Tutor and Lecturer, Victoria University of Wellington and University of Auckland

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Please can you tell us a little bit about your current role in New Zealand.

I finished a part-time job at the University of Auckland in November last year. I also spent three years teaching a variety of courses as a contract lecturer at Auckland University of Technology (AUT) and two semesters at Unitec. I was on a 0.6 contract for the past two years at Auckland. I began as a Senior Tutor in 2008, then became a Professional Teaching Fellow: elsewhere I was simply a Lecturer or Tutor. At Auckland, departments have differing models of teaching. For example, when teaching in the English department, I would take a couple of tutorial groups as well as give lectures and devise/run the course; in Sociology, tutorials are mostly taken by assigned teams of tutors. This changes on smaller courses where the lecturer may do all the teaching. Lectures are normally two hours (this can be split). Staff meetings are monthly, as are School/Faculty Meetings. Administrative tasks increased at Auckland during the last year with cuts to office staff, so lecturers are dealing with more of the paperwork now, especially at the end of a course. I would do two or three courses maximum per semester for a department, but as I taught across different departments, I could be involved in more than that. I also routinely taught at AUT simultaneously, so my teaching load was fairly full-on, but this was my choice.

What are your key research interests?

19th century literature, adaptation studies, literary biography, detective fiction, children’s literature, popular culture, death and mourning, weddings in popular culture and literature, the media and trauma. At the moment I’m working on the forthcoming BBC film drama about the Brontës and researching aspects of Brontë biography.

Do you have any other roles or responsibilities?

At Auckland, I was tutor-mentor for Sociology for two years: I supervised an MA, and taught Honours students.

Please tell us about your experience abroad.

I fell in love with New Zealand after visiting in 2004, and it took just over a year and a half to organise my move there. However, I kept a foot in the UK; for the first three or four years, I worked half the year in the UK and half in New Zealand, while I assessed my options. This was great while it lasted but became increasingly expensive and impractical, so I made the decision to commit myself to New Zealand (though I have continued to do a small amount of work in the UK). I tutored for my first two semesters in Wellington; then, quite by chance, I’d written to the English department at Auckland with my CV, and they needed someone to run a course for a member of staff on study leave, so I stepped in, teaching the course the following year as well. This led to other work and eventually I moved to Auckland from Wellington. I taught in English for two years, then by a confluence of circumstances was asked to pick up some tutoring in the Sociology department. This led to running my own courses in Sociology and an eventual two-year 0.6 appointment (I still taught in English at both Auckland and AUT, tutored writing courses at Unitec and taught some continuing education options at Auckland). I also tutored a couple of courses in the Social Work/Counselling department. 

What prompted your decision to move to New Zealand?

I’d been working flat-out in the UK for years, and was burnt-out and depressed. I was attracted to New Zealand in part because of its distance from the UK, and also because of its sheer beauty (in which I was not disappointed!) I actually intended to quit academia altogether, but the two-year break – plus being in a different, more relaxed environment – reignited my interest in teaching and research. 

How do you find the Higher Education sector in New Zealand?

There are a lot of similarities – financial pressures, increasing class sizes, heavier administrative workloads, research demands, ‘restructuring’ – but when I first started teaching in New Zealand, I found it far more relaxed, friendly and sociable than HE in the UK. For example, when I started at Auckland I was struck by how approachable everyone was, and how many people stopped by my office to see if I needed any help. I was able to teach across different disciplines without any problems: again, there seemed to be a more relaxed attitude, rather than fixed notions of what ‘your’ discipline was and that you had to remain within it. There were weekly meetings of teaching teams and very cordial relations between tutors and lecturing staff. Relations with the administrative staff who worked directly for departments were also very good, but because of the recent cuts everyone is under a bit more pressure. One point to flag up is that there are limited opportunities for research funding. The main national source is the Marsden Fund, administered by the Royal Society of New Zealand, but you’re in competition with everybody from every discipline for this. Universities also provide some funding from PBRF (Performance-Based Research Fund) money: this is similar to the UK RAE or REF. There are also some small grants for which one can apply - Auckland War Memorial Museum is one such provider. As a contract lecturer I didn’t have much to do with research funding, but heard about these sources from colleagues. If you work there, you’ll need to dig a bit to find out about research funding as there may be other grant providers which never came to my attention. There is the same culture of publishing expectations as everywhere else: this didn’t seem any different. Auckland has its own press and there are other NZ academic presses but many scholars also aim to place their work with overseas publishers. Obviously work with a New Zealand/Pacific focus is likely to gain initial interest, though local publishers also have an eye to the international market.

