When I grow up I want to be…

Last week I delivered a presentation to some academic and professional staff in the School of Arts about what I do for a living - not the bit about ants and climate change (i.e. my postgraduate research) but my “9 to 5” job - and the services I can offer to make their work lives a little bit easier and run more smoothly. I think it was received well and have four more presentations planned for the other Schools I work with.

The second slide was a few brief points about me - the past, present and future - and included the term “Wannabe Academic”, specifically entomologist/myrmecologist and science communicator. I do want to be an academic. I want to teach and I want to undertake my own research and contribute to other’s research. I want to inspire students to be the best they can be, the way I was inspired by some of the academics I was lucky enough to learn from throughout my undergraduate degree. Maybe that all sounds a bit idealistic and even naive, but it’s one of the things that keeps me motivated to be the best I can be now and in the future.

It probably also sounds a bit vague, especially for someone like me who likes to plan things down to the minute! If there’s one lesson I’ve learnt in the last year or so, however, it’s that life doesn’t alway go according to plan and that is sometimes a really good thing. For example, I expected to commence my postgraduate research over a year ago and, if I had, I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to be a part of this ARC Discovery Project and I wouldn’t have been offered a generous scholarship or had the flexibility to work part-time while I pursue my research.

So, what do I want to be when I grow up?

In truth, I have a much better idea of what I don’t want to be as an academic, thanks in part to events from the last few months.

 

I don’t want to be the sort of person who dismisses how a student might be feeling

A few months ago, I shared a light-hearted article about “imposter syndrome” with my fellow students (undergrad, postgrad and alumni) via Facebook.

A screenshot of the Imposter Syndrome article I posted on Facebook.

A screenshot of the Imposter Syndrome article I posted on Facebook.

It appeared to resonate with a few people and some shared their own experiences. One comment that disturbed me, however, came from a recently completed PhD student who wrote: "Yeah that's a postgrad thing..." and I asked myself:

What type of person would claim exclusive rights to an issue that clearly affects students at all levels of study, not to mention other people, too?

Thankfully, an academic I greatly admire quickly clarified: "Actually, it's a life thing..."

A screenshot of some of the comments on the Imposter Syndrome post.

A screenshot of some of the comments on the Imposter Syndrome post.

The recently completed PhD student then went on to comment imposter syndrome is "very prominent during postgrad" and "acknowledged more during postgrad", which I'm sure is accurate... but there is so much more to life than postgrad studies, and there is certainly life beyond the institution that is Higher Education. To dismiss how undergraduate students may be feeling about themselves and about their studies, or how anyone feels about their lives in general, is not very fair and is bordering on downright hurtful.

 

I don’t want to be the sort of person who makes sweeping generalisations about others

A month or so later, I shared a tongue-in-cheek article about Tinder, lamenting the omission of Zoologists and Entomologists in the list of professions that get the most "right-swipes". (I'm not a Tinder user myself, but a "right-swipe" apparently means "interested".)

A screenshot of the Tinder article I posted on Facebook.

A screenshot of the Tinder article I posted on Facebook.

Amongst a range of other comments, including some magnificent puns, a discussion ensued about the "type" of people who use Tinder and things got a little heated. Someone made comments that included the following phrases: "superficial and unintelligent people ... not a good gene pool" and "wouldn't expect an intelligent person to fall for the mass consumption of an app" and "a degree doesn't correlate with intelligence", and a fellow graduate took umbrage - rightly so, I think.

A screenshot of just some of the comments on the Tinder post.

A screenshot of just some of the comments on the Tinder post.

To label users of a dating app in such a derogatory way smacks of ignorance and, furthermore, to use science as a valid excuse to voice such opinions and initiate such "debates" is deplorable. (For a more in-depth article about opinions, please read Patrick Stokes' piece for The Conversation: No, you're not entitled to your opinion.)

 

I don't want to be the sort of person who diminishes the career choices of others

All sorts of people live in this world and provide all sorts of products and services that we need and/or want, so to assume one person's career path has been an easier road than yours is not only disrespectful... it is also very uninformed.

Which is why I felt a little nauseous when I read the following statement from a recently graduated PhD student: "... some days you wonder why you followed this career path and whether you should have taken the easy road of becoming a nurse or a solicitor where the hours are guaranteed and there is some time to yourself."

Just let that sink in for a few minutes.

