Friday, March 23, 2007

Careering off the road

All the careers advice I see aimed at scientists, particularly women scientists, says "minimise teaching", "avoid administration", "be cutthroat about the committees you agree to join", "publish, publish publish", [pdf] "avoid the lure of the 'velvet ghettos'".

I used to think this was all overly cynical. Instead of a straight postdoc, or the lure of the industry and mamon - both of which were available to me after my PhD - I went into teaching in a new university. Full of the fires of idealism I embraced student contact time, I volunteered for committees and panels, I agreed to devise and run an new course. I relegated my research to evenings and weekends.

I had what I guess you might call a nervous breakdown.

I cried on Sundays, pretty much from the moment I got up, because of the thought of going to work the next day. I'd physically shake on the way into work. I forgot to eat - my body was so loaded with 'fight or flight' signals that mere drives like hunger and tiredness failed to register.

Sounds funny to say, but after the stresses of a PhD none of this seemed too strange. I don't think that either I or my husband realised at first what an awful trap I'd set for myself. I managed to grind out a couple of papers but I had no enthusiasm, no drive too do any research. It was only when I found myself contemplating "causing delays on the Northern line"[1] that we realised what a mess I'd got myself into.

I fled, a year ago, for the "straight postdoc" - even though I now only see my husband every other week, and spend 10 hours a week on trains.

Am I over it? Not entirely. Not yet. The thought of running a course, of being co-opted into being surrogate parent, agony aunt and punching bag for students makes me shake. I'm not sure that anyone who hasn't lectured can understand how it feels.

There are people (or so I'm told) that thrive on the teaching. There may even be those who find that teaching inspires their research as well as the other way around. But a novice, female lecturer will always attract this kind of awkward customer

I will plan to contest the grade you have given me in this class when I get it because I know it will be much higher with any other teacher. I am a very religious man and you are not a bad person but you do not choose your words with enough care like a teacher should. You try to be objective and the very attempt becomes your flaw because you try so hard to grade fairly and comment wisely that you become biased to your own ideas... You grade my papers poorly but do not realize that you do so because they reflect your teaching skills. Other people may have done well with your skills but I did not and would have talked to you but what you said about grading fairly made me uncomfortable.

As I read that I shuddered. The blogger who received this, Acephalous, still misses teaching. I don't.

I had 300 students on just one of my courses. Maybe only 15 to 20% were this bad. That's still 45-60 emails a week on average of this kind of mind numbing, soul sapping cant. "I didn't take the test because I didn't come to your lectures so I didn't know when it was", "I couldn't give my presentation because I forgot", "I don't like my grade. If you don't change it I'll complain".

It leaves you too tired to deal with the real problems: the student whose parents are pushing her into a marriage she's not ready for, the student who's had his jaw broken in a racist attack, the pregnant student who just needs an extra week on her assignment, because the morning sickness is so bad, the Chinese student whose English is poor and who is dreadfully lonely and is thinking of going back to China. In each of these situations, and a hundred more mundane, the coughs, colds and sniffles, you find yourself having to weigh up being supportive, just, encouraging and helpful. You end up acting as counsellor, arbitrator, judge and engineer: all roles I have no training for. The job so often requires the wisdom of Solomon.

I wasn't thick skinned enough. I couldn't develop the armour of cynicism that allows you to go home at the end of the day and say "not my problem anymore". I was trying to be, in the words of another Emma, the New Colossus:

Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free; send these, the homeless tempest-tossed, to me.

But I'm not made of such stern stuff as her.

I'm emerging - just. I'm starting to like research again. I'm starting to care about science. I'm starting to be mindful of the fact that my husband and I both have jobs that will let us, incrementally, add to the store of human knowledge. But I miss believing that, by being a lecturer, I'd have the peace and freedom to throw open that store to others.

[1] A euphemism - thankfully I never made it into this paper.


Martin Sewell said...

The best way of avoiding teaching is to remain a student. ;-)

Jane said...

Wow. What an incredibly powerful post! And you've hit the nail squarely on the head---it is so easy for the teaching aspect of our jobs as professors to completely take over our lives, if we're not careful. It does take skill to separate from it, but it's so very hard to do so. And even if you can separate, there will always be situations that haunt you for a long, long time (like one of my advisees, an extremely bright person whose horribly debilitating depression causes him to sabotage his academic career over and over and over again). I'm so glad you're in a place where you're finding peace with yourself again.

Auntie Em said...

Jane - thank you for an insightful and reassuring post. Seeing the travails of other academics (mainly though their bogs - why do we never admit these things in person?) normalises the whole experience and has helped me keep my head above water.

And thanks for the Carnival!

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