A series of lasts

Bloody hell the last few weeks have been emotionally draining and exhausting. And, quite simply, so very, very emotional.

Since definitively learning that I did not secure a job I desperately wanted and believe I would have done well in, a job I have also done albeit informally for nearly a decade, I’ve been extremely busy.

Doing what? Well, *that* job.

My teaching schedule this spring has been insane, particularly this last month. From 1 to 31 May, I logged 92 academic hours of teaching, which included 7 different groups of students for specific courses and a two-day workshop on grant writing to researchers from SE Asia. I’ve also had more revision work than I normally do this time of year. Sleep and rest have taken a back seat.

This week, however, the pace slowed down significantly. In total, I *only* had two lectures: one on Monday and one this morning. Today’s class meeting, one of my largest ever groups for the advanced grant writing workshop I designed, adjusted-based-on-feedback, and taught and one of the most active classes ever, concluded. It was also a few doors down from the very first classroom I stepped into as an educator at the University of Helsinki in August 2014.

After we finished and the last students left, I took a few moments to linger and just … be.

What am I feeling right now?

Resignation. Sadness. A sense of injustice. And, gratitude. Mostly, a profound sense of grief as well as accomplishment.

One thing I’ve learned in these last few weeks is that my time in these classrooms has not been wasted. Not only have I learned a tremendous amount about the topics I have taught, I’ve also heard from so many students, current and former, how much they’ve learned and taken from our time together. Out a sense of respect for the students I have had this month in particular, I was honest with them about my fate and future, because this affects them as well. And, perhaps more than it affects me — future course offerings available to them will undoubtedly change and shift next autumn.

I’ve also learned a hell of a lot about myself, in these past few weeks as well as looking back on my evolution as an instructor. And, I have absolutely no regrets about any of it at all.

None of this has been easy. Far, far from it. In fact, this has been one of the most difficult professional moments of my life. Partially because I know it is coming to an end based on decisions entirely beyond my own control. Partially because I do not know what comes next (other than a mountain of reviewing of student work). And, partially because I have had so many last moments over the past several weeks. Lasts I’d rather not be ‘the last’.

The last class meeting on the Meilahti campus and for the doctoral programme in health sciences, the programme I initially felt most able to and comfortable working with. [The room itself was bloody awful; the kindness and support from the students were immense and powerful.]

The last two courses on the Kumpula campus, the fields I felt least capable of communicating with because they focus on things like chemistry, mathematics, computer science and (space) physics — the natural sciences. [Forgive me for thinking of space lasers and robots, but I can’t help myself.] My last courses were immeasurably rewarding and the students were incredibly kind and supportive, as well as engaged and vocal, something I wasn’t really expecting, to be honest.

The last class meeting on the City Centre campus and in the humanities and social sciences. This class was in a room with one of my favourite views of Helsinki, and was with a group which remained in the classroom for more than 30 minutes after our course officially concluded to simply talk and commiserate with me. Leaving with three of the participants, they asked me if I needed a hug, which left me just a weebit more broken.

The last class meeting this morning for students in the environmental sciences was just down the hall from where it all began for me, and the last time I’ll teach my favourite course, Grant Writing, Part II. This group was amazing. They all are, but there was something about the dynamics of this specific course that made it … work. And, as I write this now, I am bereft.

And, come Monday, I will have my very last class meeting for UH’s doctoral researchers as a transferrable skills instructor. I am dreading it.

