By The Secret Lecturer
How and why does anyone become an academic? Obviously, some form of extreme psychological trauma or pathology is a pre-requisite. At least that much seems certain.
As an undergraduate you will spend several years of your life, moaning about the uncaring, clueless teaching staff, and yet sometime between graduating and getting a job (hey, it could happen!), some of you will decide instead to carry on studying and to become a lecturer.
A rational person, fully informed of the facts, would never choose an academic career. Happily, the few rational people out there are rarely in possession of the facts, and so a career in academia seems a perfectly sensible choice.
Irrational people don’t care about facts and so they too are perfect fodder for academia, and they will find themselves rapidly rising through the ranks.
Becoming an academic is rarely a deliberate choice. Instead, it is a career path chosen by those who couldn’t think of a career path.
It is hard to describe the current working environment without using words that you probably shouldn’t use in polite company. Basically “Totally f***ed”, covers it pretty well, but that definitely won’t do. Instead, we must look to our leaders who will describe it in the following terms.
- operating in a difficult economic environment
- changes in government funding
- increasing costs
- reduced student demand.
Yep, totally f***ed.
While vast social changes are at the core of most of the current problems, many universities have contributed to this current situation by doing what is popularly known as “shooting themselves in the foot”. The reason for this is that most universities are run by academics, who don’t really understand how to run a business.
Those universities that try to get around this by bringing in real business leaders end up with managers who don’t really understand how to run a university (yes, it is confusing). This is evidenced by their endless quest to improve “quality”, which is done by reducing all university activities to metrics, so that changes can be documented objectively. That’s what business leaders do, apparently, and that’s why staff will chase you at the end of every semester to fill in “student satisfaction surveys”. Your answers to those questions will determine whether the staff member gets promoted, gets a new contract, gets to eat next week, and so on.
Bet you can feel a real surge of power right now. Enjoy it. Every 13 weeks you get to rate your lecturers, so remember every time they were late, make an unfunny joke, or otherwise induce a catatonic state. Payback’s gonna be so much fun.
There are lots of different academic jobs at a university, starting at the bottom with the role of tutor, where staff are a hybrid of postgraduate student and lecturer; through to the top where you find the Senior Staff, who are a hybrid of business manager and snake.
I’m sorry, that was just plain rude: associating Senior Staff with snakes is grossly unfair. Sorry, snakes.
Let’s look at these various roles and consider how likely it is that you will meet any of them, whether they will speak to you, and most importantly, will they buy you a coffee?
A tutor is usually a postgraduate student who needs money (are there any who don’t?). These staff will be experts in their teaching fields by virtue of having ‘done well’ in the subject as an undergraduate. A scraped Distinction from two years ago, becomes the qualification that will earn the student an entry-level teaching job.
At regional universities, where there are no longer any real staff left, a tutor may be put in charge of running an entire subject: all the lectures, tutorials, marking and administration. For all that effort, they will be paid about one-tenth of the salary an actual lecturer would have cost the university to do exactly the same task. Now, that is how to run a business.
In most degrees, you will spend a lot of time with tutors, and you will find that they are students, just like you, only brighter. Remember though, that they have no money, so if you meet a tutor at a café, you should buy the coffee.
While slavery has been abolished in most civilised countries, it is still practised in some uncivilised locations, such as Australian universities. Teaching Fellows are usually former tutors who haven’t got around to finishing their PhD, but can talk-the-talk sufficiently well enough to make it sound like they are on their way to completion. Desperate for a job, they accept the job of Teaching Fellow, which will allow them to finish their PhD while they get some teaching experience. Only one of those last two statements is true. These staff take their coffee via intravenous drip, so don’t expect to see them anywhere near a café.
If the Teaching Fellow is already busy, a lecturer will be found teaching the first years. For the lecturing staff, this is an unofficial hazing ritual. Staff hate first year students, especially those who can’t find their lecture theatre on a map. You have been warned. A lecturer will not even speak to you at a café, so don’t even bother trying to strike up a conversation. You are one from several hundred in the class and they are not going to know your name, nor care where you went to school. Avoid, avoid, avoid.
Senior Lecturers are the lifeblood of a university. They do most of the important teaching and with their years of experience, they know how to get things done, who to talk to when there’s a problem, which rules can be bent, and which rules can be broken.
As such, they are universally despised by Senior Staff, who believe that all the trouble in the university is caused by Senior Lecturers, what with all their rule bending and breaking. Senior Lecturers like what they do for a living and can easily be persuaded to sit and socialise with you at the campus café. They might even buy the coffee.
Associate Professors are basically Senior Lecturers gone bad. Every rule that can be bent or broken will get bent or broken, but only when no-one is looking. A devious and cunning mob, you could learn a lot from them. Their main skill is that they have spotted how to play the system, for example, knowing which students are the class opinion-leaders and making sure that they always get lots of attention in class and of course, suitably high grades. That also means they will definitely, absolutely, buy you a coffee. Befriend one now!
A Professor is a senior and respected member of staff who is an acknowleged world leader in their field. The Senior Staff seek the wise guidance of these experts and shape university policy and strategy around their input.
Professors are indeed experts, that much is rarely in any doubt. The trouble is that as far as their own university is concerned they are interfering so-and-sos, who don’t seem to realise that their job is to stand around “being inspirational” and that no-one wants to hear what they have to say about anything. Consequently, Professors spend large parts of the day staring at their projected Superannuation accounts, trying to calculate the optimum moment to retire. The only way to get a coffee from a professor is (old joke warning) to stick your fingers down their throat.
You average Dean (and believe me, they are all very, very average), got the job by being quite useless as a professor (no one was being inspired, thank you very much), but still possessing one shining characteristic that would ensure promotion: tenure. Basically, a professor who has tenure can’t ever be fired, so even though they are apt to nap during their own lectures (if they remember to turn up), their incompetence isn’t enough to get them fired. Better for the university to move them out of the way: offer a promotion to Dean (there’s a free parking space on offer). Even though they will still fail to inspire, at least they will do it where no one else is present. Chances of getting a coffee: zero. Deans never move out of their office, it’s dangerous out there.
This comprises the Vice-Chancellor (the end of level boss) and all the various underlings that also have the words ‘Vice-Chancellor’ in their job title. Starting with the obvious ones, this includes the Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Pro-Vice Chancellor, Senior Deputy Vice Chancellor, and sometimes a “Vice President”. After all those senior staff come the Pro-Vice Chancellors in charge of specific faculties, campuses, or something called ‘Engagement’. No one knows what this last person does, not even the Vice Chancellor.
Chances are you will never meet any of them unless you offer to be a student representative on the University council. If you land that gig, coffee will be provided in a very nice china cup. There might even be biscuits.
– The Secret Lecturer
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