” approach, but this takes longer to prepare, and also (despite seemingly having less – but not always much less – face-to-face contact) takes longer to actually run and deliver.

To be clear, this isn’t a criticism of my own institution; it’s something that’s affecting most of the sector. Nor am I unaware of how lucky I am to be in a job right now. But nearly everybody I speak to who has teaching responsibilities in UK HE is teetering on the edge of burnout. This has obvious implications for mental health – it isn’t sustainable, and it will require recovery time – but also slightly less obvious implications for the research side of our careers. Of course having very little time available for research is an impediment, but so too is being constantly exhausted: one just isn’t creative in that state.

Once the dust settles I’m predicting four long-term consequences:

  1. A partially lost generation of early career researchers, who were on precarious and/or fixed-term contracts when the pandemic hit.
  2. A mental health crisis of gigantic proportions across the academy. Some would say that we already had one of those, but this will be worse.
  3. A noticeable difference in research output, and probably also career progression, between people with and without teaching responsibilities.
  4. A similar, or greater, difference in research output and career progression between those with caring or other responsibilities outside work and those without. Greater than usual, I mean.
Posted by simon in Reflective

The problem with acknowledgements

Academia doesn’t have a way of acknowledging contributions short of authorship that matters.

Yes, we have Acknowledgements sections, and I try to be very comprehensive in who I include, but while it feels good to be featured there, it doesn’t actually matter from a career perspective; nobody is going to sit in an interview or review panel and say “They didn’t author any papers this year, but they were acknowledged on seven really good ones, so they clearly did some good work”. Indeed, because acknowledgements aren’t indexed in the same way as authorships, nobody is likely to even know.

If somebody, say, allows use of a dataset that’s already been written up elsewhere[1], or is a technician involved in an analysis, their work has been important in enabling the study to be conducted, and thus should undoubtedly be acknowledged, and more so than a polite thank-you at the end of the paper that nobody will remember… and so they end up becoming authors, despite not having made the intellectual contribution that should mean authorship of the paper. And this is one of the causes of author inflation, and also of this sort of thing.

It makes me wonder if we need a third way. Let the authors just be the people who wrote the paper, or (perhaps) otherwise made intellectual contributions to the study. Leave the “acknowledgements” section for funders, companies, public data providers, whimsical mentions of friends, and so forth. Set up a new list of “Contributors” or some such, indexed as authors are, for people who need to be able to point to what they’ve done on PURE or Google Scholar.


[1] The move towards citable datasets that have their own DOIs should help here.

Posted by simon in Reflective, The wider world

Academics are the same everywhere ;-)

Today and tomorrow are the public holiday of Obon, a time that people take off work to honour their ancestors with their families. I’m working, because I have a very limited time in which to do my project, and I’m finding – judging by the lengths of the job queues – that the university supercomputer that I’m using is busier than on a normal day.

I suspect that a lot of Japanese academics, visiting their families and freed from the responsibilities and interruptions of their offices, are using the time to get on with research – just like at home!

Young person looking at an early IBM PC-compatible.

Waiting for computer time. Image from Bundesarchiv collection, licensed CC BY-SA 3.0 de

Posted by simon in Working in Japan