A mad 6 weeks ahead

The next 6 weeks will be ‘interesting’, to say the least, and the thought of them makes me feel a bit dizzy. Maybe writing it down will help – it sometimes does!

Although teaching finished a week ago on 4 May, we are now in the exams period, and I have marking coming in steadily. I also have some responsibility in administration here, since while I was still HoS I ‘allocated’ myself the job of Acting Exams Officer for Chemistry while a colleague is on maternity leave. More of those responsibilities later.

Next week I am doing a PhD viva in Dublin. The viva will be fine, but getting to Dublin and back with our diminished bus services and inconvenient flight times has gone from a one day trip to nearly three (I have to travel to the airport the night before and stay over otherwise there’s no chance of getting the flight on the day of the viva, and the return flight from Dublin is too early for comfort, so I have to stay over and catch a flight the next day).

The following week we have our final year project vivas. I had five students this year (no remission for HoS!), and as well as them, I am doing two more as the second marker. I still have to find time to read and mark these dissertations – perhaps on the flight back from Dublin?

Then, after a brief respite, thanks to the Spring Bank Holiday, it will be time to fly to Dublin again, this time for undergraduate external examining. This is once again nearly a three day trip mainly because of flight times.

Once I’m back from Dublin (for the second time), I have a fairly quiet week, which will give me time to prepare for doing external examining at Huddersfield the following week, plus chairing our own exam board later that week (the last time I did that was four years ago, so I have some learning to do). Thankfully the Huddersfield trip involves just one night away.

And so we come to the sixth week, when I have another external examining trip, this time to Sheffield Hallam (one night away again). Once I am back from that it will be time to return to normal, although with still readjusting from being HoS, I’m not sure what normal means yet!

I’m not sure if this has been a helpful exercise, but at least it’s recorded for posterity. I’ll have something similar next year, but probably without the PhD viva and the local exams officer role.

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Augmented Reality Therapy

The last few months have been challenging with my Head of School responsibilities on top of everything else involved in my work. I have found distraction from an unexpected source, Augmented Reality games like Pokémon Go and Ingress (and more recently Delta T, although I am at a fairly early stage with that). I started playing Pokémon Go (PG) in August 2016 (and I mentioned it in a post here), and after a suggestion from a fellow PG player, I downloaded Ingress in October of the same year. At the same time as I started playing these games, I started going for early morning walks around campus, playing initially PG but later Ingress as I walked. I quickly got familiar with the Pokéstops and Portals around campus, and progressed in both games. The fact that I was getting out almost every day (weather permitting) was itself beneficial. It was useful to think about current problems as I walked around, and sometimes I came up with solutions before the end of my walk! The games provided an incentive to get out, but also, especially in the case of Ingress, gave me a non-work related strategical exercise to work on, which was and continues to be genuinely helpful. Instead of worrying about a particular issue at work last thing at night, I would think about my strategy to reach the next level in Ingress (for example). I can genuinely say that having these distractions helped preserve my sanity!

So what about the games themselves? Well, I started with PG and progressed up the levels by catching and evolving Pokémon. I didn’t then, and have never since taken the game to the next level of battling in gyms. I started playing Ingress seriously in late 2016/early 2017, and quickly caught the ‘bug’, initially trying to get to level 8 (which is where things start getting interesting). I paused playing PG for a while, because when my HoS responsibilities really started building up, I simply didn’t have ‘room in my head’ for two games, and the strategic planning aspect of Ingress was particularly beneficial. I reached my current Ingress level, 11, in November 2017, and am now slowly progressing towards level 12 (which needs two more gold badges than I currently have), and I resumed playing PG when I was coming to the end of my HoS term. I am currently about half way through level 30, and enjoying hunting the new species of Pokémon that have appeared during my absence. Also, in the last week I have had a go at Delta T, which has fairly recently been launched in beta format on Android, However, I still don’t really know what I am doing with it, and I haven’t found any of the helpful documentation that exist for PG and Ingress.

Ingress has a social aspect to it too; the local ‘Enlightened’ faction meet regularly, and they have been very helpful to me. PG has many Facebook groups where people highlight interesting Pokémon finds etc.

All in all I have really enjoyed these games, and they have helped me too. Who would have thought that at my age I would have become a fan of augmented reality gaming?

My thoughts on 16 months as Acting Head of School (1 December 2016 – 31 March 2018)

As I post this, a week has passed since I stopped being Acting Head of School. The new Head officially started on (Sunday) 1 April (2018). Monday was a bank holiday, and I was away at a conference from Wednesday afternoon until Friday, so this is the first opportunity I have had to write down my thoughts on the whole experience, including both positive and negative aspects.

