I’ve been a lecturer for just under a year now, and it’s been mostly fun and interesting, and sometimes challenging. As I wrote last time, a few things early on surprised me, such as how intellectually dependent first year students can be and how much admin there is. The former has meant that I’ve adapted my teaching over the year to slowly take the training wheels off their thinking and assignment writing. The latter is simply part of working in a bureaucracy – some of it is necessary and some of it certainly isn’t, but you just have to do it.
A professor I know quite well told me before I started this job not to expect to achieve anything in the first year beyond getting through it. In hindsight, this was pretty accurate – the combination of teaching a lot of new classes, unfamiliar roles and responsibilities, and completing a postgrad certificate – is probably more than enough for a year. I’ve managed to go a little a bit beyond that: reviewed a few papers and a pile of conference submissions, published one major paper and had another rejected (both were mostly complete before I got here), wrote and published one minor paper, delivered a conference poster and a seminar talk, had two conference proposals accepted, and won some internal funding for a research project which is now under way. I’ve managed to attend a few seminars here and there, too – getting off campus and mixing with colleagues from elsewhere stops you going stir-crazy. Maybe all of this has meant other things have suffered…
What has really fallen by the wayside this year is my capacity to read (and write). Oh, how I yearn to return to the first year of my PhD (if not not financially)! The pile of must-read articles and books relating to papers I’m writing or projects I’m working on is growing and growing. I’ve read the bare minimum this year – pre-reading for sessions I’ve designed and/or taught, some key articles for funding/conference applications, and literature for assignments on the PGCert. The only time I’ve managed to go beyond that is on the occasional long distance train journey. This has to be better next year – I feel like I’m falling further and further behind, and you can’t rely on work published up to 2014 for publications!! The knock-on effect is that I have several papers in various stages of development that I’m struggling to get anywhere near.
I whinged a bit last time about the lack of space I had to dedicate to the postgrad certificate in teaching in HE. Completing it leads to fellowship of the Higher Education Academy (HEA), a sector-wide requirement for all new academic (teaching) staff in UK HE. The proportion of staff with HEA Fellowships is going to be made publicly available quite soon, and you also have to factor in that the National Student Survey is supposed to reflect teaching quality. In other words, this is a big deal. Some universities (particularly those which are heavily research-oriented) may have let this slide over time, and everyone is now hell-bent on getting new (and old) teaching staff onto the HEA’s books. There’s an argument that says asking universities to be top-notch in their teaching and research on current resourcing is too much. That’s the brief, though. It’s a research/discussion topic in its own right, but the upshot is that I have to get my fellowship. There is an alternative route for those with teaching experience and I probably could/should have taken this. I opted to take the course in the best interests of my teaching (and students!), but you need at least five to six weeks to attend the taught sessions, read around the topic, and then write sensible assignments. That time simply isn’t there. My assignments are rushed, the grades reflect that, and I’ve had relatively little time to really think about my teaching. It’s irksome to say the least.
My biggest surprises at the end of the year related to marking. First off, you have a month where you do pretty much nothing else but read and grade exams, essays, and research projects. It is, of course, part of the system that we grade work and do so fairly, and for the students who incorporate their feedback into future work, it’s an essential part of studying. There is, though, mountains of it, and in truth it sends you a bit mad for a time. You emerge at the end of it (the ‘Grading Zone’) like a bear from hibernation – a bit bleary-eyed and discombobulated! Secondly, quite a lot of students (in general, not just mine!) complain formally or informally about their grades. I heard things like ‘I did well on my previous pieces so this must be a mistake’, or ‘if this grade was better, it would lift my overall mark’. I often had to explain that, although grading assignments was not an exact science, we moderated each other’s marking to make sure that standards were evenly applied. Furthermore, past performance is not an automatic indication of future ones, and the unpalatable truth is almost certainly that the work simply wasn’t as good. It may not be what you wanted, but it’s what you did. (In other words, ‘It was a bit shit. Sorry. Please read your feedback and take it on board’.)
Looking ahead, I’m in a nice position where I can have quite a bit of say in what I’m doing next year. I’ll be taking on much of the same teaching again, as well as some new responsibilities like running the final year dissertation and looking at our publicity and recruitment. Wanting to do the same teaching again is partly because I won’t have to spend as much time preparing myself/the materials, but also because I want to be better at it than I was this year. It’s not that I think I did anything particularly badly, but I do want re-run the year in some ways and improve in a few areas. I’ve also managed to offload a couple of things, which is nice!
All in, I’m still loving it. There have been times in the last year when I was struggling to cope, but I suppose those are part and parcel of any job. You tend to get through them and on the odd occasion that things do go pear-shaped, hopefully you have an understanding boss and the situation is fixable. I find that getting along with people and being helpful creates a reciprocity and you bail each other out when needed. I also need to work on my time management skills. I’m my own worst enemy at times, trying to clear my desk to give myself a ‘free’ day or two to dedicate to research, reading and writing. Note to self – you’ll never clear your desk! I have to learn to just drop things for a time and only attend to the urgent enquiries; in practice, virtually nothing is urgent. My brief for this year is to teach better, be smarter with my time, and read and write more. My career depends on publications above all else, so I’d better crack on.