Friday, July 11

Your University Privilege. About that.

Having been a little bored, sick of being harassed by stupid teaching colleagues and in desperate need of a break…. where does a VCE teacher go for a holiday? It took a 18 months of planning, 3 months of harassing a possible supervisor and one year of saving. Now the experience unfolds, in quite a different way than expected.

The habitus is different. Working in a lab is really quite delightful. All the equipment. The machines…. for measuring protein content, taking images of glowing cells, little vials for storing DNA, RNA & protein, glycerol stocks of frozen princess agrobacterium, Benthmiana leaf infiltrations, glasshouses, protocols for experiments, freezers (lots and lots of freezers….wow), chemical rooms, making chemicals, chemical names and practical uses for molarity and quadratics, making plasmid constructs, using bacteria as a research tool, PCR, restriction enzymes, agarose gels, NuPage protein gels, DNA sequencing, online analysis tools….& on & on an on…. Its about gear. And stuff. And toys, really big toys that do stuff to really little things, like DNA and cells. Its really really cool.

Fellow students are young and the professors, postdocs and fellows are Sir's age. It's different. Everyone is shiny and hard. Other students are wary, devoid of any emotional energy or intelligence unless it's about winning favours or scoring points with supervisors or other postdocs that might help up the academic ladder.

Everyone thinks they are collegiate, considerate and work as a team. Sometimes they do, but mostly they don't. Not in the way that Sir has experienced teamwork and collegiality.

A quick run down on people….

Young PhD students are the most difficult and seem to fall into several categories. Firstly…. most commonly… the "I am superior to you in all ways, but mostly in that I am waaaay smarter than you and you should understand this before we have any conversation, at any time, about anything at all". These young people are smart, but they are also boring, arrogant and incredibly difficult to deal with, probably because their attitude is a living breathing entity that blocks any interaction with other people.
Secondly, and less commonly, the "what? am I am a PhD student? oh yes… I guess I am" rabbit in the headlights PhD student who will avoid interaction with anyone at any cost.
Thirdly, the wingeing PhD student. "OMG OMG its so haaard, do I have to do this? Why won't you help me, can you help me?…" etc etc. Initially pity inducing, pretty rapidly annoying.

Postdocs without permanent positions. Argh. Frighteningly anxious sometimes obnoxious young scientists trying to do research and be published. All the while thinking that they are the most hard done by young people who work the hardest for the least recognition. Often these people have never been in any environment other than either school or University. They have no idea about the world outside the lab and no need to have any idea. Licensed to be moody and irritable, tolerated and supported.

Lastly… the professors and fellows. Imagine years and year of being the above… either a PhD student or a Postdoc without permanency. Its bound to make people awful… and it does. Most people in academia are unapproachable, have horrible manners (if any at all) and are painfully rude. Not all. But most.

Soooo….Its been brutal on some levels. Being a student makes you vulnerable, that is just the way it is. You don't know where anything is, who anyone is, how to do anything in the lab or how to present your results when you get them. The learning curve is steep, but you hang on for the ride. Feedback from supervisors and other lab members is consistent, good for marks and developing writing skills, but ego smashing none the less. These people are not trained in giving feedback gently and kindness is not a priority. In a nutshell… these people are not teachers in the sense that Sir is a teacher.

But…unexpectedly delightful things have happened. Riding to Uni most days has been wonderful. Meeting new people without being emotionally drained by teaching has been a new experience. Sleeping in, working from home and come and go from the lab at any time, without the constant ringing of bells and harassment from students has been life altering.

Some things are not going to change, though. Life in the lab with such emotionally removed people has been uncomfortable, and this isn't improving. A timeline so far... the initial "yes I am butch, how do you do", then "oh, yes I am also queer, pleased to meet you", then "oops… did I mention I am a teacher with a working class background and your bullshit isn't going to fly? nice talking to you"… Lonely. Very very lonely.

And I miss young people. I miss being in my skin and being loved for that skin. I miss being really good at something, so good that I inspire confidence and questioning. I find that I feel like I might be infected by the shiny hard meanness that lies just under the skin and behind the eyes of these people I am spending time with and learning from, in a way that I never felt as a teacher in the wild west... even when I was covered in a seething swarm of students in a lab, or a maths classroom, or a school playground, or anywhere in a school or the community. I realise that I have already been moulded into a teacher and assimilated into the hive mind of working class education. I don't know if I want to be, or can be, remoulded into a researcher if it means that I will loose my capacity for joy.

As an ancient teacher colleague/friend said to me last year, while wishing me luck, with his particular lopsided grin and dry humour; "You might find that life outside teaching is amazing and never come back, or you might decide that you can't possibly live without teaching". At the time I thought he was giving me permission to leave the profession, but now I wonder if he was warning me gently that it might not be possible for me to be anything else.