Saturday, August 30, 2014

Day 52 - My Day At The Zoo

It was our away day this year, and for the first year in a few, we did actually leave the University. We went to the zoo.
In previous years, I've felt that our away days have been little more than an opportunity for us to argue hypotheticals and draw up grandiose blueprints that never see the light of day, but this year it felt like we kept the focus small and addressed some key points which resulted in action points.

I think that this is the key to sessions like this. You can be over ambitious and attempt to put the world to rights, but you will end up with a wish lists so long that nothing from it will ever come into being. Distinct problems with distinct solutions are always preferable. At least to me.

I've also been really pleased that the action points that we've determined have 'reporting dates' within the cycle of meetings that I've organised for the coming trimester. This way, the action is not just focused but also we are given a deadline for at least some movement. I suppose so many meetings in HE are divided between simply reporting what is happening (or what hasn't happened!) and blue sky improvisation, and it was really refreshing to come out feeling that I knew what I was going to go away and do.

Plus I saw some very cute monkeys.

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Friday, August 29, 2014

Day 51 - Reading tea leaves

I spent this evening reading the strategy paper of the Scottish Funding Council, the Scottish Parliament's letters of guidance to the Scottish Funding Council, the policy papers of Universities Scotland, and reading some of the minutes of the (Scottish Parliament) cross-party committee on universities and colleges in an attempt to work out how our University strategy may change, and therefore how that might filter down to us mere mortals.

I'm not sure I'm any the wiser now than I was before I started to read this stuff. Trying to determine how the shape of our future provision may change on the basis of decisions as high up as I'm looking is rather like trying to see the future by reading tea leaves. There is an element of risk that is taken when interpreting or implementing a strategy. The decisions you make may be sound, or factors way beyond your control may sink your ship.

An example of that recently is the number of new students that we are taking on this year. We made the usual number of offers (finally, once the University let us) but we have converted a surprisingly low number to acceptances, which is resulting in around 75% of our usual intake. Sometimes things just happen, but my guess is that the lifting of the cap on student numbers (which doesn't seem to have filtered down to us) has meant that our near competitors, the ancient Russell Group universities, have mopped up a lot of our potential students, particularly with the launch of a new undergraduate programme. We couldn't predict this would happen, but we have been left with a significantly smaller year group than we were expecting, which gives us cause for concern for the future.

Another day I will rant on about the bizarre and contradictory relationship the media and the government seem to have towards the Russell Group universities, but I have a departmental away day at the zoo tomorrow so should get some sleep.

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Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Day 50 - Ps & Qs

I got an email this week which began 'I need you to...'
No 'please could you', no 'sorry for making you do this', just 'I need you to...'
This is from a colleague I know quite well, and I know that if they were to have met me in person, they would have said 'please could you', and apologised for making me do it (it's quite an annoying task transferring data from one format to another, inferior, format). Actually I did meet them in person and they did both of these things.
Why is email so different?
How do we come across in emails?

I will often read an email through before I send it to check that I'm not coming across as passive aggressive, annoying, shouty, bitchy, etc. but sometimes we misjudge these things. Emails can be read and re-read, they don't come with gestures and facial expressions, and they can be forwarded infinitely.

It is easy to see how emails can become weapons in the wrong hands, stored up and saved to be used against our 'enemies'. It is also easy to see how emails can sow discord and fray relationships if they are not written with sensitivity or read with latitude.

I think that I have always taken email etiquette as a given, although I have written some awful emails in my time, and it's something I've been aware of for a long time. In fact, training myself to write texts that were more casual, and were aimed at giving the impression of being hastily written, took a while. In an environment where the primary mode of communication is via email, whether that's between colleagues or between academics and students, I think that these considerations can be critical.

I suppose that the aim is to read our emails as others read them. And only then press 'send'.

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Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Day 49 - Laying the foundations

After a few days of rising panic, things are beginning to feel a little more settled.
This week is full of tasks I don't want to do but have to do, but as each day passes, I'm actually accomplishing things.
It feels as if it will all fall together and I will have a blueprint for the year.
What I hope this means is that I will be improvising less (at least academically - I hope I get more opportunities to improvise musically!), and that I will be correspondingly less stressed.
I hope that it means that I will have more time for myself, and that I use this time sensibly.
I also hope that it means that my students will have easier access to the information that they need without having to constantly come to me or other members of staff. That requires a bit more thought, but it's a definite goal.