The first thing to say is that I never expected to be given the responsibility of a post like this, and it was a privilege to accept that responsibility. I felt it gave me a bit more ‘visibility’ in the University, more recognition, and possibly some more respect (although I won’t push that one too far!) I got to know the other Heads of School in the Faculty, as well as key people in the Faculty, HR and Finance. During my tenure, I was invited to several events that I would never have been invited to otherwise. So, at least for the first few months I felt very positive about the role.

My School, Chemical and Physical Sciences, only officially became an independent entity shortly before my appointment, so there was much to do to get things set up. From January 2017 I was fortunate to have the help of a newly appointed Senior School Manager, with whom I established a good working relationship. I had to set up committees and appoint chairs of these committees, and try to ensure there were good lines of communication in the School, which I did by setting up a School Management Committee (which we didn’t have previously). This all went smoothly. Other things I had to do in the first few months involved arranging contract extensions, variations and a promotion for teaching fellows. Budgets had to be set for the coming year (a complex process), but all this was done with the assumption that a permanent head would be appointed who would take over before the new academic year started in September 2017. However, the first round of interviews, early in 2017, did not succeed in making an appointment (I wasn’t on the panel for these, but that’s another story), so it became clear that I would be in post for longer than initially expected. In May/June there were professorial appraisals to carry out (and not being a professor myself, this was an interesting experience), and later in the summer the general appraisals (SPREs) had to be done. I did most of these, but got some help from senior colleagues with this process (as there were so many). The contract to build the new Central Science Laboratories (CSL) was awarded, and building work started, necessitating my attendance at planning and progress meetings. There was also the plan to ‘repurpose’ the Lennard-Jones Laboratories once the CSL comes on stream, and that involved more meetings. With the start of the Autumn Semester 2017-18, there was the annual call for promotion applications. As Head of School I had to write supporting statements to go with each application. There was one Professorial application (which was successful), and later, four applications for promotion to Senior Lecturer. In the latter case, I had to attend a meeting chaired by the Dean, and speak in support of my applicants and their applications. This meeting sticks in my mind because it took place on the Monday following the weekend when my phone had been stolen (see a previous post), and I was still struggling with getting communications working properly. But anyway, I got all my candidates through the meeting, and the applications then went to external referees. I learned just before my period as Acting Head finished that three out of four had been successful, which I regard as a good result. Finally, in October 2017 there was a second round of interviews for Head of School, and an appointment was made (to start on 1 April 2018). I was on the panel for this, so felt a bit more involved in the process.

It remains to mention the things that didn’t go so well, although most of these have already been the subject of earlier posts. The first was the difficulty experienced in arranging cover for staff taking maternity leave, and the criticism received of the School’s handling of the situation. The second was the UCU strike connected with the USS pension scheme. Heads of School were expected by Senior Management to manage/mitigate the effects of the strike, which was largely impossible, making this a very difficult time for me. As it is, the strike is likely to continue, and although I won’t have the management responsibilities mentioned above, it will still affect me as I have taken on temporary responsibility for Exams in Chemistry/Medicinal Chemistry, and marking may be affected, with possible consequences for graduation.

In summary, here are the positive and negative aspects of the post and my experiences:

Positives:

– getting to know/be known by some senior staff in the university, and generally raising my profile (potentially useful)

– success in contract extensions, promotions, and some equipment bids

– approval given for two new lectureships (one in Chemistry and one in Forensic Science). One has been appointed and one was advertised before I finished as Acting Head.

Negatives:

– being faced with difficult situations, like those mentioned in the last main paragraph above

– having to spend many hours in meetings concerned with matters I have no knowledge or experience of (e.g. buildings, finance, health and safety)

– seeing face to face how some university decisions are made, on investment in appointments and facilities

– at times being overwhelmed with commitments and responsibilities

I certainly learned a lot from the experience, but wouldn’t want to do it again unless my other responsibilities were reduced, as it became very difficult to keep everything going (and this got worse towards the end).

Difficult times

Writing can be cathartic, and this piece is intended as a commentary on how things are for me at the moment. I’m not looking for comments or feedback; this is for me, so that in the future I have a record.

Put simply, I have never felt so alone or up against things workwise. Without my support team at home I may not have been able to carry on, and I am very grateful to them.

I took on the role of Acting Head of School in December 2016, agreeing to do it because I wanted to keep the School running smoothly until the new Head was appointed. This latter appointment process took a while, but now we have our new Head starting on April 1 (and the irony of this start date makes me smile even in these challenging times).

Looking back over the 15 months or so that I have been in post, I would have thought that I had been moderately successful. Under my watch two new lecturers will have been appointed as well as a tenure track research fellow, and I have negotiated extensions in the contracts of two teaching fellows and secured promotion for a third. I have helped oversee the start of the building of the new Central Science Labs (CSL), and helped set in motion the repurposing of our building which will start once the CSL has been built.

