A Cinderella story for early career academics

Once upon a time there was an adjunct lecturer…By Nicholas Rowe

June 11, 2015
A girl with her hand clasped behind her ear
Source: Alamy

Once upon a time, there lived a young adjunct lecturer named Cinderella. Fresh from her final undergraduate exams, she worked long hours in a typical university, where her days were spent mainly teaching and marking. It felt as though she was surrounded by erudite “academic” colleagues who got to travel and write clever things in books and journals, while she was just left to get on with teaching. You might think that that was work and reward enough, but, for Cinderella, something was missing.

Although she felt lonely in her academic community, she hated open-plan offices and tried to get in early before everyone else to prepare for the day in peace and quiet. So there she was, her finger tapping away at the delete key as she sorted through the usual messages – one about the next meeting of the ethics committee; her responsibility to complete her annual health and safety self-appraisal; and the advertisements for Viagra that always penetrated the university’s so-called firewall – when she stumbled upon a message with “Call for papers” in the subject line.

Cinderella didn’t get out much and so, against her initial judgement (the sender was unknown and from another kingdom entirely), she opened the email. “Dear Professor” (OK, that was a mistake, but the use of the title did make her feel noticed), “You are cordially invited to submit your abstract, present your research and publish in our proceedings. We offer you the opportunity to present your current research, views and experiences on a huge range of openly phrased subjects that loosely link to education in your field. We offer a few days somewhere different, away from your open-plan desk and the humdrum of teaching life, for a tidy fee…”

For the first time in quite a while, Cinderella felt a small flutter of hope. Perhaps going to this conference would be a way to tick the boxes relating to “publication” and “networking” that always came up on staff evaluations and job applications. But how could she possibly convince the head of department to let her go?

That evening she racked her brains for hours for a suitable topic, but nothing “clever enough” would come to mind while she had that huge pile of assignments looming over her, demanding to be marked by the end of the week. And then it struck her: why not write about the plight of the overworked and underappreciated junior academic? She quickly penned 300 words on “Juggling the academic workload: a practice perspective”, concluded that further research and consideration were needed, and pinged it off to the conference organisers.

Six weeks later, she received a reply: “Dear Cinderella” (a downgrade from her previous professorial status, but she had had to include her full details in the submission), “We are pleased to inform you that your submission has been reviewed by our expert panel, and has been chosen for Poster Presentation…Please signal your acceptance of this opportunity…pay fee…discounted conference rates, yada, yada, yada.”

But could she really go to the ball? She could hardly go to the dean and simply say: “Hi, I fancy spending a week away from the desk, and I want you to be my fairy godmother and pay for it.” So she promised to provide a detailed conference report, write up the presentation into a publishable paper and present the topic at the next faculty seminar. In return, the dean offered her enough funding to cover her main bills (but not daily expenses), to be paid on the provision of receipts. She was overjoyed and went out to buy a new pair of shoes to celebrate.

Time flew and before she knew it, Cinderella found herself at the conference registration desk, where she was handed a lurid red goody bag and a name badge. Hers said “Dr C. Tremaine”, which made her feel awkward, but altering it or getting it changed would be too embarrassing, so she decided to go with the flow. She exchanged smiles and pleasantries with several of the hundreds of other delegates and soon found herself looking past those with T-shirts and jeans, reserving eye contact for those in more suitable attire. Eventually, the pleasantries became earnest conversations that lasted for as long as three minutes. She had picked up one of those expensive Moleskine notebooks before she arrived and now scribbled down interesting ideas that the conversations prompted, in the hope that they might put some serious horsepower behind her journey from academic skivvy to belle of the ball.

After a morning of plenary talks, full of words such as “paradigm”, “pedagogy”, “practice” and others beginning with “p”, a vendors’ exhibition was timetabled. Grabbing an expensive sandwich from one of the cafes dotted around the conference venue, Cinderella headed into what seemed like a bazaar (minus the costermongers’ cries), with a vast array of stalls and displays attracting the attention of throngs of delegates. Recognising some of the delegates’ names spelled out on their tags from the spines of books and the mastheads of academic journals, she felt not only inspired as an academic but also valued as a member of the wider research community to which she felt she now tentatively belonged (and which showered upon her any number of bags, clever pens and sticky notes).

But by 4pm she was exhausted and headed back to her hotel, grabbing a packet of biscuits, a ready-made salad and a screw-top bottle of Chardonnay from a supermarché that she passed en route. She had a nap and a bath, and then set about skimming through the conference proceedings’ poster abstracts, but only got to number 47 of 1,842 before the Chardonnay caught up with her and she fell asleep.

The next morning, Cinderella awoke early to the sound of traffic outside her open window (it had got hot in the night and she hadn’t been able to find a balance between “stuffy” and “fridge” on the AC). She was due to present her poster in that afternoon’s poster session, so she was relieved to find that it had survived the journey in her hand luggage uncrumpled.

As soon as the poster hall opened, Cinderella reported to the front desk. After locating her board number and being issued with some Velcro stickers, she marched off down the aisles of vacant lots and hung up her poster. But just as she was reaching up to fix the last stick dot, the heel on one of her new shoes suddenly decided to part company with the sole and she landed in an ungainly heap on the floor, nursing a sore ankle.

