D:ream, Sexology and Terminators

One of the down sides of setting a target to write everyday is that your mind starts to become very busy. This, in turn, affects your sleep and for the last few nights I’ve been suffering from insomnia. Up to now I’ve been sleeping like a baby so I need to make a few changes in my lifestyle to nip this problem in the bud.

My new plan is to do my walk in the evenings while listening to one of the 4 books I’m “reading” at the moment. In recent years, I’ve found that that’s the only way I can focus: read something different every day and flick between fiction and non-fiction. At the moment I’m listening to “Farewell to Arms” by Hemingway and to be honest I’m underwhelmed. It seems so old fashioned, especially the portrayal of male-female relationships. I’ll stick to it though even if it takes me another month to finish it. I’m still reading “Athena versus the Machine” by Martin Robinson: it’s a fascinating read on the importance of the curriculum and I’d recommend it to the designers of the Junior Cycle who seem to think that what students learn is not very  important. It all about “skills” these days.

I’m also listening to a book called “Atomic Habits”, a self-help book that is surprisingly sensible and short on bullshit. Finally I’m listening to “Bad Blood”, the bizarre story of the Theranos scandal, a story that will probably end with the startup’s founder spending quite a bit of time in jail. It’s the perfect read for these Covid times.

Anyway, today I’m going to lighten up a bit and talk about a few aspects of academic life. In fact I hope, someday, to write a book about education/academia and these “diaries” represent an attempt to get that particular ball rolling: it’s going to take a lot of discipline. I’ve written tens of thousands of words over the years, often as a form of therapy, but I never really felt that I had found my authentic voice. It’s so easy to write what you want people to hear, to caricature yourself, or to fall into the trap of humble-bragging. Writing anything meaningful requires a huge amount of self-analysis and involves confronting your real self, flaws and all. I think I’m nearly ready to be authentic.

A few years ago I took on the role of Associate Dean for Teaching and Learning in our faculty of science and health. For years I had confined myself to my own school, keeping my head down and focusing on my teaching and research. But at some stage, around 2011 I think, I read a book called “Why don’t students like School” by Daniel Willingham and my perspective on education was changed forever. I had been guilty myself of adopting education fads to “enhance” my teaching and I ran many poorly designed, poorly evaluated mini-projects in the broad area of teaching innovation. All around me, many colleagues were doing the same. Innovation has become a bit of a fetish in many walks of life and calls for “change” are now firmly established as the go-to message for politicians, health policy-makers and educationalists. I think the whole “change” thing was started by Bill Clinton during his first election campaign. It was a clever strategy because it offered hope, a fuzzy hope for sure, but hope nonetheless. Indeed, Tony Blair, recognized this and used the D:ream song “Things can only get better” as his signature song in one of this many election campaigns.

I had bought into this notion of change because I was finding teaching harder and harder. The arrival of hand-held devices, especially smartphones, had affected student’s attention span as well as affecting their ability to write and do basic mathematics. It was easy to convince myself that there must be a better, more engaging way.

One of the reasons I wanted to become ATDL was that I felt a need to have a voice, to disrupt the groupthink, to influence people and, I have to admit, to educate people. I wanted academics to know that there was a great debate going on in the world of education and, no, inquiry based learning was not going to save us, and, no, engagement was not the same as learning.

While I got to do some of those things, what I really remember about my times as ADTL is the people I interacted with. I made it my business to talk to colleagues as much as I could. This was not something that came easily to me – I’m a shy person at heart – but I had worked on my communication skills over the years and got to enjoy interacting with people. The main weapon in my armoury was humour but at times I think I overdid it and tried too hard, becoming a bit manic in the process.

As I progressed though my term of office, I began to detect some subtle differences between the personalities of academics from different disciplines. My biology colleagues were generally good-natured, hard-working, excellent organisers and generally very enthusiastic about their research. Nurses were hard-working, very committed to teaching and student wellbeing, practical and generally a very diverse bunch. Psychologists tended to be reserved, serious, intelligent, highly committed, and unashamedly ambitious for themselves and their school. Some of our sociologist talked a completely different language to me but I enjoyed interacting with them especially one colleague who, one day, over coffee, exclaimed “it’s a scandal that there is no programme in sexology in Ireland”. I was afraid to admit that I actually didn’t know what sexology was! It was obviously not the same as “sexuality” but what was it?

Physicists tended to be very smart, down to earth, and generally very reasonable: a bit like engineers. All of humanity is to be found in chemistry departments. Some of the best people you’ll ever meet are in chemistry but there are plenty of eccentrics knocking about as well. Maths people are mainly introverts, often very nice to chat to over coffee but many have a ferociously stubborn streak. They can be like the Terminator: they can’t be reasoned with.

While being in a role like ADTL you often have to interact a lot with administrators and I really enjoyed working with the faculty team. I never got an “us-and-them” feeling in the three and a half years I did the job. They play a vital role in ensuring that are systems are fair and equitable and many have a deep and invaluable knowledge of how institutions operate. I couldn’t have survived the job without the Assistant Faculty Manager that I worked with. Whereas I tended to focus on the big picture, she was the detail person, the person who kept me on track.

I’ve certainly no regrets about my time as ADTL.

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