And other reflections from a 30+ year career in academia
We were extremely fortunate to have Professor Jonathan Powles join our panel of experts during our recent UK Student helpseeking 2019 vs 2020 webinar. Budding amateur astronomer, Oxford musicological and composer PHD alumni and educator to over 10,000 students to date, as Professor Powles gets ready to make his journey from Australia to University of the West of Scotland to perform his role as Vice-Principal and Pro Vice-Chancellor Teaching, Learning and Students in the same time zone, he was kind enough to spare us time for a few questions.
"It feels a little bit like rehearsing and conducting an educational orchestra"
What initially drew you to your specialism?
I'm a music lecturer by background, which is a little unusual in some ways, and what led me to a career in music academia was a love for the communal aspect of music making. I've always really been excited by the notion of community, whether it's to make music or as a community of learners. The business of working together to create a piece of music is not a million miles away from the business of working together to create shared understanding and knowledge and so I've been in my element as a music teacher all of my career, and I don't feel that what I do in the day job has changed that much when I come to work now and focus on leading in the teaching and learning dimension of universities. It feels a little bit like rehearsing and conducting an educational orchestra.
What role should universities and higher education institutes play in modern society?
That's a really fascinating one. There is a lot of challenges for higher education at the moment, but in a way the challenges are because we're facing important questions about our future. I think as careers become more and more diverse, as people move from job to job, as technologies change the way in which we do our work increasingly quickly. I think that higher education is increasingly vital in preparing people to respond to a very complex, uncertain and rapidly changing future. In a way, it's a return to a very old role of universities, which is to teach people how to think deeply and pull together multiple lenses to solve problems. In many ways, the medieval university, where the word itself means turn towards one idea, it's about bringing together disciplines and perspectives into the one place to solve problems. And I think, funnily enough, we're coming back to that as it becomes increasingly important to bring in a whole variety of different ways of thinking. So, I think one of things that is not going to be about in the future is training individuals to be successful in the technical disciplines of a particular profession. So I think the days in which we send people university to become accountants are numbered, if not, gone already. What we need to do is to bring people to university to be able to work as accountants in ways that recognise that accountancy is going to be disrupted by technology or by environmental policy or by politics or potentially by epidemiology, in ways that we could never predicted. And therefore, the role of education and in producing our professionals and leaders of the futures is about that diversity and flexibility.
“higher education is increasingly vital in preparing people to respond to a very complex, uncertain and rapidly changing future”
Tell us about your career in academia and what has been my best moment?
There have been so many good moments! I did my doctorate at Oxford University, wrote my magnum opus, which to how every PHD student thinks of their work, and I was very much focused on research, both my musicological research and my research as a composer. I got my first job at Liverpool Hope University when I was 26, and I walked into my first class as a teacher, and that changed my whole view of what academia was all about. Up to that point, I thought it was principally about research or creative practice. And then when I first got in front of a class, I very quickly realised that that's what my passion was, teaching. And in many ways, that very first experience at Liverpool Hope University as a teacher, when I learnt how rewarding it was to be able to assist people to transform their lives through education, was the thing that inspired me and kept me going in the 30 years since that moment.
The best moment - I think calculated that I might have actually had some role in the education of over 10,000 students in various institutions, various times doing all the sums, as a teacher, that is. And every single success of every single one of those people is a reward as a teacher. When you see them flourish - I've got hundreds of my former students as Facebook friends, and they're off doing fabulous things and just seeing them flourish is what every teacher I think lives for.
"I've got hundreds of my former students as Facebook friends, and they're off doing fabulous things and just seeing them flourish is what every teacher I think lives for"
Outside of education, what other issues are you passionate about?
I'm passionate about almost anything I think about! Let me pick two: I'm an absolutely avid astronomer. I have several telescopes and cameras and I wander around taking pictures of night landscapes or taking photos of the transit's and eclipses of Jupiter's moons. I do some quite sophisticated (for an amateur astronomer) work measuring the brightness of variable stars and measuring the spectra with a spectroscope and sending those off to real astronomers for genuine research publications. So, if I'm not asleep, at night time I'm usually operating my telescopes. Or that's different these last two months where I've been working remotely at the university with Scotland from Australia. So I've been for the last few months, I've been starting work at 6pm and working through until the wee hours of the morning. But I get to Scotland in a couple of weeks so thankfully, I'll be able to reclaim my nights for my passion for astronomy.
I'm passionately concerned about the current state of public discourse. I think that whether it's the US presidential election or the decisions that various parts of Britain has made to be part of the UK or not to be part of the UK and the various decisions that Scotland is making about its place within the United Kingdom. These are really important decisions that we make, and I, like many, many people, am really quite passionately concerned about the level of evidence-based thinking that's happening around those important public decisions. Let's take another one, climate change. The clamour of self-interest seems to be drowning out the voices of reason in the way in which we manage our public discussions, and that scares me. I think universities have a role to play in helping us think through complicated issues as a society. But I don't see them being allowed to play those roles and some cases I don't see them as standing up to play that role. I see universities as institutions increasingly marginalised or seem to be irrelevant. The expertise seems to be increasingly irrelevant in some of those conversations and that creates concern. I don't think I'm just ready yet to turn my back on it all and go and play with my telescopes. But I do think that something radical needs to happen about the way in which we manage our public debates.
What advice would you give young people starting out in their academic careers now?
It's going to be a tricky one, because I finished my undergraduate degrees and then I straight away started a full time PHD. Then as soon as I got my PHD - or just slightly before I got my PHD - I got a full-time academic position and I have been in universities literally since the age of 18. That's an increasingly unusual and undesirable trajectory, and if it would give any advice to people about an academic career is don't do what I did! I think universities need a really healthy flow of attitudes, experiences from within and without the academy.
So I would say go and embrace the fact that an academic of the future needs to be a very multiply talented person. They need to understand so many different things: professional practise, technology, teaching, learning, entrepreneurship. There are so many different things that are really essential to a successful academic career. So go out, don't put all your eggs in one basket educationally or in terms of your career experiences, and get a diversity experiences that will stand you in good stead to be an excellent and happy academic. I have been a very happy academic with that very traditional one track trajectory, but I see so many who have not been happy on that route or not been successful on that route. So I would say be innovative and be prepared to be flexible.