Category Archives: academia & universities

Unexpected recollections – Professor Denys Harding (1906-1993)

The Covid-19 lockdown is having some surprising effects, as I commented on in my previous post. One is the clarity of mind that I have at present, and the absence of the usual ‘brain fog’ resulting from trying to think about too many things at a time!

I’ve been waking quite early recently, and having some thinking time before going out for my walk, and this morning what should pop into my head but a memory from my childhood of my parents’ friendship with the psychologist and critic Denys Harding.

My parents moved from London to Suffolk in 1962.  We moved to a small village, Wenhaston, where my mother became head of the primary school, and where she still lives to this day. My father had been working as a technician in the Psychology Department at Bedford College (a college of the University of London which later merged with Royal Holloway College in 1985 to become Royal Holloway and Bedford New College).  Bedford College was In Regents Park, London, and I remember my father taking me there occasionally. The Psychology Department was led By Professor Denys Harding; it was a small department, and my father knew ‘the prof’ well (it seems academic departments were friendlier places then!)

When we moved to Suffolk, my father retired from Bedford College, and 1963, Professor Harding also retired, to his house (the old vicarage) in Ashbocking, Suffolk, about 26 miles away from where my parents now lived. I remember that we would visit Denys and his wife Jessie from time to time, and my main recollection is the geese they kept, which were quite frightening, and certainly as effective as any guard dog. Another recollection was the very formal way in which Denys and Jessie lived, with separate cloakrooms for male and female visitors, to which we would be ushered on arrival. And they really were cloakrooms – with hanging space for coats, and washing facilities as well. (An interesting footnote to this is that I looked up the house, and it was most recently on sale for £2.5M!)

I don’t know when I last met Denys, but it was probably not later than 1975, when I went to University. He was always kind to me, and I remembered this morning that he had given me a copy of Jane Austen’s ‘Persuasion’, to which he had written an introduction. And, miracle of miracles, I still have this book, which he signed for me (see photo below).

Denys died in 1993, a year after his wife Jessie. The obituary in the Independent provides a good summary of his working life, from his education at Cambridge, via various academic positions, to the Chair in Psychology at Bedford College. It notes that he was as much a literary critic as a psychologist (born out by his interest in Jane Austen’s works, for example).

This obituary was written by Dr Monica Lawlor, from the same department at Bedford College, who I also remember. Dr Lawlor visited us in Wenhaston several times. I naturally looked her up while writing this, and found that she died in 2013. There is a short obituary in the Royal Holloway and Bedford publication ‘Higher’ (scroll to pages 38-39). She was a Senior Lecturer in Psychology, with a special interest in Child Psychology.

Of course, back in the days when we visited Denys and Jessie, I had no idea of what I would do in my life. Quite what Denys would make of Higher Education now can only be guessed. But, looking back, perhaps there was a small influence there?

Home working and technological expectations

Like many others, I am working from home now. The actual process of working is fine, but the assumptions made by my employer and probably by employers in general about the facilities we have, are, I will argue, unrealistic. It follows that their expectations are unrealistic too.

Because I live close to my office, I have never felt the need to have broadband in my flat. It has been an attempt to have some kind of work-life balance – I know if I did have this, I would be working most of the time. This has been successful, and if I really need to do something work-related in the evening or weekend, I go to my office.

The situation now is that we are expected to be able to do anything internet related from home, as my building and most campus buildings are out of bounds. I can use my mobile phone as a WiFi hub, and that is fine for low bandwidth tasks, like uploading lecture slides etc. But it’s unlikely to be able to cope with online vivas and interviews (using e.g. Skype or Google Meet), which we are also expected to be able to do. I have asked my line manager to contact IT services about this, and I have separately contacted them myself, but so far there has been no response. My School Education Committee suggested using a WiFi dongle, but my experience of these in the past has been mixed. I have ordered one (they offered to pay for it, so fair enough); delivery is going to take some time, it would seem.

Even when people have broadband, there are undoubted security issues in working from home, especially if one is handling confidential items like exam papers. At least now we can install VPNs without having to beg IT services, which is a step in the right direction. But our employer is still making the assumption that we have these facilities, which of course we are paying for! And I was amused at an email from senior management that warned about security issues – they can’t have it both ways.

Anyway, we will see how it goes. Going forward, I can only see things getting worse. As we approach exams season, there will be even more demands and expectations. My hope is that the whole process will be learning experience for employers. Only time will tell.

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.

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

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.