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Resigning – how hard can it be? (Or, we’ve got a form for that somewhere)

Warning: this was written in something approaching a fit of pique in an attempt to derive some sense of catharsis. The rigorous peer review and editing processes and standards to which Academic Rambling posts are normally subject have not been applied. Apologies in advance. Anyway, here goes …

 

Well, it has been an interesting couple of weeks in and around Rambling Towers, the upshot being that, having served over 12 years in my current ivory hutch, I have decided to inflict my own particular brand of academic incompetence and caustic wit on a different, unsuspecting HE institution. Yes, I have resigned. Well, at least I have tried to … but more of that in a few hundred words time.

So, I hear you ask (well I don’t, but I’ll imagine it) how has this momentous event come about? Well pretty bliimin’ quickly is the answer. I had a phone call from a Head Hunter … sorry “Recruitment Agency” (HE’s equivalent of Estate Agents in my view, but therein lies another tale for another day). Might I be interested in a new challenge, broadening my portfolio, blah, blah, blah? As it turned out, this one did in fact sound quite interesting, so having mumbled a few words of interest to HH man, I bashed off a quick CV and covering letter. Next thing, I’ve got an interview.

Well, when I say ‘interview’, what I mean is ‘car crash’. You know, the kind of thing that starts badly and gets increasingly worse for 15 minutes? I then spent 45 minutes contradicting or correcting everything that had gone before. I took the train home. My mobile rang a couple of times on the way. I ignored it because I really couldn’t face HH man telling me quite so quickly after interview that I was unappointable. I got home. The mobile rang at 7pm. I ignored it. It rang again at 9pm. Again I ignored it. Then the landline rang straight away. Ignored. 5 minutes later, the mobile rang. Ignored. The landline rang yet again. At this point my good lady wife, somewhat fed up with me, answered it. It was a rather exasperated Vice Chancellor ringing me to offer me the job.

And so, armed with my news, the following day I tentatively entered the office of my current Dean. An almost completely accurate transcript of the conversation follows:

Dean: Why would you want to leave?

Me: Well I’ve got as far as I’m going to get here

Dean: Yes

Me: You said that really quite quickly.

Dean: did I? Ha! <slightly nervous laugh>.

There followed a brief hiatus, whilst my prospective new employer and I discussed Ts & Cs and, what I believe are called ‘hygiene issues”.  And then, there it was, a nice shiny contract for me to sign.  Time to resign, I thought.

And, at that point, two things happened: firstly, I received an email from my Head of School, and secondly, I failed to resign correctly.

Taking these in order; on Saturday morning, at 10:14am, I received an email, part of which I have copied for you below:

“In terms of trying to get ducks in order, can you please:

  • Send me all teaching material relating to Module X, Module Y and Module Z (i.e., notes, handouts, coursework etc.). I appreciate that you will be returning to deliver your element of Module Z and would therefore appreciate having any examination questions and solutions for this module in advance of the deadline that has been set, i.e., before 30th
  • … (boring, irrelevant stuff) …
  • … (boring, irrelevant stuff) …
  • Create a depository [sic] before you leave of all relevant information relating to your impact case study including but not restricted to the underpinning research, examples of impact, any relevant text that you have written and a list of outstanding actions and relevant contacts.
  • Let me have access to the above depository [sic] once it has been created.

Apologies if the above comes across as formal, it is not meant to read that way.”

 

Well, at least he has apologised for behaving like a knob; that’s one plus point I suppose. So basically this is an email instructing me to do my job for the next 2.5 months.  I don’t know why he didn’t title it “Reminder of Contractual Responsibilities”. It’s interesting to note that he (for he is a he) is the first Head of School who has found it necessary to remind me that I need to do my job. In 12 years of teaching preparation and delivery, I haven’t missed a deadline. The thought that, because I am leaving means I will eschew all professional responsibility towards my colleagues and students shows a complete disregard for my values.  I think the best description of my mood at 10:15 am on Saturday was “insulted”.

I then tried to resign. Today I dug out my contract; the one that talks about the complete absence of holiday entitlement and the need to live within 20 miles of the University to safeguard the health and wellbeing of my horse (if that makes no sense, click here), and found that I needed to write to the Director of Staffing Services announcing my decision to leave.  And so I did just that.  I scanned the signed letter, attached it to an email and sent it off to said Director, with a note saying hard copy in the post. To be fair to said Director, she replied almost straightaway to acknowledge receipt.  But, it seems that since 2005 systems have moved on and a simple letter is no longer either appropriate or sufficient.  No; if one wants to resign from my current tower of ivory one needs to (and I quote) “log onto the portal and raise a ticket”.

