Thursday, March 30, 2017

Ethics and Sharing

A while ago there was justiciable backlash against an annual feature of the Times Higher Education called Exam Howlers, a 'competition' designed to encourage teaching professionals in Higher Education to submit some of the worst/funniest mistakes students made in their exams. Now, fans of this feature would claim that it is harmless fun which allows academics to let off some steam. The submissions are anonymous so the students shouldn't care. Critics of the feature (like me) would argue that it is exploitative, humiliating, degrading, mocking and anonymity is not protected because a student could easily identify themselves in the examples. And it is not just Exam Howlers - we have to acknowledge that social media has made it easier for people to share anecdotes about their teaching experiences and, as a result, use students as fodder for laughs.

Now, I have taught students and I have definitely let off steam in conversation with fellow tutors. However, I would never post anything on social media that mocked a student's work. That is right and decent and just good practice. Surely, then, it should be the same in the world of work?

I raise the example of job interviews because the scenarios are just the same - you have those in a position of power and authority (the examiners/lecturers/interviewers) and those in a more vulnerable position potentially riddled with anxiety and nerves (the student/candidate). The same ethics apply, those of confidentiality, of being respectful, of not using a 'hilarious' exam answer or interview answer as fodder for social media clicks and likes.
So, imagine my surprise when I saw this pop up on my LinkedIn news feed:


Best, worst, or most surreal interview answer ever.

I've interviewed many people in the past but one answer stands out above all. Context: Interview was going rather well for a social media manager role, the interviewee was slightly nervous but had given solid answers to most of the capability questions and then hit me with this doozy whilst discussing personal development and self awareness.

Q: What is your biggest weakness?
A: Fried chicken.

There was no pause and he answered automatically. What has been the strangest response you've had in interviews?

Now, I suspect that this is not a case of mocking the individual's answer, but rather about the challenges of answering stock, overused interview questions. Nevertheless, if I had been that candidate and checked into LinkedIn to see that my interview experience was being splashed all over social media, I would be understandably angry, annoyed, and frankly a little upset.

Of course, this individual may not care or may have given consent for this to shared (although I doubt the latter). Surely, what happens within the confines of an interview should stay there.

It is sad to see instances of people using exam answers or job interview responses as a means of garnering more visibility. We sadly live in an age where self-promotion on social media trumps decency and respect, and those more vulnerable become the victims of those who ought to know better.

Friday, March 24, 2017

A Tale of Two Conferences 2.0

As many of you know, I try to juggle my alternative academic day job with maintaing my academic profile. And in a strange coincidence I ended up attending two back-to-back conferences: one work-related, the other academic-related.

Now, the work conference is probably better described as a CPD event (continuing professional development) but it followed the same format as an academic conference with keynote speakers and Q&A. However, it also had the added benefit of two workshops which I find a really vital tool because it is a less formal and more collaborative way of sharing ideas and learning from each other. The traditional paper Q&A session is more rigid in academia and allows for the worst of academia to pervade:

  • Some panellists not getting questions and being ignored
  • Agressive questioning in a non-supportive manner
  • The dreaded grandstanding of the 'comment, not question'
As an introvert, I also find that workshops are a more inclusive way of allowing those who feel too much anxiety about traditional Q&As and they are better for networking as it is more organic and less artificial. I have come away from my CPD with a real in-depth knowledge of a subject and really useful contacts.

The second conference is your standard keynote lecture followed my chaired panel sessions with 3-4 participants. Now this was a really fascinating conference that I was invited to present at and what I am saying has no bearing on the organisation of the event or the quality of the papers. I have already learned so much. But the striking difference between the two events was timing and chairing. Because participants before me were indulged to go over their time, I had less time and the chair in my paper stood up (who was sitting to the side in the middle of the room) and steadily creeped closer to my podium. Needless to say, I felt thrown and the last part of my talk definitely felt both rushed and glossed over. And pity the person who came after me with even less time cause lunch was looming.

