Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Mea culpa, mea maxima culpa

Hello all. Voley's feeling a little bit fragile today, having gone for a quiet pint with colleagues and ended up drinking into the small hours with a select group of newly-minted English graduates. It's so long since I drank to excess that I'd forgotten about the inevitable consequences. A mouse farting next door echoes through my brain like a cannon. 

Anyway, through the pain, I remember a conversation with one of my managers before the carnage commenced. He is a man of massive integrity, total dedication to the students, to the staff and to the ideals of the institution. He also possesses a restless intellectual curiosity. 

This man objected quite strongly to my occasional dismissive attitude towards management here on Vole and elsewhere. I'm not too proud to admit that I was wrong. I have been imprecise and therefore hurtful. I should refer to the very distant elements of the hierarchy, and to the poor decision-making and management style of some of the service departments. I didn't even stop to think that my immediate line-managers would see themselves included, because my mental definition of 'management' derives from my union activities: we deal constantly with the aggression and failures of distant leadership which rarely consults, explains or sympathises, though this may be changing. But in relation to the affronted individual, I personally - and literally hundreds of my students - have been helped, protected and encouraged by this individual and others. 

So I'm sorry, and I'll refine my ranting in future. One of the blogs I read regularly is Music for Deckchairs, written by an Australian academic specialising in 'strategic planning, policy formation and shared governance'. It's witty, thoughtful, thought-provoking and erudite. In the course of a longer post about academics' willingness to moan about administration and reluctance to contribute (guilty), she has this to say, which I think applies very well to people like my aggrieved reader:
as as proportion of the total workforce, there’s a really small number of academics who are willing to do this sort of backstage work.
Given our love of heroics generally, we seem pretty indifferent to the year round work they do to ensure we stay in step with our legislation, our budget, the goals we set for ourselves, and the whole blither of our strategic vision. 
Here’s how this uneven bargain works out: for someone to enjoy the bling of a teaching award, presented at an occasion that has a string quartet, potted plants, waiters serving canapes, and the Vice Chancellor’s firm handshake, there has to be a teaching award committee. 
But above all, each of them has to have made the decision that it’s meaningful and important in the context of their own careers that they contribute this time away from their research to develop and maintain good process for these awards. They’ll spend the year reflecting on feedback, making changes, updating policy, so that next year’s champions can make their sprint for the line in a timely fashion.  At which point it will be down to these unsung domestiques again, to find time to read, rank, and re-read the whole pile of applications. 
They’re practical, well-organised, and sympathetic. They’re very effective at raising critical issues, and keeping these on the agenda until some measurable action occurs. They’re talented researchers, and they produce careful, evidence-based arguments. They understand how the matter under consideration is framed by the other policy stuff because they looked it up before the meeting, so they don’t waste your time. They know the difference between targets, objectives, strategies, and goals.  They’re not strangers to Foucault’s critique of governmentality, but they can still get on with governance. They can amend a resolution and pass it in its amended form. They write beautifully. They’re funny, in a sort of dry, trench-humorous way.  They’re naturally curious, and they like working across the disciplines.  They know people outside the Faculty where they work. And they don’t roll their eyes at the mention of administration.
But above all, and this is the revolutionary bit in the current higher education context, they don’t do any of this because they think it looks good for them. Almost all of them have at some point been told that this is not how the career game is played, and they’ve kept doing it anyway.
So, two practical suggestions for adjusting the simple unfairness of the bargain.  First, we need to watch our language. Liz Bare at the Centre for the Study of Higher Education, at the University of Melbourne suggests that when we describe all tasks necessary to the survival of universities except research in the language of drudgery (in other words, when we talk about teaching “load” and administrative “burden”), we make it hard to develop an appreciation of why these opportunities might attract stellar thinkers.  Committee service needs some really simple PR, and university marketing departments—who love something new to spruik—need to get on the case. 
She's right. We should also add that taking an academic management post involves not just a massive pay rise, but substantial sacrifices too. No more classes. Many more meetings, many fewer books and journals read. A degree of separation from your friends and colleagues: a line is crossed. You become 'them' rather than 'us' to a degree, which can be - is, to judge by the way I've expressed myself and been understood - perceptually dehumanised. The manager becomes an expression of the institution's power structure, whether s/he agrees with decisions or not. Harsh decisions are passed down for execution and loyalties are pulled in different directions. I know very well that my reader argues passionately for his students and staff without being afraid of the consequences. This is why he deserves this public acknowledgement of error.

Normal sarcasm and sniping will resume later, but for now, humble apologies. 


Anonymous said...

Well done on the grovelling - you might just keep your job!

However when it comes to the 'poor decision-making and management style of some of the service departments' - hmm so are you having your usual sarcastic snipe at all of us or any particular service department?

Shall I get the knives out now?

The Plashing Vole said...

It's actually the apex of the organisation - and that may well be changing.