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My Story: Dr Ryan Naylor

Dr Ryan Naylor from the Melbourne Centre for the Study of Higher Education at the University of Melbourne recently visited Curtin University to collaborate with the National Centre team. While we had him, we took the opportunity to speak with Ryan about his journey into higher education.

NCSEHE: Please tell us a little bit about your background. Where did you grow up? What schools did you go to? What challenges (if any) did you face at school?

Ryan: I was born in north-central NSW, but I’ve lived in Melbourne since I was 4 and my parents moved off the farm, so I think I count as having grown up in Melbourne. I went to the local suburban primary school, and then won an academic scholarship to Ivanhoe Grammar School at the end of Grade 6.

I was very studious at school. Well, more to the point, I was (and am) a big nerd, and I’m not ashamed to admit it. Like a lot of young people—boys especially, but probably not exclusively—who are more interested in learning than in sport or whatever else, I was subject to a reasonable amount of bullying. Really, it could have been a lot worse—as I’ve got older, I’ve realised more and more that being white, male and middle-class makes things easier in a lot of relatively invisible ways—but it was pretty ferocious at times. Generally, though, I enjoyed school.

NCSEHE: At what point did you realise you wanted to go to university, and what did you study?

Ryan: My mother went to university (and did an engineering degree in the 70s!) and my father had started but dropped out, so there was always an expectation that that is what I would do. My parents wanted me to be a barrister, but, even though I could have got into law or medicine, I knew that wasn’t what I wanted to do.

I started at university when I was 16, doing a combined BA/BSc at the University of Melbourne. At that point, I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life (and I’m still not entirely convinced), so I did the broadest degree I could find until I found something I was really interested in. Eventually, I majored in Philosophy and Linguistics (out of interest) and Biochemistry. I loved biology and chemistry, and I thought biochem would be the best of both of worlds. It wasn’t, but there you go.

Luckily, my mother was willing to support me financially through most of this, and I had been working at the family business (fixing hydraulic hoses), or as a butcher, or tutoring, so I was reasonably financially secure. That made a 5 year undergrad course, including a semester on exchange in Ireland, much easier.

I wanted to do something socially worthwhile, so I majored in biochemistry, studying a marsupial model of Alzheimer’s disease, and then went on to a PhD, which was also in Alzheimer’s disease.

NCSEHE: How/why did you transition from biochemistry into higher education?

Ryan: It takes a particular type of person to succeed in science research, where 99% of what you do is inconclusive. I couldn’t cope with the frustration of repeating the same experiments day after day with minute variations hoping for a clear positive or negative response.

I had, however, been teaching all the way through Honours and the PhD, and I really enjoyed that. It meant I was still using all of the science expertise I’d developed, and was a lot more satisfying than being in the lab. At the suggestion of one of my mentors, I enrolled in the Graduate Certificate of University Teaching, and it blew my mind. I was completely engaged and enthused by what I was learning about. Obviously I made an impression on my CSHE colleagues as well.

After completing my PhD, I spent 2 years as a sessional biochem demonstrator while trying to find either a teaching-only biochem position or a job at the CSHE. Eventually, I took a position as a research assistant at the CSHE, just to get my foot in the door. Being burnt out after my PhD, and under severe financial pressure with a mortgage and very erratic and sparse teaching hours as a demonstrator, those two years were quite a difficult time. I am glad to be where I am now though.

NCSEHE: During your time at university, did anything specifically stand out to you in terms of the way higher education is structured, or with respect to the student experience? What are your main thoughts, looking back?

Ryan: I think overall my uni experience was positive, particularly as an undergrad. I was exposed to a lot of new ideas, met a lot of interesting people I would never have met otherwise, and had the opportunity to live in Ireland where I had far too much of a good time.

My PhD was much less successful. I developed clinical depression (to the point of having suicidal fantasies, because I couldn’t see how I could complete it, but I felt like I couldn’t disappoint my family by dropping out). Fortunately, I went to university counselling, which helped, but it was an awful period on my life.

I should say, most people have more positive experiences in their PhD than I did!

I think a lot of my success has been due to support and guidance from other people who were at the same level I was or a bit further along. I am a great believer in making use of mentors for support. It’s an unfortunate truth, particularly for people as shy as me, but networking is essential to success. Really, I wouldn’t have been able to get to my current position if it hadn’t been for the kindness of other staff members, particularly in finding casual employment for me.

NCSEHE: What is it like for you now that the shoe is on the other foot and you are actually teaching at university?

Ryan: I still love it! Most of my students now are academic staff, but even though they’re adult professionals who have self-selected to be in my course, there are always the same concerns with making my teaching engaging and well-structured. Whether you’re teaching staff or first year undergrads, group work seems to require particularly careful negotiation, and no one ever does all the reading.

NCSEHE: Have you noticed any differences in your student cohorts over the past few years? If so, what differences?

Ryan: I think the big change will continue to be technology in education. For better or worse, we’ve been treating students as customers for quite a while, and they’ve come to expect that they are getting what they’ve paid for, that materials are available to them when they need them rather than when is convenient for staff, and so on. I don’t think that’s a bad thing. In 5 years as an undergraduate, I saw a lot of really good teaching, and a certain amount of bad teaching. If the changes we’re seeing now forces people to be more inventive and engaging in the way they teach, I think we can only benefit as a sector and as a society.

There has been a lot of commentary surrounding the idea that online learning will kill universities. Why pay for a course at local uni A that you can take online for free from world-class uni B? I don’t think it will be as bad as that—there’s a lot of bad teaching online as well, and the principles of effective teaching haven’t changed.

Posted 7 March 2014 Posted in General