the pressure is on and i am definitely feeling it.
i am taking a short break to gather myself before i get back to my work. this ‘work’ comprises marking draft Masters dissertations, which follows immediately on marking module assignments and what feels like a mountain of second marking. there is nothing remarkable about this. its bread and butter stuff as far as academic life goes.
and, to be honest, its what i actually enjoy (much of the time). TEACHING is very much at the core of my scholarly or academic identity. the interactions between students and myself, the mutual, though differentiated, engagement with knowledge, ideas, thoughts. i am excited by that space in the interactions between students, teacher, knowledge, knowledge communities where LEARNING happens. not the learning captured by matrices, student satisfaction surveys, end of module reports, etc. i mean those moments when it, whatever it is, becomes clear, or new in some way. the ‘knowing’ it is new or clear may still be inchoate, but it is there, a pleasant kind of troubling, almost like an itch at the base of the skull. often, this learning makes you smile. and it may come days, weeks, months, even years after that interaction.
so, what is getting me down enough to want to write about it?
is it the institutional pressure to deliver the marking on time – that ‘time’ determined not by pedagogic purpose but administrative necessity? yes, but not just that. the exam board looms and i still have a lot to do. there is much, potentially, at stake here. yes, there is my reputation to think of. i don’t want to be thought of as the awkward, or slow colleague. of course, i suffer from that continual desire to be ‘liked’, to be seen as the ‘good’ colleague. but actually, i had let go of much of that baggage – i had to. i do take collegiality and professionalism seriously. collegiality, a word banded about by academics, is a scarce commodity in academic life, and probably always has been. teaching, including in higher education, is often an intensely private matter, a matter between you and your students. you don’t actually want any colleagues seeing how you teach, or how you mark, or how you supervise. its bad enough that we are required to share what we write through academic publishing. collegiality can be code for ‘leave me alone’. ‘professionalism’ can act in the same way. for me, though, they denote responsibility. i have a responsibility towards my colleagues. i might believe the academic horse is being wagged by the bureaucratic tale, but i have colleagues who are invested in these procedures and time tables. that is their job. they don’t get to sit at 8.58 am in their kitchen listening to the birds outside and fresh coffee brewing on the stove while they ‘work’. no, they have to be IN THE OFFICE, AT the desk, and ORGANISING the detail of the exam board. i have a responsibility.
i have a responsibility towards the students. there will be many reasons why they do these programmes of study, and those reasons often change over time. but i feel a responsibility to do my work on time. if i don’t, i can rehearse all the ‘pedagogic necessity’ stuff all i want, i do not have the responsibility to dump anxiety on the students. i have a duty of care, as it were.
so, the pressure is on. the clock ticks.
but there is an added pressure here. two added pressure points.
- this is the ‘second arrow’ syndrome. in Buddhism there is a teaching story that goes something like this: i feel under pressure to get my marking done, but i know that i could easily have sorted this earlier. there were days when i didn’t attend fully to what was needed, i diverted myself onto other tasks, or just plain and simply lost track of the examination clock. i COULD have avoided the pressure i now feel. that is the first arrow. that is hard enough to bear. but it is the ‘second arrow’ that hurts most. this arrow is the critical one, and i mean ‘critical’ in all of its nasty judgemental sense. the internal narrative turns up the volume and shouts: AGAIN? haven’t you been in this situation, this exact same situation before? don’t you learn anything? you are a FRAUD. you are not a proper teacher at all. do us all a favour and just GO. the second arrow. the most painful arrow that both pushes the first deeper into the wound and twists away causing immense agony. the fact that i have been battling the flu for two weeks and that some days i can hardly eat or drink seems lost in this self-critical excoriation.
- the other ‘pressure’ is more philosophical. as i sit and comment on these students’ work Ronald Pelias’s words in ‘Methodology of the Heart’ keep coming back to me. his commentary on how, as academics, we live and breath evaluation – constantly. we are judge (am i a reliable colleague who can get his marking in on time?), but we judge. i sit judging these students, with the knowledge that my words, my comments in the text, my annoyance that basic grammatical errors are still present in the FINAL draft before submission, that my grading, could really hurt somebody. but should that worry me? isn’t there a higher ideal here, of KNOWLEDGE? the fact that these students may feel put out by my comments should not deter me from acting as a gatekeeper to STANDARDS. but, BUT, am i really so confident about this thing called knowledge? am i so confident about standards? this comes home most starkly for me when i am working with students from across the globe. when ‘marking’ a dissertation from a student located in the Caribbean what does ‘standard English’ mean? do i dismiss the ACTUAL language of the students that is perfectly capable of communicating meaning and insist on the institutionally powerful ‘standard’ against which they will be judged by the academy? of course, i HAVE to dismiss, and cajole, and nudge, because they WILL be judged against the ‘standard’ of the former imperial centre. perhaps that partly lies behind my desire to find a different kind of academic life.
so, i will get back to the marking. i will fend off those second arrows. i will, for the moment, bracket my philosophical doubts, i will make a cup of coffee and get on with the task in hand. BUT – i won’t be taking it so seriously. i know its a game. maybe my job, in this instance, is to let my students in on the game and help them play it successfully without buying into it.