Making Time For StudentsPosted: October 20, 2012
I was reminded of my slightly overloaded calendar today as students came and went throughout the day, I raced in and out of project meetings and RV and I worked on some papers that we’re trying to get together for an upcoming submission date in the next few months. I wish I could talk about the research but, given that it will all have to go into peer review and some of the people reading this may end up being on those panels, it will all have to wait until we get accepted or it comes back on fire with a note written in blood saying “Don’t call us…”
For those following the Australian Research scene, you might know that the Australian Federal Government had put a hold on releasing information on key research funding schemes and that this has led to uncertainty for those people whose salaries are paid by research grants. Why is this important in a learning and teaching blog? Because the majority of Higher Education academics are involved in research, teaching and administration but it’s not too much of a generalisation to say that those who are the most successful have substantial help on the research front from well-established groups and staff who are paid to do research full-time.
Right now, as I write this, our postdoc (RV) is reviewing the terminology of certain aspects of the discipline to allow us to continue our research. RV is running citation analyses, digging through papers, peering at my scrawl on the whiteboard and providing a vital aspect to the project: uninterrupted dedication to the research question. I’m seeing students, holding meetings, dealing with technical problems, worrying about my own grants, preparing for a new course roll-out on Monday… and writing this. RV’s role is rapidly becoming critical to my ability to work.
There are thousands of dedicated researchers like RV across Australia and it is easy to quantify their contribution to research, but easy to overlook their implicit benefit in terms of learning and teaching. Every senior academic who is involved in research and teaching will most likely only still be teaching because they someone to carry on the research and maintain the focus and continuity that only comes from having one major area to work on.
I think of it in terms of gearing. When I’m talking to other researchers, I use one set of mental gears. Inside my own group, I use another because we are all much more closely aligned. I use a completely different set when I talk to students and this set varies by year level, course and student! Making time for students is not just a case of having an hour in my calendar. Making time for students is a matter of making the mental space for a discussion that will be at the appropriate level. It’s having enough time to have a chat rather than a rapid-fire exchange. I don’t always succeed at this because far too many of my students apologise to me for taking up my time. Argh! My time is student time! It’s what I get a good 40% of my salary for! (Not that we’re counting. Like most academics, when asked what percentage of my time I spent on the three areas of research, teaching and admin, I say 50,50,40. 🙂 )
Now I am not, by any means, a senior academic and I am very early on in this process, so you can imagine how important those research staff are going to be in keeping projects going for senior staff who are having to make those gear changes at a very rapid speed across much larger domains. Knowledge workers need the time and headspace to think and switching context takes up valuable time, as well as tiring you out if you do it often enough.
On that basis, the recent news that the Government is unfreezing the medical research schemes and at least some of the major awards for everyone else is good news. My own grant in this area is highly unlikely to get up – my relief is not actually for myself, here – but we are already worried about an increased rate of departure for those researchers who are concerned about having a job next year and are, because of their skills and experience, highly mobile. The impact of these people leaving will not just be felt in terms of research output, which has a multi-year lag, but will be felt immediately wherever learning and teaching depended upon someone having the time and mental space to do it, because they had a member of the research staff supporting their other work. Universities are a complex ecosystem and there are very important connections between staff in different areas and areas of focus that are not immediately apparent when you make the simplistic distinction of staff (professional and academic) and, for academics, research/teaching/admin, research/admin, teaching/admin, pure research and pure teaching. The number of courses that I have to teach depends upon the number of staff available to teach, as well as the number of courses and students, and the number of staff (or their available hours) is directly affected by the number of people who help them.
It’s good news that the research funds are starting to unfreeze because it will say to the people who are depending upon grant money that an answer is coming soon. It’s also saying to the rest of us that we can start to think about planning and allocation for 2013 with more certainty, because the monies will be coming at some point.
This, in turn, stops me having to worry about things like contingency plans, who is going to be working with me, and how I will fund research assistants into 2014 because now I have a possibility of a grant, rather than a placeholder in a frozen scheme. This reduces my current overheads (for a while) and frees up some headspace. With any luck, the next student who walks into my office will not realise exactly how busy I am – and that’s the way that I like it.