12 December 2012

Musings of a second-career academic

By Lily Dublin

If you are wondering why I am writing an article about going back to school, I happen to be one of the privileged few who did it. I did not go back to further my studies, which is the most common route one would take after retirement, or whenever one decides to achieve further academic qualifications. Instead, I went back to school to teach.

I had been a practitioner Human Resource Management for almost 30 years. Twenty of those years were spent in senior management positions.

If you think teaching subjects that you have lived all of your working life is easy, the answer is both yes and no. It’s not a problem when it comes to applying theories, disseminating ideas and communicating with students about real business and organisational issues. This reminds me of a conversation I once had with a professor from a renowned university in the UK. He asked if I apply theories in everything I do in the workplace.

Looking back, I realised that in getting things done in a workplace, almost all our actions are on “auto-pilot” mode. Of course, common sense prevails in all situations too. Tasks that are to be completed are oftentimes repeated, and it is said that managers work in spurts of 10 minutes or so to accomplish the multitude of tasks they encounter every day.

Knowing your theories matter, irrespective of what your career may be. After all, it’s because of your academic learning that you were hired in the first place.

But teaching is not as easy as it may seem, even if you are a seasoned professional in a certain field. For the first few months of my second career as a university academic, I felt a deep sense of isolation. In the workplace or industry, there are intense interactions that go on every day. The environment is always dynamic, and sometimes volatile. Coordination of tasks requires one to work with colleagues at all times, which means frequent meetings and discussions. Meetings are almost a weekly affair, and there are issues that need to be communicated to your subordinates and customers. One also has to concede to the demands of the other parties, compromise and/or negotiate for the limited resources that are needed by all.

You basically work alone and within the confines of the subjects you are teaching. It is as if you are a writer working in solitude. However, despite the mind-boggling aspect of academic administration, teaching is the best job I ever had. The gratification and fulfilment of a job well done is instant. One gets these feelings in the way students respond in every class.

When you walk into a classroom for the first time, you quickly sense that the students are making an assessment of you. You return the courtesy. Now, a sea of faces waits to hang on to your every word. It can be very intimidating but you get used to it very quickly.

In an English-speaking university such as Swinburne, you have to remind students not to speak in any other language. It is difficult for some students, especially when they are put into groups for presentations and projects. It is true that in any office, one would communicate in one’s own dialect with colleagues and customers. This is a good icebreaking tactic to inculcate comradeship amongst your colleagues. But officially, one has to speak English and all written materials are required to be in English. A recent study by Education First in 54 countries confirms that English is the international language of business. The most important use of English is of course when candidates are “selling” themselves at job interviews. Students should be reminded of this constantly.

As a human resource management professional, I have dealt with numerous university graduates joining the workforce. Now as an academic, I deal with students at university. I have noticed a lack of curiosity in both groups: in the classroom students avoid asking questions and it is the same with candidates at job interviews. It is rare for an interviewee to ask about career progression or professional development. My students tell me they are afraid to ask questions or express their opinions because they were not taught to.

A school or university that is focused on developing life-relevant skills and producing employable graduates will ensure that the process of education does not destroy students’ curiosity.  They must create in them an interest in the world around us and arm them with an ability to question it.

At graduations, the feeling of pride for your graduating students should be no less than those of their parents’. The students you have taught throughout the years are now transformed into young adults who are going forward to the next stage of their lives. This has been a particularly rewarding experience for me as a second-career academic.

Lily Dublin is a lecturer in Human Resource Management with the Faculty of Business and Design at Swinburne University of Technology Sarawak Campus. She is contactable at ldublin@swinburne.edu.my