How does university teaching in New Zealand differ from the UK? New Zealand is a bi-cultural country, which means Pākehā (European settler) culture and Māori culture are given equal status, as enshrined in the Treaty of Waitangi. An example of this is that Te Reo Māori is one of the official languages of New Zealand, though you won’t be required to teach in Māori unless you are in that particular academic department. Most universities run some form of the Tuākana programme, which is designed to mentor Māori and Pasifika students. In addition, I felt I should tailor my teaching to address New Zealand experience so I used New Zealand examples and research where possible. The culture of higher education also tends to be more informal. For example, communication between students and staff and between different levels of staff tends to be friendlier, and this can be disconcerting (though in a positive way!) if you come from a rather more regimented, hierarchical environment.

What has your experience in New Zealand brought to your teaching/research?

While most of my research interests remain centred on the UK, what I did get was the opportunity to teach across disciplines. Although I started in English, I ended up teaching in Sociology as well and this introduced me to a lot of inter-disciplinary ideas and approaches which I think have benefited my work and broadened my employment options. For example, I developed an interest in the media reporting and aftermath of the Pike River mining disaster, which I doubt would have happened if I lived elsewhere, and this helped me explore issues in trauma and disaster in the media and elsewhere.

How has working in New Zealand helped your career?

I haven’t been teaching anywhere else since leaving Auckland as I’ve been working on a research project in the UK, so I can’t answer that fully as yet. I think it has broadened my perspectives on teaching, and I’ve definitely benefited from the more relaxed culture there. Even living in Auckland, which is the largest city, was much less stressful than living in London, and I am aware of the good effect this has had on me both personally and professionally.

What have you enjoyed most about your job in New Zealand?

I worked with great people: really friendly, supportive, and excellent scholars. Until the recent administrative changes at the University of Auckland, everything seemed easier to do. Processes which are normally deeply bureaucratic seemed straightforward. Students were responsive. And it’s a beautiful country.

Did you face any particular challenges?

I suppose I was aware of being a ‘pom’, sometimes, and I had to adjust my teaching away from being too Eurocentric. But I wouldn’t say any of these elements were a particular challenge.

Have you got any advice for other academics planning to work in New Zealand?

  1. Familiarise yourself with Māori/Pasifika culture, and integrate that knowledge and awareness into your teaching. You’ll be teaching a large number of Māori and Pacific students who take a great and justified pride in their culture. Don’t try to pretend to be someone you’re not, but even something as simple as ensuring you pronounce any Māori phrases correctly makes a difference. Know what the Treaty of Waitangi is and why it’s important. Bear in mind that family and religion can also be important elements of these cultures, and be sensitive to this. Also, give your teaching a New Zealand oriented slant: use at least some examples from NZ media or research.
  2. Find out about New Zealand employment legislation and how it may affect you, especially if you are working on a series of contracts. New Zealand has employment laws relating to ‘continuous employment’ and this can impact on whether universities are prepared to offer you successive contracts.
  3. Don’t be deceived by the reports of ‘sub-tropical’ temperatures: the winters are chilly, and most of the older houses don’t have central heating, so have some warm clothes. New Zealand seemed a lot cheaper when I first came in 2004, but the strengthening dollar has dissipated that and food and utilities are expensive in relation to salaries, which tend to be lower. Books are also expensive – and house prices have rocketed in Auckland (much cheaper elsewhere, particularly on the South Island). If you’re in Wellington (my favourite city), the wind isn’t an urban myth: it can blow you off your feet. Be prepared for the occasional quake tremor: it isn’t called the Shaky Isles for nothing. There is no culture of tipping in restaurants or taxis, but do thank the bus driver when you get off the bus. Radio National is the nearest thing to Radio 4, but don’t expect the variety of media, and all the TV channels have advertisements. BUT: people are friendly, helpful, laid-back, there is generally less bureaucracy, it’s easy to drive, it’s got cleaner air and much more space (the entire population of the country is less than that of London), it’s got lots of quirky, interesting, and culturally diverse aspects, and it’s simply stunning.

What are the top 3 reasons you chose to work for your current institution?

Because I worked across different institutions, this isn’t really an easy question to answer: my primary reason being that I worked where I was offered work! Auckland prides itself on being New Zealand’s leading university and it is New Zealand’s highest-ranking academic institution so it was good to work for them from that point of view. They have good resources and a good library, and until recently a good staff/academic support infrastructure.

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