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Alan - lecturer
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Name: Alan
PhD discipline: Spanish Literature
Area(s) of work: University teaching
Year of graduation: 2003
Date of Interview: 16/06/2008

Now Playing: Alan - lecturer
Alan describes the varied aspects of his work as lecturer, and considers the differences between working in Oxbridge and in other universities.

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Transcript:

Please can you tell me what your current position is? 

I am currently a college lecturer in Oxbridge.

How long have you been working there? 

I took up the post in October 2003 and so this is the completion of my fifth year in the post.

Can you tell me in quite some detail what your job involves?

I am required to supervise – that is the term for small group teaching in this institution, teaching students in groups of two or three for 12 hours a week. To research, of course, and to continue publishing and to undertake administrative duties related to my subject area. And so I lecture in Spanish and deal more widely with anybody studying modern languages in the college. And so that is pastoral care, academic advising for those students, and administrative duties for college in other roles. For example I'm a tutor in the college, which means pastoral care for students who are not in my subject area, which is something I've taken on as an additional paid role. And also I am engaged in various committees in the college outside of my subject academic areas, which are also expected of me as part of my job.

How would you say that your time breaks down between those different types of commitments?

It depends whether it is term-time or vacation. During term-time I'm pretty much teaching and admin five days a week during the day and often during the evening as well and so there is very little time for research during term-time. But luckily the terms are quite short and so the vacations are the time when really I do my research. Obviously there are small things I can do for research during term-time such as reading through proofs of things and publications and just occasionally finding time to read a book. And so vacation time is research time with some small administrative duties such as admissions and things which crop up during vacation.

Could you describe what your work environment is like? 

My office is based within a college, which offers a large room for teaching purposes. I also do undertake some teaching for the faculty as well actually, and so the faculty is actually a couple of miles away, which means having to get into my car and drive there. And the teaching there is obviously more lecture based and uses a specific lecture theatre.

And you are within a college setting. What is that like?

It is different, I suppose, when you are in a department and spend all your time in a department and so when I was at my previous institution I spent some time teaching in that department. It was on the corridor of offices with all my colleagues in a specific building for languages. Whereas here I am one of only two linguists in the college; nobody else from my language is in this college, and so there is actually a very different sense of geographically where I fit together with my colleagues – we only meet once or twice a term. But other than that a lot of our communication is emails and telephone calls, principally email. And of course there are certain colleagues with whom I have a closer affinity who I might meet on a more frequent basis in a kind of more social setting or more academic setting, just talking and meeting up. 

And so geographically there is a definite sense of dispersion within this institution but then that allows me to get to know people from other disciplines and I have very good friends in the college who are, you know, Historians or English lecturers and Lawyers for example and so you get a much stronger sense of what other people are doing and how what you are doing fits into that, which I very much enjoy.

Are there any other big differences between working in a department and in a college? 

There is in the sense of what my job is in that as a college lecturer I am not employed directly by the university and so a university lecturer has a stronger role in terms of postgraduate teaching and lecturing. Whereas my main duties are, as I said earlier, supervising – so small group teaching – the department then invites me to give lectures when it can pay me to do so. Actually it depends on their budget and their willingness. And it is something which I do and quite enjoy doing.  And so I teach translation classes, and so small groups of about 14/15 students once a fortnight during the year and also I've given probably on average about 10 lectures in a year in areas of my research and interest. And so there is a kind of sense of two different types of jobs – one based in a department and one based in a college – although of course all my colleagues do also have college attachments so they also undertake similar kinds of duties to my own as well. They also have administrative roles in their colleges and they also supervise in their colleges as well. And so there are differences, I suppose, in those regards as well between a department and between a college in terms of roles and types of jobs.

How many postgrads do you supervise?

At the minute I don't have any PhD students, probably because I'm still too early in my career myself for that. I have expressed a desire to do so but actually at the minute there isn't anybody in the department who is working in my area closely. I have supervised MPhil students and the MPhil here is kind of taught Masters with a thesis at the end and so once or twice I've given seminars for that. And last year supervised an MPhil thesis but that student didn't stay on to PhD and so I didn't get a chance to continue that relationship.

And having worked in a department in another institution would you say that you can see some advantages and disadvantages to working in a college environment in an Oxbridge setting?

