Listening, Reflecting, Responding

I don’t know about you but recently I’ve found myself listening to podcasts far more frequently than I used to. Perhaps it is a response to the amount of time I spend on a computer – from my teaching, planning, marking…and even blogging. Perhaps there are just more podcasts out there as a response to the pandemic so inevitably I’ve found more that peaks my interest. Whatever the reason, the other week searching for something to satisfy my curiosity I stumbled across a podcast series, Changing the World, by the University of Leeds, downloading an episode with their VC, Professor Simone Buitendijk, on the importance of listening. We’re surrounded by noise all the time, but do we really listen beyond the word level, do we hear the subtle nuances of others’ speech, do we listen to the silences and what they have to tell us? It gave me pause for thought.

The podcast came to mind the other day during the virtual coffee morning we at the UCML Early Career Academic Special Interest Group held. It was the first of what we hope will become a regular event enabling colleagues to come together, wherever they are in the world, to chat, to make connections, to just take some time to be with others. This being the first time we’d all met we spent some time introducing ourselves. What I found most intriguing was listening carefully to how we introduced ourselves – the little bits of our biographies we shared. Early career academic is a broad, umbrella term designed to include as many people as possible, irrespective of contract type, age, also including people who have had career breaks and are finding their way back in. So it covers quite a range, from individuals completing their PhDs to people like me who have bounced from one short-term contract to another, trying to find a secure footing, clocking up a handful of institutions and experiences along the way; if we include my own alma mater, I’m now on UK university number five and counting. As I listened to each introduction what struck me most was how the way we introduce ourselves changes – not only in how far away we move away from defining ourselves in relation to our PhDs but to how our voices convey a sense of confidence, of feeling secure in who we are and what we do – irrespective of how brutal the system can be. I even surprised myself listening to my own voice and recognising that the vulnerabilities I once felt about myself, about my right to be in this world have diminished considerably even though I am no more secure in terms of employment than I was when I took my first post-PhD role at Cardiff University, four institutions ago.

I’m definitely not advocating precarity and institution hopping as a route to self-confidence, far from it, but by listening more carefully, by listening differently, I came to reflect on my role in the system I’m trying to simultaneously sustain a career in and improve for all – a Herculean task if ever there was one and one I cannot do alone. Listening more carefully made me wonder what else I can do and what can I do differently? How can I make a difference as someone who may only be in academia up to the end of her current contract this summer? I’ve certainly not got the means to drive through necessary systemic changes but that doesn’t mean I’m incapable of making a difference, however small.

So, I reflected on what has given me confidence over the years and it is simply this – finding a way to express what I’m thinking, to explore ideas that interest me and sharing those ideas. I went into academia because of intellectual curiosity and a desire to write – there are many things that get in the way and I don’t get to write as often as I’d like. Yet, there is something about getting published that gives a real boost – even if it doesn’t increase our career prospects as once it might have done. Of course getting published is a time consuming and time pressured undertaking. There’s an added difficulty if you’re insecurely employed – you might start an article at one institution but not have any institutional affiliation by the time the article is ready for publication and therefore you may not have the means to pay for open access, so often a requirement of journal publication. There’s also an issue of confidence – it might not seem like it but it actually takes courage to write, to put ideas out there for scrutiny and when you’re low on confidence that’s difficult to do. 

So what, you might be thinking, can I do? I don’t edit a journal but I do have this blog and therefore the means to create opportunities. After all, that’s how I got started. My friend and colleague Dr Corinne Painter gave me an opportunity to guest blog for her last year and I enjoyed it so much I set up my own. So now I’ve decided to create that opportunity for others. This is my way of making a difference, of helping you early career academics out there boost your confidence. If you’re reading this and you think you’d like to write something, even if it is just a means of testing out ideas you want to develop, get in touch and let’s start a conversation, one in which we really listen carefully, one which causes us to reflect and to respond and boosts your confidence along the way. And for my readers, here’s hoping we can introduce you to all kinds of wonderful ideas that you weren’t expecting to read about.

Thanks for reading.

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