Friday, 18 March 2016

Good enough

Unlike some academics, I'm completely upfront about struggling and failure. One of the distinct things I remember from doing my PhD was stretches of getting nothing done, or nothing good, or understanding nothing, or being unable to string together two meaningful sentences. All around me were people who'd apparently swanned through their studies and went on to write two books for breakfast then securing a Leverhulme before lunch. Now I'm a PhD supervisor and am on friendly terms with several of the other postgrads we keep in the cellar, I try not to fake it. There's a line between being realistic and open and being discouraging that I try not to cross, but I think there's something useful in acknowledging that one can get through a PhD, then build something that from a distance looks like a career without being a Nobel winner. Examples don't have to be shining, they sometimes have to be relatable. I'm a plodder. I get through things and once in a while there's a diamond in the clay. All the postgrads I know are smarter than me but they aren't necessarily as together as they appear or as their role models, so perhaps talking to someone who is open about struggling to get by might be reassuring.

Failure is something with which I'm long acquainted. I was pretty awful in school and only did well when inspired by decent teachers or subjects I liked. My university reference, written by my headteacher, advised any institutions not to admit me as it would be a waste of their and my time. Many thanks to the University of Derby English department for showing me that at the interview: I may not have chosen to come to you but I've had warm feelings about you ever since. I went to Bangor (via Clearing) and on paper, thrived: got some prizes, a First and an MA but it never felt easy, though it was enjoyable. When it came to the PhD I struggled the whole way and took a long research break afterwards, and still find writing difficult. And teaching. And admin. And talking intelligently to colleagues, managers and students. But I get through. I care about these people and I believe in my subject's importance. I just don't think it's helpful to constantly pressure people with talk of nothing but 4* articles and excellence. There's too much to do in too little time with too little money to be world-class in everything we do. What we can and should do is recognise the limits of what's possible and encourage people to do their best – and I don't just mean that managers need to do better. We all need a little more humanity.

I failed on Wednesday morning. I turned up at my class to discover that the rooming staff had accidentally forgotten to book a room. After a bit of stress we walked over to the other campus and tried again. I was discombobulated and those students who made it to the second venue were distracted too. Very few had read The Duchess of Malfi and I could tell it just wasn't working, so we skipped the seminar afterwards. Definitely a failure, though not entirely mine. Pedagogically though, probably the right decision, and an experience which has given me ideas for improving the lecture's focus and structure next time.

Over in Australia, this kind of banal event's disappearance in favour of the Permanent Revolution is what concerns Kate at Music For Deckchairs:
It’s a strategic move, that demands that we abandon modest efforts and incremental, careful practices; it mobilises us to the barricades of whatever—innovation, disruption, competition—trampling each other as we go. 
 And in each life lived in these unprecedented times we have to figure out what is enough for us, and enough to give, so that we can get on and survive the encroachments of big claims on our attention, our action, our loyalties to each other’s care. Figuring out what is enough is how we each hold on to the clover of our own values, and protect the thing we’re trying to protect, the small and hopeful thing we came here to do. 
I agree. I've long thought that kindness is underrated. I want to see more boring, low-level, humane kindness and empathy. I've long thought that HE 'thought leaders' have inhaled too many 1980s management textbooks and regard we plodders (or is it just me) as enemies of progress. Personally, I work at a university because I'm unemployable elsewhere it's a different, older model of cooperation. We're not chasing profits or churning out product. We have the space to nurture each other, though the walls (of TEF, of REF, of 'competitors', of fees, of metrics) are closing in. 

I won't be buried in a mausoleum with a permanent guard and eternal flame. There will be no Voleism, no Vole Prize, no Vole Street or cohorts of eager young hipsters doing PhDs in Mid to Late Vole Studies. But if one or two people are persuaded that they can do what I've done, or a little bit better because I've been kind or encouraging, it's good enough for me. 


Anonymous said...

Thank you for this. It is soooo refreshing to have an honest account of how it is and to reflect back that we don't need to pretend to be the best at all we do. Much appreciated.

Scott J said...

Just in time. Tomorrow the person trying to help me navigate through the mess our medical system is in will call to say she's accomplished a miracle or that the break point is exactly where we thought it was. Both work though I think the second option has more potential--not for our being right, but because we can try again in a different order. Anyway, with miracles it's never clear if being nice mattered.

Dan said...

Good post, and very well timed. Feeling like a bit of a failure at moment as off ill from work, and made the mistake of reading about the shining successes of a couple of former colleagues / fellow students which didn't help much. Stupid I know - should be thinking 'good for them' rather than 'I'm crap and worthless', but anyway, your post helped, so cheers! And yes, it would be nice if plodding away doing something worthwhile was valued more than forever competitively chasing big money / funding, big themes / buzzwords and big prizes. I suppose the truly important stuff is usually thankless (publicly at least).