When I arrived back home this afternoon after class, I received feedback from the first of these lasts. Here’s three snippets from that feedback:

‘Everything in this course had a clear purpose, and it was all beneficial to my learning. I know constructive feedback is important for making improvements, but I can’t think of anything needing improvement. Great course, great lecturer, very unfortunate this is apparently the last time it’s taught.’ – Participant 1, Health 135, Spring 2023

Google translate version: ‘Course instructor Vanessa Fuller is excellent at her job! Grant writing 1 and 2 were both full of information and really provided heaps of learning for real life. Vanessa’s teaching style is very good, she gets the audience interested, focused and talking. She has a positive and encouraging attitude towards every student, and that’s why the audience dares to participate in the conversation, even if the level of the English language is not perfect. The lectures are a good immersion in the necessary academic vocabulary. Since she is a native speaker of the English language, it is really pleasant to listen to her speech. I will be very sad if Vanessa cannot continue to teach these courses. These teachings should be offered to every HY doctoral student in the future.‘ – Participant 2, Health 135, Spring 2023

‘Best teacher’ – Participant 3, Health 135, Spring 2023

I don’t know what’s next. But, at least I know I made some difference, helped some of these amazing young scholars achieve their own dreams. They’ve certainly allowed me to realise my own dreams, one’s I scarcely imagined possible.

Changes: Or a Vaguebook clarification

Most likely, if you’ve seen any of my recent posts to Facebook you understood that something is in the air. And it’s not just the pollen that accompanies the change of seasons in Southern Finland.

tl;dr version: I recently submitted a formal application for a fixed-term position of University Lecturer in English at the University of Helsinki. I was not shortlisted and my last day in the classroom will be 5 June.

If that news shocks you, you are not alone. So, what’s going on? Why did I apply for a job I have been doing since August 2014, you ask? And, what the hell happened?

There’s a story here, y’all. And, I’ll try to clarify as much of it as I can.

The university has gone through some restructuring, a part of which involved creating several full-time, fixed-term teaching positions which will largely be responsible for offering courses on transferrable (or soft) skills, courses such as those I developed and currently teach. Until now, I have assumed a role akin to an adjunct faculty member rather than through a formal appointment or contract. Each year, normally in February, my boss and the PhD programme coordinators would negotiate how many courses they wanted to offer for the following academic year and on what specific topics. Then, I would take a look at that list and decide how many courses I could feasibly take on. [And, yes, I would normally take on more than I should because… well, students want/need the courses and I love teaching them. If you’ve known me for any amount of time, you also know that I’ve always overestimated what I can reasonably achieve. Whatever.] It’s honestly worked rather well and allowed me an enormous amount of flexibility in deciding my own schedule.

Anyway… the exact structural changes within the university are rather complicated and the specific details were largely rather unimportant to me until now. But, those changes impacted my life and especially my role at the university in quite a few ways, which were just weird and, honestly, slightly terrifying once the next steps became clear. Now, that terror has become a gut punch.

Primarily, it meant the woman who recruited me to teach at the university would no longer be my ‘boss’. Processing that is hard, because Leena has been not just a dream to work with, but also the most supportive, compassionate and protective-in-a-necessary-way direct supervisor I’ve ever had. She’s often protected me from myself. [See above about reasonable and translate that to my work plans.] I’ve had some great bosses, y’all. [Some of you are likely reading this and thinking, ‘Yo! What the hell, V?!’ No offence to you, truly. But, if you worked with Leena, you’d understand.] She’s not just my advocate and sounding board, she’s a great friend as well. Not teaching for her seems just… weird (and, right now, wrong). So, I chose not to process that reality until I absolutely had to. Thankfully, I’ll still get to work with her albeit in a different capacity. I’ll continue revising for the university community, which is part of her division as well. Silver linings and all, right?

The truly terrifying realisation for me, however, alongside with not working for Leena, was my future as an instructor at the university. Throughout the application process, and whilst awaiting word on my professional fate, I have had a lot of students in individual courses and will continue to do so through the first week of June (I have 6 courses to finish, each with at least 14 participants). Knowing how to respond to their queries about future courses is beyond my capabilities. I know neither their options nor until this week did I know my own fate as their instructor. If nothing else, this application process resulted in a thorough understanding of just how much I love what I do, and how much it now defines me. The self-reflection has been enlightening and powerful.

Anyway, I did everything I could to put together what I had hoped was a convincing case for ‘why me’ and what I have to offer this professional community that has been my home since 2014. I was supported by seven incredibly kind and rather embarrassing praise-filled letters of support: three from colleagues at the university and four from former students, one of which was sent to me unsolicited. The deadline for submission was 19 April, and following my own advice to students, I submitted on 18 April.

