Academic New Years Resolutions

What are your academic weaknesses? What would you like to improve? And in 2012, how will you resolve (see what I did there) to improve them?

I suspect that many of my Academic New Years Resolutions are the same as everyone else’s: write more papers, get grants, teach better, engage with the publics better. To this, other academics might also add: do the work/life balance thing better, go for promotion, and, if many of them are honest, get a big grant and farm out all their teaching to graduate students and RAs – but these aren’t concerns for me at the moment. If we get into more detail, we start to see different sorts of academics at different career stages have quite diverse short-term goals; for some, it might be publishing their first paper (for PhD students); for others, time management or getting more students.

It can be quite difficult to talk about weaknesses in the competitive world of academia, especially if we view those weaknesses as being core to our work (and, let’s be honest, academics have a diverse and difficult to master range of skills which are held to be core to our work). However, I thought I would share the areas where I really want to get better in 2012 –¬† I’m interested in hearing from others what they think their weaknesses as an academic are, and how they go about improving…

As an academic, I think I have a fairly acute sense of what my strengths and weaknesses are. I’ve had a fair bit of teaching and public engagement experience; on the minus side I’ve led a fairly peripatetic academic existence, and so my publication record is not the jewel in my crown (especially in social sciences) and neither is my substantive grounding. This is sort of the opposite position that most new lecturers find themselves in – typically they will have a very strong research record but perhaps will have had fewer teaching and PE opportunities.

1: Read more and better
I’m still reading around my new subject (only 18 months in). Finding time to do it can be hard, but committing time to regular reading during the working week is really important. I do read (academic!) papers on the commute sometimes, but I’m not someone who will get home and start reading a treatise on subgraph centrality over their steak dinner. Contextualising knowledge, retaining it through note-taking – these all happen differently in social physics compared to medical physicis or a quantum physicis, and I am still learning how to do that in this new field.

Summary: Protect reading time and learn new study habits for organising knowledge systematically

2: Write more
I can be a bit of a perfectionist when it comes to writing, and I am completely aware that this comes from knowing how savaged things get at the review process. As a musician and writer I taught myself early on that work I share with the world will meet criticism, hatred and indifference as well as interest and praise, and taught myself not to care. That’s not a reasonable outlook for academic work, as people’s criticisms have impact on (e.g.) whether the work is published and are often (but not always) useful for improving the work. I personally think that the writing process will become easier as I have more confidence in what I’m presenting, and view criticism as “suggestions for improvement” rather than “an indictment of my poor scholarship”. All of this might seem terribly thin-skinned of me, but being an itinerant academic (I’ve changed fields twice since my PhD) means that there are plenty of times when I don’t know what I’m talking about.

Summary: Learn to be capable and confident in my scholarship and so to respond positively to criticism

3: Get grants
This seems pretty important. I have only a Co-I on a small grant to my name.

Summary: Start applying for grants (duh)

4: Improve teaching
I think I’m a decentish lecturer, so now is the time to build on what I view as a reasonably solid foundation and try to make my teaching better. As hinted above, I’m not someone who especially wants to get some jackpot grant and give all my teaching to a research associate – while I think that it’s useful and important for grad students and RAs to do some teaching, I want to teach and I want to teach well. And a good course will attract more students, so there are cynical as well as idealistic reasons for this, too.

How will I teach better? With the small group we have, class-led activities have worked really well, and I want to continue those and expand them into formative assessment exercises – giving students feedback about their progress and encouraging them to assess themselves and collaborate.

Summary: Improve course content and use group-led assessment

There are lots of ways I want to improve as an academic, but I suspect these will be the ones I focus on most over the next 12 months. If there are other academics and researchers out there who want to share their improvement plans and resolutions for 2012, please leave your comments below the line…. I would suggest the twitter hashtag #acNYR12 but it’s long and incomprehensible.

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