It’s the academic life for me

Ivy League
Image provided by maveric2003 on Flickr.

In most academic jobs, work falls fairly neatly under three headings; teaching, research, and admin. Some academics do lots of research and little or no teaching. Some do lots of teaching and no research. Very occasionally a high-flying academic will be granted an admin-free workload. Most do all three. Before we handle each of these in turn, let’s take a moment to think why it’s become the standard university model for academics to both research and teaching. The requirement to both teach and conduct research is actually fairly new. If we go back a couple of hundred years, academics were generally paid by their colleges for delivering lectures and tended to do research (original work, if you prefer) during their spare time. I imagine even in those unenlightened days, the higher-ups would deliberately recruit those of demonstrable curiosity upon whom they could rely to do research without reward, but over the years it’s become a standard requirement of the job. Why? Because a university education is different from a high school education. The point is to bring students to the edge of knowledge. To tempt them to the very edge of what’s certain and show them the battle that’s raging at the front line. Whether that’s digging up bones from an ancient burial site or measuring responses in rat behaviour to novel drugs, the point is that the student is introduced into the methods of academic enquiry. For make no mistake, until this point, in education systems around the world, students have been encouraged to learn and memorise the results of academic enquiry—the speed of light, the dates of birth and death of the Tudors, perhaps even rat anatomy—without thinking too much about how we found this stuff out in the first place. Who better to show these cadets the front line than a battalion of infantry? 

Teaching

In many developed countries, something a little under half the adult working population has a university degree, and have therefore seen university academics teach. This is the bit of the job people see, and think they understand. It’s the bit of the job you see TV characters doing (with the notable exception of The Big Bang Theory). Even so, there are probably a few things not everyone appreciates. Lecturing isn’t like teaching in a school. Standing up and talking for anything between one and three hours requires that you have prepared (perhaps typed-up, perhaps in your head) a script. High school teachers do this too, of course. They prepare a ten or fifteen minute mini-lecture to introduce a topic, but then, mostly, ask students to read a chapter of a textbook, and do some exercises. Textbook publishing takes anything from 3 to 7 years. The information in your favourite textbook is out of date before it hit the bookshop shelf. You can’t bring someone to the cutting edge of academic enquiry and debate by showing them 7 year-old material. University lecturers therefore can’t rely on textbooks very much. Even when they are used, they’re an adjunct, and the lecturer his- or herself is the main resource. This means university teaching staff spend huge amounts of time reading the literature and re-writing their lectures to ensure they take account of the latest developments. I often alter my lecture slides the day before going into the classroom to take account of scientific results published that week. This becomes more necessary with increasingly senior classes. Doctoral students will tend to notice if your material is out of date a lot faster than freshers do. 

A straw poll of my colleagues suggests it can take anything from one to three hours to prepare a one-hour lecture. (If you’re a student, and you doubt this figure, try to prepare a 15-minute lecture yourself. It’ll take you longer than 15 minutes.) Lecturers don’t just have to prepare the material they’re presenting, though. They also have to prepare themselves for questions. And this, at least in my opinion, is where research experience really comes into its own. I teach research methods, including advanced statistical analysis. Like me, students often have problems with their measurement techniques, or find undocumented bugs in analytical software. If I don’t find these problems first and have time to think about them, I can’t answer their queries when they arise. All I can do is say “let’s talk about that next week” and hope for a flash of inspiration before then. 

Once or twice a semester, students are assessed on the work they’ve done for each class. There are lots of reasons to do this: students want to know how they’re progressing; lecturers need to know too, to ensure students don’t enrol on Fluid Dynamics II until they’ve understood most of Fluid Dynamics I; employers will eventually want to know that James Jameson didn’t flunk fluid dynamics. So we design an assessment. We have to ensure the assessment is as fair as possible. Some people might be studying Fluid Dynamics but not Thermodynamics, so we have to be careful to ensure that students can achieve a good grade without knowing the latter. We’ll probably have students in the class who have sight problems, dyslexia, or other problems, so we try to ensure the assessment doesn’t unfairly disadvantage them. Then we send our draft assessments to the External Examiners (more on them later) who will email back with comments. After changing our assessment to the satisfaction of the EE’s, we set the assignment, spend half a dozen hours answering student emails (mostly asking things that are already there in black and white in the assessment brief), and set about marking what’s been handed in. 

