Monday, 26 August 2013

What professors do off term

Once again I find inspiration in Phil Nel's blog to reflect on what I have been doing off-term. This, and “research period” are the official labels for the time between terms. Vacation is an unknown concept in this part of the world. Non-academic employees have annual leave. Academic staff have research periods.

The definition is still vague. For instance, there is “full-term” (eight weeks three times a year) as opposed to... I am not sure what, some nebulous weeks before and after full term reserved for meetings, last minute-supervisions and grading. In Easter term, April to June, there are no taught classes. The undergraduate students revise for exams, the graduates write their theses. The instructors supervise.

I cannot quite say when my nebulous term finished and research period started. I had six masters students this past year, and although we had told them that we wouldn't read their drafts after the first of July, of course we did. I also read some drafts by other colleagues' students, just because I am so noble. As soon as the masters had submitted their theses, I received twice as many to grade. This is because we double-grade all student assignments. A masters thesis is 20,000 words. It takes me at least a day to read each and provide written feedback.Simple arithmetic.

My PhD students were also eager to submit something before they went on vacation. One student had her viva (final oral exam) in the beginning of July. Another had an upgrade (from probationary to full PhD status) in the end of July. A student who is not my supervisee was submiting her thesis and asked me to read it – because I am so noble.

We are now at the end of July. I didn't go to the Winnipeg conference that Phil went to, and I didn't go to IRSCL conference in Maastricht either. I didn't go to any conferences this summer. Instead I used my precious research time to complete most of the imminent commitments. I submitted a book manuscript in the end of May, and it is now under review, so I don't have to think about it for a while. I wrote three commissioned book chapters, revised two book chapters, wrote a conference paper and two abstracts, one for a conference, another for an edited volume. I administered blind reviews for a special issue of a journal that I am guest-editing. As usual, when you least expect it, page proofs arrived for several articles. I reviewed a promotion case (reading all submitted publications) which took me about a week. I examined a PhD (viva still to come), which took another week. I read and gave feedback on some book proposals for a publisher where I am on an editorial board. I wrote a huge number of recommendation letters. I read papers for a PhD workshop in September. I wrote my research group “narrative” for the national university assessment (known to UK academics as REF, spelled out Research Excellence Framework). I gave a talk at a summer school for gifted 16-year-olds from underprivileged social groups who are encouraged to study at Cambridge. I attended a few off-term meetings. I hosted an awayday for my research group. I entertained visiting scholars.

Unlike Phil, I have full salary all year round. Technically, everything I do in my research period is part of my job. I will be paid a token fee for the PhD examination and the promotion report. I am exempt from the coming conference fee because I co-ordinate the workshop, but I am paying for my travel and accomodation. Luckily, I have generious travel allowance.

We are now at the end of August. Meanwhile, I went to Norfolk for a couple of days, and we had guests who very efficiently prevented me from working – thank you! I went for walks and did a lot of gardening on sunny days and miniature-making on rainy days. End of August, when most academic friends are starting work, I can finally breathe out and start planning my vacation... sorry, my research period. Term doesn't start for another five weeks. Wait a minute: I am going to the PhD examination at the end of the week. I am going to Sweden in less than two weeks. (Most of it is work, but I will have three free days to see friends and family). The day after I get back, I have Examination Board, one of those occasions in Cambridge when you need to provide your own death certificate to be excused. And then those nebulous weeks before full term: meetings, business lunches, loads of urgent emails. And then full term, and I am co-ordinating the masters course this term, and I expect at least two new PhD students, and I expect at least three upgrades, and at least three of my current PhD students will be submitting first full drafts, and I have agreed to do far more teaching than I am required.

I'd better enjoy those last few hours before life catches up with me.

Tuesday, 13 August 2013

Books are dangerous!

 You think books are harmless? You think book cannot kill? Let me tell you something.

Last week, as I was at home indulging myself with a PhD examination on a bright, sunny morning, I got an email from Reception at work. My bookshelf had come off the wall. My first reaction was, “Hell, I must interrupt my pleasurable pastime and go to the office”. My second reaction was, “What a nuisance, I have just sorted all the books, and it will take me ages to put them back”. Third reaction, “All my Alice and Moomin mugs will be broken”.

I didn't go to the office that day because it made no sense: what could I do other than watch the ruins? I suppressed all thoughts of it, but yesterday I felt that I had to go, out of propriety. (Mind, I could have been away on holiday or conference).

My first reaction as I opened the door was, “It doesn't look all that bad”. The holes had been painted over, the books were in neat piles all over the room, the Alice and Moomin and Peter Rabbit mugs had miraculously survived – a few other mugs of less affectionate value were broken, as well as some picture frames.

The porters saw me coming and gave me a full account of what it looked like when they discovered it. “Did you have your books in any particular order?” asked one. “Luckily no one was there when it happened, another said. It would have killed them”.

Fifteen minutes later it hit me.

This bookshelf with its sharp corners and its tons of books could have killed me. Or a student. Or a cleaner.

It doesn't help to know they have filed it as a “serious incident”, that an inspection stated that wrong fittings had been used, and that they will give me a new and safer bookshelf. It's like having been in a minor car accident, and cannot keep imagining what could have happened a second before or after and turned it into a major accident. A fatal accident. I may not have been here to tell the story. 

Image: Colin Thompson

Saturday, 10 August 2013

Replay: five years ago

Just going back five years in this blog. Not much to add. Five very happy years, with all the ups and downs.