My lovely viral adventure last week has got me thinking about how illness affects academic work. It seems to me that, as a university lecturer, I simply can’t afford to be sick, because my workload is tied to me personally and almost all of it cannot be taken over by other people. If I look at the tasks that were delayed and the deadlines that became much more tight because I was lost five days to illness, there are few things I can identify that someone else could have helped with:

  • Writing and revising the materials for two subjects I teach: Even if someone else had the time and expertise to work on these subjects, I am the one who will end up teaching them next year, and therefore I want to set the readings, plan the assignments and organise the structure of the learning materials. So, these had to sit there until I felt better and could finish them off (which left me with one working day between recovery and the deadline).
  • Providing feedback to research students on their draft theses: I have been working with these students since January, I know the projects, I know the students, and I know what has been discussed previously in terms of how to present the thesis. Somebody else might have been able to give general feedback on the writing style and structure, but I don’t know that anyone could have brought as much relevant background knowledge to reading the drafts as me.
  • Writing referee’s reports for students who are applying to postgraduate courses: The students chose me for a reason – because I have had extensive contact with them and can provide an informed (and, presumably, positive) opinion of their attributes. They might be able to arrange somebody else, but they selected me as the most appropriate person to approach. Moreover, because I would only agree to give references to students who I felt I could say something positive about, I want to provide students’ with the best opportunity to be considered for further study based on their performance.
  • Filling out administrative documentation for my performance evaluation: The paperwork I need to generate at the moment relates directly to justifying my own contribution, so I think I am the best-informed person to do this task.
  • Conducting research and writing papers: OK, I can send some things out to research assistants, but beyond that, this is my work.

One blessing is that I do not have any classes to teach at the moment. However, even if I did have classes, in many cases they would not be something that somebody else could cover. I know the activities I will use in class and what the primary learning goals are, but I don’t write complete, detailed directions for classes that I am going to teach myself.

Even if I did have a task that someone else would be capable of covering, who would be able to do it? Everyone has their own full teaching load plus research and administration to deal with, so I’d be reluctant to try to hand work off to someone else. The people who would help me out would be the ones who are most overloaded because they possess the fatal flaw of willingness to help out.

So, I (and all of my colleagues) can take comfort in the knowledge that we are irreplaceable.