On becoming an academic

On becoming an academic….

Between my finger and my thumb, The squat pen rests. I’ll dig with it – Seamus Heaney

For this is what I appear to become. This fact became clear, or clearer, last week, when I attended my university’s graduation ceremonies, and an academic conference. It brought a few realisations with it.

Graduation means a lot to the students who participate, and their families watching on. Even though we have shifted from a position of 5% of school leavers going into higher education, to one where around 50% of school leavers do, it is still an ‘individual journey’, a unique moment in the life of the student. The rhetoric of employability screams in student’s ears so much these days that I doubt they stop to think so much about the notion that an education might just be an end in itself. But it is just that, and perhaps at graduation, there is a moment in which to think on that.

To give voice to my teenage self, I did always want to be an academic. My first job after university was in academic social research around children and families, but I lost my way, became disillusioned, and left. I think a slice of (unnecessary) working class modesty had something to do with it, though not all. A sense that I wasn’t clever enough, didn’t belong, had always pervaded, even though no-one else ever said it to me. I have always regretted leaving, but have to hold on to the notion that, without the meanderings of the intervening years, particularly down the rather dull and dimly lit corridors of Ofsted, I would not have found my way back. In essence, those years gave me something to care about – early years – something to champion, something to know.

As I get to know my colleagues, both within my new institution, and the wider academic community via conference attendance, I am forced to acknowledge the variety of approaches towards ‘the academic life’. Even those of us who strive for the moderation of ego via Buddhist principles have to acknowledge that in every professional role there is an opportunity to enjoy status, and its close friend, privilege. Academics are no different. Social science academics – which is how you might best describe me – are no different. They desire impact and recognition, and have done since the days of their godfather, Richard Titmuss, whose mouth was never far from the ear of government. Titmuss set a precedent, and the Blairite government fanned the flames of desire in us; “Come, tell us interesting things, and we’ll let you shape policy and society” they cried. Many of the people I have heard speak in the last few months have achieved those giddy heights, can rest their heads knowing they have been heard by those who count.

So as I step out onto the very crowded stage of social science academia and research, there is a need for me to consider my role. As I sat through plenaries, and workshops and honorary doctorate acceptance speeches last week, I pondered this question. I heard one senior academic describe her deliberate abandonment of status as she participated in action research, got her hands metaphorically dirty, and found out something useful along the way about how children play and the unassessibility of true child-led play. I heard another absorbed in an idiosyncratic preoccupation with the redefinition of otherwise familiar concepts. She spoke in a classically academic way, and I was intrigued, and impressed – but also left wondering what had been added to the body of knowledge that might make a difference to ordinary lives. I found myself leaning towards the example of the first over the second – siding with the notion that an academic life, however rarefied the atmosphere within which it operates, can yet still make a useful contribution to the debates around how best to organise society.

Thus I find myself really wanting to tackle injustice via my work, to really ‘tell it like it is’. To do this academia – and I – need to remain connected to society in a genuine fashion, and pitch our collective wisdom in terms that all can understand. I don’t believe many academics these days live at the top of ivory towers – the reality of university life in England, chasing research grants, and dealing with ever more diverse student cohorts, precludes such an existence. Indeed, universities are themselves an increasing site of policy shift and politicisation. But we need to remain wary of the accusation of ivory-tower residence, and keep our work, and our language, firmly focused on the notion of being accessible, both to our students who carry our messages out into the world of professional practice, and to the wider community.

For me then, a hope of keeping the research work in early years and social policy I do purposeful; not necessarily in the grand way of reaching the ear of the minister, more in the sense of being a common sense exploration of current troubling issues that we could, as a nation, better address. And a hope of keeping the teaching I do ethically located in meeting student need and shaping, for the good, their one-day-to-come practice, rather than aspiring towards some imagined and surreal elevated status that might afford me an invitation to Whitehall. The graduations I attend each year will hopefully serve as a reminder of why I have a job in the first place. And this way, I might – just might – find a way to tackle the injustices endured by British children, through both my words and deeds.

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