What do you actually do?! Episode 6: J.T. Welsch, Writer and Lecturer

Today’s episode of What Do You Actually Do!? explores the role of J.T. Welsch, Lecturer in English and the Creative Industries.

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K: Hello and welcome to this episode of What Do You Actually Do!? This week we’ll be talking about academia. We’re joined by J.T. Welsch who works at the University of York in the Department of English and Related Literature. Hello J.T. thanks for joining us today… What do you actually do?

J.T.: Well, my official title is, I am a lecturer in English and Creative Industries. Sometimes I’m not entirely sure what that means, people will ask me and I have to make things up on the spot. I guess I am a lecturer and that does mean that there are times that I’m lecturing and I’m in a lecture hall, or I’m in a seminar room with students, or I’m working with students one-on-one… But there are a lot of hidden parts of the job, I think, there’s a lot of emailing, there’s a lot of coordinating things, there’s a lot of reading and writing, all the sort of things that you’d expect, as well as all kinds of paperwork and things. So it’s a kind of mixture of an office job and a more sociable, people facing job.

K: So it sounds like there’s a real kind of contrast between that public facing, teaching, presenting, kind of element of the role; versus a lot of internal work with your thoughts and ideas about things and perhaps working in isolation a lot. How does that work?

J.T.: It does feel like a real contrast. It feels like a sort of performance, like there’s a sort of backstage and then you kinda have to get yourself psyched up and you’re gonna go and you’re gonna have your hour or two in the classroom and you have to keep your energy up. And that’s great, but it’s a different kind of energy than sitting in meetings, or sitting at your desk… a lot of it is very solitary, a lot of it is very much on your own, doing research, or preparing teaching, or just other kinds of things…

K: ‘Cause you’ll be on research leave this whole year?

J.T.: Yea, it’s the first time I’ve ever had that, so I’m a bit anxious about how that balance will carry over, ’cause I love the teaching, and that energy that I get from that is a big part. I do like that balance and that moving between…

K: I guess it might be strange that… not communicating with people…

J.T.: I mean, it’s the thing that any academic in between term-times, over term breaks or on the summer, we’re always having to have that sort of self-motivation… usually, for me, I have to plan out my weeks and colour-code them, and use spreadsheets to give myself deadlines… A lot of times you have deadlines for different things, research you need to deliver and submit to places, or things you need to prepare. But it is very independent, you don’t have a manager telling you what you need to do day to do, and you don’t really have a schedule that’s set for you… So, the challenging part of the job is having all this freedom, but you have to keep yourself on track day to day.

K: So not so good if someone is a natural procrastinator, then.

J.T.: Well, there are lots of ways to procrastinate… Some academics are on Twitter all day long, you know it has its own kind of rhythm, so there are times where it’s very fast-paced, and there are lots of demands, and you’re having meetings all day long with students, and there is a real urgent part of the job. But there are other parts when the research is quite a slow process, and it can be weeks and months of going through archives, work going through different kinds of data, accumulating things and waiting for it to click and fall into place – you have to be able to switch between those two different paces, I think it’s a big part.

K: Is that difficult?

J.T.: Yeah, I mean I guess the same way it would be for anyone, there’s some days where you just have different energy. There’s some days when you wake up and you’re like “I’m so excited, this is the day I get to teach this book that I really love, and all term I’ve been waiting for this week”, and then there are other days where you’ve been laying awake all night with this research problem in your head and you’re trying to work it out and it’s just not… you know that it’s there but the pieces aren’t coming together, and so I think you have to be able to have that kind of resilience or that flexibility to say, you know “today it’s just one of those days and maybe I’ll do some emails and I’ll cross some basic things off the list” but it doesn’t have that immediate sense of being productive and having output, you know, that you can say “I accomplished this today”

K: You must need quite a lot of self-belief, I imagine, ’cause it’s quite a vulnerable thing to put your ideas and thoughts out there, and then get potentially ripped apart, but also on those days that you describe when it’s just not happening, and you’re kind of like “Am I good enough? Have I got the ideas?”

