Stylocycle’s Blog

Research/Teaching/Service… what counts as ‘work’?
December 31, 2009, 1:26 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

The holidays are drawing to a close. Thank God! I really need to have a reason not to sit in bed and watch anymore complete 12-episode seasons of anything in a two-day period. My psyche can’t deal with this much unstructured time on my plate.

That observation leads to another: people make a concerted effort to minimise and mystify what academics do for a living.

More than a few people I know seem to think that because I don’t have to drive in order to do my work that my work can’t be very important. I think that the reasoning goes something like, “important people have many meetings, and meetings keep important people with important jobs on the road, in their cars, in transit from one meeting to another.” Aside from the sloppy thinking there, I’ll observe that for at least 900 years folks in ‘the university’ have realised that it made more sense to bring the many people to one place than to continue with the pedantic model of teaching in which one — literally — walked from one pupil’s residence to the next. It’s an unfortunate side-note that in giving up the pedant’s life, we also gave up those highly productive strolls that gave us the music of Beethoven, the treatises of Kant, Plato, and most of the Romantics (to give just a small sampling of those who found that walking was indispensable as part of the thinking process).

OK, so I really like to go out for a regular walk with my dear spouse. ON our walks we can pick up old conceptual threads and weave new ones into them, or we might begin an entirely new discussion. I’ll often puzzle out some question that I’m working on, or throw a variety of teaching-related questions his way on those walks. Cycling tends to require more concentration on the road, so I think far less about the meta-questions when I’m on my bike. I do, of course, think about cycling at a meta-level once I’m no longer on my mount.

So, does going for my evening stroll count as work? If it helps me to refine an aspect of my teaching, or to develop a new technique, or to puzzle out some question I’m having come up in my research, I don’t see why it should not count as work. Perhaps it’s that I do not hate it that makes others wish to remove it from what counts as my work. But there it is — integral to both my research and my teaching is the process of reflecting (alone and in discussion) and for me strolling is central to the reflecting.

But what does my research really look like? I often confront this question, and the answer is that it depends. Sometimes I work with other people as my “informants”. I have done participant observation in marginal environments (that is: in spaces your parents would not approve of if they knew you were in them). Some of the spaces were marginal enough that I had to give my family a ‘cover story’ for what I was doing at night. I didn’t want them worrying about where I was going. After all, my mum used to worry about me going to clubs on and around Hastings Street. The goal of that work was to demonstrate that people thought of as ‘deviant’ usually share the same goals and values as the larger society in which they live, and that aside from this one thing that they were doing, they followed those values. In another study (on which I still have not published because other projects keep demanding my more immediate attention because of things like legal contracts) I interviewed families raising children with disabilities. There, my main goal was to allow those families to talk about their children *as children first* and to address the issues disability brought into their lives as a secondary point. That is, I began from the point of view that their children had value, not from the point of view that their children were problems to be solved. I do still want to publish that work.

But I don’t always work with human subjects. Sometimes I work with texts as my primary source material. When I’m doing that, I’m usually working in the realm of cultural analysis and/or feminist (bio)ethics. The subject is usually generally related to questions of medicine as they relate to gender and embodied states. That may sound very esoteric, but at base my work in this area will centre on the rights of children to bodily integrity, to what is called ‘developing autonomy’ in legal parlance, and to access (in the community, in education, to legal representation etc). If I were a lawyer, I’d probably be arguing cases on behalf of families seeking greater access for their children. But that’s a narrow gig. Someone has to do it, but I’m not yer woman.

The thing is that to watch me do that work is not very exciting. To an onlooker, I’d appear to be reading, taking notes, and typing. The good stuff goes on in my head… which is as invisible a process to the outside world as is the growth of mould inside a closed refrigerator. But, you know, open the door in about 3 months and prepare to stand back!

Sometimes, as with the edited collection, my work comes down to prioritizing a set of research questions, sorting the wheat from the chaff and providing a conceptual overview of what’s at stake in the collection of essays. That’s mostly evaluative thinking and writing. It’s very hard to demonstrate, but it does have the merit of producing a thing that others can hold (and read!) later.

Service… that’s usually defined by my participation in meetings, but meetings don’t work unless we show up prepared. So I sit on committees and read files. Sometimes I read files for student competitions; sometimes I read files for peer adjudication in grant competitions; sometimes I read anonymized papers to assess whether they are suitable for publication in one of our professional/research journals or not.

So, there’s a ton of evaluative work that I do, especially when we consider that it is a central feature of teaching. In fact, at my level of teaching, my work really isn’t about delivering knowledge to students so much as it is about extracting it from them. Determining how much knowledge they are developing for themselves requires a variety of extraction techniques, many of which focus on communication of information. In that sense, when I’m teaching, I’m just a conduit — a back and forth relay of information and assessment. It may not sound like much, but developing the extraction tools can take a great deal of effort, and creating those comfortable, rewarding discussions in class requires enormous attention to design… from the flow of the syllabus, to the choice of assignments, readings, pace… none of my courses replicates the methods of any other of my courses. Each course has its own unique tools, its own pace, its own priorities… A 12 week course generally takes me about 12 weeks to build when it’s brand new. After I fly it for the first time, I usually work on a few revisions that take about 3 weeks to implement in the course design before I fly it again, and in each subsequent offering of the course, I’ll spend 3-4 weeks on updating materials. It takes time because the rate of articles read to articles assigned is not 1:1. I’ll generally only assign 1 out of every 3 or 4 articles that I’m reading for an update. If I want 2 new readings for each of the 12 weeks, that means I’m reading at least 70 articles in that month. That’s what it means to stay ‘up to date’ in one’s teaching fields. It kind of makes my comprehensive exams for the PhD look like a cake-walk.

On Monday the whole cycle starts up again. And you know what? I’m really looking forward to it.

And Margaret Wente can eat my shorts.


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