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.

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