We’re delighted to feature this guest post by Dr Sharon McDonough: she offers her perspective on both the academic life and farming.a
All you need in this life is ignorance and confidence, and then success is sure
Two years ago armed only with my PhD and the Twain quote from above, I became an accidental olive farmer. You might wonder how an academic becomes an olive farmer by accident and it goes something like this:
- Step 1: Be seduced by groves of trees alive with new growth and nestled beneath a sun-dappled mountain.
- Step 2: Sign contracts.
- Step 3: Congratulations – you’re an olive farmer.
You might also be wondering what skills and expertise I brought to this new role. Did I have any previous experience of farming? (No) Did I have any previous knowledge of how olives are grown and harvested? (No). Was I capable of driving a tractor? (Hell No). In fact, nothing in my PhD training or my subsequent academic work had prepared me for the harsh reality of life on the land.
Some might call it folly or madness, but two years on it has been a journey that has taught me much about farming (although I still don’t know the botanical name for all the olives on my property) and about academia. And although farming and academic work might seem like strange bedfellows, they’re not. These two are like ebony and ivory (you know, they go together in perfect harmony). Farming requires: time; investment; planning; luck; persistence; adaptability; creativity; collaboration; innovation; hard work; commitment; and passion. Academia requires these exact same things.
So what has farm life taught me?
When you’re a farmer you give yourself up to the uncertainty of nature. I know that the crop that looks good today could be ruined tomorrow. I know that sweet smell of summer that heralds the arrival of rain, and the way wet pine needles smell like Christmas. I know that things have their own cycle and time, and that the tree that was laden with fruit last year, might bear none the following year.
I know that despite my best effort, my planning, my preparation, something can, and usually will, still go wrong: fences will break; animals will escape; crops will fail; there will be too much rain or not enough.
The parallels with academia are clear – a paper that looks good today could be rejected tomorrow; the funding scheme that yielded much cash last year, might yield none this year; and despite my best effort, my planning and my preparation, research equipment will break, students won’t show up, industry partners will welch, and there will either be too much work or not enough.
I realise that on the farm – and in the office – I have no control over those things. I have no choice but to shrug my shoulders, look for a solution, dust myself off and try again. I discover that there is usually a way through, even if it’s not the path I had planned.
I begin to see that there is beauty in the simplest and most unexpected things and I realise that there is time to be active and time to just sit and soak in what is around me. Importantly, I begin to understand that I cannot undertake this journey without others – I learn from their knowledge, their experience, their successes and their failures. I realise everything growing on the farm – and everything in my research – is the result of the work and knowledge of everyone who has gone before me.
Ultimately, I realise that being an olive farmer is not just about me, my property, and what I produce, but is about the community I live in and the people I connect with. Farming reminds me that my academic work takes time to grow, that it too will have fallow periods, times of joy, times of difficulty.
And being a farmer teaches me the persistence to undertake the journey of both.
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Dr Sharon McDonough is an Early Career Academic in the Faculty of Education and Arts at Federation University Australia where she is the Programme Leader of the Master of Education Studies programme. Sharon has a commitment to working closely with schools and researches learning and teaching in school and university contexts. Pre-service teacher education, embodiment and emotion in education, and professional learning are all a part of her research interests. Sharon is an executive committee member of the Australian Teacher Education Association where she is responsible for the ECR/HDR portfolio. She is interested in the use of social media in academic work, tweets at @Sharon_McD and is currently a guest host of the online virtual writing group @SUWTues