WHAT?!!!!

“Log onto the portal and raise a ticket”.

Sorry, I think there has been some sort of misunderstanding here. I want to resign my position at this university; I don’t want to order a printer cartridge or book a train ticket.

But it was to no avail. It seems that managerialism and flow process have now reached even the most personal aspects of employment at a university. No longer is one required, or even allowed, to craft a lengthy missive describing the difficulty of the decision, the balancing of personal and professional issues, the memories garnered over the years and the thanks to all with whom one has worked. No, it’s simply a case of logging in, clicking a few items on drop down menus, save and send and then within five minutes an email to tell me that (and, again, I quote):

“Dear Staff Member ID Number 123456

Your request Reference No 123456 (Resignation from one or all of your posts at the University) has been assigned to FACELESS HR KEYBOARD JOCKEY.

You can track the progress of your query and send us updates using the HR Service Portal or, alternatively reply to this email.

If this query is urgent, please call us on 01** *** ****.”

 

Seriously, that is the resignation process at my university. Don’t you just love the personal touch? The care that must have gone into drafting that script knowing that it will be received by hundreds of people each year, some of whom will have given in excess of 25% of their working lives to the institution.

So, my experience of resigning can be summed up in two emails:

one from a Head of School who is pooing himself so much fretting about the possibility that I undergo some character transformation and leave him in the lurch;

and one from an utterly faceless HR department devoid of any human emotion.

Yes, I know I’m a dinosaur who is being dragged into, rather than embracing, the new world. Someone who remembers when Human Resources was actually called Personnel. But even so, is it too much to ask that I’m treated (a) as a professional, rather than a slacker and (b) as a person rather than an irritant.

 

Gimmee Medal!

Got an email today: ‘Dear Prof, I served as referee for XXX Journal 4 years, I had reviewed about 30 papers for journal. All the comments are high quality. (You may ask XXX [previous editor]). I would like to ask you if your journal can give me a Best Reviewer Award. With best wishes.’
I was just wondering if anyone else would like one while I’m at it?

The joy of examination boards (or “Is that Angry Birds?”)

It’s that time of year. The examinations have been sat; the marking completed; the moderation and numerical checking done and dusted. There’s just one thing remaining. Yep; the examination boards.

Over the years I have sat on many an exam board, both within my own institution and, in cases where others have been forced to scrape the barrel, as an external examiner elsewhere. Actually, I love being an external examiner; an exercise where I am given free reign to criticise people for doing exactly what I do, whilst simultaneously pinching all their good ideas and incidentally, as happened to me recently, finding myself having coffee with a Man Booker Prize shortlisted author, journalist and occasional celebrity*.

So I enjoy other people’s boards. Mainly because my input in the run up to the meeting is minimal and basically consists of me demanding pieces of obscure coursework, or asking a beleaguered academic why they are gave five marks to one student and four marks to another when their answers appear almost identical.  Or, as happened to me recently, just before I met up with the Man Booker Prize shortlisted author, journalist and occasional celebrity, asking a beleaguered academic why a student had managed to provide narrative solutions to exam questions that were exactly the same as the model solution.

The downside to external examining is, of course, that unlike exam boards at my own institution, I have to pay attention. I have blogged elsewhere about distraction techniques employed within my own ivory tower; however, similar activities are unwise when away from home as, when backed into a corner, the astute Exam Board Chair will often say “And I wonder what our external examiner thinks about this seemingly intractable issue?” At such times, it’s best not to be playing Angry Birds / Candy Crush Saga /  Words with Friends on your phone. Take it from the voice of experience; expunge Angry Birds from your phone before entering the board meeting.

Styles of exam boards vary, of course. Some being rather rigid, turgid affairs in which a fussy little individual insists on reading out every single digit on many large sheets of paper; others being rather more relaxed, skipping over straightforward cases, whilst spending an appropriate amount of time on the more troublesome issues and individuals. However, in my experience, all have thankfully have always striven to secure the best outcome for the students.

And yet, we live in a world where once the marks are agreed, they are locked down, a computer makes some buzzing and whirring noises, and then out pops a decision for each and every student. No discussion, no argument, just a decision. Oh yes, we may apply “profiling” in borderline cases, but even that is an entirely mechanistic process with no academic input.