I have no doubt I will make mistakes. I already made a minor one today that I will have to undo tomorrow. I will still suddenly realise that I haven't organised something far too late and be forced to work late just to make it work. But I sincerely hope that it doesn't happen quite so often!

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Day 48 - Better together?

I am not going to start blogging about the politics of independence. Not today at least.
I do think it's worth reflecting briefly on the place of universities in political debate, and specifically the place of academics.
Is it right for me, as an educator and a public servant to express my opinions which could influence my students?
Is it right for me, as an educator and a public servant to censor myself and refuse to engage my students in this debate?

I honestly don't know. While I can appreciate the importance of public bodies remaining independent, I also can see the importance of academics engaging with the issues and the questions.

But perhaps we should be asking questions about the future of higher education after independence (not just how it is going to be funded, but also whether its independence from legislated curriculum would remain, whether universities would continue to be seen as hubs of knowledge generation rather than factories of commerce, and so on), and about the future of the arts after independence, rather than talking about whether or not we will be using the pound.

But perhaps I am missing the point again. Doesn't it all come down to economics in the end? The economic 'if's and 'but's thrown around by both candidates in the debate tonight remind me of Benjamin's comparison of historical materialism to the chess-playing automaton: when you know the end result that you desire to conjure, you can generate a convincing economic argument that appears to lead logically to that point.

Universities occupy a strange position in the landscape for an election like this. We house students, some of whom will graduate and go back to England, Wales, or Northern Ireland, but for the purposes of the independence referendum will be able to vote. I imagine that the older universities in Scotland have rather more of these students than my institution. We also house students who were born a few miles away from the campuses at which they learn, and who will go on to live in Scotland for the rest of their lives. We train our students to engage with information critically and to make their own minds up. So what should we be doing?

When I lecture on capitalism, or on feminism, I do not hold back in revealing my opinion. Am I encouraging students to make up their own minds as long as they agree with me? I would like to think not, but the danger is there. I cannot help but think that all 'right thinking' people would adopt my position. How can I hope to train my students to think for themselves in this context?

I don't have any answers, but I am realising that my students will be voting in what could be quite an important referendum in the first teaching week of this term, and I probably will not have the opportunity to engage with them on their thinking and the extent to which they have considered the issues.

It's probably just as well, but I can't help but think that I'm not fulfilling my responsibilities. I suppose the biggest challenge may come afterwards, when we will need to talk about what this decision actually means for us.

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Day 40 - One of those days

Tomorrow is potentially going to be difficult.
There are a few meetings that I have scheduled which might involve communicating some hard truths.
It is not going to be a day filled with exciting and fulfilling exchanges.
Fortunately, there are fewer of these days than one might expect in this job.
I think that it's a good thing that I don't enjoy correcting people, especially when that might have longer-term consequences. I don't want to get to the stage where I relish confrontation. I know that when it is necessary, it has to be done, and I can do it. And that's all you can ask for really.

And once the day is over, it is done. And I can move on to the next thing.

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Day 47 - Setting standards

A few years ago, my counsellor gave me some excellent advice.
She told me that I absolutely could not expect other people to live up to my standards.
To do so would make me ill, destroy working relationships and friendships, and generally make any interaction with other human beings untenable.
It was difficult advice to take, but as each year goes past, I see more wisdom in it.

It applies to my relationship with students, as well as with colleagues, and with management.
Most of all, it means I get less stressed at work.
I get angry and frustrated less frequently.

Just because my colleague is not doing a task the way that I would do it, does not make it wrong.
Just because my colleague has elected to perform a task in a less efficient way than the way that I have already demonstrated to them does not make it wrong.
Just because my colleague has elected to perform a task in a way that I regard as being unhelpful does not make it wrong.

