Teaching-Research balance

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Yeah. Like this. Peaceful. Posed. Totally like that.

I’m running a bit ragged right now. It’s a bit more than a fortnight until an event that it easily the most important and consequential for my research that I’ve ever encountered (and possibly the most important and consequential that I will ever encounter), and I still have all the normal stuff I need to be doing: exam boards don’t wait for referendums.

At one level, it’s all great. I’m getting to talk with people I wouldn’t normally have access to, connect with new audiences and generate data for what I think will be strong research outputs. Having worked in a field that was exceedingly quiet for many years, I’m now reaping the rewards.

On another level, it’s ridiculous. Every day I’m way-laid by something that needs urgent attention. I’m in the office for the first time in a week, because I’ve got some many events to attend, interviews to give and the rest. The pot plants in the office aren’t looking too happy right now.

I’m not saying any of this to humble-brag, since I appreciate that many would give their right arm to have this kind of opportunity, but rather to muse on how we all have to engage in this kind of juggling in our work.

Balancing research, teaching and admin/service commitments is a key feature of many university posts. We move between these different elements many times a day, trying to focus on one, trying not to forget the others. As the ALPS workshop the other week discussed – and it’s telling for me that this now feels like an age ago – while practicalities might differ a lot across the Atlantic, this is still true in Europe and the US.

I’d love to say here that I’ve got the answers, the magic key to unlock these constraints and make us all transcendently capable. But I don’t, not least because I struggle even to make space in my mind to think it through anywhere near enough. Indeed, it’s only because I’m writing this – and because I’m making myself write this – that I’m thinking about it at all.

But let’s try. Two ideas spring to mind.

The first is the recognition that there is no such thing as free lunch. Whatever you do, you’re not doing something else. If that sounds banal, then it is, but the important consequence is that you have to accept you’re always making trade-offs. My writing this blog is time I can’t use to reduce the pile of paperwork next to my computer, or respond to the various emails in my inbox (apologies if either of these affects you, but I’ve been very busy on other things). I will get to those things, but right now it’s more important to me to carve out some thinking/writing time on something that’s not about British membership of the EU.

The key point is that if you can accept that you’re always trading-off, then you can become more comfortable about not doing everything. It’s about finding a balance that’s acceptable to you, not about optimising everything you do. Hence this year is not going to be one where I make big advances in my L&T practice, but it is one where I keep that ticking over, for when I am able to spend more time on it.

The second idea cuts across all this, because it gets you (i.e. me) to think about how all the different things join up and help each other. Much of my research work requires me to engage in hearty public dissemination and engagement: I’m to spread the word about how social science can help people make more informed and considered decisions. And for me, that means using a lot of my L&T skills. I’m aligning my objectives with my activities, thinking about how a consumer of my outputs might see them and use them, I’m explaining things to people who don’t necessarily understand what’s what.

In addition, I’m thinking about how I can bring back my research activity back into the classroom. That might be about using new resources, or models of interaction, or new ideas and conceptualisations. I’ve learnt lots from sitting on panels with other people and hearing them explain and argue and  debate.

And, of course, all of this is honing my admin skills: my diary management has to be active and continual; my interpersonal skills are tested every single day; my capacity to balance many different things that need doing at roughly similar times seems to be holding up, even as the volume increases.

Maybe some of this is self-delusion. Maybe some of it is only possible because I tell myself it’s only until the end of the month, “when everything will calm down”.

Unfortunately, if there’s one thing I’ve learnt over the years, it never calms down, not properly. Maybe the second half of 2016 might not be like the first, but it’s going to still have a bunch of stuff going one. So the balancing continues.

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