So why do we need to coax and corral an entire department to sit for a couple of hours through what is basically a non-event? Has anyone calculated the opportunity cost of an exam board, and then considered how many such boards are taking place throughout the country? In my experience of external examining, there are three such meetings each year. And they’re the ones to which the external examiner is invited. Doubtless there are meetings in advance where the dirty laundry gets a good old going over. So yet more expense.

Now I absolutely do see the need for rigorous and robust examination boards. I absolutely do see the need for external validation of academic standards. But does the process really need to be so bloated and so demanding on time for some many individuals? One constant theme coming out of academia these days is the extent to which our academic staff are stretched in what they have to do and the time available to do it (don’t get me started on academic legs again – if you aren’t aware of my views on this, have a look at https://academicramblingsnet.wordpress.com/2017/05/11/the-quest-for-impact-or-stretching-my-academic-legs/ ). It just set me thinking; is this one area where we could make some relatively easy changes to processes, reduce a bit of burden, without compromising standards, and maybe make a few friends amongst the staff? I bet my Man Booker mate will have a view on that.

 

 

*Guesses as to the identity of my new found friend should be sent on a postcard or the back of a sealed down envelope to academicramblings@wordpress.com. First one drawn at random winds free subscription to this blog.

The joy of lecturing (Or “Why would I want to do that?”)

The decision for me to become an academic was made very early in life.  My father made a career from moulding young minds and exposing them to the wonders of applied mathematics.  I know this first hand, as his idea of childcare in the 1970s and 80s was to sit his children in the corner of his office whilst he growled at a succession of timorous PhD students.  It seemed to me like a wonderful way to make a living; wandering around a dusty old building with a piece of chalk, or maybe a pen and a piece of paper, and spending one’s time thinking deeply about a subject one cared even more deeply about.

That said, I also recognised that I’d probably make a better academic for having had a proper job beforehand, and so I spent 15 years in industry before being called to the service of ivory polishing in my tower.

I love my job; I really, completely and absolutely do.  For me, it is the best job in the world.  But there is one thing it most certainly isn’t. It is not the job and career that I witnessed my father having from the 1960s to the 1990s.  In fact, in his latter years, he couldn’t recognise the job that I was doing as being much like the one he had done.

Times change, and I’m not so much of a dinosaur that I can’t accept that.  We evolve, and so do our jobs; and even academics have to go along with that.  And so now we find ourselves kowtowing to external regulatory diktats such as NSS, REF, TEF, PTES, whatever.

We are awash with metrics.  If it moves, measure it and compare it to others in your competitor group.  If it doesn’t move, measure it and compare it to others in your competitor group.  And if it moves on the international stage, grab it with both hands and cling on, because that’s the future, y’know!

Now, to be honest; I don’t mind the metrics too much.  Actually, no; that’s not true.  I mind them an awful lot.  I hate many of them with a passion.  But I do recognise that they are there and form part of the game.  There’s no point in ignoring the rules of a game on a point of principle, if the game is going on around you at frantic pace.  So I accept the metrics, whilst hoping one day my plaintive cries of “this is no way to run academia!” may find a receptive ear.

But what I mind more than the metrics and the measurement and the executive management ethos and techniques (*see the footnote to this blog for a particularly toe curling example of this) that pervade our workplace these days, is the impact that these seem to be having on the future of academia.

I wrote a few weeks ago that the key output of my brief tenure as Head of Department had been to secure some new Lecturer positions.  We interviewed for one of them last week.  We found the majority candidates to be unappointable.  That’s not that they didn’t fit with us; we genuinely felt they couldn’t do the job.  Next week we are due to interview for the second role.  I got an email from our friends in HR on Friday to say that one candidate had pulled out.  His reason?  He’d got a three year postdoc elsewhere.  So, to be clear, we’re offering a permanent lectureship, and he’s taken a temporary fellowship elsewhere.

I called him and, after expressing my sorrow at his withdrawal, asked him why.  “Postdoc jobs are fun; we do research.  Lecturers project manage research, chase stupid admin targets, and occasionally stand in front of students to teach.  Why do that when I can do research?” was the dispiriting response I got.

But my concern is that it’s not just at the transition from postdoc to Lecturer where we have a problem.  The decline in numerate, STEMM-based PhD students is alarming.  Research councils have pumped money into doctoral training programmes into a relatively select pool of universities.  So the opportunities are there.  But where are the candidates?  When you have a minute, pop along to www.jobs.ac.uk or www.findaphd.com, and search for PhD opportunities in one of the engineering disciplines.  You’ll soon realise that if you fancy a PhD in something STEMMy, and you have a pulse, now is the time to go for it.  PhD opportunities with tax-free stipends of £19,000 lie unfilled. We have moved from a seller’s market, to a buyer’s market.  I worry that not only is the job (Lecturer) not seen as attractive by postdocs, but the career is no longer attractive to new graduates.

