Academia ABC

It’s been a while. Missed me? I’ve missed me – or rather, I’ve missed the me that hasn’t been dragged down by a seemingly never-ending cold virus which showed up just before my holiday (of course it did) and then hung around for weeks making me feel like a sort of zombie. I’m still only on about 75% power, but that’s a heck of a lot better than it has been. And although I’ve written on illness before, I wanted to take a slightly different approach this time. Because as I’ve fought these horrible waves of tiredness and inability to do things properly, I realise I’ve been fighting, at the same time, the ghost of something bequeathed to me in part by my time in higher education: that if you’re not actually incapable of standing, you should basically be at work. I have been ridiculously ashamed of not having any discernible symptoms, yet not being well enough to get on with it. And this, plus several encounters with academic friends and colleagues over the past few weeks, has got me pondering. Don’t worry, you’re not going to get the whole alphabet in terms of things the academy needs to get better at. But the vowels, I think, will set us off to a nice start.

Wooden cubes with letters of the alphabet on each

A is for Asking. I had a lovely chat a few days ago at a conference with a PhD candidate who is due to complete her project very soon. She’s had a lovely idea for a possible teaching project she thinks might be suitable for certain organisations. But she, like many other postgrads (and undergrads) I’ve spoken to before, needed permission from me, in a sense, to consider actually asking the people who might take on the course if they thought it was a good idea. Asking is a thing we all need to do in academia: not only when it comes to new regulations or finding the lecture halls, but in critical thinking, learning about subject branches we don’t know about (something that brings a lot of people out in a rash of fear) and in taking a chance that someone might help us. At some point, I bet every single one of us can think of a time when we were made to feel that asking, or rather that not yet knowing the answer, was something we were clearly meant to feel ashamed of. Well, screw that. Ask. If it’s for help, they can say yes or no. If it’s for knowledge, they can be generous or stingy. But you asked. That’s what matters.

E is for Enthusiasm. Now, my own experience of this is that for the most part, there are always colleagues who are genuinely interested and enthusiastic about what their fellow academics are up to. Time pressure makes it incredibly difficult, however, to find the opportunity to meet up and chat about it. Formalised research lunches and similar are all very well and good, but I’m talking about a more basic level of enthusiasm – not just for your specialist topic, but for your general subject. I love music. Love it. All sorts of music. People tell me that one of the reasons they’re prepared to listen to me witter on and on about it either live or on the radio is that they can tell how excited I am about what I’m talking about. HE needs less relentless paperwork and email mountains, and more time for people to have the chance to babble excitedly to each other about what they love. They wouldn’t be there if that wasn’t at the heart of it.

I is for Illness. You know, last week, I actually resorted to writing to a colleague that I was busy and thus unable to do a task on a given day, because I thought this would be more likely to be accepted as a legitimate excuse than being ill. Health is important, working hours in academia are long, and being unwell is not a thing to be ashamed of. (I say this as much to remind myself as to tell others.) Take the time off. Don’t apologise. Don’t go back before you’re really well enough to. I tried that – it was a mistake. Set reasonable goals and make it clear that being ill is not a negotiable state. When you’re well, you can pick up the work again. If you can’t do it in the meantime, delegate it, minimise it or drop it. Even if you’re hourly paid, even if you’re freelance. Take the time to get well.

O is for Open-mindedness. Sometimes – and don’t tell me you haven’t done this – we look down a conference programme and see that our discipline has apparently expanded to take in stuff that wasn’t there before. Might be a new branch of study, a new genre of art/music/literature, a new approach to a subject, a new kind of performance activity. If your immediate reaction is ‘what’s that thing doing there, that’s wrong,’ then go to the session. Go on. You’ll either hate it, or think it’s faddish, or whatever, or you’ll learn something new and interesting that you didn’t know before. It’s so incredibly easy to get stuck in ruts around specialisms, which is one of the reasons that generalist conference are so important (and should be preserved, since they’re on the decline). Didn’t you get into academia in the first place to learn stuff? What are you waiting for then?

U is for University of the Air. Did you know this was a name given in the 1960s to education radio and television series in Canada? It predates the UK’s Open University by a few years, but the principle was the same: distance learning, over the airwaves. We are learning all the time from the things we watch, read, listen to, see, experience. Pub quizzes, TV shows, crossword clues, new words in novels we read, how-to YouTube videos, the lot. All of that knowledge is valid, and all of it can inform work in and out of the academy. (I’ve said this before, I’m sure, but I owe a good deal of my early opera education to episodes of Inspector Morse.) This is an invitation to hoover up knowledge from wherever you find it… but also to remember how powerful these means of communication are. Academic papers and journal articles will only get so far in helping broader understanding of your subject. Media, web resources, and just good old-fashioned talking to people in straightforward language will help others see why you care so much, what amazing things you’ve found, and why their kids should be studying your subject at school (and why governments should be funding it properly). Never be too good to talk to non-specialists. You’re not better than them, you just know different stuff. Wouldn’t it be cool if they knew some of that stuff too?

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