Imagine you’re running my clinical psychology class, which usually has about 50 students. Each student writes up to 2500 words (roughly 6 typed A4 pages). You have agreed with the External Examiners a number of criteria against which to assess this work—everything from whether or not they know about psychiatric drug interactions to spelling and grammar. You read each submission, assess it against each criterion, and then assign an overall grade. After you’ve done a few, you need to start checking back to ensure the B you’ve assigned at the start of the pile is of a similar standard to the B you’ve assigned at the end of the pile. How long would it take you to read 300 typed A4 pages carefully (remember, someone’s future depends on how closely you read)? It takes me two very long days. That’s for one assessment. I run four classes, with 11 assessments per year in all. 

Having promised to mention External Examiners again, it’s time to deliver. You see, when high school students sit a GCSE, A Level or Baccalaureate exam, their exam paper, and the curriculum that got them into the exam hall, were designed by an exam board. If you look at the personnel of such a board, it’s usually a few very experienced teachers and a few senior academics with PhDs and so on in particular field of study. Sit a maths A Level and the paper will usually have been looked over by a Professor of Mathematics. The marking too is done by people outside the school, often either senior teachers or academics from HE who spend a couple of weeks of their annual leave earning extra money. In essence, the process is an appeal to authority. Who better to check whether a maths exam is sound than a maths prof? The principle holds quite well, until you arrive at the level of HE, because here, there is no higher authority to whom we can appeal. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, the lecturer who sets an exam will also be the one who teaches the course. After all, there are only two experts on aphorism in mediaeval German literature in the country, so who else, realistically, is it going to be? Instead of an appeal to authority, we use the peer review system. We check each others’ work. That means that many academics spend at least a week each year travelling to another university department to read through all the coursework and exams set, and to read through a random sample of a few hundred essays, exam scripts, and papers, checking that the marking is fair.

Research

As I’ve said, it’s pretty much the point of universities to provide a space where students can witness the cutting edge—the very development of new academic knowledge. For most of their lives, students have been taught by professional teachers. Which is to say, they’ve been taught by people who are (on the whole) excellent pedagogues, who understand how learning works, and with a decent grasp on physics, or history, or drama, or maths. No matter how intelligent, hard-working, and dedicated these teachers may have been, it is unlikely that any of their teachers will ever have touched a particle accelerator, have spent time translating an ancient manuscript, or have starred in a major broadway play. For most students, meeting and working with people who have done these things is the point of going to university. How long do you think a university would last with the tagline, “The University of East Westenfield: We’re really good at helping you memorise textbooks!”?

In some fields, such as drama and engineering, you might be considered to be at the vanguard of your field if you do excellent applied work—starring on TV or designing a famous bridge, perhaps. In most fields, academics establish their credentials by generating new knowledge through research. Regardless of whether it’s writing a successful screenplay, consulting with a government agency over the design of a nuclear waste facility, or running hundreds of blood samples through a set of analyses, it’s going to be time consuming. Massively so. Like most of my colleagues, I spend at least two weeks a year bidding for money to support research activities. If and when the money comes in, I then spend a few hours per week over a period of several months supervising the data collection and statistical analyses. I spend a whole day, usually about 11 hours, writing up a manuscript for publication. Which, of course, is usually rejected the first time round because we academics are under huge pressures to bolster the reputation of our institutions by publishing in the most snootily prestigious journals. I then spend another few hours re-drafting said article for submission to another slightly less snooty journal, who will often send it back with comments. I then spend another few hours re-drafting it to take account of the comments. Finally, a few months later it is published. And I have a single shining publication on my CV. Since I work at a middle-ranking university, I’m only expected to publish one or two papers a year. At many institutions, any fewer than 3 per year would ring alarm bells. Oh, and in case you’re wondering how often our 25-page bids for funding are successful, I can tell you that most Research Councils (the distributors of government research money) say 1 in 6 is good going. Including the unsuccessful funding bids, 200 hours of work for a single empirical paper published would be a very conservative estimate. 

