Check your assets: Shining a light on your own capital
Author: Charlotte Barrow – Senior Lecturer in Education and Co-Chair Women’s Network, University of Central Lancashire
For over a decade, I’ve been harping on about the fact that the notion of ‘non-traditional’ students is a fairly redundant term in universities. Whilst varying across programmes and disciplines, I know that many staff will, like myself, only ever have had experience of teaching students that have historically been subject to deficit notions across years of higher education (HE) research. Thankfully, recognising diverse learner needs and tailoring approaches accordingly is far from being a radical idea in 2023. However, the same may not always be said about the workforce within higher education, and crucially, our own perceptions of ourselves.
After 22 years as a proud UCLan employee, my own experiences have highlighted that all too often, there is blame, disappointment and frustration with perceptions of our professional selves. So many conversations I have had with colleagues are flavoured with immediate self-accusation of what they’ve let slip and what hasn’t been done, assigning fault and questioning their own commitment. Particularly for those seeking to do more writing, it often seems like this is some far away nirvana that will remain forever unfulfilled. In academia, publications and related activities are core currency, and essential assets. Without an extensive list of these, it’s easy to feel inadequate, less valued and less valuable.
But it’s too easy to place blame upon ourselves: a whole raft of barriers to building these assets are a day-to-day reality for many working in higher education. Let’s get the big one out of the way first: time, and workloads. Here, a frequent stance is to forefront and blame our own lack of time management, inability to prioritise, or general ineptitude at juggling the demanding multi-faceted role of a modern-day academic in a post-92 institution. Instead, we can change our perception and remind ourselves that consumer culture is a bedrock of higher education, and calculations of efficiencies, time projections and minutes per assignment-marking are far removed from lived reality. So, it’s perhaps unduly harsh to expect ourselves to routinely fit exciting, cognitively demanding, creative and intellectual work into the columns and cells of our workload documentation. Perhaps others can flit swiftly and seamlessly from Grade Entry and Banner to the deep thinking required in crafting conference abstracts or analysing interview transcripts, but I am not one of them.
Related to the issue of time and workload is the precarity of contracts for many early career research staff. UCU’s 2021 update, Precarious work in higher education presents data showing that one third of academics are on fixed-term contracts, and this increases to 68% for those on research-only contracts. The impact of such precarity in terms of finance, stability, multiple employers, and lack of reliable work cannot be underestimated, and is a significant contributor to stress (Baron, 2022), which in turn can inhibit our ability to survive in academia, let alone excel in it.
Another barrier is confidence, and so many facets of working in academia mean operating without this, which is a huge challenge. Synonymous with this is the concept of the imposter syndrome, an idea that has become particularly prevalent in recent years. Pat Thomson initiated some useful discussion around this in one of her Patter blogs, observing that the term is now ‘everywhere’, but has become ‘widely applied to a cluster of feelings as if they are a personal problem, rather than also – or perhaps almost entirely – the result of context, of social and cultural practices’ (Thomson, 2021). This encouragement to undertake an about-turn and look for the root causes of feelings of inadequacy external to ourselves is a useful exercise.
Dr Jenna Mittelmeier recently wrote that ‘academia has a culture that valorizes feeling perpetually overburdened and fatigued’ (Mittelmeier, 2023) and changing norms like this is slow work. I do think I’ve observed subtle shifts towards more accommodating and inclusive working patterns post-Covid, but I also know there is huge variance across and within institutions around presenteeism, evidence of activity, and the all-telling Teams status.
What can we do to support ourselves and identify our capital?
- When you recognise self-doubt creeping in, have a go at re-directing your thoughts to remind yourself of your own capabilities or grit you may have shown in the past. I recently offered this advice to students, but the same applies to staff:
“Have you ever started from scratch and committed to learning something new? Have you re-located and built new networks at any age or stage of your life? Have you had a time when, in spite of varied pressures, you showed determination and completed a particular task, or flourished when circumstances were difficult?” (Thompson, Higdon and Barrow, 2023 p196-7).
These past experiences have contributed to building your assets and they’re not to be underestimated. Reminding yourself of past capabilities can be really helpful when all you can see in the foreground are deficits.
- Is now a good time, looking to the next academic year to prioritise professional development opportunities? My experience is that these can be hugely effective in ringfencing you some legitimate time and space to reflect upon strategies for overwhelm, priorities for the year, and what approaches, patterns and habits are serving you (or not).
- Is coaching or mentoring something you’ve always wondered about? I’m fortunate enough to have had some really positive experiences with both. Or, if this feels a bit too much right now, how about pairing up with an accountability buddy and sharing one or two feasible goals that you can encourage one another with?
- Could you be the person to suggest your team takes a small amount of time out to connect with one another? Colleagues in my department have hosted Coffee and Connect get togethers throughout the year, and in the age of home-working and perpetual Teams meetings, the value of actually sitting down with a colleague over refreshments, with no agenda, and simply asking “How are you doing”? has been really restorative.
Whether you want to progress and move in your career, enjoy your day-to-day work more, or feel frustrated because you have untapped potential: consider that you already have what you need to develop or make more connections. Perhaps you just haven’t had this pointed out to you yet, by yourself or anybody else. Sometimes, you need to put the work in to identify your assets, and this often requires prioritising taking care of yourself professionally – whatever that means to you.
Do you fire the room up with your encouragement for others? Are you a uniquely effective communicator? Do your listening skills make people feel valued and heard? Do your neurodiverse strengths enable lateral and creative thinking that is core to your team’s direction? Perhaps your side hustle has equipped you with a whole host of skills that your colleagues would love to know more about?
Assets, not deficits: if we can apply this to others, we need to also have a go at applying it closer to home.
Sources of information:
Baron, A. (2022) Lecturer Stress and Burnout in Higher Education – Private Troubles and Public Issues Unpublished thesis.
Thompson, D. Highdon, R. and Barrow, C. (2023) More than your degree title in Pulsford, M. Morris, R. and Purves, R. (Eds) Understanding Education Studies: Critical Issues and New Directions London: Routledge
University and College Union (2021) UCU – Precarious work in higher education