Alas, two days ago, my worst nightmare became reality, and I knew with certainty that I would no longer be an instructor of transferable skills courses to PhD candidates at the University of Helsinki. The reason? I did not finish my dissertation and receive a PhD.

I do not mind telling you that it was and remains a complete gut punch. I was and am heartbroken. If you’ve followed this journey of mine since 2014, you likely also understand that I have loved my role as an educator and mentor. Walking into classrooms this week has been brutal, y’all.

This entire process, though, has left me weeping on multiple occasions. Not just the rejection itself, although that still is enormously painful. What’s filled me with hope as well as with an undefinable sense of gratitude is the people who have had my back and the extraordinary kindness and lengths so many have gone to in showing their support for my candidacy, either by simply being there for me or actively supporting my application. From the gushing letters of support and recommendations to reviewing bits of my CV, cover letter and/or teaching portfolio, often multiple times, to simply offering a friendly bit of advice or strategically timed word of encouragement, I am left transformed. I will forever struggle to meet my own high standards for myself; but, y’all seriously left everything out on the field for me. And, I’m honestly speechless.

What’s next?

I honestly don’t know.

Well, first I’m finishing up the remaining courses I have committed to for this academic year. I owe that much to my boss, but more so to the students who signed up for those courses and to myself. I’m leaving everything ‘out on the field’ in these courses, y’all, and going out with a bang. I also have a mountainous backlog of feedback to send to past students, and maybe I’ll finally empty my inbox.

Beyond that, I don’t know. I’ll continue revising and try to sort out other more practical concerns as well as soon as I can.

I’m also going to do some healing of my shattered heart. The waves of emotions are tsunamis right now, and my I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a bit angry. So, I’ll be processing my feelings alongside working out what comes next.

I will close with a few lines from my cover letter. These passages perhaps more than any others encapsulate my feelings on that role I had and loved:

… Because I benefitted from careful mentoring on these precise skills from my own mentors, the idea of paying it forward compelled me. Thus, I agreed to take on a few courses in autumn 2014, a fortuitous decision in hindsight, and one which fundamentally changed my life and my identity. To put it simply, the last nine years have been the most rewarding of my career and my life… To my mind, my greatest professional success has been witnessing current and former students flourish. In return, this also grants me a priceless gift. Creating dialogues with students—some of which last for a single course, many of which extend beyond the PhD defence—and watching them blossom as they challenge themselves to step outside their academic comfort zones have rewarded me immeasurably…

18 April 2023

I haven’t even begun to understand how much I’m going to miss the view from various classrooms nor how much I’ll miss standing up in front a room full of eager young scholars. But, I will. And, still, I have zero regrets.

The view from Porthania, P667, a classroom in the City Centre I know incredibly well.

On ‘Steering the Craft’ by Ursula K Le Guin

Steering the Craft: A Twenty-First-Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story by Ursula K. Le Guin

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I clearly need to read more from Ursula K Le Guin.

I picked this book up based on the review a friend and colleague posted about it several months ago. As an instructor for PhD students and postdocs who seek to improve their writing skills, this seemed like an interesting read and possible source for new ideas and tips to share.

I’m delighted to say this book proved more than useful and highly insightful, and already appears to have influenced my own teaching as well as revising for various clients. (I’m not kidding: I caught myself yesterday hearing Ursula’s guidance as I proofread a manuscript for a client, finding several highly ambiguous and awkwardly phrased sentences that desperately required reshuffling.)

Filled with insight, tips, and useful examples from masters of prose, as well as exercises for both writing and critiquing, this is a highly useful book, both for those writing fiction or memoirs as well as for those like my own students attempting to tell the story of their research. As time (and energy levels) permits, I plan to work through the exercises. At the very least, I’ll be incorporating them into my own courses and gladly share them with colleagues.