And what can we, as academics, do to address this?  Well obviously, we can extol the virtues of our subject and of research and teaching to those who will listen.  But the kind of people we want to attract are a long way from being stupid (or should be anyway).  However much we can say how wonderful it is to research or teach in our own subject, the realities of trying to do that in the early 21st century are all to obvious to anyone who wants to find out.

“Impact”, “QS league tables”, “REF”, “NSS”, “sector average”, “SSR”, “research income per FTE”.  Do you know what all these terms and phrases have in common?

My dad never used one of them.  And he was a very happy academic.

 

Footnote:

* Congratulations! You kept reading to the bottom.  For that, you win the prize of this anecdote.

I was recently summoned to see my Head of School; an individual I have known and with whom I have collaborated for over 10 years.  I knocked on the door of the outer room that houses Cerberus, sorry, … I mean, his PA.  I was instructed to wait whilst she went into the inner sanctum to see if the great man was available.  She returned, whereupon I was informed that “The Professor and Head of School will see you now”.

 

Good grief…

 

Editors and reviews (or, “excuse me, would you repeat that, please?”)

There are loads of websites dedicated to poor reviews, and so this isn’t going to become one of them.  For one, I could never hope to compete with the mastery of Academia Obscura for one.

However, it’s probably worth a word or two every now and then on the review process and, indeed, the editorial process.  I bashed out a few words regarding editing on the Academic Ramblings blog a week or two ago.  I didn’t realize that I would be following them up quite so quickly.  On that occasion I questioned the integrity of a particular (unnamed) editor who rejected my manuscript without review on the basis that it didn’t contain sufficient references to articles in his own journal.  To be honest, I thought that was pretty shoddy practice.

However, equally shoddy must be the practice of editors not reading reviews before sending them back to authors (which I hope is what has just happened to me; the alternative being that the editor believes that the review I have just received is adequate).

So, winging its way into my inbox earlier today, in response to a carefully crafted masterpiece summarizing three years hard research toil (if I say so myself) was this little gem (and I quote verbatim):

“It will be a fantastic work if the authors could deeply presented the dominating of study discussed in detail and less overstaffed on the majority of studies discussed, which may give necessary details in tables to show their similarities or differences, as well as, advantages or disadvantages by your own letters.”

Joking aside for a moment; I reckon the paper in question took me and my co-authors approximately three months of our lives to write; this following a three year period of research.  This is what I do for a living. This is what my career is based upon. Doing research and writing it up for publication in the hope that it may make a contribution, however small, to future well-being. And in response, I get this tripe.

It takes a lot to upset this particularly thick-skinned, rather gnarled, northerner. But I must admit to feeling more than a little insulted.

If the review even made sense, it would be described as perfunctory at best.   And yet, in response to our three months hard labour to summarize three years of work, the editor has seen fit to issue us with a 102-word review. That is 102 words each of which has a specific and well-understood meaning when read in isolation. But 102 words that are utterly incomprehensible in the order presented here. (As an aside, I reckon its the victim of some pretty dreadful work by Google translate).

I am genuinely stuck as to how I should respond to this one. I should emphasize that this is the only review that the editor has deigned to send us for the paper. So I now have to write a point-by-point commentary on how I have addressed the comments made. That, or pull the paper and send it somewhere else. The galling fact is that this is (supposed to be) one of the best journals in the field.   Actually, no; that’s not true. What I should have said is “this is the journal with the highest impact factor in the field”. (But therein lies a whole other blog, if not book). So perversely, pulling it now and sending it elsewhere would probably diminish the perceived value of the research. But at least if I do that, I wont have to try and decipher “less overstaffed on the majority of studies discussed”.

Adding this experience to the one that I mentioned at the start of this piece, I’m beginning to think peer review and editorial best practice may be broken. (Oh, and if you’re interested, I will gladly name names in private, when presented with the gift of Guinness).

 

The quest for impact (or, stretching my academic legs)

 

On Saturday afternoon I managed to book two flights, check in to one of them, and book two coach journeys and four nights’ accommodation whilst watching a football match. This isn’t so much a testament to my multitasking skills, nor to excellent apps from a well-known hotel chain and Aer Lingus (I have no idea how functional Ryan Aer’s app might be; I guess I have always assumed it would be as functional as the airline itself and have therefore given it a wide berth). No, my true surprise at managing to do all of this from my phone was my ability to get a mobile phone signal in a football ground. Fair play to the operators of Swansea’s Liberty Stadium who manage to provide a 4G signal on a par with no other at football grounds that this rambler has visited; it was truly impressive, unlike the football which was truly awful.