It didn't improve. Another session allowed the first two participants to go significantly over time leading to increased pressure on the final speaker. Now, that comes down to the Chair (a different one in this case)...and if the Chair is lax then there is little the audience can or should do. What I completely disagreed with was the first speaker in that session (who had overrun) gesturing to the last speaker to wrap it up. 

There was one final piece of conference etiquette which I would like to highlight. Before my session I was introduced to the Chair and we were having a conversation so that they knew what to say to introduce me, but we were also just having a very fruitful conversation about the state of academia. A fellow attendee approaches the Chair, ignoring me and starts a conversation. I have never felt so invisible before and just had to walk away. I really got the sense that this individual felt that his conversation was far more important than mine and that I could be so easily dismissed.

So conference etiquette lessons learned:
1. Do not try to be the Chair no matter how frustrating running over time can be and especially not if you contributed to the overrunning of time.
2. If you want to introduce yourself to someone who is conversing with someelse, by all means approach but acknowledge the interruption and respect the conversation that is happening. Don't bully them out of the way. Especially if you are a man and you ignore the woman.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Subject Fatigue

I talk on this blog a lot about the details of my work/life balance, and how I maintain my academic identity while working a full time alternative academic job in Higher Education. But I have realised that in talking about attending conferences and publications that I rarely talk about the subject of my research!

As readers may know, I recently published my doctoral thesis as a monograph called The Making of Morals and Manners in Twelfth-Century England: The Book of the Civilised Man. I wrote on a text known in Latin as Urbanus magnus, attributed to Daniel of Beccles.

This is an unknown and problematic text, both in terms of dating and authorship, but it is also a sorely misunderstood text which gets lumped into discussions of chivalry, courtesy, table manners, and bodily emissions. A cursory search on the internet reveals that people are disseminating the funny bits from the text related to "when you belch, look at the ceiling". But this is a 2,840 line text and one which covers an incredible breadth of subject matter: morality, religion, citizenship, friendship, professional conduct, hospitality, marriage, sex, household administration, diet, and much more! For a very basic introduction see this booklet which was produced on the text.

It is that breadth which has allowed me to dedicate my scholarly output on this one text. To date I have written the first dedicated study of the text and two articles, one on manuscript dissemination and the other on diet. Another article is in the works (deadline next week - eek!) which focuses on household administration. But that barely scratches the surface on the subject matter in this text.

The next project is a collaborative translation to get an English translation published hopefully this year or next. And the process of completing this translation throws up more and more interesting topics to explore. I can already envision articles focusing on the concept of patronage, interpersonal relationships, and marriage and sex. Hopefully, the publication of the translation will lead to a renewed interest in the text and others can delve into its subject matter.

I haven't tired of this text yet. And I am fine with being known as the Daniel of Beccles expert. But I have two fears: one is that I may bore of the text; the second is that I am not expanding my knowledge my focusing all my efforts on this one text.

However, the subject fatigue has not set in yet. Mostly because I am still so charmed by the uniqueness of this wonderful text. So to reward you for getting to the end of this post, here are some quotes from Urbanus magnus to give you a flavour of the text:

You should wage war on fights, avoid prostitutes and taverns, fierce wresting matches, and idle dances. You should not have scoundrels for companions; keep away from the brothels.
[One for Donald Trump] Don't be eager to harm the weak with blows or words.
[Another for Donald Trump] Let no fables sprout from your mouth whereby you are shown to be deceitful. More often, speech full of vice runs into offense, and to speak confers lies and very often harms the use of genuine conversation. 
You are a rustic if you blow your nose or spit whilst dining; cough if you have to but try to suppress it.
[Classic example of medieval misogyny] If your viperous wife cannot be subdued with honey-sweet speech, do not beat her with a stick. Blows are useless when no words succeed. If you resort to strike her, a cruel woman will give you fatal dishes and poisonous drinks... 
There is so much more to this text. If you want any information on Daniel of Beccles and this text, please get in contact!!