This is a gem of a resources for those who seek to write as well as for those working with writers regardless of genre, style, length or topic. It’s also a bloody good read.

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Teaching in the time of Corona

I’ve been thinking a lot about time lately, largely because it has so very little meaning these days. It passes, certainly. But, how we classify it seems all confused and out of sorts. For instance, I’m not sure if today marks the beginning of the last course to close out my fifth academic year (2019-2020) or the official beginning of my sixth academic year (2020-2021) teaching at the University of Helsinki. Why this confusion? Well the course that began today was originally planned for last spring, but was rescheduled due to Covid-19. Thus, we met for the first time today. Ambiguous time, right?

Thus, I’m straddling a weird place. Rather apropos for 2020, I suppose.

Regardless, as the time for that first ‘meeting’ of this specific course neared, I realised two things:

  1. I’ll never not be a bundle of nerves on the first day of the academic year or just prior to meeting a new group of students for the first time. It doesn’t matter how often I’ve taught the material or how comfortable I feel with it, I’m a nervous Nellie on the first day and through the first few moments of a class. Perhaps given that this was my first real-time Zoom class, I was even more nervous.
  2. This year more than most I am feeling so much solidarity with and love for every single teacher / instructor / professor I know at the moment. Whether their academic year features in-person, online or some hybrid format given Covid-19, and whether they teach the tiniest people or more seasoned and budding young scholars, educators everywhere deserve so much recognition and kudos as a special cadre of underappreciated superheroes in these times. I don’t know a single educator friend who is not a badass with the compassion of the Buddha to back up their mad skills. And, I know a fair many who are terrified for their students and themselves, which breaks my heart.

Today’s class went well enough all things considered. All of us are attempting to be a bit more forgiving and more patient with ourselves as well as with one another than perhaps we would be normally (speaking for myself here). We — students and educators alike — are all navigating strange times, and simply must deal with things as best we can and as they present themselves to us.

Hopefully, we all emerge from this surreal experience and academic year a little wiser and having met our individual and collective objectives as educators. And hopefully our students learn what we intended or planned for them and feel fortified and fulfilled, and ready to embark on whatever future awaits them.

I’m fortunate: my courses at least for the autumn term are entirely online. I would naturally prefer to meet my students in person. But, I’d much rather they and I remain healthy in these times. I genuinely hurt for those educators and students forced to enter situations in which daily they wonder if they are risking their own or their family’s health and well-being. No one should be forced into such a situation.

So, as Finnish school children and teachers across the country return, here’s to all of the educators entering the 2020-2021 academic year. In Finland, the United States and everywhere.

Be safe, y’all. And, I hope you feel supported and loved and recognised for your heroism and extraordinary efforts in continuing to inform, enlighten and educate your students. You’re value and worth are immeasurable and I for one and for what it’s worth salute you.

Google Doodle for 13 August 2020

On ‘The Uncounted’ by Sara ‘Meg’ Davis

The Uncounted by Sara L.M. Davis

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In today’s world in particular, there are days when it seems as though we are drowning in information. Too much data. Too much ‘stuff’ to process and make sense of. That feeling is only partially true, however. Across various areas and arenas, we know far too little, particularly when we focus on issues surrounding health and human rights. All too often we take the absence of information or data or evidence as a sign that we may relax a bit.

We desperately need to shift that thinking. The Uncounted, by Sara ‘Meg’ Davis provides a road map for how we may begin to shift our thinking and perspectives in order to adjust how, amongst whom and what we collect data in a relatively simple way, and in a way which may pay huge dividends, particularly amongst those most in need and previously most neglected in policy planning and financing.

‘The Uncounted’ is a fantastic read, one which profoundly challenges the notion that in the absence of information or evidence we don’t need to worry about issue X. That is, if we carefully examine those variables for which we have no data or evidence, perhaps upon digging deeper and enlisting assistance from those more acutely and intimately aware than we are, we will find previously hidden information and data. And, that data and information are likely to radically shift how we design programmes or policies on various issues. We will no longer be able to simply dismiss an issue as unproblematic. Quite simply, ‘The Uncounted’ provides a profound argument for carefully considering how we examine and apply the absence of evidence as an indicator.

