Me, an Oxford academic?

I have been working as a researcher in the Transport Studies Unit at the University of Oxford since October 2019, but it’s taken a while for the full meaning of being ‘an academic at Oxford’ to sink in.

Partly that may be because I’ve only just had my first experiences teaching this past month: an hour’s discussion session for our executive education course (with a pre-recorded 15-minute lecture) and an hour’s session for the Masters in Sustainable Urban Development, which is run out of the Department for Continuing Education.

Despite the audiences being made up of more mature students and professionals, not dissimilar to the audiences at the many academic and professional conferences at which I’ve presented, being responsible for teaching them as part of an Oxford University course is different. There is more expectation of a certain level of expertise, even if it is from the literature rather than primary research.

Indeed, no matter how junior you are, if you conduct research at the University of Oxford, expertise is expected.

I’ve been approached by journalists, politicians, organisers of research events, etc for my advice and/or participation in recent months. Some of the approaches I found myself checking to make sure they were genuine. Who were they? Why were they contacting me? I hadn’t previously thought about being approached in that way. But gradually, I’ve realised that these are real requests, looking for input from the Oxford brand.

And that is the crux of the matter – the Oxford brand is world renowned, and rightly so. Yet it feels odd to be asked to share knowledge because of I’m associated with it on topics only tangentially related to the research I am actually doing as an employee of the University.

I find myself drawing on knowledge from my past work in local government, industry, with professional institutions like the Royal Town Planning Institute, and even from quick Internet searches prior to a call. And I do feel some imposter syndrome, whether teaching or responding to an external request – is my expertise expert enough?

Yet there is another side to expertise. Whether it is in demand or not, being seen to have it does not ensure that those who requested it will act on what you say, change what they think, or even truly listen to you.

The questions asked often reflect entrenched views or presumed answers. They don’t always offer the scope for responding with recommendations that might actually make a difference. They don’t necessarily allow for the complexity and nuance of research findings or how they might affect real people and communities.

This inflexibility or lack of openness to debate is something we all encounter and which I’ve certainly encountered before in various roles, both professional and personal.

I’ve also ended up sharing expertise with others who think along the same lines. In such situations, you’re preaching to the converted, you debate the nuance in a friendly way, and you come back next year to do it again and lament nothing has changed.

But perhaps, just perhaps, this is where the Oxford brand, being an ‘Oxford’ academic could move the scales a little. The weight of your expertise, of your involvement, the ‘gravitas’ as an old boss of mine called it, is suddenly greater. It seems odd gaining gravitas not through additional age or experience – although I’m always getting older and (thankfully!) learning new things, but through the age and experience of your employer. Yet if it helps you get your message across, even if it is an old message, or helps you have more positive impact, even in a small way, it is worthwhile.

So I am trying to embrace the opportunities offered to me as an academic at Oxford and ‘an expert’, even if what that means is only just beginning to sink in.

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