Mister Litlove and I have decided that we must have come down with a bug this weekend, as we are both feeling under par. But in my heart of hearts I recognise that cataclysmically wiped out sensation as a remnant of the old chronic fatigue, rearing its ugly head. For me, that means an external cause, something out in the world has had a disproportionate effect on my inner world, and it wasn’t hard to track at least one cause back to an unsatisfactory meeting in college earlier in the week.
You all know that I do this part-time study support job, helping out the students who are struggling with their work. Well apparently the three-year trial period I had no idea we were having is up, and it is time to re-elect me to my post. Only the Senior Tutor (and I should point out right away that I like him very much, we are friends and he was very patient and supportive of me when I was ill) needs to ‘regularise’ my job as it is unlike any other. This will essentially mean more work – when doesn’t it? – which doesn’t exactly thrill me.
‘Do you think college council will be willing to re-elect me?’ I asked, bearing in mind that when I began this job, there was much hostility and resistence to it.
‘Council has indicated it would be happy to see greater provision of study support,’ replied the Senior Tutor, which I took to be a yes. But the u-turn in council feeling was not attributed to the time I have taken over the years to talk to the other fellows, and engage in long email exchanges, explaining what I would do and how I would do it, and the huge campaign of diplomacy I have undertaken not to tread on their delicate toes. And then of course, all the hours I have spent actually with their students. But perhaps it had nothing to do with that at all?
It feels wrong to want recognition. It feels sort of demanding and unreasonable. When we were discussing the students and in particular one whom I worked with a great deal at the end of last year, a student who had been predicted to fail and who ended up with a surprisingly good 2:1, I could have thumped the Senior Tutor when he said smugly ‘I always knew X could do it.’ I did not point out that for two and a half years, X had not done it, and it was only after a massive input of my time and energy that the miracle occurred. Because that felt grasping and arrogant and wrong. But surely I counted for something in the process, didn’t I?
It’s not like I want trumpets and balloons and champagne. I would be embarrassed in the face of effusiveness. I couldn’t bear to be fawned over. I’d just like someone to say thank you, and to reassure me that I’ve done a decent job. We got through a whole meeting without coming anywhere close.
I really feel I ought not to want it, but I do. I know without a doubt that part of the reason I burned out as a lecturer was exactly this lack of recognition. Don’t get me wrong, the students are great, and a solid proportion do say thank you to me every year and that’s lovely. But I sort of feel they shouldn’t have to thank me, really, while the people who employ me jolly well ought to. Is that wrong? I have this genius at being invisible, which Mister Litlove attributes to my façade of self-containment. I don’t look or act needy, which is of course a lie; I’m as needy as anyone else, particularly for reassurance. And this new job turns out to be quite difficult and demanding and almost 95% of the time I never get any feedback from my colleagues as to whether their students are working and coping better. I certainly don’t go begging for gratitude because that sort of strategy would completely undermine its results, wouldn’t it? I’m only interested in what people are willing to give freely.
So at the moment the thought of more years of more hard work with the same old lack of recognition is making me feel tired. But there is a large part of me still deeply attached to college; I like being a fellow and the perks that come with it, like my room and my book grant. I even appreciate students still, despite spending all my time with the most hapless ones. It’s ironic, really, as so much of what I do with those poor, hapless students is reassure them that I see how hard they are trying, and how much effort they are putting in. Their supervisors only look at the results and when they are not good enough, the first assumption is that the students are slacking off. When it is so much more likely the case that they are twisting themselves up in knots trying too hard. Cambridge is such a harsh system, the opposite of nurturing. And of course I’m a product of this system so I try very hard, too. There is probably a lesson to be learned here for both the students and myself, we should all just put in a lot less effort and watch the paradox of increasing returns unfold. But when Monday morning rolls around, and finds you in your workplace again, take a moment to express your gratitude to someone, say it out loud and generously. There’s just not enough recognition around and it has such an energising and clarifying effect. It’s such a small thing that can really make a difference to another person’s day.