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Falling in and out of love

I fall in and out of love with academia on a monthly basis. Sometimes weekly. Sometimes daily.

As readers will know, I work in Higher Education in what is often termed "alternative academia" - a phrase to describe those supporting the core activities of teaching and research. I work in student welfare, love what I do and find it very rewarding.

But as you will also know, I try to maintain my academic identity as much as a can. I present at conferences, keep up my publications and research profile, and teaching a few tutorials when the opportunity presents itself.

This is not easy and I frequently feel that I am spinning 10 plates at once. The days where you receive conference rejections or where writer's block hits or where Imposter Syndrome rears its ugly head are the days where I fall out of love with academia. The days where conference invites come out of the blue, or 1,000 words flow out in 2 hours, or you make a research discovery are the days that I fall back in love with academia.

And on those days I often find myself wistfully thinking about academic jobs. I never fully tried to get an academic job after my doctorate because I was scarred by my experience. But my feelings ebb and flow from never to maybe when it comes to full-time academia. Interestingly, when the perfect job does manifest (and there are 2 jobs out there at the moment), I never want to actually apply. Before now, I have never tried to dissect why that was so here I go:

What do I love about academia?
  • Researching and making new discoveries
  • Collaboration
  • Presenting at conferences and making new connections
  • Teaching
What do I dislike about academia?
  • Imposter Syndrome
  • Precarious contracts and financial insecurity
  • Laborious job application processes
  • (Perceived) nepotism and favouritism
  • Workload
  • Competitiveness

I am sure that many other peoples lists may look very similar. But what I have discovered is that those elements that I love about academia are those which I can maintain, with effort, in addition to my alternative academic job. And my 9-5 job provides me with those things I dislike about academia:

  • Balanced work/home life
  • Feeling of confidence and ability to do the work
  • Financial and job security
  • Support and collaboration
I recognise that not having family or caring responsibilities affords me the luxury to be able to have the time to maintain my academic hat. But it is also important to recognise that sacrifices will still be made. I've talked before about sacrifices in terms of time, annual leave, and even finances. But another thing to consider is that things will just take longer like writing that article. You may be able to keep teaching, but it will be limited and subject to being able to teach after work.

But at the end of the day, I am happier now that I was when I thought that an academic job was the only post-PhD path. And never say never, maybe in 5-10 years my feelings will change!

Friday, February 10, 2017

Academic References 2.0

I have written here before about how difficult the process of obtaining academic references can be, from logistically making sure everything is submitted on time to the (often unfounded) sense of guilt that you are "bothering" something for asking for written references.

I firmly believe that the majority of academic applications should included named referees, and follow with a request from references once shortlisted. But hey, everyone wants to live in a utopia, yes?

But, on a related note, I was recently reminded of something my supervisor said to me (slightly tongue-in-cheek but with a smattering of truth) about who to choose as my PhD examiners. "Don't choose someone close to retirement...they may not be around in 10-20 years for references".


Now, on a more practical level, contacting retired referees can be problematic not simply because they died, but (less morbidly) their email may be cancelled, contact details changed, etc.

I was reminded of this when I sent a friend a job description and they decided not to apply because the hassle of tracking down such contact details and obtaining the references was just too much.

I wonder if other people have had similar issues?

And more broadly, the academic system of references privileges those who go straight from PhD to academia and therefore may find it easier to maintain such contacts and links. What about those who took non-academic jobs for financial, family, visa, reasons who are still hoping to return to academia after a few years?

How many talented young academics are actively discouraged from applying for jobs because the mechanism and tradition of academic applications are so onerous?

How can we make the application system more equitable and inclusive?

Thursday, January 19, 2017

HE Administration

I started this blog to normalise major corrections after a PhD viva corrections. It has then evolved with me wanting to confront issues such as failure in academia, leaving academia, and working in Higher Education as a professional, not an academic.

