ON NOT TEACHING AS A REWARD: SOME SCATTERED THOUGHTS

I came across a UAB colleague a few days ago, who had a good piece of news to announce: he’s been awarded a prestigious Catalan grant (ICREA Acadèmia), which will allow him to focus more intensely on his research for the next 5 years. I’m really impressed, for I am sure he must have faced huge competition…

I knew vaguely about this grant because another illustrious colleague from UB received it a few years ago and a dear friend filled in her position during the long absence. My UAB colleague has also been allocated financial resources to free him from teaching, if he wishes so. And he does. When I asked him whether he’s concerned that after 5 years he might not enjoy returning to the classroom at all, he replied that he is indeed worried. Also that, perhaps, depending on the results, there might be other grants to apply for and thus delay his final return to teaching.

I sympathise with my colleague as the teaching he’s been assigned is not particularly attractive, consisting mainly of one of those first-year transversal subjects that nobody enjoys (whether teachers or students) but that has the unconditional support of our Dean’s team. I am wondering, rather, at this odd idea of rewarding excellence in research with no teaching at all.

This is paradoxical as this semester I’m not teaching, either, with the exception of a one-month seminar and my undergrad and post-grad tutorees. My university has finally applied the so-called ‘Wert decree’ which rewards senior lecturers who have passed three assessment exercises (= 18 years) with a 8 ECTS discount over the usual workload (24 – 8 = 16). I have already taught most of these credits and so I need not step into a classroom, just supervise my tutorees to complete the rest. After the hassle of combining teaching, research and my task as the BA degree Coordinator, I can only say that I’m very happy with what I feel to be a long-deserved break. Still, I wonder about (missing) teaching.

I have so far enjoyed two long breaks in 23 years as a teacher. One 20 years ago, when a grant took me to Scotland to work on my PhD dissertation and I found on my return that I had to teach all my 24 credits in the second semester. I had this way 15 months to myself which, ironically, resulted in my producing a far too long dissertation. Then, in 2008-9, I had an admin sabbatical, a year off granted to recover from the exertion of being Head of Department for 3 years. I used that time to read for a book still lying unwritten in my PC’s hard drive. I have high hopes that I will be able to write some chapters this time around before September looms in the horizon. I also have high hopes that in the next few years this pattern will repeat itself and I have less teaching and more time for research. And writing.

When I took the 2008-9 sabbatical, I also spent 15 months away from a classroom (31 May 2008 to 15 September 2009) and I recall my return as something quite dreadful. I have not managed yet to sleep soundly the night before a new course begins; I always feel jittery before facing a new class even if it is a class I’m teaching just for one day. Believe it or not, I’m shy. Students do not seem to grasp well that teaching takes plenty of courage, as you need to leave aside all your insecurities, and mine are many. I remember starting my first lecture after that long break by frankly telling my students that I was awfully nervous and please bear with me, as I felt like an absolute novice, butterflies in the stomach and all. They all smiled, and were lovely to me. Now fancy five years…

I am not, as you can see, too keen on long absences from teaching. Instead, I’m looking forward to not doing any admin work for at least 3 years. In these first 3 weeks of freedom, without the weight of the BA Coordination on my shoulders, I have felt relieved, even bodily… The flow of urgent emails has dropped dramatically, and I can use the spare time to concentrate on my teaching (an MA seminar) and on my research. If such a grant existed, I would pay to have someone do the boring, frustrating admin work which reduces us teachers to glorified clerks. If I went back to teaching 24 ECTS, then I would be happy to shed some courses but I know I would not be happy with no teaching at all.

This might be because I am fortunate since I enjoy what I teach (don’t mind my ranting here, I really love teaching, I just wish it worked better!). I’m not going to give you, however, the rap that I value above all the contribution to society that my teaching generates. I mean, I do, and very much so, as I believe that my job consists above all of teaching young persons to think for themselves. I like teaching, to be frank and honest, also for very selfish, even vampirical or parasitical, reasons…

The truth of academic life, as I have been narrating here for almost four years and a half, is that as regards the exchange of ideas it is quite a barren landscape. We need to invest much time in sorting out bureaucratic matters and in navigating the time-consuming tasks associated with getting teaching organized. The result is that we do not really have spare time to socialize, shoot the breeze, as the American idiom goes, over coffee or tea (or a beer) and let talk flow. We are, as I explained a while ago, ‘talk-starved.’ This is why I personally need to teach: my students are my bouncing wall (do I mean ‘sounding board’? I’m not sure). I throw ideas at them, and when they bounce back they come in a better shape. Alone, at home, there is no bouncing wall. Yes, I have my blog, but it’s an odd bouncing wall, as the ideas (mostly) go through it.

I cannot really separate my teaching from my research, not quite because I teach courses based on what I do research on (I wish!) but because whatever I teach demands that I focus and explain myself–and this essential practice for my writing. With no students for 5 years I think I would whither like an unwatered plant…

So, to conclude, if I were the colleague with the grant I would use the money to get rid of the less rewarding courses and to pick and choose my way into what I really wanted to teach, even if it was down to one course in one semester. For, you know, without students to keep us on our toes, we just lose touch with reality and end up being pent up in our bizarre ivory towers. Also, I wonder, why the authorities think that an outstanding researcher should have no impact on five cohorts (em, the technical terms for classes) and vice versa, that five consecutive cohorts should be deprived of the best researchers in their Department. Odd, isn’t it?

Perhaps things would be better if, as they do in more civilized countries, the academic year lasted until 1 May and then we could all enjoy a few months every year for research. Keep on dreaming…

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2 thoughts on “ON NOT TEACHING AS A REWARD: SOME SCATTERED THOUGHTS

  1. I don’t think the Ph.D. dissertation was too long. In fact I would have liked a more rigorous justification of some of the text’s blanket assumptions, and a more self-aware discussion of the very polymorphic usage of the concept ‘monster’. Later on in the dissertation, at some points it looks like ‘monster’ means whatever is convenient to you at the moment.

    Sorry for the critical bits. All in all, it was very enjoyable.

  2. I see what you mean – what has changed and conditions the size of dissertations today are publication expenses. Publishing houses are less and less willing to publish long books, which means that if you want to publish your PhD dissertation you need to scale it down to their demands, around 300 pages. You can always write a dissertation as long as you wish for online publication and a shorter version for the unievrsity presses. An added problem is that we, board members, have less and less time to read thick volumes… so all conspires against the long dissertation.
    Thanks,
    Sara

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