So, last night was the first Twitter chat of #femlead, which is a new project of the University of Venus. You can read more about the logic behind it through the link, but the main goal is to provide a space “for those who lead, those with vision, those who seek to support one another in the challenges and opportunities facing us in all areas of academic life”. I’d count myself in the second and third categories, and I’d like to be in the first category one day, so I thought this was a good thing to take part in – particularly given the lack of women in leadership roles in higher ed. My immediate concerns going into the chat were centred around what opportunities there are to develop leadership in the world of the short term contract, and what I could do to develop my skills and my career path.
I have to say that I got a great deal more than that out of the chat, focused around the topic of service vs. leadership, and which is now available over at Storify. A couple of broad themes emerged. Firstly, leadership has to fit into the wider narrative of who you are and what you do – there’s no point in taking on a leadership role if it doesn’t somehow fit your picture of yourself and where you’re going. There was also a lot of emphasis on noticing the rhetoric of how you present these things. You need to talk about achievements as demonstrating leadership rather than be modest about them.
The chat wasn’t short of ideas about how to cope with the short term contract problem either. As I was often told, there are plenty of opportunities out there – you need to look for them and make sure it’s clear you are interested in them, and then present them in such a way in the next short term contract that more opportunities arise. There are opportunities for leadership that arise outside the institution you are based in, such as in professional organisations, that aren’t affected by moving about. Whatever the location, you should still be aware of the power structures and create mentoring opportunities, because that’s how you let people know that you want these kinds of responsibilities.
This gave me the toolkit to start thinking about how I had demonstrated leadership here at Birmingham, despite only being in a temporary post. Two things came to mind, both of which fitted into my internal narrative of who I am and what I do as an academic. The first is my fervent support of the one minute paper as a feedback mechanism in classes; I’ve talked about it so often that some colleagues are now experimenting with it, and it’s been mentioned in the staff-student consultative committee as a positive thing. That relates to the part of my identity that sees itself as an innovative and passionate teacher, and can be talked about as a kind of leadership that doesn’t involve being at the head of a committee. The second is my decision to produce a policy for interlibrary loan forms for graduate students in my capacity as library rep, as there currently isn’t one, and we should be providing an equity of resource provision for students that everybody knows about. That relates to my belief that we should make sure every student is well supported and aware of all possible resources open to them, and here is a clear and definitive action that I’m working on to make a difference on that front. Both of these things will remain at Birmingham after I leave, and hopefully will affect the institutional culture in a positive way. So small as they seem, that’s leadership.
The big take-away, and I hope the subject of a future Twitter chat, was the importance of strategic thinking. What else can I do? Where do I want to go? What skills am I lacking, and what training can I get to meet my professional needs? An important part of this is mentoring – including informal mentoring of the kind I was lucky enough to benefit from on #femlead.
And when I say benefit, I really do mean ‘benefit’. Because of #femlead, I started to think about my interest in learning and teaching as potentially something more than a commitment to my own praxis – as something that might be an agent of institutional progress. And so I thought about what I wanted to do with it, and remembered the article that I want to write about CIQs, and had a browse through the training options provided by the university, as it’s been a while since I looked. And lo, there was a course entitled Writing About Teaching, which seeks to give a bit of training on how to write pedagogical articles, upon which I am now booked.
It’s a small step. It’s always small steps at the moment. But it’s jolly amazing what you can manage on Twitter with a bit of focus inside of half an hour.