My Academic Diary: Jenni Brooks

Dr Jenni Brooks

Senior Lecturer in Sociology

Department of Psychology, Sociology and Politics

Sheffield Hallam University

Friday 6th May 2016


I have missed my train. After six years of commuting between Sheffield and York I had a routine which (almost) never failed, but now I do this journey once a month at most, and haven’t left enough time. I walk into town for supplies – note paper, cold and flu tablets, and chocolate biscuits.


I’m finally on the train. Email colleagues to confess I won’t be as early as I thought, and then reply with reassurances to two students unsure about electronic assessment submission. I sympathise – this is my first semester of teaching in my new job and I’m not entirely convinced I’ve worked it out myself.

Is this a ‘normal’ working day? I’m not sitting in my office in front of a screen, so no – but having recently left a research-only job, train travel and advisory groups still feel like a normal part of working life. I’m not quite used to the rhythm of the teaching year, as I’ve demonstrated by planning important research events in the middle of the marking period. My colleagues have their heads buried in essays (metaphorically of course – they’re all online now) and I feel a slight pang of guilt at being out of the office for three days this week for what I consider to be research-related fun.

Today is the first advisory group meeting for a project which has taken almost six years to come to fruition. I’m excited – this started as a hunch I had in a job years ago, and is now a fully-fledged research project, and I still can’t quite believe it’s happening. There are many people involved, and I ponder whether more research time is now taken up trying to manage relationships between partners, different universities, members of advisory groups, co-researchers than was the case in the past. Where’s the balance between involvement and speed in research? There are still many things for us all to learn about collaborating effectively.

A man behind me is shouting into his phone at the DVLA. Why do people still persist in making phone calls to unwieldy organisations when they’re on a train?


I check my to-do list. I’ve been using the Getting Things Done system for years now, and it’s revolutionised my working life. I have a master list of ‘projects’ (anything that will take more than one step to complete), and a master list of ‘things to do’. Every Friday (except today, because I’m on a train), I review both lists, anything left in my email inbox (which is mostly cleared each day), and my physical in tray. I know exactly what’s on my to-do list at all times, which saves me trying to remember, and helps me make efficient decisions. Sometimes my list terrifies me, but at least I’m not scared of forgetting anything.

Right now my list is varied, and not too long:

  • Send a paragraph about a forthcoming research trip to Norway, funded by my new department, to our research coordinator
  • Draft a guide for a module I’m running in September
  • Sign up for the PGCert in learning and teaching in higher education that I’ll be starting in September
  • Apply for our departmental writing retreat (three days in the Peak District in July)
  • Type notes from yesterday’s research group away day
  • Write presentation for conference next Wednesday

I notice that the task that is currently taking up much of my working time – marking – isn’t even on there. I add a tick box for each module that I have left to mark and the list grows.

I turn to the notes I made about my conference presentation while sitting in an event last week. Listening to someone speak always sparks my imagination and I often end up scribbling about something seemingly unrelated in a conference. I was like this as a student – plotting essays for one module during lectures for another. I like to think I still learned something.


I arrive and ring the doorbell, but there’s nobody to let me through the swipe access door as they’re all upstairs having coffee. I miss communal coffee time (and the communal biscuit tin), and feel a bit sad that I no longer have a swipe card here. I’m working on a project, and have an email address and IT access, but here I am standing outside the door waiting for permission to get in. In the corridor, I start eating the biscuits I brought to share.


People are arriving for our advisory group. We can’t find our printed agendas, can’t get hold of the person who is joining us by Skype, and we have sandwiches, but no tea. Fortunately it’s a small and lively group, and nobody seems to mind.


Everyone’s left, and we in the research team breathe a sigh of relief that people seemed interested and the project seems worthwhile and useful. This research is about workplace personal assistants for physically disabled people, so the advisory group is a mixture of academics, personal assistants and disabled people also wearing other hats as representatives of organisations. As we always hope for with advisory groups, they told us plenty we didn’t know, and today they advised us how we could recruit participants, and helped develop the questions we’ll ask in interviews. We also asked the group about our project logo – which we have now abandoned. I confess I’m a bit sad, but at least we know we have an advisory group who won’t shy away from telling us what they think.


I’m back on the train, adding things to my to-do list. Type some notes from this afternoon, ring someone who couldn’t make it to the meeting, forward a paper to a colleague. I check my diary, and write a list for Monday, trying to make sure the day isn’t entirely taken up with marking. Then back to the conference presentation – does my work really fit with the conference theme? It’s a bit late for that kind of angst now, so I mind map what I have, and the rest I’ll have to sort out on Monday. Now it’s officially the weekend, and much as I love my job, I refuse to even think about work at the weekend. Instead, I’m off to an ‘immersive theatre’ performance in a forest, where I will apparently be turning into a wolf. Hope they turn me back before Monday.

Originally posted 6th June 2016

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