Where things have not gone well are mainly results of some unrealistic expectations of senior management of what Heads of School and their own management teams can achieve. The first is that when staff members take maternity (or paternity) leave, we are supposed to conjure up cover for them from practically nowhere; minimal financial resources are available, and finding suitably qualified staff interested in short term appointments at short notice is a challenge. Having been faced with two staff in similar areas of Chemistry taking leave at more or less the same time, I consider that we did well in finding cover for one in the circumstances! But it seems from the response received from some colleagues that this wasn’t enough. I challenge them to do better if they had been in my position! And as for senior management, having explained the situation to our dean at least twice (deansplaining?), he seems to have finally accepted rather ungraciously that we did what we could. The second area where problems have arisen is the current UCU strike action. Heads of School are supposed to ‘manage’ the process, keeping students informed of cancelled teaching, and overseeing rescheduling of the same. But when, under union rules striking staff are not obliged to inform us that they are taking action, the first is impractical; my attempts to obtain this information diplomatically were met by unhelpful and rude responses from several people, although some have engaged in the process and helped me. Rescheduling cancelled teaching sessions will be difficult and maybe impossible, but again, senior management expect Heads of School to ‘sort’ this problem out.

The conclusion is that I will leave my post on 31 March with two areas where, quite unjustifiably in my opinion, I may be viewed as having not done well enough. The fact is though that I have been caught between some dissatisfied staff and inflexible senior management, and it is not a nice place to be.

Managing in the Middle – shared from angiesallsorts blog

My husband Rob’s tenure as an acting head of department at Keele University comes to an end on April 1st, and it can’t come soon enough. It was always made clear that in the long run an outside person was wanted, and Rob was happy to play an interim role until a full-time appointment was […]

via Managing in the Middle — angiesallsorts

Don’t Think. React! That’s all I can do for now.

This is a strangely titled post, but it describes how things are for me at the moment. For some time now I have had a feeling of being simultaneously ‘brain full’ and ‘brain empty’, and I can’t even contemplate activities that I normally enjoy outside work, like music (both playing and listening) and travel (the problem being with both the actual travelling, and the time taken, and the effort of making bookings and arrangements).

I only finally realised this was a real ‘thing’ yesterday, and in a conversation with Angela, found out that this was something she had experienced herself, because she instantly knew what I meant.

At the moment my life is about reacting to events. I do my teaching, attend meetings, reply to emails etc just as always, but there is never the opportunity to stop and reflect on what I am doing, and this is very discomforting. However, on the positive side it makes me very efficient, and I motor through my to do list in a way I haven’t been able to do before.

I have been Acting Head of School for nearly 15 months, so it is strange that this has only recently started to happen. But maybe it is because of the sheer amount of things that are going on currently, leading me to reach a kind of state of ‘full mental capacity’. As well as my ‘normal’ teaching and administration activities, there is the UCU strike to ‘manage’ (see previous post), and the building changes (both the new Central Science Labs and the planned refurbishment of our building), which I have to be involved in. Added to this is my personal aversion to this time of the year (I seem to function best when there is plenty of sunlight), and the fact that there does seem to be very negative atmosphere everywhere just now. Political events don’t help, but I am consciously screening them out.

So where to go with this, and is there a remedy? When I step down as AHoS in a few weeks time, my responsibilities will reduce significantly, and I’m hoping that will help. I will continue my political sabbatical, because what is happening is simply too depressing for words, and I will need to be back to full mental strength before I can take that on again.

Anyway, that’s the way things are just now. It’s not a good state of affairs, but I thought it would be good to write it down.

UCU strikes – a personal perspective

At the end of July last year I posted that I had joined the UCU, mainly because I felt, as Head of School, that I needed the potential security of union membership. Now, strikes have been called over changes in the pension scheme, and I am in the position of having to ‘manage’ the effects of the strike on my School.

I won’t go into my views on the possible pension scheme changes here. However even back in the days when I was an AUT member (and a member of the university AUT committee), I never took strike action that would potentially affect students, and I am not about to start that now, regardless of the seriousness of the issue involved.

As for ‘managing’ the strike and its potential effects on my School, the HR Department have briefed Heads of Schools of their responsibilities in this regard, and these include ensuring that any teaching that is affected is rearranged, and that students are informed of cancelled and rearranged sessions. Informing students about cancelled sessions will be challenging if, as might happen, we are not informed of teaching that has been affected until after the event! UCU members are not required to signal their intentions to strike in advance, so this may well happen. Another challenge will be rearranging teaching, since there will be a limited window of 3-4 weeks in which we can do this before the summer exams start, and it won’t just be lectures that are potentially affected, but also labs. HR also suggest that we should consider asking staff not involved in the dispute to cover for colleagues that are, which is a minefield I am not prepared to enter!

All in all, there are some challenging weeks ahead, and this is yet another area in which Heads of School receive no training. I am fortunate, I suppose, to have had many years experience of the sector, and I will certainly be drawing on that going forward.

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