J.T.: Yeah, a lot of academics talk about the Imposter Syndrome – that sense that “I’m a phony, I don’t really have the expertise that everybody seems to be expecting from me”. For me that’s – when I was talking before about the sense of being able to do a performance – I think that comes into it… You have to stand in a lecture theatre with several hundred students. They need you to have a certain kind of authority. It doesn’t mean that you’re not encouraging them to think independently, but they do want to hear something from you that they couldn’t just go look up on Wikipedia. They need you to have done the thinking and have the thought behind it. For me, it’s almost a day-to-day kind of struggle to keep the doubt back stage and say “let’s ask questions, let’s look into these things” and then pretend like I know everything as well.

K: So I guess it’s a constant battle…

J.T.: To be referred to as an expert in a certain field, and in most cases most academics are working on stuff that is so specialist that there are very few people in the world who really know what you’re talking about, and are able to see if you are making it up.

K: You say you can fool a lot of people…

J.T.: Well, I don’t know because they say you’re your own worst critic and you always have that kind of person on your shoulder looking over you in your unconscious saying “is that right? are you sure about that?” And it just, you know, I think if you can channel that into a healthy kind of, I don’t want to say perfectionism, but a sense that you need to be absolutely sure that this thing is right, and I need to go back and check these things. Whether that’s in research or in teaching, that can be good. But also, for me the only way to beat that imposter syndrome is to be honest about it and just stand in front of a bunch of students and say “I’m not entirely sure about this, what do you think? What kind of new ways, new questions can we ask based on this?” and not… delivering the truth, saying there’s just one way of thinking about this book, or this…

K: Given that, how did you decide that academia was the career that you wanted to get into?

J.T.: I really tried to resist putting all my eggs in that basket, whether that was when I was doing my masters’ degree, or after that before doing my PhD I was like “am I sure I wanna go on and study some more” but even during the three of four years of PhD, just for kind of my own protection, I didn’t want to pin all my hopes on something that I knew is such a long shot. And I also say this to people who come to me wanting to do PhDs or post-graduate study saying that they want to be a lecturer, I say that’s good, you know it is a very enjoyable job, but I actually don’t think of it as a narrow channel – that that’s the only reason to study at the postgraduate level. There are lots of great reasons to go on and keep studying, just as there are lots of careers that really value the skills that come from postgraduate study. And breaking that myth that it’s just the only reason to do a PhD is to be an academic, ’cause it doesn’t work out numbers-wise, not everyone can be [a lecturer/academic]. We need people who can work at that level and do that level of research and critical thinking in lots of different sectors, and to keep all these people on university campuses would be a bad thing.

K: I think you’re right, I think it would be a shame if people see it as “oh, I failed, I didn’t get into academia”, so the alternative is to do something less good. Actually it’s about seeing them as equally valid and just different parts.

J.T.: Yeah, and I think there’s just huge things to contribute. And it’s OK to admit that it isn’t for you. Like I said, the demands of the job are very particular in different ways, and teaching as a big part of it, that’s a kind of skill. If you’re not into that it would be very difficult to force it just for the sake of having the independence for your research, there are lots of ways those kind of research skills can be.

K: What do you think made the difference to help you get a permanent job? How did you get that mythical achievement?

J.T.: It does feel still completely like a fluke. I’ve been teaching full-time for six, seven years, and I’ve been teaching a lot longer than that during my PhD. I had a few years after my PhD where I was teaching anything, anywhere, anybody in need. In a way, having that time equipped me better. Every time I hadn’t had an interview, and there were lots of bad interviews, and lots of applications which never even made it to the interview stage, but just being able to teach anything – when I found that fit it meant that I could just say “I’ll do whatever you need, I’m here for whatever” and I think that’s part of it. I wish I knew – there’s all these amazing scholars, and they work so hard, they tick every box – but the job market changes all the time, and needs different kind of things…

K: What do you think are key things that are going on in academia at the moment for people considering it as a career area that they need to talk about or consider how might impact them in their future career?

