Growing up I wanted to be a botanist just like David Bellamy, but changed my mind when I found out that I would have to cut up dead animals in biology to get to my goal. For a little while I wanted to be a police officer when the local bobby came into school, but back then there were height restrictions, and I was far too small.
After that, I switched to wanting to be a journalist, and indeed years and years after I first thought of it, I got a pgdip in journalism which was great fun hanging out with twentysomethings again and flashing a press card but I just couldn’t hound people for a story when they were at their lowest ebb. Deciding, however, to become a university lecturer was such a gradual, accidental thing, that I barely remember a time now when I didn’t want to be one.
It began in my final year of computing undergrad at LJMU when a gang of us went to karaoke night at the pub and then back to ours where we found a bottle of Ricard behind the fridge. It was covered in dust and God knows what or how long it had been there, but one of the lads was like: This is how you drink it. He mixed it up with water and sat clutching the bottle to his chest, literally all night, telling us about his broken heart after his summer of love in France, whilst we laughed a lot, like you do in a bubble of Ricard sharing stories with friends.
The next day we all had final year project meetings, three of us with the same supervisor. I wonder if he noticed that we were acting stranger than usual. I was a bit overexcited in that had-too-much-to-drink-and-no-sleep way and couldn’t stop babbling on, but felt better about it when Ricard man came out his meeting dying of embarrassment as he had actually fallen over partway through.
Our supervisor was such a lovely man and did great lectures – not that I appreciated them at the time – and it was during my meeting, that he asked me what I wanted to do when I left university. He was really cool and had helped me back in my first year shortly after a friend from home had taken his own life and I was finding it hard to make sense of things. That year I got exactly the pass mark in the supervisor’s exam, not a coincidence I know, I have done it myself for my students. I thought really hard about his question and as I looked into his kind face, I said that I wanted to be a university lecturer, like him. He said: You’ll need a PhD, which seemed like such a daunting prospect that I immediately dismissed it as a possibility.
Growing up on our council estate, very few people had jobs. It was a time of upheaval and massive job shedding in the steel and chemical industries, redundancies, lay off, mines closing, and so on. So the idea that you could choose a job and a career path and not just take anything that you were offered, and feel lucky, was still an alien concept to me. Someone asking me what I wanted to do with my life, like I mattered, like it was important, and then listening to what I had to say and not telling me what I should do, was just such a gift, that years later typing this, I am as touched as I was right back then in that room with that man who talked to me like I had potential and that I was a person who could choose.
I did get a PhD. The opportunity came by accident, not long after I had completed an MSc in AI, again an accident, which had come about because someone re-posted an advert the admissions officer at Aberdeen University sent out via email in a last-ditch attempt to fill 20 places on his MSc with exchange programs to France. I only saw the advert because after I graduated I stayed on at LJMU for the summer, employed by my lovely supervisor to create tutorial materials, which I really enjoyed, and also it was great as I had access to everything I needed to apply for jobs.
I saw the advert as a way to live in Paris and remember going round to the AI lecturer and asking if she would write down some words for me to get me on the MSc as I wanted to live in Paris. She was slightly, in the loveliest way, offended, and asked me why I hadn’t chosen her AI module. Simples: It was 4-6 pm on a Tuesday afternoon, and the parallel computing module was on a Monday at a more sensible time and had a 50% coursework so I could know that I had passed before going into the exam. I’d learnt occam and became a huge fan of the origami editor (can’t find a link, only one to 3D origami modelling which looks fascinating). Her help totally got me on the course however, the admissions officer sent me to Chambéry near the Alps, but me being me, fell in love with all that fresh air and cycling so much so that I didn’t want to go back to rainy England. Though, I did hitch to Paris that summer to see a friend from the course. Christ, I also hitched round the Dorgdogne, getting a lift off a slightly scary bloke he pulled over a few times to say: Madame, vous etes tres belle. But, that’s a different blog.
