Since I’m still waiting to hear back about the results of my interview (they said they’d make a decision by the end of the week), I’m having a terrible time concentrating on anything at the moment. Given the big changes taking place in my life at the moment, my mind gravitates toward the things I do and don’t like about academia at just about any point I’m not firmly concentrated on something. So here’s a first post in what I think will become a series of lists of academic myths that need to be dispelled.
To set the stage, here is a little bit more about me and my experience: I am a different from most post-academic bloggers in that I’m mid-career and leaving a permanent job rather than an early career leaver or a PhD student choosing not to go on (or continue to go on) the academic job market. I’ve got a lot of years of experience both in full time academia and as an hourly paid lecturer (equivalent to adjuncting in the US). I’ve worked for seven institutions, which is a lot by anyone’s standards I think. One of them was in the US. One of them was an old university and five of them were new universities. I have held teaching as well as research posts. My experience spans a time period of nearly fifteen years, though I tried to leave academia once before and worked a non-academic publishing job for a year. I point these things out because I want to make it clear that the following has been gleaned from a broad experience, not just through work at one or two institutions of a similar type.
Having recently been disturbed by some research on academic dissatisfaction written up in the Times Higher, which found that 30% of junior academics in Britain would not have chosen this career if they could make the decision again, I now want to draw on my wide experience of academia to dispel some of the myths academia (often deliberately) perpetuates. I especially hope that posts such as this are a help to those who leave academia not because they want another type of job but because the dreadful job market forces them out. I am working my way through a lot of emotions having chosen to leave at a point when I am ready to do so; I cannot imagine how painful it must be to those who have to give up the career out of necessity. I really feel for you guys. So here’s an account of some of the bullshit anyone would be better off avoiding.
Teaching is enjoyable and rewarding.
In some specific situations which are few and far between, this is true. A student you have taught for three years might in the last semester of his/her degree begin speaking up in seminars with the sophistication you have always known he/she is capable of. Or you might mark a dissertation that employs some complex theory and not only does so with convincing appreciation of its subtleties, but also in an engaging, creative writing style.
But the day to day reality of teaching involves constant admin (attendance, reporting attendance, reports about modules, samples for externals, external approval of assessment questions, external and committee approval of any little change to every module, and don’t even get me started on second marking). Secondly, there are so many students each member of staff has to be responsible for that it’s usually impossible to even know the students well enough to see these little breakthroughs and improvements. In addition, the constant monitoring of every little change made to every module prevents the staff from making changes as they become necessary and instead we end up teaching the same things over and over again—or at the least a lot longer than you would want to—until all the necessary bureaucracy has been navigated to add a couple texts to the programme or remove a five minute unassessed presentation. Seriously, way too much work goes into these little changes. Finally, on the issue of doing the same teaching over and over, the staff are so pressed for time that we have to skim read small portions of texts rather than properly read the text (especially if you’re teaching a 400-600 page Victorian novel). This is an extremely uncomfortable way to read. There is no pleasure in it and this necessary time-saving step has taken all the enjoyment away from my teaching prep.
For the most part, university teaching is drudgery. If you are going to survive in this role, you have to put up with a lot of frustrating bureaucracy, let go of the idea that teaching texts you love is going to be enjoyable and be prepared to spend long hours doing very, very boring, unchallenging tasks. If those few moments of student breakthroughs are worth all this, then university teaching is probably the career for you. I don’t have patience with bureaucracy and I’m just not the type of person who engages that deeply with students (ie, when a student makes a breakthrough, I often think the credit goes to them, not me, especially where essay writing is concerned). I always knew teaching and I weren’t a great fit, as I’ve noted in another post on teaching, but the endless bureaucracy and unchallenging tasks unexpectedly crept up on me in much larger quantities than I ever expected.
You get to design your own courses in your research area.
To a small extent, this is true. You usually get to propose an undergraduate module and sometimes a postgraduate module, though this depends a lot on what your department is willing to allow you to do. And when I say ‘willing to allow you to do’ I’m not thinking of practicalities, scheduling and student numbers. Rather, all sorts of years-long frustrations and petty feuds are often the driving factors in what gets taught and how. You’d be hard pressed to find any academic department in the UK that isn’t factionalized into feuding little cliques. I think it’s just the intensity and the level of pettiness of these little feuds that varies from department to department. The problem re teaching is that nothing is decided independently at UK universities. Everything goes to multiple committees and meetings for approval and certain people see every meeting and every committee as a power game. Some people like to dominate. Others need to feel they are supported by the other members in their faction of the department. Some believe they have a better chance of climbing the greasy pole if they always agree with the dominators and take on all the menial tasks no one wants. With all of that feeding into decision-making at meetings and committees, compounded by the habit of academics to believe that they know enough about everyone else’s specialisms to be able to make decisions about how and what material ought to be taught, you will rarely ever end up with a module that resembles what you originally wanted to do, covers the material you study and/or works well together as a whole.
You get to offer courses in your research area.
If your department allows you, yes. But in addition to all the ways in which your colleagues will have their hands all over the content of your teaching, they also have a large amount of control over whether or not you get to offer these courses. A whole range of reasons including seniority, administrative responsibilities, other teaching responsibilities, research leave and petty insecurities will determine whether or not and when you can offer your courses in your research area. (Seriously, the number of times I’ve seen colleagues fretting about the fact that someone else’s module might draw students away from their own . . . as if it’s a competition. Then whoever gets more students in the end will complain that they have more marking than everyone else . . .) Bear in mind that your colleagues will very likely not see it as their responsibility to facilitate your teaching in your specialism, including those who direct programmes and organize the teaching. At best, they will think it’s not their problem; at worst, if you knowingly or unknowingly step on someone’s toes, they may well make it their mission to prevent your teaching from happening.
Most of your teaching is in your specialist areas.
If you are in a very large, prestigious department, your proposed modules have made it through the meetings and committees without being manipulated beyond all recognition and your colleagues agree to let you offer these modules all in the same year, then yes. However, most of us are in smaller departments in the growing number of universities in Britain considered to be average or worse. For most of these departments, there is a lot of need to cover pre-existing teaching that can’t just be eliminated due to the unwieldy bureaucratic processes, even when staff retire or leave or get made redundant. When starting an academic job, you can expect most of your early teaching to be covering this unwanted but still necessary teaching, then you get to work in your module(s)/contributions to existing modules in your area over a period of years. For a lot of academic staff, the majority of their teaching will never be in their specialist areas because by the time this happens in your current post, you are just about ready to move on to another job. So you end up on a pointless cycle of trying to get your teaching focused on the areas you know most about, never succeeding, and continually having to prepare new teaching. Exhausting.
For a next post in this series, I think I will work on research myths.