She spent the morning keeping movement to a minimum in the back row of the plenary sessions, trying unsuccessfully to reattach the heel with sticky dots, but she then abandoned her shoes entirely and slipped out just before lunchtime in her bare feet to look for a shoe shop. All she could find were a couple of boutiques, which she scurried past as rapidly as the pain would allow (she had no idea how much the local currency was worth, but anything with three figures had to be expensive).


Girl studying surrounded by books

Since time was running out before the poster session began, she had no choice but to hurry back and take her place. It was only then that she discovered that since hers had been assigned an odd number, she was not due to “present” for 45 minutes. She thought about taking a trip round the other posters, but, apart from her bare feet and throbbing ankle, she was also worried that her fellow delegates might note her absence from her own.

So she stayed put awkwardly as an intermittent trail of people filed past her. Often they would try to read the title of her poster from a distance, but studiously avoided direct eye contact. The odd brave soul ventured a little closer, but, on inspecting the subheadings (they couldn’t have had time to do anything more), they made small displays of positive body language, emitted some para-verbal affirmatives and drifted away again (often glancing at her bare feet).

Cinderella waited patiently on, consciously smiling, repeatedly checking her clothes were straight and taking a sip of water only when she was sure that no one was looking. Eventually her virtue was rewarded. After doing the “view from afar” thing, a woman moved closer to study the poster.

“You know, I don’t know where this will end,” the woman announced. “You sign up to teach, then they say you need to ‘tick the boxes’ and ‘be a team player’. The next thing you know, you are too busy to teach; too busy inventing studies that are ‘important enough’ to attract funding, too busy worrying about ‘student satisfaction’ and ‘achieving objectives’.”

Cinderella grinned at the woman’s arch use of her fingers to indicate scare quotes around those offending phrases.

“Don’t get me wrong, I am all in favour of engaging in the activities of the profession, but I am not sure I should be expected to do everything. Let’s face it: good teachers often don’t establish an effective external profile and good researchers have often forgotten how to teach well. And all the time we get told that the students are ‘clients’ who pay increasing fees for our undivided attention. Makes you feel a bit cack, actually. Oh, sorry! Jill by the way, Jill Omnium-Artium – bit of a mouthful, but easier after a couple of Chardonnays! Are these yours by the way?” She reached into her bag and held up Cinderella’s shoes. “I found them languishing in the conference hall and I can see you are a bit light in the footwear department. Did your heel snap in the dash for coffee during the break? Surely someone around here must have some glue?”

Cinderella’s conference took off. Not only had she found someone who shared her views and who had a spare pair of flat purple shoes in her bag that fitted her perfectly, but she also had someone to sit next to during the next day’s proceedings – during the course of which, even though they taught in different subjects and kingdoms, they found they had lots in common.

Back in her office, Cinderella quickly became involved in lots of conversations with colleagues along the lines of: “Ah, glad you’re back. Had a good time? Anyway, we were wondering if you could help with…” At the end of these, she tested the water about maybe looking into how academics managed their contemporary roles. But although the reception was positive, at the end of the day people were “too busy” to get involved.

She thought about talking with the dean about the conference, but she was still at a bit of a loss about what to put in the report that she had promised him. Her notes seemed to have lost the valuable meanings they had when they were first penned and a dean was unlikely to be as excited by the laser pointer she had picked up at the vendors’ exhibition as her cat had been. What had she experienced that would be interesting or useful to others? She saw no option but to resume her wade through the conference abstracts to find things to crib.

One afternoon, about a week after her return, she was staring forlornly at the purple shoes that Jill had insisted she keep, when a small ping announced the arrival of yet another email.

“Hi, hope you got back OK and your ankle is better. I have been giving some thought to what we were talking about (workload management, role requirement and performance) and I think we could link up with some people I know who are doing some work on role delineation and development in academia…get together by Skype…papers…perhaps a comparative survey of national/international practices…Anyway, it was really good to meet up with you, and I hope you are still interested…quip about Chardonnay and high-heeled shoes, xxx Jill.”

Cinderella felt chuffed, motivated, wanted. Someone took her seriously! Even though she was about to commit to an unknown amount of extra work (which seemed to go against the point her poster had made), she revelled in the fact that she had a personal stake in it, that it had not just been foisted on her. Of course, she would have to juggle a few things, but now that she had an established academic interest she was sure that she could work it out.

Over the next few months, words such as “network” and “collaborate” began to make sense to Cinderella, and all of a sudden her world seemed to extend beyond the openplan office and the Portakabin where she usually had to teach (renovations were “ongoing”).

She never presented another poster, but was forever grateful for having had the opportunity to do so – and for the chance encounter with Jill it had led to. Four years on, she had co-authored three papers, undertaken an electronic multidisciplinary survey, learned to press a few of the buttons on her statistics software package and was in the first year of a PhD, titled “Empowerment and self-directed professional practice in science and academia: engaging an already busy workforce”. Her love life aside (you don’t want to know), it is fair to say that she lived happily ever after.

Nicholas Rowe is an academic editor, and currently undertaking a PhD at the University of Lapland on poster presentation at academic and scientific conferences. He has no purple shoes.

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Article originally published as: Yes, you shall go to the (conference) hall (11 June 2015)

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