Category Archives: personal

Anxieties – travel and otherwise, and their possible origins

With Mental Health Awareness Week just over a week ago, I finally admitted in a Facebook post that I had been suffering from anxiety about travel for many years (which at its worst led me to miss some research trips and conferences). I thought the problem had largely passed, or if not, that I had developed effective coping strategies, but I realised recently as I was contemplating my schedule for the next month or so, that it was definitely still there. I am trying to do something about the anxiety now (I have seen my doctor, I am arranging counselling sessions, using a meditation app etc.)

Discussing with my wife about the possible origins of my anxieties she suggested a number of contributory factors that I had either forgotten about, or didn’t see the connection. It’s all too apparent now. I should say that I am fine with travel within the UK, and it is just when going further, particularly flying, that the problems occur. There are also some non-travel issues that have contributed to these anxieties.

The first of these ‘factors’ was being stopped by US immigration at least 5 times when travelling there for conferences or holidays. Each time it was apparently because my name flagged up – there must be a Robert Jackson out there who is on some alert list. And each time they eventually let me continue my journey after they had established that I was not the person they were concerned about. But this kind of experience does nothing for confidence when travelling! Since it last happened, in 2012, I have a new passport, so if I ever travel to the US again, maybe I’ll be spared the ordeal? Only time will tell.

The next factor concerns my travel in Brazil. I have been there several times for research collaborations and conferences. On more than one occasion my travel plans have been disrupted because of various factors. On one occasion I arrived at Sao Paulo to be told my onward flight to Lisbon and London had been cancelled but they would ‘put me on a flight to Madrid’. There were other occasions like this, none of which helped my confidence. Added to this are the long waiting times and the considerable distances flights cover, which adds to this. Finally even when I last travelled there, English was not widely spoken even in the international airports, making it difficult to get any information. This is a great pity as I love the country, and would like to to go back there!

I also need to mention a trip to South Africa (in 1997) when I was supposed to be doing research collaboration with a colleague in a university there. This trip was very problematical for me, and I ended coming back early. The reasons included less than ideal accommodation, being assigned a student who was not interested in working with me, and the general palpable sense of unease about the place. I only returned there 3 years later because I knew I would be travelling with friends and would always have company.

Moving on to issues related to travel, there is the nightmare that is involved in using an airport now. Everything that is involved, from having get there so early, going through security, etc just makes the whole experience more difficult. As this has got worse my sense of disquiet and alarm has increased, to such an extent that even going to an airport is an ordeal.  Not long ago I set out on a trip to Hannover and was turned away at the departure gate (!) because my passport only had about 4 months validity left on it! This was actually an incorrect interpretation of the rules (I found out later), but didn’t help me at the time. It added to my general disquiet about travel!

Finally, not related to travel is my very personal perception of politics and the UK’s position on the world stage. As an international traveler (well certainly until recently) I am acutely aware of how we are perceived in other countries, which doesn’t make me feel good about travelling. And the political situation locally has dented my confidence. Those that know me will know that I take my politics very seriously. For many years I felt I had a home in the Labour Party, but no more. I tried the LibDems for a while but didn’t find that worked for me either. The consequence is that I feel politically homeless. With Brexit coming up, and my old party ignoring the majority of its members in supporting the government line, I feel detached from everything and depressed about the future. This only feeds my anxieties further.

I hope very much that things will get better, but I am unsure what good counselling can do, as it didn’t really work before. But it does seem my only hope. My doctor has been very helpful, so I am getting support there. My family are wonderfully supportive, but there are limits as to what they can do. Some aspects of my world are very dark at the moment, and I hope to see some light soon.

Advertisements

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.

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.

My Review of 2017

2017 will be dominated for me by being Acting Head of School for the full year. I started the job on 1 December 2016, and expected it to continue for 6 months or so at the most (although others, admittedly, thought longer). The post was advertised twice, and the person offered it the first time round eventually declined. There was then a period when nothing happened, before it was re advertised and a recruitment agency hired to help in the search. After the second set of interviews in October, an offer was finally made, and the new head will start on 1 April 2018. Apart from all the duties of Head of School I retained a full teaching load, so there were some very stressful times indeed. But I got through it, thanks to support from Angela and the home team, and my excellent School Manager, David Shepherd.

