• vikki-houlden

How to be a 'proper' academic

TLDR: I don't know, and I'm probably not the right person to ask.

So blogging isn't going quite as well as I'd hoped. I'd planned when I started this that, now I'd secured the illusive permanent contract, it was time to be a Proper Academic, where I juggled teaching, programme management, lecturing, admin, training, and blogging. How I laugh in the face of the naivety of January-2021-Vikki!

Now one year into my role as Lecturer and Programme Lead, I can safely say that it is impossible to do everything all the time, while doing it well. And while fitting in sleep. Because of the intensity of preparing and delivering teaching, my research is one thing that has, by necessity, had to fall by the wayside somewhat. And keeping up this blog, apparently.

This had provoked internal battle as to whether I'm doing things well enough, or indeed doing enough, full stop. At some point over the past months, I had to make a, probably subconscious, decision, as to what was, or had to be, my immediate priority. In this case, it was the success of my students and course that unquestionably had to be prioritised, if I wanted to stay sane enough to deliver. I put a lot of pressure on myself to do everything to the best of my ability, so realising that the best of my ability requires not doing everything has been a huge learning curve. It’s ok to drop the ball sometimes.

I particularly enjoy Brian Dyson’s assertion that there is not just one ball we are juggling at a time, but several [1]. The important distinction is in understanding which balls are glass, and will shatter if dropped, whereas others are rubber, and will bounce. While Dyson is, I think, oversimplistic in assuming that work, as whole, is the only rubber ball (as opposed to the more fragile family, health, etc), I feel this analogy works well when applied to different aspects of academia. At the moment, the increase in time-criticality of my teaching and course management has had the same effect on their fragility. If I drop those balls, everything falls apart, but my rubbery research can happily bounce along in the background until I can scoop it up again.

However, this caused me to question my authority as a lecturer and the academic system- do early career researchers really have enough time and resources to research and teach? How does this affect our teaching? And does this prevent me being a Proper Academic? This is particularly challenging for someone not too long out of my PhD and Research-based Postdoc. Research has been my priority focus for so long, that this shifting of the balance seems more seismic than I could have anticipated.

Frequent questioning of whether I can even try to be a Proper Academic if I am not currently researching has contributed to a lot of imposter syndrome during this first semester. This is particularly common, unfortunately, for women and ‘young’ appearing academics as well as people of colour [2,3], and can lead to decreased satisfaction with the self and work, and ultimately burnout [4].

I also feel the Covid pandemic may have exacerbated this (yet another thing we can blame Covid for); I interviewed online and only met my colleagues and students in the new academic year, so I felt I had more to ‘prove’ in person.

As I move into the second term, and happen to be leading modules where fewer resources are required, I’m (at risk of speaking too soon) starting to find a new balance. While my students are still my priority at work, hopefully opportunities will arise to squeeze in a bit of research in amongst an endless stream of teaching, marking, and administrative tasks. I’m not sure how I will learn to juggle this, or if it’s even possible to keep all the balls in the air at once. There will be weeks where I do more research, more teaching, or am swamped with marking and admin and just about drag myself into the lecture theatre, far less prepared than I’d like to be. But one thing I have learned, is that the only way of doing it all is to not try and do it all at once.

And I’m not sure I’ll ever feel like a Proper Academic. Maybe next year?

[1] Dyson, B., 1991. Commemorative Commencement Speech. Georgia Tech. Accessed: 15 Feb 2022. Transcription available online at: https://www.markturner.net/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/Whistle-Brian_Dyson-Georgia_Tech_Commencement_Sept_1991-p3.pdf

[2] Edwards, C.W., 2019. Overcoming imposter syndrome and stereotype threat: Reconceptualizing the definition of a scholar. Taboo: The Journal of Culture and Education, 18(1), pp.3.

[3] Wilkinson, C., 2020. Imposter syndrome and the accidental academic: An autoethnographic account. International Journal for Academic Development, 25(4), pp.363-374.

[4] Whitman, M.V. and Shanine, K.K., 2012. Revisiting the impostor phenomenon: How individuals cope with feelings of being in over their heads. In The role of the economic crisis on occupational stress and well being. Emerald Group Publishing Limited.

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