Episode 5 with A Zhu, working in higher ed as student, teacher, and administrator – Off Campus: Humanities Scholars In Alt-Ac Careers
In this episode, I interview Bethany Parsons, a classicist working to improve diversity, equality, and inclusion on the college campus.
Kino: [00:00:15] You’re listening to Off Campus, a podcast about humanities scholars in our tech careers. I am your host, Dr. Kino. This is episode four, where I interview Bethany Parsons, a philosopher and classicist who works as an equality lead. In this episode, we talk about finding your niche in academia.
Kino: [00:00:38] Bethany Parsons completed a master’s of art degree in Continental Philosophy from University of Warwick. She then went on to pursue a Ph.D. in Classics, but decided to finish with an M.Phil. Currently, she works as an equalities officer at Edinburgh College, working to promote equality, diversity and inclusion across the school. Welcome to the podcast.
Kino: [00:01:01] I like to start by talking about graduate school. Can you tell me a little bit about why you decided to pursue a Classics degree?
Bethany Parsons: [00:01:11] When I was doing my M.A. in Continental Philosophy, I was doing research on Nietzsche and Pre-Socratic philosophy. So philosophy before Plato, and when I wanted to do further research in that area, I found that I was really getting into interdisciplinary area where it was that combination of both philosophy in terms of being the ancient philosophers and being Nietzsche’s interpretation of ancient philosophers, but then also all the disciplinary stuff that comes with classics. So reading Ancient Greek, I did Ancient Greek for five years, still aren’t very good at it. And in terms of like the philology of like being able to look at different sources, evaluate the trustworthiness, evaluate what it is that an ancient author is trying to do. Because actually, for a lot of the pre-Socratic philosophers, we don’t have the original source texts. We have later ancient authors writing about, Oh, so-and-so said this, and that’s our sources for what that person thought. And we have to kind of use the toolkit of classics to tease out, well, what context are they drawing on there? What purpose are they using that quote for? Did they have direct access to a text or are they just looking at someone else’s, also quoting? How far removed are they from those original texts? So when I was coming to do that further postgraduate research on Nietzsche and the early Greek philosophers, I did end up in a classics department because those all those tools of classics were so important for being able to tease out what was happening in the philosophy. So that’s how I ended up. It’s a very interdisciplinary area. I think when you get into ancient philosophy where you need both sets of toolkits for that.
Kino: [00:03:10] Right. It was before the disciplines were separated into what they are currently.
Bethany Parsons: [00:03:16] Yeah, absolutely.
Kino: [00:03:18] So you did your postgraduate work in the UK and my understanding is that the British system is more research focused. So unlike the American system where you have to do two years of coursework and so a lot of people go into graduate school kind of because they want to do more coursework, they love taking classes and then graduate school is part of that. So, unlike that system, in the UK people kind of start doing research the moment they start postgraduate education. So did you decide to do postgraduate education because you enjoyed research and wanted to do research?
Bethany Parsons: [00:03:55] The MA I did, the MA in Continental philosophy is… It’s a bit like those first years of like a US PhD programme that that was coursework, it was a year programme after my bachelor’s, so I had a bachelor’s and then I did the Emma Continental philosophy. It was one year of classes and coursework and then it was after that I decided to do a research degree, so I had already done some postgraduate study, but at that kind of coursework level and then as I say, started in PhD study but ultimately left with a research degree just below a PhD. I didn’t complete the full PhD on that programme. It came out of interest in the area of research that I think had really come from my bachelors because I’d been taking classes in both philosophy and in classics throughout my bachelor’s, and it started from there that interest in the way that those two subject areas really do intersect with each other in such an interesting way and in such a useful way, like the tools of one are important to understand what’s happening in the other. Yeah. So it was bachelor’s then it was like that taught master’s. And then I spent four years on the research degree.
Kino: [00:05:13] Did you enjoy other aspects of graduate school, outside of research? Did you have to teach? Did you enjoy teaching?
