Confessions of a new lecturer, Volume 3: The downside of being a ‘Yes Man’

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Have I inadvertently tied my shoelaces together?

When I started as a new lecturer, I found it impossible to turn calls for assistance down, partly in the interests of making a good impression and partly because there’s a power dynamic when senior colleagues ask you to contribute to something. Adding further activities to the new job, new courses, new people, and so on left me lurching from one week to the next. I noticed a few comments on the THES version that my teaching load was excessively light; in response – it was on paper when I started, but additional classes were added throughout the year, making the workload unpredictable.

Any road, how are things different, two academic years later? In some ways, easier. I’m doing the same amount of teaching; I deliver just over 100 classes across the year, varying from one-hour tutorials or lectures to three-hour seminars or workshops. I’ve also supervised nearly 50 – mostly undergraduate – dissertations. Our teaching allocation is considered to be 500 hours of preparation and classroom/lecture theatre time (plus supervisions), with one hour of prep for every hour taught. This works out if you’re marginally tweaking your own established materials, but a new lecture can take days to research and write. I lead two courses now, and these have both required rewriting and then amending after a year to cater for changes elsewhere in the course.

Overall, I have a much better sense of the ebb and flow of the year, when the manic and quieter patches are, and this makes planning ahead easier. I always feel, though, that the promised land of a genuine lull is permanently elusive. In practice it’s never much of one – something always crops up. I do have my teaching qualification and HEA fellowship behind me. In hindsight, and this seems to be common, I’d have liked much more time to dedicate to it and benefit from it. The assignments had to be squeezed in and written last-minute and slightly unreflectively – basically all those things we tell our students not to do.

Research-wise, as of last week I’ve got four publications under my belt, two of which will be submitted as part of my external review in a few years from now, two of which won’t be. I’ve also had one rejected (with snide feedback, it’s a rite of passage, right?), and there’s one I’ve co-written with a doctoral student that went in last week. There are two more pieces from my doctorate which are in various stages of undress, and I did some work with my former supervisor which fell by the wayside. We’re in the process of (metaphorically) resuscitating the patient, and I’m leading on a project which is trundling along, albeit very slowly. I’m not sitting still, but I’m not exactly motoring either, because…

…I’m not any better at saying no. Well, maybe a little, but not by much! I really buy into this idea of the university, that it’s about being part of a collective and greater good. I’m also interested in a lot of things within university life (in part because higher education is my area of research) and I like seeing how it all works. Also, if nobody volunteers for stuff, it simply doesn’t get done. You add this interest and collegiality together, and I’m no longer volunteering to ingratiate myself, but because that’s how it works. I’m beginning to realise though, that I’ve overcooked it in the commitment stakes. We have to log our research time, and I’m well short of the 500 hours I’m supposed to spend on it, even in spite of also having some research leave this year. I accept that my occasional poor time management and the incessant stream of emails get in the way, but I still have more on my plate than is helpful. Helpful to me, at least. I simply have too little time to read and reflect; I’m not joking when I say that my best ideas come when I’m staring out of the window. I don’t get to spend enough time gazing into space, letting the grey cells make those insightful connections that help fuse the reading and writing together.

I’m not ashamed to admit that I had a job interview for a pre-92, and that I didn’t get it. They were right not to offer me the job – in addition to the person who got it (a good friend of mine, as it happens!) being far further ahead in research terms than me – I’m just ‘not there’ yet. The preparation, interview/presentation and feedback were useful and interesting, and I now have a good sense of what I need to do/where I need to go next. Also, I’m not quite ready to go: I’ve got unfinished business where I am. The research centre that I co-run with a colleague is on a solid footing and is going places, and I want to see that the courses I’m responsible for be successful.

The interview question that struck me the most, because it threw me, was about where I see my contribution to knowledge being over my career. In a sense I can’t know because I’m not long out of my doctorate and some of your research trajectory comes about by chance. At the same time, as they say, you make your own luck, and you fit your own longer-term interests into bigger projects. If I’d thought – and known – about this question, I’d be better off, not only in the interview, but overall, in terms of having a master plan. As it turns out, I do have an answer, but I haven’t had the space to stare into to develop and articulate it. Have I been too much of a ‘yes man’? I’m all for being collegial, and (university) life relies on it, but am I being over-collegial? There’s always a balance between selfishness and altruism, and perhaps I need to be a bit more of a no-man. The ideal situation is where you help yourself and others at the same time, but this isn’t always possible.

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About ddubdrahcir

A Higher Educationalist...
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