There’s also a whole suite of activities that one might call research support, which are necessary to have in place if our system of research is to function, even though individual contributions to these support systems don’t get an academic any credit. Many academics give up a day a month to sit on an ethics committee, where they attempt to predict whether the research proposed by their peers is likely to cause any harm to the animals or people taking part in the experiment. Most act as peer reviewers. There are lots of good reasons why it’s a good idea to peer review manuscripts before they become published papers released to the wider public. For example, if you’ve conducted similar work yourself you’re more likely to spot mistakes. The peer review system requires that most of us review the work done by our peers. Many academics spend five or six hours a month reading work submitted to journals, deciding whether or not it’s rigorous enough to be published, and attempting to fashion constructive feedback for the authors. Some of us also do other sorts of research support work, such as reviewing bids for funding. None of these support activities attracts funding. None of them is of direct benefit to the academic doing the work or her institution. They’re necessary activities and so we do them. 

Admin

You might have wandered around a university and seen all the admin people. They’re usually the ones who are a bit better dressed than the academics. You might have fallen for the misapprehension that these people keep the place running and make all the important decisions. I work with a lot of truly wonderful admin staff, but no, they don’t do all the admin. The number of administrative staff at UK universities has increased hugely over the last couple of decades. The main reason for this is not that academics have shrugged off the responsibilities they didn’t want. A great many of these admin people spend all day checking things for the government or doing work that used be done centrally by government. For example, did you know that universities now effectively have the rights and responsibilities usually granted to immigration officials? Officers of your local university have to decide whether or not an oversees student is allowed into the UK, and then keep tabs on them to ensure they don’t wander off and start working or doing other things their visa says they shouldn’t. Those sorts of tasks need a lot of specialist work, and so universities employ administrators who are specialist in doing them. The more government interferes in higher education, the more admin staff we have to employ to support the accountability exercises and other such things, the less research and teaching gets done for each pound paid to a university. 

In most universities, it’s still academics who establish procedures for admission, who answer most email enquiries from applicants, who read application forms, who conduct interviews, who design courses and modules, who appoint External Examiners, who arrange and attend exam boards… the list is very long. That’s not to say we don’t have any help with these things. Departmental secretaries are often wonderfully supportive, but academics still spend huge swathes of time doing these things. Exam boards alone can take up three whole days each year for every academic in the university.  

You might be left wondering why academics are willing to do all this for just slightly more than the average salary. Mostly, it’s for the academic freedom: the sheer enjoyment of being allowed to spend part of your week slaking your curiosity, conducting research on a topic you find interesting; designing a programme of classes to bring students up to speed on your pet topic; negotiating work placements for students in exciting companies. Academic freedom is like an addictive drug. One taste and you’ll never want a ‘normal’ job ever again. The huge stresses and pressures are worth it so long as you can have control over a large part of your work. It helps too that academics don’t have 9-5 contracts. We set our own hours. We may do an average of 50 hours a week, but at least we have some control over when we do those hours. If you work well on a Sunday morning but not on a Wednesday afternoon, you can make that your schedule. 

If you can stick the pace, this particular roller-coaster is great fun.

And besides all that, for most of us, there are few things more rewarding than helping another human being to wrap their head around some intellectual puzzle. It’s rewarding beyond measure to deliver a lecture and have people come up afterwards and tell you that something was fascinating or that it made them think. Students, faced with busy lecturers often think they’re somehow de-prioritised or undervalued. As you can see from the long list of activities above, virtually all of what we do — all of those other activities that aren’t just about standing in front of a class and talking — they are all about creating the sort of environment where it’s possible to receive a university education. Most of those other activities are for the benefit of students. Over the last couple of years, I’ve heard a few students ask why we don’t spend more time teaching, given that “our fees pay for the university to exist.” I don’t suppose any student is ever going to spend the time to examine a university’s accounts, to see that much of university funding in fact comes from government for activities other than just teaching. It’s just a guess, but I reckon we actually end up spending much of the time paid for by the taxpayer, getting ready for teaching. My guess is that we are inclined, in fact, to give students more than their fees-worth.

And if I’m honest, I think that’s how it should be.