Considering other things I was involved in, I had new teaching in the form of my Digital Forensics module, which had a reasonable first year, and some MChem lectures on Materials Modelling which were OK but sparsely attended. I organised and ran a 70th birthday meeting for Richard Catlow at Cosener’s House (see separate post), which was a great success, and I was External Examiner for PhD theses in Birmingham and Loughborough. I did my first stints of undergraduate external examining at Trinity College Dublin and Sheffield Hallam University, and at the end of the year I was external assessor on a panel looking to appoint a Head of the School of Physical Sciences at Kent, before attending the Christmas Solid State Chemistry Group Meeting at Reading, which was as good as ever. Finally, I should mention that my MPhil student, Ellis Hedges, completed his thesis within the year and passed his viva in November, a tribute to his hard work and determination.

Musically it wasn’t a great year, at least not performance-wise. Early in the year I played for my two regular orchestras (South Cheshire and Middlewich), but didn’t play with them for their autumn concerts due to mounting work pressures. I played in a stage production of ‘My Fair Lady’ in Hanley in May, which was to have been conducted by my old musical colleague Stephen Hearson, but who sadly died a few weeks before, meaning that his son Joe conducted instead. It was a very moving occasion, as you can imagine. In the Autumn I attended a few rehearsals of a new venture, the Film Orchestra, but I was not particular impressed with them, and I am considering whether to continue as a member. I played in the Keele Philharmonic Orchestra’s December concert, but only in one piece.

In my review of 2016 I mentioned Pokémon Go, and I continued to play it in 2017, although I increasingly ‘graduated’ to its ‘older brother’, Ingress. I am now an enthusiastic Ingress player, and I managed to reach level 11 in just over a year. It gets me out for walks around Keele and further afield, and the strategic nature of the game provides me with something different to concentrate on outside work pressures, and it has been enormously beneficial both physically and psychologically.

2017 was the year I reached the age of 60, and I had a very enjoyable delayed birthday party at the KPA in July. The catering was excellent, and the sound track provided by Angela was also excellent.

I managed a few trips to London, including my annual GBBF visit (see separate post), and Angela and I had a long weekend in Brighton. I visited Vi in Wenhaston. I heard some great bands during the year (see separate post). Now I am resting/recuperating in the Christmas – New Year period, and hoping that the first 3 months of 2018, while I am still Head of School, go smoothly and without the stress of recent months!

Theft of a mobile phone

In the early hours of Saturday 25 November I was returning to my hotel in London after enjoying the UCL Lab Dinner. I had my phone in my hand because I was checking something, and there was no-one around. A cyclist came up behind me (of course I didn’t hear him), and reached out and snatched the phone from me, and then cycled away. Obviously I couldn’t catch him. I then had to decide what to do. I hadn’t brought a computer with me, and the hotel I was staying in didn’t allow outside calls from rooms, only having a non-functioning payphone in the reception area. The night porter was entirely unhelpful. I tried to phone home using the hotel payphone, knowing that my wife’s phone would be switched off, but hoping I could leave a message, but it took my money and didn’t connect me (which brought back other memories!) So I was entirely helpless, or so it seemed.

I decided to get some sleep and catch the first train home, which I did. I visited the O2 shop in my local town and bought a new phone, and have been setting it up ever since. I tried to report the theft, but we no longer have a local police station, and the helpdesk in the local town isn’t open at weekends!  In any case, I don’t expect I would get much help. Similarly claiming on household insurance would be a complex process, and might lead to a premium increase. I was intending to upgrade anyway, but not under these conditions!

What have I learned from this experience? Well, firstly, don’t walk around at night with a phone in your hand. I use a number of geolocation services, and often have my phone out and connected for that reason. But no longer – my check-ins will be restricted to places where there are other people around, or inside buildings. Secondly, have a computer with you (leaving it in the hotel room of course) so you can go online to report the theft. And thirdly, stay in a decent hotel! I have been using the hotel in question for many years, and it is very good value. But they have seriously blotted their copybook this time, and I won’t be back.

A theft like this feels like a violation, and it has taken most of a week to start feeling myself again. It will be an uphill process, but I’ll get there. Thank goodness for the Christmas break, and some quiet family time.