HERDSA presidential address

Shelda Debowski, as HERDSA president, presented the closing presidential address for the HERDSA conference, discussing the changes in academic life, the increasing focus in research outcomes, and the casualisation of the workforce as it becomes more and more difficult to earn a permanent position within our universities.

Shelda spoke about how we are becoming more and more frenetic about our academic pursuit, and the challenge is to ensure that we include time for reflection, learning and creativity, and to ensure that we need to maintain the academic ideal of focussing on the big questions that are important, and that we are passionate about, rather than racing after the next brass ring that will give us that next step towards being successful in academia. This struggle to create and form a new academic identity has been a resonating theme for academic conferences that I have attended over the last few years.

Shelda is putting forward the idea that we need to be more strategic in our new academic identity – including time for reflection, developing and supporting mentorship relationships, and understanding the broader university setting and policy frameworks. Having this basis will mean that we are more effective, and also have a stronger and more consistent view of why we are where we are. Much of what Shelda is saying goes against much of the push on expectations on ECRs. For example, we need to be aware of when to apply for grants. Grant applications take time, and you need to have sufficient publications in order to be successful. However, we expect our ECRs to be “grant ready”, to be able to successfully apply for grants from their appointment. But this is unrealistic.

Some of the focus in the discussion here, and the discussion at earlier sessions is really on self regulation, something we focus so much on with our students, but something that we are obviously lacking ourselves as ECRs. We want to only hire those ECRs that are going to instantly be successful, or already are. But in our postdoctoral training, do we actually address the self regulation skills that are needed for our potential academic staff to be strategic? To form the networks, mentorship relationships etc that are needed? I don’t think so. Of course, we can implant now the training for ECRs that is needed, but in the meantime, we need to introduce, perhaps ad-hoc, support for are already appointed, and perhaps waning, ECRs.

One challenge that Shelda put to us is one that the community has been discussing for a while – how do you form consistent and viable teaching assessment? How can we introduce mechanisms to give us robust measurement of teaching quality that we can then use in our assessment and guidance of staff. At the moment we have such metrics for research, and we use them throughout our institutions, but we tend not to talk about teaching metrics as we do not have them. The result, in one sense, is that we ignore teaching in our discussions.

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