‘The Uncounted’ is rich in ethnographic descriptions, documenting the various assumptions made by multilateral agencies charged with dispersing funding to and establishing guidelines for countries in how they respond to HIV, tuberculosis and malaria (e.g., The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB and Malaria, UNAIDS, WHO, PEPFAR, etc) and local-level agencies and individuals best situated to argue for expanding programmes and funding schemes within communities. For those unfamiliar with such agencies, Dr Davis disentangles these various personalities and agencies rather neatly, making it clear who does what and whose voice is perhaps most necessary in deciding upon programmes and policies to address HIV in particular. Following the progress and steps necessary to count the uncounted within the Caribbean region provides evidence for how we can begin to shift our thinking and truly ensure full inclusion of all individuals affected by HIV and specifically those least likely to date to receive crucial services and support.

Reading ‘The Uncounted’ during a global pandemic proved rather surreal,not simply because some of its key characters are also playing a crucial role in current events vis-a-vis Covid-19. As our global health-related realities have been thrown into chaos this year with the emergence of Covid-19, I’m curious to see how various elements of Dr Davis’ careful and thorough work play out. Whilst focused primarily on HIV, and the very real oversights in counting typically hidden populations such as men who have sex with men, transgender people, sex workers and people who use drugs, certainly many individuals, and perhaps the most vulnerable, will go uncounted in the wake of Covid-19. Will health, social, and economic policy makers and planners at local, national, and international levels solicit the perspectives from those at the community levels most intimately associated with the epidemics and acutely aware of problems in providing treatment, care and support to those affected in order to understand who, what, why and where? Or will they rely on the absence of evidence as evidence of absence simply because individuals are not counted by the powers that be? How will key populations be accounted for? Will they?

My hope is that the powers that be across power structures would heed the advice and road maps provided by Dr Davis. The reality is that in some places, that advice and those road maps are not being considered. And, in those places it seems as those Covid-19 is raging unchallenged. [Insert heavy sigh here.]

‘The Uncounted’ provides this cynic with a bit of hope, however, particularly with regards to HIV. Hope that we expand our perspective ever so slightly, yet in a way which we can make a huge difference to communities and key populations who may have previously faced stigma, discrimination and institutional neglect, and who may finally receive the crucial support to transform structures that place them at the response to HIV. It won’t be easy, but it is necessary. And, to my mind, long overdue.

Clearly, we can no longer that that ‘absence of evidence as evidence of absence’.

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On ‘Write It Up’, by Paul Silvia

Write It Up! Practical Strategies for Writing and Publishing Journal ArticlesWrite It Up! Practical Strategies for Writing and Publishing Journal Articles by Paul J. Silvia
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

As an instructor to young (and older) PhD students, specifically providing guidance on the wonderfully wacky world of academic publishing, I think this book rocks.

It’s not just a how-to for each individual section of a manuscript, it’s also a bit like a personalised cheerleader, cutting off each objection and ‘but what about’ as it crops up. Never dull, always insightful and on point, Paul Silvia offers a delightful primer on academic writing and putting together academic articles that will be read rather than simple consigned to the published rubbish heaps that litter various libraries, virtually and otherwise. 

I’d require my students to read this book if they were undergraduates and took my classes for actual letter grades. However, they’re adults and can and will do what they want with their valuable time. So, let’s just say that I will strongly encourage them to heed his advice (along with mine to read this book), particularly if they question what we discuss and do in my own classrooms.  

One particularly useful bit of this book is the chapter on the publication process itself, from submission to journals through to revising and resubmitting based on that most dreaded process called ‘peer review’. If you, my dear students, read nothing else, read that chapter. [And, as you do, you will hear my voice, saying, ‘See? I told you so!’]

