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Meditating upon swans

I first posted this using Craft on January 15th but am putting it here for completeness, or I will forget… ___________________________________________________ Swans are really quite beautiful creatures, very elegant, stately feathered boats sailing gently down whatever waterway happens to be in the scenery. Vicious little beggars though – don’t cross them on land. Whilst at university if the swans came on land from the loch we all gave them plenty of space when we walked to class… But I am led to believe (maybe it’s one of those urban myths) that underneath all of the calm exterior – the bit you can see on top of the water – there’s quite a lot of frenetic activity going on. There’s quite a lot of paddling to be done to, I don’t know, fight the current, or just move that rather large body through the water. I choose to believe that this is true, because the analogy has always been a good one: calm where you can see it, frantic action where you can’t see it. Our semester starts this week. It’s a week later than expected. It is also once again starting online, which I actually am okay with (which, if you’ve read anything else I’ve written in this collection, you would already know). The children have already been in school for two weeks, but until now it has also been online – this is due to change on Monday but since we’re heading for a big snowstorm, it may be a snow day; we will see. In any case, only one of the four has chosen to go back into school physically. The others love being online, or at least prefer it to being in class, for different reasons. But for us in the university, it’s the start, in the middle of (or perhaps toward the end of?) the pandemic. It’s a time to try new things with new students, get excited about the way different people learn and give them the tools they need to excel. I really rather enjoy that bit. It’s also a time to reflect on a few things that worked (not using synchronous online sessions to give traditional lectures) and didn’t (with 350 students in last semester’s course, I think what didn’t work was trying to be in touch with how they were doing individually in a way that I would want). Moreover, it’s a time to think about swans. University profs (and most likely all educators, but I can’t speak for others) are a bit like swans – calm activity out front and all kinds of mayhem where you can’t see it. That activity consists of, for me at least, re-recording lectures, revamping the pages for the courses on the learning management system to make them more engaging, recording music (each of my recorded lectures has its own music track which I put together), working on upgrading graphics for teaching with, setting up [Perusall](https://perusall.com/) (a social annotation site, so the students can interact over the course materials better, given they aren’t always in the same place), uploading videos to YouTube (I'll get to that), transcribing them for subtitles (thanks [simonsays.ai](https://simonsays.ai/)), finishing up my book, and trying to find the time to sleep and/or be with my family for more than a few minutes every day. Oh, and do reviews for journals, funding agencies and other publishers who (the publishers) are content to ask academics to be peer reviewers because “that’s how science works” but would rather not compensate them other than by using [publons](https://publons.com/), because we all need another badge of honour and 'likes' are what motivate us (yes, that was a little sarcasm). Truly, publishers are on to a rather good thing. No, we don’t go down coalmines, or work in sweat-shops (well, that last is not true because some academics have such a bad lot that they live in tents because they can’t afford rent, even though they work excessive hours in often different universities at the same time). The work isn’t inherently dangerous. But academic freedom is a double-edged sword; the price of being able to speak out about what you believe and see as truth is that you have a responsibility to do so. The consequences are not always pleasant because the truth is itself dangerous to some. We don’t as a rule risk our lives or things like that and many of us are quite well paid. This is what privilege looks like. It’s rather hectic, down there in the dark places of academia. There are deadlines, metrics (oh, the metrics, this is a whole different post), student emails panicking because they can’t see their grades, student emails panicking because they can’t see their course online, more forms to sign than any one person should see in a lifetime, working hours that do not end (academics don’t actually get to stop thinking about their work at 5pm because their life is their work, and vice versa) and worry about the future because, well, I’d like to retire and actually live on what I get as a pension (spoiler: not likely to happen, but I plan to retire in due course anyway: full speed ahead and damn the torpedoes). The only place the analogy with the swans fails is that, with the best will in the world, many of us are really not beautiful (but most of us can be vicious little beggars). Like swans, there’s a whole bunch of stuff that we have to do, that has to go *just right*, to make it through the days ahead. Because there are people who rely on us, who we want to give the tools to excel. But out front, all is calm. Welcome to academia. January 15th, 2022

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