There is a huge lack of understanding both inside and outside the ivory tower about the role of professional services, and there is tension on both sides. Academics complain that administrations burden them with unnecessary extra work or while those in professional services may say that academics nitpick over minor points of committee papers, such as commas and semi-colons!

Of course, I am being reductive to make a point. And by-and-large the two sides realise that they both need and help each other. But I still want to campaign for a greater appreciation of administrative staff. For example, Oxford is one of the most expensive cities to live in the UK, and the problem of recruiting postdocs (esp. with families) is hard when 60% of income will go on rent. We hear this a lot as admin staff - more needs to be done to provide affordable housing, childcare, etc. All of this is absolutely true, but fails to address the problem that administrative staff on lower grades face exactly the same issues. But, their voices and their struggles are less promoted.

Now, we can't claim to change perceptions of value anytime soon, but we can take small victories as and when they arise. Yesterday I went on the Times Higher Education site which I do daily because I believe that it is important in my role to stay up-to-date with HE issues. I suspect that a large proportion of their readership are people like me - HE professionals - wanting to remain abreast of the news. So, you can imagine my disappointment when I went on the site to be asked to complete a survey question which asked whether I was:
  1. A student
  2. Becoming a student
  3. An academic
  4. Other
And I had to tick 'other' which I felt did a massive disservice to my role and my interest in Higher Education, devaluing the work that professionals do to keep the machinery of universities running. So I told the Times Higher Education via Twitter. And within a few hours it had been changed:

It is a small step but means a lot. HE professionals support the work of teaching and research undertaken by academics, and that contribution needs to be respected, not ignored. 

So, thank you Times Higher Education!! 

Tuesday, December 20, 2016


Dear readers,

As today is my last day in work before the Christmas break and I wholeheartedly plan to do nothing over the holidays (including blogging), I thought I would end the year with a summary of what 2016 has meant to me.

2016 has been a rough year for everyone with Brexit, Trump, the refugee crisis, and much more leading to uncertainty, fear, and sadness. But, there have been highlights too, so here is my round up:

The start of the year began with me finishing my first placement as a graduate trainee on the Higher Education Management Scheme (@AmbitiousF - applications open to January 2017) and embarking on a 4-month secondment to University College London. This was a real highlight for me, as I had spent the past 5 years studying and working at the University of Oxford, and the opportunity to return to the place of my M.A. degree (and one of the best years of my life where I made lifelong friends - even if they are an ocean away).

The beginning of the year also marked the formal acceptance of my book proposal and the beginnings of the revisions to my thesis for publication in January 2017 with Routledge (The Making of Morals and Manners in Twelfth-Century England: The Book of the Civilised Man). This was important as it was a mark of my continued connection with academia. As a result of continuing to keep my foot in the academic door, I have presented at three conferences this year, and from that have two essays en route to publication over the forthcoming year.

Teaching was another highlight, as I taught a tutorial series on Gender and Sexuality in Medieval Europe for the Centre for Medieval and Renaissance Studies. And while teaching is always rewarding for me, working with American students during the end of the US election process brought home the anxiety and uncertainty my students face from a Trump presidency in 2017. Add to that the Brexit referendum, and the future is definitely unknown and definitely perilous.

2016 also saw my graduation from my doctorate, which was a wonderful occasion to celebrate with my family. This was shortly followed by the loss of my grandfather, an incredible and kind man whose outlook on life and people is one I will always keep with me.

And finally, 2016 saw me complete my graduate trainee scheme and accept a permanent job working in Student Welfare at the University of Oxford. I have written before about my desire to work in alternative academia, in roles which support the student body more broadly then just those students I have the opportunity to teach.

I am looking forward to what 2017 has to offer - while personally, it has been very good to me, politically is has been a disaster. 2017 can't be worse than 2016, right?