Bethany Parsons: [00:05:20] I did. I taught in a couple of different subject areas, actually. I taught in the classics department. That was really interesting because the first year I was teaching, the first course they assigned me was it was a course called Roman World, and it was on like Roman culture and society and like it was it’s kind of like a survey course for undergraduates coming in and trying to equalize people that maybe have studied classics a little bit before and people that haven’t studied classics at all. So they take these courses that kind of do a big survey of the different kinds of topics in classics. So they assigned me Roman World. But everything I’ve ever studied in terms of antiquity has been the Greeks, the Greek language, Greek culture and society. And then on top of that, the first… So one, I’m already out of my depth because it’s the Romans. And most of what I’ve studied is, as I say, the philosophy before Plato. So it was a very different period to the one that I’d been spending a lot of time researching. And the first session for that course, they wanted all the graduate tutors to do a session that was kind of archaeology based. They had boxes of objects, and the session was about talking through what those different objects were, what they represented, what they did.
Bethany Parsons: [00:06:42] And I remember one was like a loom weight for a weaving and like a coin and something else. I remember being so nervous going into the first day of teaching, teaching Roman culture and society with an archaeology topic, with a box of objects. And everything I do is reading and just being like, Oh my goodness, what am I going to do? But it was fantastic. It went really well. I did get to go on and teach some more familiar subjects after that. But that was my baptism of fire for teaching, was walking into the class with a big box of Roman artifacts and saying, let’s talk about these.
Bethany Parsons: [00:07:20] So I taught a couple of different courses in classics, and I also taught on courses in the philosophy department ethics course and on a course that looked at Aristotle and Plato. And I did one semester teaching on a course that was in the politics department as well, because it was a lot of like contemporary political philosophy, but also some some stuff kind of contemporary, so like the Nietzsche, at that period I’ve done a lot of work on as well. So I ended up kind of using the strange interdisciplinary background of my research to actually get experience teaching in a couple of different areas when I was on program.
Side jobs on campus
Kino: [00:07:58] I understand that you tried a few different, maybe not careers, but drops that would eventually help you build a career while you were in graduate school. You tell me what prompted you to try those where you’re thinking about maybe you want to profile outside of just research and teaching, or did the opportunities just present themselves?
Bethany Parsons: [00:08:18] So definitely like the teaching has been really valuable for my career outside of academia, but there were other jobs around the university that I did at the same time that have turned out to be really invaluable for the career that I have now. It always comes down to a coincidence that it was my first year on my program. There was an advert on the university job system for support during exams delivering disability computing support, so technological assistive technology for students with disabilities during their exams. And I thought, that sounds great. I’m good with computers and I need some money. Let’s have a go at that. Within a couple of years, I was the person delivering the training for people that were doing disability computing support and also working part-time in it for the university. While doing my studies, we had a drop-in I.T desk in the main library of the university. It was really good to have work that was flexible during my studies and like work with an employer that understood that I was studying. But it was also something that was interested me and I think in the way that it was different from the kind of research I was doing. So it was really, I think it was intellectually stimulating to have those very different kinds of activities. You spend a morning doing research, sitting down, comparing the renditions of a passage from an author and two different sources to look at the Greek to see if there’s differences in that. And then in the afternoon, doing a different kind of problem solving with computing, maybe doing some teaching or those different kinds of activities. I think together was really good for keeping the brain going, I think, and not getting too oversaturated.
Kino: [00:10:12] I think that is actually true of people in the humanities, because when I chat with scientists and they’d ask what my research is like, I would be like, well, I have a lot of books and then I read all of them. And that’s basically what I do when I research. Whereas friends in physics, for example, they have a lot of meetings with different people. They prepare reports. They write grant proposals. So that is a variety of things. Whereas in the humanities really it’s just me and a bunch of texts. I’m either reading them or writing them. Those are the only two things.
Bethany Parsons: [00:10:49] Yeah, absolutely. Like my my graduate experience was just like that. It was either reading very difficult texts or trying to write what was probably a very difficult text. Absolutely.
Thinking seriously about alt-ac
Kino: [00:11:00] When did you start thinking seriously about not going into academia? And then we’re outside of the traditional tenure track. Did you look first?