I suppose there are lots of different ways you can think about that question isn't there. I mean the first one that might spring to mind might be the kind of teaching that you would do, in that it is a very different style of teaching here to the seminars which I was leading in my previous institution in a non-Oxbridge setting. And the motivation of the students was very different as well, and so here you nearly always get one or two who are not, you know, exemplary, but I'm nearly always overwhelmed by the sheer motivation and desire to learn that students have here. Some of them have really excellent minds, which of course happens elsewhere outside of this kind of institution but is not so common and the kind of ethic of the students is not the same.

I suppose, in other ways, there are different types of politics going on in the sense of… I suppose in my previous institution there were lots of kinds of questions about the survival of languages. Languages in the last few years have been increasingly neglected, you know, lower down in the school system and so there were worries about the repercussions of that that smaller departments at other institutions were closing down. In fact one of the language departments at my previous institution did close down in one of the less popular languages. And so there were lots of kind of concerns in that regard whereas here that is certainly not the sense you get. I mean people are still concerned about student numbers but they feel much more secure I suppose.

And the other thing of course is that here the research facilities are so much more well supported there are lots of different venues for engaging with other people working in your area. The actual libraries I mean there are multiple libraries available here at various different levels providing for varying different levels of study but all useful. I mean some of those things I've not really had a chance to engage in myself and one of the reasons for is because of where I live which is quite a few miles from the city, partly because of house prices the practical aspect, which means that I don't necessarily spend all my time within the city. And also because I have a young family as well and so there are other demands on my time which means I can't spend every evening of the week going to research seminars or meeting up with colleagues which can sometimes be the kind of atmosphere that is created in this kind of institution that people live and breath academia. Whereas sometimes I think it is quite healthy not to do that and actually switch off and have time away sometimes.

You are in quite an interesting position in order to see the distinct pressures, institutional pressures.

There are certainly… I suppose I didn't experience them personally because I wasn't a paid full-time member of that previous institution but certainly from what I know is that yes there are pressures to perform. The department I was in previously was concerned about its RAE status and that it was seriously in danger of losing some of that prestige come the current RAE that is taking place now. And I guess the same kind of pressures were involved here, and there were lots of questions last year being asked about the involvement of somebody like myself in the RAE who is not actually employed by the university and so they don't have to include me. But I am nevertheless a member of the department and a career researcher and so in the previous RAE for example colleagues in my kind of position were not included in the department whereas this time it was felt that they could be. I mean certainly that kind of political issue is very different here compared to my previous institution – the college and university interface is certainly something that you don't experience elsewhere it is very complex. And so I guess that was one element.

And I guess here there is (certainly within a college environment) there is a lot of strong pressure to get your students to perform, as well. I mean the idea that there are league tables of colleges within the institution and league tables of colleges and how they perform in an individual subject, as well, which you know any healthy approach always kind of says 'yes, these things exist but we don't actually, you know, care too much about them', but actually, we do. And the college in which I work is one that doesn't perform very highly on these league tables and so there are often questions about what we can do to improve that. You know, how do we look at student admissions? What do we think about it in terms of raising expectations? etc etc. And so I guess there is a much more parochial sense of where I fit into the college and how the college is reflected externally, within the institution more widely. And because of that one of my roles I suppose is to ensure that I admit good students for languages and that I ensure that they do well, which can be another kind of pressure, absolutely, which wasn't really the case before hand. 

In my previous institution, during the year that I was employed as kind of teaching assistant, I took on voluntarily a role as a welfare tutor within a department so saw several students come to me who were thinking of dropping out or had very difficult problems and very often those kinds of issues would never be picked up elsewhere at all. You know the fact that they came to see me was probably the only way in which they were communicating to the department that there was an issue there. Whereas within this kind of institution that kind of thing doesn't happen very often, there is a lot of support for the students and consequently a lot of my time is given to giving support academically and also non-academically. 

Do you think coming from another institution to work in an Oxbridge college equips you in a way in which people who have been right through the system in Oxbridge aren't equipped?

