Recent Thoughts on Life in Higher Education - Summer 2016

Summer is an odd time in Academia. Most people think you are on an extended holiday because you aren't in the office. Whilst I would no way claim to have a terrible job, and I am aware how fortunate I am to hold the position I do, summer is a time of varied demands and opportunities that are hard work and time consuming. Personally, since I finished grading my own students I have undertaken external examining, attended UCAS fairs, attended an academic conference and written my module guides for 2016/17. This is not a defence of Academia or a woe is me self-pitying tirade. This is just a very short collection of things I have noticed on my very recent travels, collected here for my own posterity as much as anything else.

UCAS Fairs and Recruitment

There are many demands unreasonably placed on academics that are part of the increasingly worrying decimation of higher education but I feel that engaging with recruitment is not one of them. I feel that academics and teaching staff being on the ground level talking to prospective students is vital. I don't believe this because of the 'students are customers' mantra. 

Two days talking to prospective students at a UCAS fair at the University of Bedfordshire reminded me of so many important aspects of my job. Whilst our institutions want to hammer home the consumerist nature of the student body actually talking to young people (and not so young) at Fairs and on Open Days is invigorating. You are reminded that these are young (and not so young people) making a serious investment of their time and their life, heading down paths that scare them financially and emotionally. Some are investing in their dream, some seeking to find a career that they can be proud of and help them fulfil personal ambitions. All have no idea what they are entering into and those best place to help them understand that are those who will teach them day-to-day, in hand with those who help run the institution on a daily basis, those who make universities 'successful' regardless of what the pay scale says. 

I believe academics should be invested in recruitment and greater understand the pressures that young people are under in the contemporary climate and I don't believe that metrics are the best way to do this. I believe in good old fashioned conversation. I believe in stepping forward and greeting tentative young people and helping them understand the decision they are about to make. I believe in having conversations where academics are honest about whether a course or an institution is right for an individual. Not everyone should be at university, not everyone should be at my university. This kind of talk horrifies university sales teams and executive board members but we are talking about the lives of young people. In the war of the metric and the statistic and the survey and the table it's too easy to forget that. Two days a year standing by a table talking to people is a cheap reminder of what really matters. 

Academic Conferences

I am what is classed as an early career academic. I have been in academia for three years since moving from the world of independent filmmaking and film education. It's been a whirlwind of publishing, doctorate completion, teaching, promotions and academic conferences. I still feel out of place and like I will be fired every day. I still get anxious about my teaching and my 'research'. Academic conferences are daunting places and there are certain things that go on that make the situation worse, and it's unprofessionalism.

The lack of preparation by people presenting - not prepping their tech, not knowing how long their talk is - worries me because to me that must echo how people teach. I can tell when someone is nervous and can sympathise, I'm always terrified, and you can tell when someone doesn't really care about the fact that there are other people there - peers on their panel, and an audience in front of them.

I love hearing people talk about their research and I love the springboard nature of academic conferences but it always worries me that people's selfishness will result in the downfall of this prestigious and privileged life.

I know fifteen or twenty minutes isn't a long time, certainly not enough time to cover every idea and angle of a piece of work, but that's the time limit. We are all bound by it. The amount of people who have no concept of how long their presentation is baffles me. How can you not? There are three other people who also need to present, there are four other panel slots and a keynote today alone. Be a community thinker and prepare. Don't go long. 

Also, audience members, you have a responsibility. You need to show awareness of the appropriateness of your questions and comments. You need to respect other people and recognise whether your input would be more suited to the buffet line. You need to be aware of your tone, and your language, and respect that if you don't get the answer you want you don't have a license to plough back in and demand another. 

These may seem like small gripes or someone throwing their toys out of the pram but over the past couple of years I have seen these kinds of trends and it saddens me. There is always good and bad practice, in everything. What saddens me is how much bad practice persists unchallenged - in these latter cases panel chairs often don't challenge when they should or pay attention to the room.

There's an adage that 'how you do anything, is how you do everything' and I see some value in that idea. Academia is under threat from most sides and selfish complacency is not going to save it. It's time for us all to think of others, the bigger picture, of how the way we do thing represents what we do. I agonise over this and hope I can make a difference in a small way.