Live a year in my shoes

Tim Birkhead wonders if a critic would feel differently after a job swap

May 20, 2010

Academics are academics because they enjoy the challenge and reward of both research and teaching. In the past, in the 1960s for example (so I'm told), academic life was considerably better; better salaries (relatively), more freedom to pursue blue-skies research, less bureaucracy, less evaluation and less pressure to secure research funding.

As social historians and anthropologists know, geographic variation in social systems often provides opportunities for seeing what things were like in the past. For example, we now consider cockfighting repugnant, but it was once common in the UK. To get a sense of what cockfighting in 19th-century Britain was like, one has only to visit the Far East, where it continues to this day.

In the same way, if one wanted a taste of what academia was like in Britain in the past, one could travel - as I did recently - to distant parts of the world, visiting colleagues in several different universities (in a country that shall remain nameless). Our respective lifestyles were so different that, for a moment or two, I considered moving there. For a start there was no research assessment exercise (or research excellence framework); no one checking up on how many papers one had published, or where they were published, and there was indifference towards the h-index. Some of my colleagues there even had hobbies, and something they referred to as "spare time".

Most telling of all was the comment made by one of my hosts when I asked about students. "Here," he said, "most undergraduates aim for a B. To aim any higher would be seem unnecessarily ambitious."

The other thing I noticed about this particular country, and it may just be a coincidence, is that everyone was very pleasant. They were open about their research and happy to share ideas. What a startling difference from the UK! Because of our increasing obsession with funding, we have failed to notice how unpleasantly competitive and antisocial we have become. This was made very clear to me recently when I overheard a colleague at a European conference ask a young researcher how he was getting on. The young researcher replied that he was waiting to hear whether he had got a grant. My colleague then asked (out of politeness) what the grant was for. "Oh, I couldn't possibly tell you that" was the reply - implying that the idea might be stolen. Thus ended the conversation.

As though I needed any further evidence that academia is different elsewhere, I recently received a letter in response to my piece on exam marking ("I feel like a marked man", 25 February) from someone at a Canadian university. My article had been reprinted in the monthly bulletin of the Canadian Association of University Teachers, and hence was easily read out of context. Had it been one of Laurie Taylor's Poppleton pieces, the horror of UK academia might have completely finished off my correspondent, rather than having merely sent him apoplectic. My point in writing that piece, which was partly tongue-in-cheek of course, was not, as some commented online, to suggest that we are bullied, but simply that the vagaries of exam timetabling can sometimes create heavy workloads for short periods. In terms of the total number of essays to be marked, there was no exaggeration.

I wonder what kind of world my correspondent lives in - certainly one more benign than that of most academics in the UK. The difference could be due to geography or possibly to a difference between disciplines. First, he says that professors mark exam scripts over a two- to six-week period - during which time they do not have to write references for undergraduates or look at their CVs. Really?

Second, and more revealing, he says that professors do not mark assignments themselves - they have teaching assistants and markers to do that. Really? I want to go there!

He then says that professors teach only part of the year and have "no marking whatsoever" for the rest of the year - really? So, no coursework, no tutorial essays, no dissertations, no projects etc, spread throughout the year? "Thus," he says, "professors have plenty of time to do research, to develop and update their course materials, to attend meetings that they choose, and write a few reference letters (which also get recycled)." Really?

He concludes by saying: "We professors have an excellent, enjoyable and enviable career from whichever angle one looks at it: we teach what we know best and teach it in the way we believe is right, we do research in what we find interesting, we deal with curious and enthusiastic young people (with some exceptions) who think highly of us (with some exceptions), and we have no 'boss' telling us what to do, or how and when to do it. On top of all of this, we get paid well."

True, but to all of that I can only respond: "How about you and I do a job swap for a year?"

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