Thank you, Professor Silvia, for having our instructors’ backs, as well as providing an example of an academic writer with wit, charm and intellect that shines through careful writing. I’ll be recommending this gem of a book to all of my students forevermore.

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Their success…

I am shattered.

In truth, I’m running out of ways to describe just how exhausted and spent I am at the moment — mentally and physically, but particularly mentally. This does not serve me well when my vocation depends upon the mental acuity to not only communicate well, but to help others communicate their own ideas, plans and findings more effectively.

As a consequence of the need for a mental break and at least a week (or more) of decent nights’ sleep, I confess: lately, I’ve felt less than successful at my job. In fact, I’ve felt like I’m letting my colleagues and my students in particular down.

Today, however, two things happened which reminded me that I’m still doing okay. First, I received an email from a former student, thanking me for helping her with grant writing. After multiple attempts and failures in the past, she received two years of funding for her PhD research. Reading this over my morning coffee made me smile. But, this evening, during an entirely different class on conference presentations, one of the participants shared that she actually won a prize for her presentation at a local conference last week. And, she believed that recognition resulted from her experiences in and feedback from that class particular over the preceding three weeks.

Today was a good day.

My success as an instructor and a member of the extended University of Helsinki community isn’t so much about cataloging accolades for my own resume. It’s much more about these seemingly small-scale successes for my students and colleagues. Their successes are my successes. Their awards reward me even if I am neither recipient or beneficiary. I don’t need to be.

If I am at all effective in my job, these individuals—who spend 12 to 24 hours sitting in a classroom with me or painstakingly address each of my seemingly infinite number of suggestions and revisions—gain one skill or another to help them along in their careers. Whilst I don’t often know what happens to them once they leave my classroom or inbox, I thrive on hearing their success stories and victories. And, it could not be more meaningful; it could not make me happier.

Several weeks ago, I noticed balloons randomly placed around the city centre campus. They seemed so celebratory, although at the time I did not feel at all festive. I honestly cared now why they were there; I just liked seeing them and snapped a picture.

This evening, they seem relevant. And, celebratory in an altogether different way. And, this evening, as with most, I am immensely proud and honoured to serve as a member of this community of brilliant scholars. Here’s to our collective success.

University of Helsinki


Bigger picture & wider lens


Arthur Sasse / AFP

Maybe it’s because I love the notion of the mad scientist. But, I love Einstein.

His brilliant mind aside, I love his wit and eccentricity, along with his passion for communicating science and his own work within it.

One of my favourite images of Einstein other than him sat in wacky dress donning furry slippers (naturally) features the not-so-mad scientist sticking his tongue out. I’ve had a version of that image for as long as I can remember, and it never fails to cheer me up and remind me to embrace the silliness whenever I can.

I decided to use the image for a talk I’m giving later today to women in STEM at the University of Helsinki. The talk itself is on communicating science. And, as I’ve been thinking about and formulating precisely what I want to say on communicating science vis-á-vis the dreaded conference presentation, that image of Einstein has popped up in my head over and over again.

When looking up images as I was preparing, I found a bit on the history of it, and love it even more now.

My original intention and own message for including it focused on simply ‘being yourself’ during presentations. When we attempt to assume someone else’s notion of what it means to be a researcher or scientist or instructor (in my case), we become disingenuous and lose credibility amongst our audiences. We aren’t actors, after all. And, we shouldn’t pretend to be.  We also lose the plot of our message as well. Rather than water down our own personalities and individualities, I say bring them to the forefront when presenting.

But, also, I think this image reminds us to have fun with our presentations, particularly when we care most about the messages we are communicating. Most of those with whom I work research incredibly interesting yet at times troubling or difficult topics. It’s hard work no doubt. But each of us are truly passionate about our work (I hope) and I’d like to think that we also have fun with it.

In addition and after reading the back story behind this image of Einstein and his tongue, to me the image now serves as a reminder to never assume that the audience will intuitively get the full picture of the story we’re attempting to tell. Unless, that is, we actually tell the story well.

Details matter. As does the bigger picture and wider lens.