Once in France, another advert for the next job – which again got reposted from elsewhere as they were having trouble filling the position, it was for a GUI programmer in some random place called Lausanne – popped up in my inbox, I couldn’t wait to send off my CV. Alas, I made such a hash of the interview and I was so upset, it was such a lovely town where people spoke French slowly and in such a gentle way and were so helpful, that I remembering standing in tears on La Place de la Riponne, desperately yearning to stay. So, much so that the minute I got back to my computer in Chambéry (via Geneva, two trains, and a party at the local language school – imagine waiting that long nowadays) I emailed the interviewer to explain that I was normally brilliant at interviews and if he could only give a second chance he would never be sorry.
I am not sure I kept that promise because I still remember his super red face during a massive outburst in a meeting: I hate her, she comes in here full of her own ideas. I won’t lie, it was hurtful. I thought I was supposed to have my own ideas. Isn’t that the whole point of a PhD? I thought I saw him a couple of years ago on the tube, and had a flashback to that day.
After my PhD, I took a year off to go travelling. This was because when I left Switzerland I was given a lot of my tax back so I was given a lump sum. I asked a few people around me what they would do with it. The responses were varied: 1. Put a deposit on property. 2. Buy a car. But, you need roots to do that, so seeing the world was a unique opportunity. Now, with a property and a car and a family and responsibilities, I am so glad I went.
It was a bit stressful dropping out as well meaning people advised me that it was a bad move. In that time my peers would be publishing and getting jobs, and generally getting ahead of me and I would have trouble getting a job when I got back. I didn’t have any difficulty at all but because I figured I was behind, I went straight to lecturing instead of a post-doc. If I had to do it all again, I would have applied to post-docs and got some publishing going and some guidance. I did apply for one post-doc, but the supervisor there was so unpleasant, even when offering me the job, in a you are so not any good but I can’t find anyone better way that I turned it down on the phone. I remember her saying to think about it. And, I was like: No need. Instead, I got the job I had always wanted and chose a difficult path for myself, lecturer. It’s only saving grace was that it was in human-computer interaction (HCI), a subject which fascinated me in Switzerland as a GUI programmer and PhD student, and ever since as HCI lecturer, researcher, and UX consultant. After life gave me the opportunity to be a mum, a dialysis nurse, and a cancer patient, going back to HCI and lecturing helped me find my way back to myself after a lot of joy and pain.
I don’t know how the world works and I do often ask what it’s all about, Alfie? But, there’s one thing I am starting to believe, just by dint of experience, is we get the same lessons over and over and over, until we learn it.
Inasmuch as I thought I had learnt to choose what was right for me, I hadn’t at all. When I went to interview for my first lecturing position, I was in a waiting room with other people and I was overwhelmed with a sense of despair, like a drowning sensation. Fool that I was, I ignored my gut instincts and accepted the job because there were two people there with whom I wanted to work with, and I was slightly starstruck. I didn’t get to work with anyone, I was put in an office by myself, with no furniture and one of the secretaries used my office for storage and couldn’t understand why I got upset. I kid you not. I had to beg the head of department for some furniture and a laptop. I had to figure everything out by myself, and the lecturing was such a small part, I had to get a team, get funding, do all this stuff, all by myself, without any support. I was the first lecturer they had come in from the outside in years, and it never occurred to anyone that I may need a bit of help. Every other lecturer either came in at a senior position with their own team, or they had come through the ranks all the way from undergraduate and were supported. I was outside of that and only when I requested an exit interview on my way out the door after an awful time did the head of department admit that they hadn’t treated me very well. I had just felt so lost in the supposed job of my dreams.
The next time I ignored my instincts at a job interview, it didn’t end well at all, either. When would I learn? It was for a usability consultant position. I applied for it, as I was lecturing HCI part-time and had suffered a miscarriage and we had not long moved to London, and I was super sad, super lost. I thought getting into a full-time schedule would keep me occupied so I didn’t sink into a sadness I couldn’t get out of, and also I would meet some new people, and make some new friends. Again, sitting in a waiting area talking to people I felt that same drowning sensation and again, I ignored myself and took the job, convincing myself that it would be ok. I had the worst time ever.