Yes, yes. I think yes you come to the job with a different attitude and different kind of expectations I think. And it is weird that I've done it in reverse effectively and most lecturers out there have come through Oxbridge and then go out to it and I have externally to Oxbridge. I mean, I was told after my interview when they offered me the post, my colleague here who has now left the college said to me that one of the great things about that interview was when I was asked how would I support a student who was struggling to write essays? My immediate response was 'well I would, you know, send them the departmental guide on how to write essays', which doesn't exist in Cambridge you know. And she thought it was fantastic because somebody could come in who actually has come from a different position and can actually suggest these kinds of things. And I would like to think that I have done, I haven't implemented that particular idea but there have been certain things I think I have done which I have brought with me from previous experiences. 

I mean one of my first jobs given to me when I arrived was to be in charge of the admissions for the undergraduates for languages in the college and with hindsight I probably should have experienced it as it had functioned previously and then decided 'okay, what would I like to change, what works and what doesn't?' But I didn't do that at all I mean I felt very strongly that the procedures within the college before hand were not satisfactory and I completely changed the type of interviews and what we asked the students to do based on the fact that Oxbridge is very concerned about access for undergraduates and is very… a lot of thought goes into these processes and there are people out there who don't apply, for the wrong reasons sometimes. Myself being one of them; I didn't even apply to Oxbridge. It was suggested to me in 6th Form because of my grades and I just automatically discounted it because I thought it was not for me and that is something I am quite keen to dispel, that kind of idea. And so I think, yes, coming from another institution allows me to come to the job quite fresh.

Can you tell me a little bit about the culture and ethos of HE as a workplace?

There are lots of different ways to kind of think about that question I suppose and answer it. I suppose one is this idea of academia as something that you do through love; that it is not a job that you undertake for the money but you do it because you enjoy it. And that is something that I do – I enjoy my job and that is very important. And I see that when I look at my friends who have graduated from university and gone onto more well paid roles such as law and accountancy and they don't enjoy their jobs but they get paid twice as much as me. And so part of that love sometimes means that the expectations of you are beyond those of a normal working environment, and so in order to maintain these diverse roles – that you are a good teacher and you are a good academic and you also you know pull your weight in administrative roles – means that you are being pulled in three or more directions at the same time. And finding the time to do that could be very difficult, and so I think there is a particular culture, maybe more so in this institution, of giving up more of your time at weekends and in the evenings than might be the case in other jobs and possibly in other institutions.  

I certainly think with the kind of work that I do, where I'm requiring my students to write an essay for every supervision that they come to, it means that whereas previously in my old institution my essay marking was all at the end of term and I would get a big pile of essays to make – and so yeah it was several days' work but it was containable – whereas now 12 hours a week of supervision two students in each supervision 24 essays a week to mark –  I can't do it during the day and so my evenings are often taken up in term time for marking and that is expected. But then, on the other hand, there is much more flexibility and so when it is the vacations I can take a day off to do other things if I need or want to or even during the term-time. I mean actually in this year I have been taking Thursday afternoons off to look after my daughter and pick her up from nursery at lunch times and I can do that, I can work my timetable around that. And so there are certain things that are much more flexible.

Does your current area of teaching and research connect directly or indirectly with your PhD research?

One of the things about the system here is that the papers that the students take are very wide. I guess that is one of the big transitions that I had to make changing institutions. Previously as an undergraduate I had studied very discreet modules; in my final years I took modules on you know testimonial Latin American literature. Well when you get here, when you look at the papers, testimonial Latin American literature is actually just one topic of about 15 in a very wide paper on Latin America. And so the Latin American thing, although my research is predominantly on peninsular Spanish literature, I also maintain an interest in Latin American culture as well and so I do teach in both areas here but predominantly I teach on peninsular. And in the peninsular papers for example the modern paper is basically called something like topics in Spanish Culture & Literature from 1820 to the present day. And so my own research I guess just feeds into a very small part of that. One of the things that I had to do when I arrived here was really spend a lot of time on expanding my knowledge. You know what I had before hand was actually quite fragmented because I had done this modular system and I hadn't ever taken such a broad paper as an undergraduate and so I had to do a lot of reading and research into new authors I had never read before. Some of which I am very grateful I had to do because they are really interesting people. And film as well, I mean I had never studied film before hand but I now teach film and enjoy it very much actually and it is something I'm thinking of maybe looking more into in research as well. 

And so moving to this Oxbridge institution meant I had to broaden my knowledge and perspective on my previous work I suppose. The problem with a PhD is it becomes so narrow and defined that actually you do sometimes lose sight of the larger picture of what is going on elsewhere. 

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