Eight things I learnt this year…

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It has been an amazing year for me both professionally and personally. Professionally, the highlights are almost too numerous to mention but include being promoted to full professor, delivering 21 keynote presentations, giving five conference papers, publishing a new book on citizenship, appearing on a massive billboard and running a subject with over a thousand students yet still receiving some of the best student feedback ever.

 

It was the year that I was the Prime Minister’s University Teacher of the Year and carried that honour with pride. On the advice of my University’s Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Corporate Strategy and Services) Rhonda Hawkins, I took every opportunity to promote ‘good teaching’. It was invaluable advice and established a framework in which I assessed my work. While I also facilitated a number of workshops giving advice on ‘good teaching’, I also learnt more knowledge than I had to give.

 

On reflecting on all this, here are eight lessons I learnt this year:

 

One. It is easier to be a cynic than supportive:

For some reason, most academics think it is cooler to be cynical than give credit. Recently I saw someone’s enthusiasm dismissed as ‘not collegial’ rather than celebrating that individual’s passion. Rather than being excited and supportive about each other’s work, it seems it is easier to be dismissive.

My experience is those that are supportive and encouraging get the best out of their colleagues and really can make a positive impact on people’s lives.

 

Two. Be generous:

I once asked a colleague to deliver an informal 20-minute talk that required no preparation to some of my students but he informed me he was ‘too busy’. I told him I was flexible and just give me a date – his answer, ‘I am too busy’.

In contrast, I have seen incredibly busy colleagues, senior staff (including Chancellors and Vice Chancellors) and some very high profile people be generous with both their time and thoughts.

As such, generosity is not just in time, but also in words, thoughts and feedback. For example, I worked with a senior colleague co-editing a special edition journal and saw him edit out some of the Reviewer feedback because it was ‘unwarranted, unfair and harsh’. It took him hours to re-frame the words in a way that delivered the same message but, as he explained, feedback, even rejection, should be encouraging. (Yes, I am talking about you David Rowe).

Generosity of ideas I learnt from Prof. Ros Diprose and Assoc. Prof. Paul Brown – both now ‘retired’ – who always openly shared their thoughts with me. Your generosity can change people’s lives.

 

Three. Don’t be afraid learn and to fail: People want to learn – but we are scared not to know stuff or ask for help!

Despite having my teaching celebrated with various awards, I love going into other people’s lectures or hearing an amazing keynote presentation – because I learn. There are so many amazing teachers out there and we need to better to connect.

We should also challenge ourselves to learn new technologies: sure, good teaching is good teaching no matter what technology we use, but new technologies open up new possibilities and we should not be afraid experiment either with these or new pedagogies – and if we fail, you are still learning.

 

Four. Be free to change your mind: being dogmatic never gets you anywhere!

I think it is only when I have grown in confidence that I realised that as you learn, you change your mind. Just like we expect our students to change their minds as they learn, so should we.

What stops us from learning and reframing the challenges we face is dogma.

 

Five. Be enthusiastic about what we do: feel free to be geeky!

Related to point 1, but worth noting on its own is enthusiasm. When I first started in academia I felt that I needed to tone done my enthusiasm to be taken seriously. That was a mistake and I realised that I was an academic geek who loved learning from others.

I found my voice and found others to connect with – and I enjoy feeling like a five year old in candy store when I come across new ideas!

Also be enthusiastic around students: they know if you want to be there and they will respond.

 

Six. The most impressive people are those who do not need to tell you how impressive they are:

In the many conferences, workshops, meetings and symposium I have attended, the most impressive people are the ones who introduce themselves through their passions: ‘I am interested/researching/passionate about…”

We first find out what they are doing and begin to build collaborations without titles, positions or hierarchies. These are the people who tend to be the most accomplished – no matter the stage of their career. I tend to avoid those who begin by telling me how impressive they are or why they are the leaders in their field.

Two of the most impressive people I know are Associate Prof. John (Jaz) Rees from University of Notre Dame and Associate Prof. Duncan McDuie from UNSW – both accomplished teachers and researchers. When you meet them, however, they will spend more time finding out about you then bragging about their latest books. I am humbled whenever in their company.

 

Seven. Be humble: you never know who you are speaking with:

Talking about being humble, never assuming you are the smartest person in the lecture theatre! In this way, be respectful of other’s work and always be ready to listen. From students to other academics and the general public, there is people in every room that know more than you on a variety of topics – and you should always be humbled to be in their presence.

My students also keep me humble because they teach me so much: I am talking about you Claire, Greta, Libby, Luc, Qinton and so many others way too numerous to mention!

 

But not just in academia, everywhere. My good friend Stephen Ferris recently celebrated 30 years as a DJ having worked at almost every major club in Sydney over the last three decades and worked for countless stars including Sir Vivian Richards and Quentin Tarantino, but a more humble person you will never meet. He has taught me a lot over the last few years as we have shared a studio at FBI Radio.

And then there is humility across cultures and thank Matty, Carly, Nicky and Milton from RMIT in helping me kick off our ‘Cultural Humility’ project.

 

Eight. Don’t be a wanker

Enough said.

 

These are the eight that come to mind in these final days of 2013 and I hope that I will manage to follow my advice. There are also many other lessons, but they are for another tine. Thanks to the many people who have helped make this year so amazing and also make this blog more popular than I could have ever imagined.

Best wishes for 2014.

james

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8 Responses to Eight things I learnt this year…

  1. Sagar Dan says:

    Inspiring!!!!!

  2. Adam Byrne says:

    James.. simply love it. The reasoning behind Point 8.. just perfect. Adam

  3. Vanessa Mendes says:

    Well put James! Have a happy 2014!

  4. Very well said.

    As a past student of yours, I know how much you live by these principles, and while you say you learned them this year, you’ve known them for a long time. I was humbled to study under you earlier in my life and what you taught me in lesson content totally paled in comparison to what you taught me through your approach to teaching, and your ability to make everyone in that room feel like absolute equals. These lessons have shaped my future goals more than you could ever know, and I will always be grateful.

  5. Alabama Black Snake says:

    “…the highlights are almost too numerous to mention but include being promoted to full professor, delivering 21 keynote presentations, giving five conference papers, publishing a new book on citizenship, appearing on a massive billboard and running a subject with over a thousand students yet still receiving some of the best student feedback ever.”

    Pretty impressive. But then…

    “Six. The most impressive people are those who do not need to tell you how impressive they are”

    Either is six is false or you’re unimpressive (or possibly both).

  6. Selim says:

    The unit you teach is interesting and all, but i must say – there are no lessons as valuable as the ones i have learned from you as a person. Thank you!

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