For ages they didn’t give me any work to do and made me just sit about in the office and could I please answer the phone and empty the dishwasher? I asked for the time off to give some lectures that we had agreed I would do during my interview should I get a job there, but they were unimpressed – that I should think I was entitled to that sort of thing. Who did I think I was? I pointed out that I had nothing to do and really I could empty the dishwasher on my return. Grudgingly they let me go and then gave me a biggish project with terrible timescales and a supervisor who after it all went badly wrong, admitted when I asked him – you always have to ask people otherwise they just hide in the corner and refuse to accept that they are responsible too – that he was too intimidated to supervisor me or offer any advice. (I was using cultural probes to get the information I needed and wrote about it later so I pulled something good out of the whole fiasco.) They had very specific ways of doing things but he couldn’t bring himself to tell me instead he would come to my desk and talk about nothing in particular for at least an hour at a time all about how good he was (another woman would rewrite everything I wrote instead of explaining what was required so that it felt very much like shifting sands) and make me feel stressed about the time I was losing and I would ask if what I was doing was ok and because he never said it wasn’t I assumed I was on the way to giving him what was needed for the project we were working on! So peculiar. I struggled a lot and was already not 100% given the bleeding I was still managing and I was struggling from anxiety (like I do sometimes) and couldn’t get on public transport which one of my colleagues took as yet another sign of my diva-ness. When I look back I see that I was a bit of a mess and shouldn’t have been there at all, but only one person noticed.
He was one of the tech lads and one day he came over to me and asked me to go to the shop with him. It seemed a peculiar request but I went along anyway. We walked there and he just talked a bit about the weather, and insisted that I try coconut water (yuk) and then on the way back he finally said what he wanted to, which was not to take on so, not take it so personally, and so on, and explained that their passive-aggressive behaviour was on them, including how they regularly told him there was no work for him and he was there on a week by week basis. Baffled, by the term passive-aggressive, he explained it to me and made me laugh by saying that when he got the manager a cup of tea, he would spit in it. Brilliant. But, not true, he was would never have done such a thing as he was such a lovely gentle soul.
I got fired shortly afterwards and was hustled from the building like I’d done something wrong. The reason I was fired: I didn’t fit. I never saw my tech guy again. We didn’t fit in that place, I know that as his kindness that day helped me get through a tricky patch. He was good at his job, he fixed things for me a few times, but they didn’t treat him well and let him know regularly that he was surplus to requirements and that his job was not secure. I hate them to this day for that as it was his lifeline but they didn’t bother to check. They just didn’t care. He had his struggles so that he could see suffering in others like he did that day with me. But, it wasn’t the sort of environment in which people behaved like that, it was a bruising one (I remember one female colleague refusing to let me speak one day because: You know everything.) it took a few days before anyone noticed that he hadn’t turned up for work. I think they wanted him to fix something. But he wasn’t able to because he had already taken his own life. Someone, weeks later, left me a message to tell me that they were buying a park bench in his memory. Which twentysomething in the history of the world has wanted to be remembered with a park bench? #ffs. That’s for old people. He just wanted not to have his job threatened everyday. He wanted to feel secure. He wanted to feel like he mattered – Maslow’s basic needs – without them we feel deficient. They bought him a fucking park bench. They’d have done better to give him that in wages.
I fell pregnant not long after this, and when my baby was born with kidney failure, I tried to have a job and be a mum but did one lecture and realised that I couldn’t teach and worry about her blood pressure and vomiting at the same time. It wasn’t fair to my students. And, there was no way I could hold down a job as a usability consultant, not without having flexible hours – which as we all know are not flexible at all – and not in a passive-aggressive environment like the one I had experienced. And, even though the hospital told us to go about being normal as possible, I couldn’t, I couldn’t do anything but sit by my baby’s bed and be with her in case she was only passing through. I needed to be by her side. I didn’t want to miss a minute as beautiful and as heartbreaking as it was. I couldn’t act like everything was normal.
