Reflections of an academic: one year after

After a year in academia, let me solemnly reflect on where I’ve been, what I’ve done, and what the future may hold.

The month was September. After a couple of months stressing over job applications, I finally landed a teaching job at my alma mater. Of course, it was exciting. Being an academic was what I wanted to be since my Bachelor’s degree. I didn’t even have to go through a rough adjustment phase; it felt like I was coming home.

My very first semester was already jam-packed: 20 credits (equivalent to 20 teaching hours per week), circa 30 student final projects to supervise and advise, and another 20-odd internship programs to oversee. Not to mention my self-imposed goals of publishing articles in journals and other media (at least one newspaper commentary a month and at least one journal article). I was thrown into the deep end the moment I stepped in. “Come, bring it on! I’ve been preparing for this my entire life!” I exclaimed to the world.

While I had a pretty good idea how to structure a lesson, it’s actually harder when you experience it for real. Distilling relevant information from readings into an endless cascade of PowerPoint slides (because for some reason, if you don’t use PowerPoint, you’re a bad teacher, despite empirical evidence showing otherwise), attempting to create some structure, and plotting out my 3-hour session. Not to mention, remembering what I made and making mental preparations to wing it if things go awry.

Allow me to digress a bit to discuss PowerPoint and and my experiences with it in my classroom.

I never liked it.

I appreciate its other uses that help me in my academic life, such as being a handy media organization tool. It’s a great place to put cartoons, graphs, images, memes, and videos and organize them for a lesson when my words can’t cut it. PowerPoint is extremely useful when I have to show maps when discussing war campaigns or geopolitics. At the same time, it allows me to create handbooks without having to load Adobe InDesign.

I like seeing my teachers scribble on the whiteboard/glass board and explain their thought process on a subject. What PowerPoint fails to capture is the complex process of building understanding. All students see on a PowerPoint slide is the end result; they often fail to appreciate the process of getting there. Sadly, there’s always a shortage of markers and the glass board is never big enough for everyone to see and I’m apparently a really bad teacher if I don’t give out PowerPoints after class.

Okay, let us get back on track.

Then, there were the tedious administrative formalities that I had to attend to. Small things, like submitting personal information through an outdated intranet system, photocopying certificates, having to deal with bureaucratic hiccups and non-sense, and having to attend faculty meetings. Yet they accumulate and take up chunks of time.

I vaguely remember having time to sit down and keep up with developments in my field. What was going on with defense acquisition? What about maritime domain awareness? What’s the newest information on counter-terrorism? I had to use the small chunks throughout my day to think about these. But, for some reason, I managed to publish two long articles and two shorter commentaries. I managed. There is one article which I am proud of, since I believed it was a real contribution to (at the very least, my) understanding of maritime domain awareness that was received positively by two people whom I respect. Happiness resides in very small things. The hefty publication incentive I received also paid for some drinks, but let’s not discuss alcoholism today.

I also managed to attend several conferences and meet some interesting people. But since the university is located in the middle of nowhere, I couldn’t attend all that piqued my interest.

My lecturing style was described as a tad “unique”. I thought I was being incoherent, what with my constant references to movies and pop culture (which I justify as it greatly aids understanding of otherwise highly abstract theoretical concepts) and a rapid delivery style which I often had little control over. I start to speak rapidly when excited or agitated (or when drunk). I feared I couldn’t get my point across, so I repeated myself often. I thought I was boring my students to tears, especially when I began rambling about things students had little understanding about. But come the end of the semester, I reviewed their anonymous feedback and found that they received it quite well.

Grading exams and reading crappy writing occupy two top positions in my “things that make me frustrated” list. I still have to adjust to the fact that not all students are blessed with clear writing skills. These kids don’t even speak English as their first language! Yet, I tend to impose high standards on writing which they don’t think is fair. Well, I’m in a dilemma too. If I lower my standards, there will be two repercussions. First, I’ll compromise my own integrity. Second, they will never be able to hold a candle to other ASEAN students. I’m still trying to find a balance. Occasionally, there’s that rare excellent paper that brightens me up and gives me hope.

Since the department is understaffed, I always have to take on large teaching loads ranging from 18-21 credits. There’s always complains and groans whenever the time comes to allocate subjects for next semester. At the rate we’re hiring, I’m pretty sure balance will never be achieved.

To wrap up, I think my pilot episode went just okay. Sure, there were a lot of bumps along the road and I still need to learn pedagogy and how to interact with students, but I think I did a pretty good job this year. Here’s hoping my next year will be better.

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