This blog post is prompted by my first ever job performance review which is scheduled for tomorrow afternoon with my academic mentor … eek! I’ve been in my post for exactly one year, and as per our departmental requirements, I’m now obliged to sit down and reflect on my achievements, my defeats, my ambitions and goals for the future. To be honest, it’s been a fairly simple task to draw together these reflections, as I’ve been ruminating on them for months—something that I assume is normal for anyone who is launched into a challenging post where the expectations are high and the potential to fail is equally great. I’ve been spurred on, too, by an incredibly misconceived Forbes post by Susan Adams (subsequently amended in the wake of hundreds of critical retorts) which reports a CareerCast.com ranking of ‘university professor’ as the supposedly least stressful job of 2013. You can read the backlash to this report in various places, including a thoughtful post (from the perspective of the American biomedical field) by another Forbes contributor and professor David Kroll. (Thanks to Will Deyamport for familiarising me with Kroll’s response via Twitter.)
Needless to say, I dispute CareerCast.com’s ranking. My own experience of the job of lecturing is one of exceptional unsteadiness; of moving from a state of complete confidence and control in one instant, to total uncertainty and debilitating self-doubt in the next. I would like to think that my PhD studies prepared me well for such transience, particularly as I taught and worked on multiple extra projects simultaneous with writing my thesis. But until I was launched into the world of full-time employment, I couldn’t have known just how demanding the job could be. As I see it, this relates fundamentally to the issue of accountability, because prior to last January, I was always a student or a researcher working under someone else’s guidance—in other words, I had my teachers’ support to prop me up in my weakest moments. The second I stepped into my new post, however, others’ perceptions of my authority and, indeed, my own perceptions of myself changed. And my sense of my level of responsibility—responsibility for my students, for my department, for my university, for my field of practice, and for myself and staying true to what I value and believe in—grew exponentially.
I love many things about my job. I have developed an absolute adoration for teaching and mentoring students—the inspiration and complete awe that can be generated from participating in the process of learning is something quite profound. I don’t know that I totally understood the profundity of this activity until I implemented some of my new modules over the past year. Yes, there were moments of terror and lonesomeness when things didn’t go according to plan and I was left solitary—yet surrounded and exposed—in the middle of the classroom. But those moments were outweighed by the wonder of watching the intellectual transformation of my students (and myself) as we worked through, for instance, the development of the students’ blogs, or as we managed to create an engaged critical debate about aspects of archaeological exhibitionary practice amongst a class of c. 40 Master’s students. Just as these experiences were intimidating and sometimes very fleeting, they were also revelatory for me as a teacher and as a person. The students’ reflectiveness forced reflectiveness in myself, such that a really clear feedback cycle presented itself which will impact on future iterations of my classes.
The other major thing that has been facilitated by my job has been the opportunity to meet and connect with inspiring researchers and genuinely wonderful human beings from around the world. This year alone I contributed to a series of projects in Canada, the USA, Italy, Britain and Turkey, and I’m negotiating a couple of new collaborations for 2013 (fingers crossed). I’ve been approached to run two different skills workshops in Canada and the USA with my anthropological colleagues, and I’ve been communicating with others – for instance the excellent Kristina Killgrove (University of West Florida) – about developing new curricula. To be able to advise on such projects, to partner with such researchers, to share ideas and methods across disciplinary and international lines, is truly humbling. It’s also possibly the greatest source of stress. Because it’s in these moments when you realise that other people think you have expertise and understanding to offer. It’s then that you feel the weight of responsibility for what you know and how you know it. It’s then that the pressure to prove yourself kicks in, and, for me, that pressure can feel crushing.
I think I felt it most deeply when I met a student in the springtime during my office hours and it was clear that they were nervous to speak to me. I found this a bit of an agonising experience, because I used to be in that position: I was the one who would go to others for guidance and input; indeed, not two months before, I was that very student, sitting in the chair during office hours, nervously speaking to my supervisors. Now, however, I had become the person who was supposed to supply the advice.
I believe that the stressfulness of this situation is exacerbated by the number of obligations that one needs to fulfil on a daily basis as a lecturer. Not only are you responsible for knowing all about your area of speciality and for helping students to grapple productively with that speciality themselves, but so too are you responsible for running your different undergraduate and Master’s programmes, and completing your various other administrative tasks, and publishing and getting grants and holding it all together flawlessly and discreetly—as though you’re an expert at everything. The array of tasks for which you are accountable is breathtaking, and the predicament is made worse by the fact that you are answerable to so many different stakeholders simultaneously (both inside and outside the university). This means there are very many opportunities for failure, and far fewer opportunities for being recognised for your successes. Praise is fugitive in this line of work, and I think that’s perhaps the greatest travesty of the academic system. It is very difficult to measure your progress given that for every recognised achievement (e.g., publishing an article; implementing a new class; etc.) there are innumerable other achievements that go unrecognised (e.g., responding to hundreds of emails a day), or that don’t go to plan (submitting a document that is demolished in the peer review process), or that are otherwise delayed whilst you’re busy with the rest of your work. The most apt Twitter posting that I’ve read in the recent past was one on New Year’s Day, 1 January 2013, which said something to the effect of “Retweet this if you’re an academic and you’ve already missed a deadline for 2013.” Nothing is more disheartening than this–nothing is more draining than completing one project but then having no time to appreciate the accomplishment because you’ve got multiple other overdue or pending assignments to attend to immediately.
I would like, then, to see better structures initiated for consistently and habitually commending scholars for their varied activities. Such praise can go a long way towards managing feelings of inadequacy, of deluge, of self-consciousness and defeat – all symptoms of the imposter syndrome which I’ve blogged about before, and which I struggle with on a regular basis.
I am also convinced that the experiences of women in academia are fundamentally different to those of men. This subject is one that I’m becoming increasingly passionate about owing to circumstances that I will blog about in the future; but I feel great concern about equipping female academics with the tools necessary to help them better navigate their day-to-day working relationships and plan for their careers in the long term. I’d like to connect with others who are involved in women’s scholarly networks, so any recommendations or contacts you might have would be much appreciated.
I have great room for improvement as a lecturer, and I learn best from others’ experiences, so if you’d be willing to share your stories of success (and of negotiating failure), I’d be keen to hear them. I appreciate your support, your kind suggestions, your collaborations and general goodwill. I couldn’t do this job without your help; I am endlessly grateful for it.