In a recent ‘To be Honest’ column in the Irish Times, an anonymous lecturer claimed that he and his peers “feel fearful, worthless and prospect-less, and are diminishing in number”. A more recent article in the same paper had the headline “Tough times for third-level lecturers”. While there is some truth in both of these statements, they must create the impression that we lecturers are a pretty unhappy, downtrodden bunch.
No doubt the academic job has changed in the last decade or so – expectations are much higher and contract staff must live with prolonged uncertainty – but I think the writers of the above articles have expressed a view of the academic job that is far too negative. Yes, there is an increased level of bureaucracy – and accountability – but most of us approach our teaching and research with an attitude and philosophy that could be characterised as ‘business as usual’. When I walked into my first lecture on the first day of the semester, it was me, 34 students and a whiteboard. All the problems of the third-level sector, including fears about ‘managerialism’, didn’t amount to the proverbial hill of beans.
I’m not so sure that the average academic is in any way despondent at the increasingly ‘strategic’ approach taken by the universities or by the increased pressures placed on him or her to increase throughputs and outputs. I believe that many academics are like me – they just get on with their job.
Yes, we are frustrated at times, especially by the lack of resources, reduced staff numbers and the burgeoning class sizes, but we are still determined to give students the best education we can. We do not take the problems of the third-level sector lightly but ultimately we do what we have to do.
That’s what it is to be a professional. As well as teaching, we try to maintain our research activity and if our research doesn’t fit with the university strategy we can choose to adapt or go our own way. The key point is that we have a choice.
The thing is; most of us love what we do. As a colleague once said to me, “science is my hobby”. We especially love the freedom to be able to pursue our research interests. How many jobs give such an opportunity to exercise a bit of creativity? Yes, there are times when the 60-hour week is necessary but more often than not, that is driven by a desire to achieve excellence in both teaching and research. It is not necessarily the case that academics are being forced to work to that extent, unlike professionals in the private sector who must do so just to survive.
So the upcoming semester will be tough – Semester one always is. At the end of it we will all be tired – lecturers and students – but the lecturers, at least, will come back next semester, ready to start the whole thing again. It’s not a bad life.
Greg Foley is a lecturer in Biotechnology. You can read more by him on his blog: educationandstuff.wordpress.com.