School’s out

Taken on a Nokia 8. Munkkiniemi Frisbeegolf Course, Finland, 1 June 2020.

What a truly bizarre academic school year.

My last lecture for the 2019–2020 academic year was scheduled to take place this morning. But, covid-19 ensured that I would not physically meet with my students, and the entire last dash towards the end of the year was rather anticlimactic. I spent a portion of this weekend recording and cleaning up the audio files for my last lecture and sorting through my slide decks. And, by about 9.30 this morning, all of the lecture materials were uploaded and visible via various distance learning tools the University of Helsinki has made available to both instructors and students alike.

Now, I’m left with sorting through my inbox as final assignments filter in and submitting my final reports and student grades. No lovely send offs. No in-person thanks and well-wishes for equally productive and restorative summer holidays. No fanfare at all, it seems.

It kind of sucks, to be honest.

And, most educators I suspect have felt something similar for the last several months. specifically as they close the books (pun intended) for this school year. And, certainly at the end of this most memorable and challenging of academic years.

Teaching and lecturing are exhausting during the best of times, and more so when you must quickly adapt and adjust to new realities with relatively little warning at all. I’m fortunate. I love my job and find the exhaustion infinitely rewarding because of the returns earned through inspiration and continual intellectual challenges and breakthroughs for me and my students. I’m infinitely fortunate to have the continual support from my direct supervisor and immediate colleagues, and incredible students, all of whom as graduate students are more than capable of using their own reserves to draw upon for self-discipline and time management necessary to learning asynchronously.

But, goodness I miss lecturing.

The worry for me and the source of my overwhelming exhaustion this year relates to that constant concern that the courses and materials are not meeting their needs. That all of these tools and technologies made available to us are poor and rather inadequate substitutes for the real-life, in-person interactions we typically enjoy and use to gauge engagement and understanding. Interactions I enjoy, and ultimately use to measure my own performance as much as theirs.

Summer may have arrived in Helsinki for this university instructor and her students. But, much of this summer for me means revamping and reexamining how to make distance learning a little more palatable for my students as well as for me. How to make achieving our mutual learning objectives a bit more possible and attainable. And, how to make the experience a little less lonely and a little more fulfilling and more interactive even with social distancing measures in place.

And, here, again, I suspect I’m not alone.

We are all redefining what ‘normal’ means to and for us. [Instructor and teacher friends, we’ve got this!] We are all adjusting to new realities and wondering what various seeds of change drifting on one wind or another will sprout in the near and distant futures.

Metamorphosis

As a twenty-something graduate student, I never imagined teaching. The prize that I kept my eye on at that time was research, ideally in a position related to policy in some way, shape or form. At that time, as an arrogant graduate student rather myopically focused on her own research, I thought landing a teaching gig would be the worst possible outcome of all those hours and years spent as a graduate student.

Oh, the irony. Life has a way of reminding us of just how foolish we can be as young (or, even, older) idealists.

Fast forward 20-plus years, and here I am lecturing to graduate students. What’s weirder still, I love it. After three full academic years of teaching at the University of Helsinki, I cannot imagine not teaching.

Part of my enthusiasm for teaching lies within the topics I teach: academic writing, conference presentations and presentations in general, and grant writing, along with a few other transferrable skills courses. I was fortunate as a graduate student to have incredible mentors, professors-turned-friends who I still rely on for their wisdom and guidance, even if I don’t constantly pester them or hover in their doorways. The lessons they taught me years ago remain with me even now, and often echo in my own lectures. I can only hope that I do these incredible minds and kind souls justice. Because they shaped me in so many ways and helped me to become a more dedicated member of the academic community I now feel duty-bound to serve.

As exhausting as the academic calendar is and as much as I look forward to summer and winter breaks, being an instructor never ceases to provide further inspiration and immeasurable rewards. This most likely reflects the immense privilege it is to guide the pool of students that grace my classrooms. These brilliant, dedicated individuals, wise beyond their years, amaze me. They are, quite simply and, as one professor referred to me, indefatigable. As I sift through my inbox sending reviews and feedback to those who worked incredibly hard throughout whichever course they took with me, some of these bright young minds provide feedback to me. I welcome these moments because they help me do better in future. But, this, this I wasn’t expecting and it has moved me in ways I can’t begin to describe:

…. [O]ne thing that I found particularly inspiring was that you seemed to let your personality bubble through your professional instructor role. I have noticed that especially women often somehow suppress or flatten their personality when acting in an expert position, which is maybe because they are afraid of not to be taken seriously otherwise. I don’t want to end up falling into this pit, so I also want to thank you for showing an empowering example that it is possible to be a professional without burying yourself under a role.

For whatever reason, this feedback from an incredibly bright young student represents one of the most powerful indicators that I’m doing what I should be doing. What I was intended to do. And, perhaps, something I’m truly good at. If my classroom example encourages young women scholars to be themselves regardless of stereotypes and expectations, all the better.

Indeed. As a graduate student, as a young career professional and later as a mid-career professional, I didn’t always feel sufficiently empowered to be me. Perhaps the greatest gift this gig has offered me is a way to find my own voice and to apply that voice to providing guidance to others. Without consciously realising it, my own voice appears more genuine and more authentic than it’s ever been before. And, oddly, more confident.

I love my job. Truly. But, this personal metamorphosis was so entirely unintended, yet I completely welcome it. And, can only hope that it continues. At the very least, I hope my own metamorphosis allows others to transform as well…