Anyway, as a result of my booking success on Saturday evening in south Wales, I now find myself on a coach, midway between Dublin and Galway, reflecting on my legs. Not my physical legs, but my academic ones. You see, I’m off to Galway to meet an instrument manufacturer.

Some time ago, as part of a research project, our team developed a widget. Now it’s not like me to brag (one of several things that distinguishes me from others I could mention), but we reckon this widget may well have a bit of potential to safeguard, if not save, a few lives in areas of the world less fortunate and less replete with resources than our own. We’ve proved the science, showcased the technology at home and overseas. Now we’re looking for someone to refine the design from the advanced prototype that we currently have, and then bite the bullet and invest in reasonably large-scale manufacture. A business partner, if you like.

And therein lies my problem. I’m an academic, not a business person.

And yet here I am, on the bus, heading to a meeting to discuss unit costs, market share, brand essence, global reach and other business-like terms that I don’t understand. And why am I doing it? Well, there’s the obvious humanitarian element to the work; making a difference, saving the world, etc. But there’s also that other, not so small, consideration of the “I word” – impact. The powers that be at my institution have decided that my widget is the perfect opportunity for me to demonstrate that I am capable of rather more than polishing the ivory in my tower, and so they are pushing me for an impact case study for REF 20-whenever.

Now I genuinely do believe in the need for academics to demonstrate their worth to society. I may be a fan of the Edwardian mathematician GH Hardy, but don’t go along with his idea that “I am interested in mathematics only as a creative art.”   We do our research for a reason. If REF impact case studies are the means by which we must demonstrate our value, then so be it. I don’t like it; but if we are to play the game, we must play to the current rules, like them or loathe them.

The problem is, I’m not sure that jobbing academics are the best people to do this. Which made me think of my legs. Anthropologically, I’m a biped (if that isn’t a real word then it should be). Contractually, I’m a tripod – my employer expects me to contribute to teaching, research and academic administration, whilst some of my colleagues are academic bipeds, focusing on teaching and admin, or research and admin. So where does impact come in? It now seems to be an add-on to the academic remit, to have crept in by stealth rather than by design. But how it got there isn’t the issue for me; the issue is more about fitness to do the job. And I’m not sure I’m fit enough for the fourth leg. Like I say, I’m an academic.

Yes, universities have business liaison departments within their Professional Services functions these days. But have you ever tried convincing a Business Liaison bod that what they really want to do is take two days away from sexy, desk-based, license agreements, fly across the Irish Sea, sit on a bus for three hours to then discuss potential widget manufacture for a few hours, and then repeat the journey in the opposite direction? Have you not? Well I have, and let me assure you, the response is not 100% positive.

And so it seems I’m best placed to do this sort of stuff (plane, bus, negotiate, bus, plane) and to report back, whereupon if it’s thought by those in the know to be a cash cow (sorry, I mean “attractive business proposition”), they’ll swoop in with a contract so tight that the secret love child of Harry Houdini and David Blaine would struggle to find a way through it. And that’s after taking six months to agree the wording of a half page non-disclosure agreement. (Note to self – don’t rant about parochial issues in blogs; you never know, other universities may have perfectly functional Contracts Departments).

Thus, it falls to me to make that journey and have that meeting. Something in which I am untrained, unskilled and unprepared. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mind doing this, I just think that, like many things in the academic world, it could be done better by someone who knows what he or she is doing, with a far more effective outcome.

Back to the lack of a quadruped contract; I wonder if I’m alone in seeing the irony in an institution that purports to have introduced routes to promotion on the basis of knowledge transfer and impact, whilst not including either phrase or word in the contracts of many of its academics. It’s certainly not in mine (although, admittedly I am old and impact hadn’t been invented when I was appointed).

It may also be an opportune time to revisit that rather arcane contract that I seem to be working to. The one that stipulates that there are no holidays associated with the role and requires me to live within 20 miles of the University; that being the maximum reasonable distance to travel to work by horse (I kid you not).

Anyway, one plus point to this little adventure is that when I get back to Dublin on Friday I’ll be able to stand outside the Aviva stadium (or Lansdowne Road as I still insist on calling it) and see if I can get a phone signal.