Thursday 29 November 2012

Looking back on Academic Life

I was very proud to be made an Emeritus Professor of Biology at UCL after spending the last 23 years of my career there.

Those years were not all spent in one location, as there were several moves to different buildings within the campus, resulting from amalgamations and re-organisations. My last year was spent in a building away from the main campus as no rooms were available in the refurbished building occupied by my latest Department. That was rather good in a way as, although I missed chatting to some of my colleagues, I didn’t feel that I fitted in with the contemporary focus of Universities. My interests had always been in research and teaching, but with each on an equal footing; research fascinated me and enabled me to follow my muse, while teaching gave the chance to pass on my fascination. That approach to academic life is now old-fashioned and, to have been more successful, I should have dedicated myself more to writing grant proposals and networking with those who could help me in my career. Maybe that sounds like the thinking of someone who didn’t have the necessary drive and ability to succeed and there is some truth in that. I was never going to be a high flier in research, even though the citation for the DSc degree I was awarded in 2008 stated that I had “distinguished myself by research and learning”. My interest in research was much more in having fun with ideas and then testing them out.

I loved teaching. Each year there would be a new group of students and we could work together on various subjects. The students mostly seemed to like me letting all my enthusiasms show, and were even accepting of some of my rather eccentric impersonations of animal locomotion and behaviour. Having had no pedagogical training, I was free to use my own approaches in teaching, so the end-product was the result of a certain amount of trial and error. As Biology is to me a wonderful, wide-ranging discipline it was easy to be motivated and to motivate students. Even more highly valued that the DSc are the three Teaching Awards which I received from UCL (a record, I think).

While very few colleagues had any wish to attend Graduation, for me it was one of the highlights of the year. Not the dressing-up, as parading in academic dress was never one of my favourite activities, but the chance to say goodbye to a year group of students and to meet with their families. What a difference between their first few days at University and the polished products that were now in the “outside world”. What a pleasure it was to work with most of them, even those who didn’t much care for the subject in that way that I did.

Few parts of academic life brought more ups-and-downs than the behind-the-scenes job of tutoring. It was always something that I felt was important and I did what I could to support students who were not having the best of times. Sometimes there were failures, and I regret that I may have made some bad decisions or given poor advice, but there were a lot more successes. Not successes for me, as I was just a sounding board, but for the students who were able to fight through their difficulties. Whatever the rewards of research and teaching, it was the pleasure of seeing these students graduate that provided some of the best times of my career as an academic. It sounds mawkish, but it happens to be true.

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