Bethany Parsons: [00:11:10] I think it was something I had in my mind from the start was how important it was to develop an idea of what I might do outside of academia. I think because when I’d had that taught master’s program, I’d got an insight from that of how difficult it can be to go on to a tenure track job, especially in the humanities, philosophy, where it’s very competitive for jobs afterwards. So I think when it came to the kinds of work I was doing alongside research so that teaching the disability computing work and the I.T. support work, in a sense, I was always evaluating everything in that perspective of is this something that I could also do if I don’t go on into academia? I think it was kind of, it was almost always there as a thought in the background of it’s not a guarantee. So it’s important to be thinking about what those different kinds of work are like and what it is that I like in the kinds of things that I’m doing that I might then like to pursue in work outside of academia.
Kino: [00:12:30] Once you decided that you’re going to pursue a career outside of academia, did you go immediately to your current position, which is something you’ve already had some experience in? Or did you look for other ways that you eventually ended up not going?
Bethany Parsons: [00:12:46] When I left the program I was in, the first job I got was a full time I.T. job. I’d been doing the I.T. at the university as a part-time student position alongside the teaching and the research. That had been sufficient experience to get a full-time position in one of the departments at the university doing their I.T. support and building the computers and everything like that. That was more, I think, out of necessity. I was like, right, I need to find something to do. And I was successful in that. It was about a year later that I got the position that I’m in now at the college that I work in, where I was able to leverage some of the different kinds of experience that I had, the teaching experience, the experience working with students with disabilities and all the different kinds of the research experience to get the job that I have now. So there was about a year where I was doing more of just like a basic I.T. job before I found successful in getting the job I’ve got now that I think really does leverage more a lot of the kind of skills I was developing when I was in graduate school.
Working as the equalities lead
Kino: [00:14:00] So you currently work as an equalities lead. Can you tell me broadly what this work does, what your office does and your role in it?
Bethany Parsons: [00:14:10] So I work in a college which, in Scotland, it’s more like a community college than like a university. It’s very vocational. Our students study things like hairdressing, construction, painting and decorating, sound design, sound production, cooking, travel and tourism. They can also do courses to catch up on any qualifications they missed in high school, as well as do courses that are like access to university. So courses that help them get into either get into university or get in straight into the second year of a university course. So it’s very different from when I spent a lot of time working in teaching at the university. It’s a very different kind of environment.
Bethany Parsons: [00:14:57] What I do as the Equalities Lead is look at the way that the college fulfils its statutory duties around equality, diversity and inclusion. So as a public body in Scotland, we have legal duties to act. To advance equality of opportunity across the protected characteristics that we have under law. We have nine protected characteristics that it’s basically these are the characteristics that it’s illegal to discriminate against someone on the basis of. But then, as I say, on top of that, as a public body, we have this additional duty to advance equality of opportunity for these groups. So that means like identifying any barriers to engagement that are specific to being a member of one of these groups and looking to remedy that. I’ve got a list of them. I should really memorize these by now, but I hid the post next to my desk. So in UK law, those characteristics are age, disability, gender reassignment, which is more talk about like transgender these days than gender reassignment. But they set these categories like ten years ago. Marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religious belief, sex and sexual orientation. These are the the nine categories under UK law.
Bethany Parsons: [00:16:17] So I look at statistics around both our student and staff body in relation to the these characteristics in terms of the demographics of our student and staff body. But then I also look to identify those any barriers to engagement for these groups or barriers to participation for these groups. So like looking at the success rates for students with particular characteristics. One example is, and this is a national trend, is students who are LGBT are more likely to withdraw from their courses than the college average. And that’s, as I say, across the education sector that we see that. And so you start with this, you start with that evidence and you go, well, okay, we can see that this group is more likely to withdraw. Why is that? And well, the answers are things like homophobic, transphobic, biphobic, bullying, fears around coming out, unstable home life, perhaps because of their identity, you know, in social interactions around their identity, fears around coming out or this kind of stuff. So then the question is, well, what can we do as an institution to support students who are LGBT? And we do that kind of work across different characteristics, like, well, if we see there’s some kind of inequality that we have evidence that it seems to be on the basis of a characteristic. It’s like, well, what’s the reason behind that? What can we be doing to be supportive and inclusive, to help all students to equally be able to succeed? So a lot of looking at statistics that leads into training or maybe the like delivering training around these themes, getting in third sector organisations to deliver that training.