How to insult nurses and solicitors in one easy sentence.

How to insult nurses and solicitors in one easy sentence.

I know quite a few nurses and solicitors, and I don't think any of them would call their career path an "easy road". I posed this statement to a nurse and her response was:

Hahaha! I would say, "You've got to be kidding yourself, right?"
In nursing, the hours are never guaranteed. Yes, you've got "shifts" but most days you work through your lunch break, you arrive early to prepare, you work late through an emergency. You do double shifts. And work always comes home with you. Whether you need to prepare for a presentation or a report, or just need to have a cry over a glass of wine. Your life works around your roster and even that changes.
Most of the time you get home and you don't want to do anything other than sleep. I once missed a good friend's baby shower because I had a shit day at work and my patient died and I finished my shift and just drove home. It wasn't until later that night I realised I'd forgotten my friend on her important day. I felt like shit. It's hard.
Time to yourself barely exists. You miss your kids' birthdays, Christmas and every other important holiday due to the hours you are required to work. For me, easy would be a 9-5 desk job. Those hours seem easy to me. I was once told by my manager that you have no life outside of the hospital. That's what nursing is. Sorry to sound all negative but, for me, it's factual.
Having said that, no day was ever boring. Nothing - not even your time - is guaranteed. And I actually enjoyed spending holidays with my other family, being my patients and colleagues. But no, hours are never guaranteed when you work with other people's lives in your hands.

I hope the person who made that original statement never needs a nurse or solicitor.

 

I don't want to be the sort of person who challenges via argument and debate

I want to be an academic who inspires her students and, through that, empowers them to challenge themselves to be the best that they can be - not mould them into thinking the way I think or becoming what I want them to be. I want to build their confidence so they can be their own person - not a reflection of me or the institution of academia.

I want to be thought-provoking, not provoking.

Recently, I attended a conference about the place of technology in education. One of the sessions I attended was called "Prototyping Learning Spaces that Work for Students Using a Designed Approach" and it was presented by Prof Rob Fitzgerald, Director of the INSPIRE Centre at the University of Canberra. During his session, I tweeted a point he made that I agreed with:

My tweet during Prof Rob Fitzgerald's presentation.

My tweet during Prof Rob Fitzgerald's presentation.

This seemed to be a sore spot for an up-and-coming academic I know and the following exchange ensued:

And then came the inevitable passive-aggressive tweets from her account after I ended the exchange:

There were a few things I found most infuriating about the experience:

  1. That she reduced the exchange between us as an issue about women.
  2. That agreeing with a leader and innovator in the field of Information and Communication Technology Education with 20+ years of experience somehow meant I was rehearsing his ideas.
  3. That she made a point of singling out "older women" (I am indeed older than her and again with the women thing).

The delusional nature of her tweets was palpable, and that she wasn't even at the session I had tweeted about and therefore did not understand the context and did not want to have it explained to her when she made obviously erroneous assumptions was hypocritical to say the very least.

That, readers, is the very essence of the type of academic I do not want to be. It is the very essence of the type of person I do not want to be. In fact, my partner and a good friend have instructions to shoot me if I am ever unfortunate enough to morph into one.

 

I don't want to be the sort of person who others feel the need to 'block' and/or 'unfriend' on social media because of my behaviour

Too often I hear sayings such as "Hate the sin and not the sinner" or "Challenge the behaviour, not the person", but what are we if not a reflection of our own behaviour?

Why do we have the luxury of extricating ourselves from our behaviour?

I don't think we should have that indulgence. We are how we act towards others. We have to own that responsibility, fully and maturely, and understand that our behaviour may have consequences and we need to accept those outcomes, not hide behind threadbare rationalisations and not put the onus on others to tolerate our behaviour if we should be so arrogant as to think we are right and others must agree with us.

Academia is not, I believe, about forcing opinions, providing excuses or shirking responsibility. In fact, I think it is the opposite.

 

In conclusion

Perhaps what you may not have realised, however, is that all these comments came from the same person over a period of about four months. If I hadn't witnessed it first hand, I wouldn't have believed it. What's even more unbelievable (and regrettable) is that she's been unleashed in the world of academia, to influence students however she sees fit... for better or - as I fear - for worse.

My only hope is people will recognise it, and then I was struck with the thought...

If you can’t be a good example, then you’ll just have to be a horrible warning.
— Catherine Aird

She is my horrible warning.