It’s hard to know where to begin this, as it so very hard to imagine this ending. In less than a week I will walk away from 15 years as an academic. Perhaps the only thing to do is to let my memory guide my reflections.
15 years ago.
What could go wrong? My first ever lecture to nearly 200 first year computing students. The topic is numbering systems in computing and binary-decimal-hex conversions. I have a Powerpoint groaning with over 60 densely filled slides for a one hour (i.e. 40 minute) lecture. My strategy (if that is not too grand a word) seems to be “overwhelm them with visual and auditory stimuli in the hope that they will not realise I have very little idea what I am talking about”. I am terrified they ask me a question. (Looking back, I am astonished they didn’t all fall asleep, though perhaps their attention was of the “watching a train wreck” variety…). I haven’t a clue what I am doing. I wonder about my career choice.
I listen in awe as a small team of my students, working on a tricky final project for their Masters degree, talk me through how they are managing their team. This is my Kindness team. They rose spectacularly, astonishingly, to a small half thought out challenge I threw the class last semester; what would happen if a team ran itself motivated by kindness? Their camaraderie, their compassion, it almost brings tears to my eyes. I flicked out a tiny half germinated seed and they grew an enormous, beautiful oak tree. Earlier that day another conversation with a group who had risen equally spectacularly to a challenge – in their case that of a project that was horribly stalled for almost too long. I marvel at their achievements and personal growth. And another team still tripping over themselves with ideas and enthusiasm. I’ve known in an abstract way that I will miss the special relationship a teacher has with her students very much. But listening to them this week I suddenly feel the anticipation of that loss viscerally too. I will miss this.
14 years ago.
I’m not sure why but he brings it out in me, the idea that I need to cut through the “teacher as giver of knowledge” and learn with him instead how to be teacher as guide on the path of self-discovery, as signpost when lost, arm to lean on when tired, shoulder to cry on when overwhelmed, nest to fly when ready. I’ve been teaching for over a year but it’s guiding him through his masters project that reveals to me for the first time a way of interacting with students that feels natural to me, right. And with him for the first time I learn how much more my students will teach me that I will ever teach them. I am so sure about my career choice.
I feel overwhelmed with ‘the remembrance of things past’. Faces, moments, fears, joys, failures and successes flutter through my memory like cherry blossom on a stormy day. There is really nothing to compare with the richness that being a small part of so many people’s lives brings to your own. So many lives have touched mine in this time – it’s something I don’t think I understood would become the defining special feature of my life as an academic, as a teacher (there’s a story in that distinction but the anger and the sadness of that discussion is for another time). I don’t think there are many jobs that offer you such breadth with depth of engagement with others. Some of those faces I knew for the 4 years they went from 17/18 year old child to young adult. Some I knew for an intense year later in their lives. A few I knew for much longer – through undergraduate, postgraduate and in one special case through all that and further still to colleague and friend. Will I ever be part of people’s lives like that again?
6 years ago
I look into the faces of 9 odd, brave, diverse characters who have gathered from across the globe to join the first year of an MSc in Design Ethnography. It is the only programme like it in the world, and the field itself is nascent and highly unusual. I have an instinct that doing this will be good for the field, good for them, and good for me. I’ve been teaching several years in one field (interaction design) whilst my intellectual interests have been primarily ethnographic. Frustrated at how nebulous the field seems, I decide to take up the promise of the idea of a university and create a place for practitioners, academics and students to consolidate, discover and create together the field of Design Ethnography. I have little more than an instinct that ethnography is the more appropriate word than anthropology (the jury is still out on that one!), and a gut feeling that design is probably not the right word but design ethnography might gain more attention than “applying ethnographic ways of knowing and thinking to various business, design and innovation challenges and contexts”. I don’t have a clue what I am doing. I wonder about my career future.
A few months ago
I realise it is time. There are so many things I simply cannot do within a university, and I’ve allowed myself to become afraid of change. I watched so many students, some close in age and life circumstance to me, give up everything for a life changing year of study and felt a pang of envy and admiration for their bravery. Isn’t it time to reclaim the “dive in without looking” me? I feel terrified, excited, and renewed. I’ve been ignoring the obvious for too long – universities are wonderful things but they require certain kinds of people. I’ve spent too much energy trying to convince myself that though I did not “fit” I somehow gave and got enough from being a round peg in a square academic hole to balance out the equation. Perhaps I did for a while, but the strain of not fitting takes its toll eventually, on both peg and hole. It’s time.
It’s hard to know where to begin. I suppose that is the point, the reality, the everyday experience of life. It’s hard to know where to begin, but it’s important to mark the end. It’s a little sad, but appropriate, that I mark this by saying thank you to every one of the hundreds of students I have taught these years. You have given me far more than I have ever given you.
And so here it is – the end.