Below is a post I wrote in December last year while I was still in the US. I recall feeling very nervous about posting these reflections and so chose not to. Now I am out of that particular country and system, I can’t see why I was feeling that way.
But you know, I do know why. I now can see why I made that decision back in wooly wintery snowy December. And in recognising this I can see and feel that I made the right decision to return to Australia. Some things are exactly the same and I want to work through what they are but some are so incredibly different that I feel like I can finally express myself.
Below is an image of some Kangaroo Paw at my current university. It is the official West Australian state flower.
Dec 30 2016
As the end of the calendar year comes around it gives me a couple of opportunities for reflection. Firstly, I have completed another semester of teaching and have received another set of teaching evaluations from students. This marks my third semester as a full-time academic. Secondly, the annual tenure reviews are almost over and I have feedback from school and college level teams. Thirdly, I am using this time to write a paper due for resubmission by early January. When I list these side by side last night while reading student evaluations I realised something quite extraordinary about my job – it is difficult to know if you are doing it right.
So, evaluations from students can be pretty awful if you have ever experienced these. There may be many reasons for the kinds of comments given, but it is always heartbreaking to know that you tried to get everyone to achieve the best they could and some people just did not want to acknowledge this and decided they did not like you. Comments can be pretty arbitrary, personal, mean and even untrue or misleading. Sometimes I think it would be better just to give the students all the answers so they cannot complain that I am asking them to learn. Ultimately, however, and the point of this blog post, is that I realised I am being judged by the students and that is part of my job to accept these judgements, reflect on them, figure out what is valuable and then propose how to move on. In my experience, this reflective process is done alone, although we often share the worst comments with loved ones and close colleagues as part of the process.
Secondly, my annual reviews were quite good although they provide information that is a bit confusing to me, not being from a culture that does tenure in the same way. In particular, I am not clear on how the process provides support and feedback to me other than suggestions to do this or do that. I can go over these suggestions with my school’s chair, but ultimately, no-one helps me reflect on and work on a plan to meet these expectations. In a way, although we have a handbook, the expectations are constantly evolving and only really known after the annual review process. What this means, drawing from the same theme above, is that I am being judged by my colleagues on standards I am not quite sure of, but not always being given any support or frameworks for continuous improvement.
Finally, the paper. This is a paper that came back from 6 months of review with the need for major revisions. I could totally see why and as part of my reflection and re-working of the paper I realised that I approach research from a different point of view both as a process and in what I expect as the outcome. I am a deeply theoretical and reflective person and what I enjoy that most is exploring how to approach a problem from different perspectives just to see if there are different ways of seeing the problem and if these new ways provide insight into old ways. This is not easy to communicate when you are also using theory that is not well known and working in topics that are not well researched from a theoretical point of view in my field. The paper was submitted to a highly ranked information science journal that seems to publish a lot about information as data and how to manage, track, curate and use data and information. This is great, but I am asking what does it mean to think about data and information in different ways when exploring a topic? What the ways are, but what it means to explore the plurality of meaning. I am worried my new version of the paper will still not be what this journal wants from research. Regardless, the point I am trying to make is that this process is also about being judged, this time by peers. One reviewer told me the theory I work with is old hat and written about extensively in the journal. The other told me they needed better explanations about this theory as it was not clear. I checked and it had not been written about in the journal at all. SO. The third major piece of my academic life is also about being judged, but by people who have their own agendas and ways of thinking that I am not entirely clear on and sometimes have no idea of how to respond to. The reviewers did do a great job by the way of showing me what I am not communicating and my paper is going to be much better for it, but the review process can also be quite challenging, especially when you need to get papers out.
And so at the end of this year, I am reflecting on what it means to be an academic and how being judged by multiple stakeholders is the norm in this field. It is a stark contrast to non-academic jobs. I wonder what it is like for teachers in primary and high schools who deal with these judgements from different stakeholders including parents.
I am not sure exactly what this reflection means for me. I enjoy the work I do and while there are as many positives as there are negatives in those judgements, I do wonder if there is a point at which I can do no more or know anymore to please a student, colleague or reviewer. Perhaps it comes with time and experience.