J.T.: So there are a lot of things, most of the issues are things that are completely out of our control, things like government policy around fees and all the different rankings and things that we’re subjected to, which are completely mysterious and very hard to see your individual role with it… Things like Brexit have a huge impact on being able to accompany international students – I mean you can hear I’m not British myself and have to deal with all that now… Those things are tough because we don’t have any control and I think the pressures that they put on students, that to me feels like the most urgent issue it’s how much over the past few years is in the pressure that students are with fees, with different hoops and things, and the expectations around their own career prospects and things. It must be very different to study now than when I studied.

K: I think you’re right – that’s certainly something we see a lot of in Careers, with students that are very concerned about their future and how they compare to peers, etc. But how do you think that impacts on academics? Are you required to give more support? Is there a tension between what the students want and what you want to give to students versus what universities are telling you you should do and where your priorities should be?

J.T.: I think it goes back to the thing I started with, actually, that academic job involves so many different strains, and all different parts of teaching, all the different parts of research, all the different parts of administrative duties that you have… that kind of care for students, and being able to work with students in more personal ways is another kind of skills that’s been added to it, and the idea that you can just teach them and push them really hard, and expect them to deliver the work, and that your work is just a job is just there just in an academic sense… it doesn’t hold up anymore, all these things are all bound up. A student that might be struggling in different ways, who has pressures around mental health, or just pressures that come with doing the job of being a student. You have to be able to take care of them in those ways and not just push them hard, to be able to work with the different support services within the university – it has to be really collaborative.

K: I think what’s clear is you really love working with students, and that’s really important to you… certainly, I’ve worked in universities over ten years and I’ve met university staff who love their research, and that’s their priority – I’m not saying you don’t love your research – but I think you’re right, I think the way that the education system is changing, students have more power, and universities now with the TEF, the teaching is now assessed in the way that universities research is graded… And I suspect that people who are more like you, the passion for students, and caring about education, and wanting to bring the best out of people and share your research and ideas – that’s going to be a real key factor for people wanting to pursue academia. So if they’re just purely interested in their research, it’s just not going to be enough…

J.T.: I do think a lot of the frustrations that come from the job are this kind of sense of your autonomy being threatened in that way, and I think there is a certain kind of autonomy that is important, certain kinds of things around academic freedom and being able to research certain things and not feel like you just have to deliver what people want to hear… But yeah, to be that is the most enjoyable part of the job, it’s when you’ve got a student in front of you in your office and they’re trying to work through their dissertation or PhD, or some bigger issue they’re dealing with… being able to help them in that moment, that sense of urgent service that you’re providing, that’s when I feel most useful, when that student needs… there’s some kind of click, something comes together and they say “I’m gonna go and do this work, and…” the job would be far less enjoyable if we didn’t have these moments…

K: Thank you, that’s a positive place to leave it. It’s been really lovely speaking to you… For anyone sort of thinking they might want to pursue an academic career or find out more about it, a couple of resources I recommend are in the links below. Anything else?

J.T.: Chat to your tutors, your supervisors, and have this exact discussion. Ask them what they love about it or what do they find challenging about it. You’ll get a lot of different answers, so talk to different people. Keep your options open, pursuing the things that go towards an academic career are really valuable skills to have for all sorts of careers, so don’t feel like it’s all or nothing.

Thanks for joining us this week on What do you actually do? This episode was hosted by myself, Kate Morris, and edited by Raquel Bartra and produced by both of us. If you loved this podcast, spread the word and subscribe.

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All useful links are in this episode description (on Youtube). This has been produced at the University of York Careers and Placements. For more information visit york.ac.uk/careers