Bethany Parsons: [00:18:07] So we had a charity come in last year to deliver some training around like terminology and supporting LGBT students. Because there’s, the important thing is the support staff in an institution need to know what’s going on to be able to support those students. If they don’t understand some of the language that students may use, then how can they support a student? You have, I speak to staff that they don’t know what it means when a student says that they’re non-binary. They don’t know what they should do when they have a student who’s transgender. They worry about saying the wrong thing, if a student comes out to them as transgender, things like this that it’s saying, well, we need training so that people can feel confident around having those conversations and confident and being able to refer students on to support services, wellbeing services, even just like youth groups and things, just being able to arm people with the knowledge of, you know, if a student is struggling. You know, there’s things like local youth groups that you can refer them onto or they’ll find people that they can talk to about what’s going on.
Kino: [00:19:16] Right. So this is mostly targeted towards staff. As you were saying, I was thinking, there’s a lot of limitations to what a university can do. Like if a student has unstable home life because their parents don’t support them, there is not a whole lot a school could do. Are there other examples of this sort of help that is not training or specifically targeted towards staff?
Bethany Parsons: [00:19:39] I do a lot of work with our students association in terms of talking to students about what the college could be doing to support them better, whether it’s things like raising awareness of the wellbeing services that we have or helping them to access different kinds of funding and benefits and things, just having that visibility of inclusiveness like running stalls sometimes. That’s been the really fun thing this year as we’ve been able to start going back, are doing more in person events where we put a stall up on one of our campuses. We did one last week for the International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia, where we had like a nice sign and we had some flags and we could talk to students because it’s finding out, well, what is it we can do to be more inclusive? What is it that we do well? What is it that we could do better? And just having those conversations and getting that input.
Bethany Parsons: [00:20:44] But I mean, inclusivity is not just about training, it’s also about the very kind of fabric of an institution. So one project I’m working on is around developing. It’s almost a framework called like an autism friendly campus. Students with autism may be overwhelmed by particular sensory overloads. We have for instance, we have a canteen where it’s very loud. It can be difficult to get away from that noise. And someone who has sensitivity to that kind of noise, where do they go and eat their lunch? If the canteen is very loud, you know, it starts with things like that, with like evaluating those physical spaces from the standpoint of what does a person who has these support needs do in this situation? What does a person who experiences this in this way do in this situation? And trying to build that inclusivity into the physical kind of the very fabric of of the buildings themselves as well. So that’s another example of the kind of stuff.
Kino: [00:21:52] Can you describe to me what a typical day if there is a typical day, what a regular work day is like for you?
Bethany Parsons: [00:22:00] It’s funny because it’s not so many regular work days at the moment. I’ve started going into campus more often, which has been really, really good because I’ve been mostly working from home for the last two years, but it’s a bit of a shake up to the routine. But the kind of things I may do on a day include a major enquiries into my email inbox around different kinds of issues, either from staff or from students. And I’ll have a look at those and see if I can help or if I can direct people in the right direction. I write a lot of reports, so I always set aside time for writing, you know, setting myself deadlines to make sure that I can get them sent off someone else to have a look at before they go on to wherever they need to go on to. I do a lot of training, so I may have a training session to deliver. I may have meetings as well. I have a lot of meetings. I meet regularly with our students association because we have like elected student officers who the students that are elected by the student body to represent students. So I meet with them really frequently to have that connection with the students. I run the college’s Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Committee as well. So that’s a really big meeting. We bring everyone that’s got anything to do with equality, diversity and inclusion in together and just check in on where different projects are and if there’s any updates from anyone and things like that. So that’s kind of I think the main kind of stuff I’m doing is meetings, report, writing, training and looking at all different kinds of enquiries. And sometimes I get external enquiries as well. We may get audits, we may have prospective students sending in enquiries and sometimes we have like government bodies either asking us to respond to consultations or to come in to particular meetings around equalities issues and stuff like that.