There is too much emphasis on being normal and business as usual. During that first lectureship, a professor in conversation one day, casually asked me if I had really gone travelling for a year. Surprised, I asked him what else he thought I might have been doing. He said that a gap like that normally meant one of two things: a pregnancy or a nervous breakdown. Sad but true, nothing much changes. Society dictates that we not mention our kids or our mental health in case it affects our job prospects. We all pretend, we all suffer and bleed in silence.
I went to a women’s networking back to work thing when my girls both started school as I wanted more than just a bit of volunteering at the school and the odd web design job, and my previous boss at Westminster University was no longer working there. So, off I went to explore new possibilities. Wow. Part way through the day though, someone asked me something, I don’t remember what exactly, and I said that my baby had been born with renal failure and I had had cancer and everyone was horrified. I wanted to say that I hadn’t really had a choice in whether I got to be a stay-at-home mum or not. But, they didn’t want to hear it, they wanted me to stop making everyone uncomfortable and said I shouldn’t ever mention it not in that room, not on my CV, and definitely not in interview. These are some of my defining life experiences, how could I pretend not to have had them? How could I act as if they hadn’t changed everything. I was lost for words. I was lost.
I saw that I wouldn’t get the answers I needed, and finally understood the lesson, I have the answers I need, no one else knows what’s best for me. When I am lost, I need to find myself, no one can find me for me. So, I left the networking group and started applying once more for HCI lecturing positions. Course, all anyone sees is the gap on the CV and the lack of published papers, but I just didn’t want to publish, I just wanted to teach and not have to research teaching and education. I just wanted to teach and keep up with HCI so that I could teach it well. One time, I even got an email back saying I didn’t have the right skill set. I mean seriously?! I don’t have the skillset to teach HCI? I don’t have the skills to do the job I have already done?
A professor friend who gave me a reference said: Why not lecture something else? Does it have to be HCI? That advice was pure gold and the answer was: No it didn’t. So, I got myself back into university life on one of those zero hours jobs lecturing other people’s slides on web technologies.
Though I will be honest and tell you that I had the same sinking feeling during interview, can you credit it? I ignored myself again, but you know what, this time, it was ok, I did it to get my feet under the table, and they were desperate to fill the position so I started straight away and I had the experience to know what I needed and how to ask for it, and it seemed a small price to pay to hang about in the library. I love libraries and students who are on the whole so inspiring. In fact, I enjoyed it for a couple of years until my mum was dying and instead of struggling, I just said, I need to some time off, but as zero-hours contracting is the worst sort of job, they just fired me, thanks very much. I got that email the same day someone else who was a ‘proper’ member of staff was leaving. He got a cake in the common room and drinks. I got a brusque email. Zero hours are the worst. I miss the library, I miss the students, I miss my mum, but not the slides.
It’s autumn once more, and I have that new term, new academic year feeling and I am ready once more, for more HCI, for more lecturing, for more life, more students and more laughs. This time, older and wiser, I am ready to listen to myself and my gut instincts, and I am so pleased. I no longer feel lost, in fact I am starting to feel found and I like that. I like it very much. With the way technology has expanded over the last few years, there are so many different ways to teach, and I am looking forward to exploring them all and finding myself somewhere new in a new landscape, lecturing the HCI course of my dreams, which is what I always think. And, this is what I love about HCI and technology it is always changing, always expanding, and there is no need to get stuck or feel lost. I just to have to remember to go with the flow and remember where I have been. I am experiencing. How cool is that?
[***update 14/8/20: Yay, I listened to myself and created an online course. My guide to human-computer interaction is now available over on Udemy. ]
[ part 8 ]