Learning new skills
Kino: [00:23:57] We talked a little bit about this before when you came to be a guest on Wonder. There seems to be a lot of things that you do regularly that are kind of analogous to what you did in graduate school. So for example, training is a bit like teaching and report writing is slightly different content that you write down, but it is very long text that has to be precise and logical that you’re probably trained for during graduate school. Can you tell me a little bit about things that you weren’t trained for in graduate school? Like what things that surprised you that you needed to know and how you went about improving on this?
Bethany Parsons: [00:24:38] I think the main thing that I do that I didn’t do a lot of in graduate school is work with statistics because my research was very humanities. I might say it was reading, I’d say ancient Greek texts either in translation or in the original reading nature writing about ancient Greek texts, either in translation or in the German going from there to building philosophical arguments around that, which is very. Different to here is a data set. Can you tell me what’s significant in this? And you tell me what other data you want to have and things like that. So I think that’s the main way that what I do is kind of analogous to what I did in graduate school. And so I do spend a bit of time reading up on different approaches to interpreting statistics and also like presenting statistics. I find that sometimes I get to that point where I’m like, Yes, I think I’m there. I think I’ve got what I need to argue my point. But then it’s that kind of data visualization that is something that I’ve had to do a lot of work on to make things make that compelling kind of demonstration of This is what the data is and this is why you need to care about it in one image.
Bethany Parsons: [00:26:01] Because it turns out people don’t just use Microsoft Word charts to make charts anymore. So learning different kind of like computer programs and online stuff for representing data in different ways. And as I say, moving from here’s my very complicated spreadsheet with all these different kinds of statistics and in the way that I’ve been comparing the kind of the data with over here, with this over here into something that someone can look at and get that idea very quickly of this is what the point is. This is what I want you to know from these numbers. And I think that’s one of those things where it’s like different people from different disciplines. Experience of that would be very different. I came from a very book-based wordy academic discipline, whereas I know a lot of people are doing statistics every day in grad school, even in humanities areas, they find projects which are based in like statistical analysis. But for someone that spent a lot of time learning ancient Greek, I’ve had to go on to do a lot of statistics.
Kino: [00:27:04] I think it’s heartening to know that you were able to pick it up yourself and also you’re able to do your job as you’re trying to pick it up. I think data and data visualization, data interpretation, is one of those things that is pretty much impossible to do anything without engaging, you know, a little bit of data, even if, I don’t know, maybe poets don’t have to deal with data. But I think a lot of creative arts will have to engage with some sort of data related stuff. And part of the reason I want to interview people specifically in the humanities is that very often we don’t have that formal training and we have to pick it up on the fly. And also, it’s sometimes scary to think that I will have to acquire this skill that I wasn’t trained in in order to do this job that I really love. So I think it’s heartening to know that you are able to do that.
Kino: [00:28:02] Suppose someone listening to a podcast, suppose it’s their first time hearing something like this is even possible, which is not likely because they’re all kinds of classical, so they’re probably aware that something like this exists, but suppose they want to move in this direction. But they, you know, it’s the first time they’ve ever heard of this. They don’t know where to start. How do you advise them to move forward?
Bethany Parsons: [00:28:23] So I think the interesting thing about working in a position in equalities where it’s equalities broadly construed is there’s nothing that quite prepares you for working in all of equalities. My job, as I say, it covers all of the protected characteristics under UK law. And then anything that prepares you for working on all of those characteristics is working on all of those characteristics. But absolutely. I mean, the way I got into this was through getting experience working in a particular area in equalities. So if it’s something that you’re interested in is a job looking at equalities like broadly construed is thinking, is there anything that I can gain experience in in any of these particular areas? As I say, I started off delivering computing support for disabled students, went on to be delivering training on computing, support for disabled students, and was able to otherwise demonstrate that I had the skills to be able to do this kind of work alongside that experience in one area.
Bethany Parsons: [00:29:37] A lot of the work that I do is about having the humility to say that I’m never going to be a complete expert in all nine of these characteristics that my job relates to. It’s about identifying people that have those different strengths in the organisation and being able to support them when they do the thing that they’re an expert in. So if you’re interested in that kind of work, it’s almost don’t think, Oh, I have to get a job in equalities and it’s all equalities now because it’s well, one, it’s difficult working in all of them anyway. But two, it’s much more common to find. And some kind of either paid or unpaid experience. It could be volunteering work, but like on a particular issue. So like how I started off on accessibility and disability technology, you may start with something like LGBT rights, anti racism, sex equality, anything like that. Then there’s opportunities to go on to be an expert in that one particular field or to work in an area that looks at equality, diversity and inclusion more broadly as well.
Bethany Parsons: [00:30:48] I think that you have to be kind of interested in it. I think it’s definitely like a lot of different academic subjects. I think it can be a bit of a passion field that people really start off with saying, well actually these causes are things that really matter to me and that can be the driving force behind it as well. So it’s even think starting off by thinking, what is it that I’m interested in? What is it that matters a lot to me? And using that to direct where you look for those kinds of opportunities, that would be the first step to working full time in that kind of field.
Kino: [00:31:19] One thing is that I think is very important is that for people who care a lot about diversity, inclusion and also try to do work in this area, it’s it’s scary because there are a lot of different issues. And even someone who’s very well versed in a few of them, it’s difficult to be well versed in all of them. And those will change from context to context. So, for example, citizenship status isn’t protected in a lot of places, but it is in in the US. And so the loss would be different. But it is important to still move forward and still try to learn, even though I might not be an expert in all of them. But that’s true of all jobs.
Kino: [00:31:58] Do you have any general advice for students who are thinking about not pursuing a traditional tenure track or not wanting to finish there, that they are a bit unsure of where to move forward? Do you have any general advice for them?
Bethany Parsons: [00:32:11] So I think definitely sit down and think about what parts of graduate school it is that you enjoy. I really love teaching. When I did it, it was one of the best parts of graduate school for me was the teaching, because I don’t know. I think you can just derive so much satisfaction from going in and an hour later the students come out with that greater understanding of that subject material. And a lot of the time they, you know, you’ve you’ve coached them to get there themselves. It’s not just giving them information on a piece of paper. It’s that very Socratic method, getting them to that place of understanding themselves. So for me, I think having aspects of like training is so important in the work that I do because it really does evoke a lot of that similar satisfaction that teaching in the humanities did for me.
Bethany Parsons: [00:33:08] So, you know, and there maybe for different people, there may be different parts of that graduate school experience which are there. Like, Yes, that’s the bit that’s the thing that I like doing the most in graduate school and then being able to think from there, what kinds of things could I do that involve doing that thing? But it’s otherwise it’s about if you look at jobs outside of like professor jobs and really like thinking through each of the criteria it has, like what we want someone that’s going to do this, this and this, is thinking, how can I link what I have done in graduate school to the way that they’ve described what is done in this job? And I say, like for the job that I have now working in equalities full time, they want people that could do report writing and say, well, you know, I’ve written papers, I’ve written a thesis, I’ve done all of this stuff I can do writing. I can do that. That’s fantastic. That’s great. They want someone that can do research and stay up to date with developments in law, in statutory advice, stuff like that. I’m like, Yeah, great. I can read academic paper. Believe me, nothing. No press release from the government or consultation paper from the government is as complex as some of the academic articles I had to read for graduate school. I can absolutely stay on top of of that kind of stuff. Yeah, it’s kind of like it’s like going through and thinking about how people have described the same things you’re doing and graduate school in different ways because then it means like, well, that’s how you can relate to them, that you meet the skills that they want for those kinds of jobs.
Kino: [00:34:43] Thank you so much for sharing with us your experience.
Bethany Parsons: [00:34:47] Thank you so much for having me.
Kino: [00:34:53] Thank you for listening to the fourth episode with Bethany Parsons. I have been your host, Kino. You can find me on Twitter at off campus FDs or email me at off campus pot at gmail.com. I’m always looking for suggestions of guests to invite questions to ask and topics to explore. I’ll see you next time.