I cannot do everything, and I cannot know everything. I cannot oversee everything.
I cannot judge everyone. This is not my place.
I struggle with this on a daily basis, and I guess that other people around me may do as well.
They may want to constantly tell me how to do what I'm doing.
They may want to constantly remind me of things that they feel that I am forgetting, or correct my priorities.

Knowing the right juncture to intervene in someone else's practice in a constructive way is an art form, and not one that just comes to you. I have enough problems judging it with myself, but in that process of developing self-knowledge, it is also helping me read other people and attempting to make that judgement with them.

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Monday, August 25, 2014

Day 39 - And so to bed

A friend of mine recently pointed out that I am generally the architect of my own disasters. I sabotage myself on a regular basis. One of the ways that I do this, by her analysis, is by staying up unnecessarily for no good reason.

There are plenty of reasons for why I think I do this. I am, by nature, a night owl, and have historically done a lot of what I regard as my best work in the evening. Sometimes it's because there is someone staying, and I have a need to be the last one to go to bed (in part, this need is directed by ensuring that the dogs go to their beds). But I think that a lot of it comes back to my childhood idea that sleep (like eating) is a waste of time.

This is, of course, ridiculous, because I know that in order to function better during my waking hours, I need plenty of sleep. But it's funny how quickly I can forget that when I'm on a roll with composition, or suddenly realise it's midnight and I haven't washed up, etc.
Right now, I'm writing this at half-past midnight when I should be sleeping. I need to get up tomorrow.
Why do I do this to myself? Partly, I think I enjoy having an excuse for not being at my best in the morning. Subconsciously of course. I can't be expected to fulfill all my own expectations and those of my colleagues if I don't get enough sleep. I enjoy being a martyr and 'struggling on' despite adversity. Bags under my eyes demonstrate my dedication to my work.

This is all, of course, ridiculous. I need to sleep more. I need to spend more time in bed. I talk to my tutees about 'good sleep hygiene' and it's about time I practiced what I preach.
I intend to spend more time in bed, to leave enough time to sleep, and enough time to wind down in the evening.

Maybe tomorrow...

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Day 46 - Playing catch-up

This is Saturday's post. Which I'm writing on Sunday.
When I've finished this post, I'm going to write last Saturday's post.
I'll write tonight's post, and last Sunday's post tomorrow, before I write tomorrow's post.
Basically I'm playing catch-up.
That I've chosen to do this in this particular way for this blog has more to do with satisfying my own need for order and stability rather than anything externally imposed. It won't matter if I don't keep up with this blog, but it gives me a sense of satisfaction to do so.

But it's made me think about how much of my work in academic terms feels like I play catch-up all of the time. I've said this before, but it seems like every day I am doing things that should have been done yesterday. Part of this is (no doubt) down to a failure on my part to plan for the future, but I also think that there's an element of communication that often gets forgotten in (especially) universities. How best to communicate deadlines and expectations so that the information is available is not a priority with which many institutions are very familiar. As someone who occasionally has cause to impose deadlines for information, I'm aware that it can feel frustrating when I do not get a response to my questions by the deadline I have set - after all, it can't be that hard, can it? On the other hand, as someone who receives (as do all academics) a lot of requests for information with their own deadlines, I have to understand that everyone else is juggling deadlines that they can't possibly remember.

What can we do then? As someone who sets deadlines, I feel like I want to seek out technological solutions that make it easier for those that I'm communicating with to access this information in advance.
For myself, I need to start taking better notes of what I need to do when. I need to start dealing with email as they come in, and I need to start planning when I have time to do these tasks, rather than leaving the task for when I have time. Because this time doesn't naturally appear spontaneously. It has to be carved out, and that generally means that some other task is delayed as a result.

And then I'm playing catch up again.

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Saturday, August 23, 2014

Day 45 - Chill Out

After one full day back at work, I woke up feeling a bit recycled.
As the day progressed I felt more and more sleepy, and found that my peripheral vision was disappearing fast. A familiar feeling that grew in my stomach confirmed what I already suspected: I was getting a migraine. Not a proper migraine with throwing up and crushing pain in the skull, but a combination of symptoms like tunnel vision, auras, feeling sick, loss of concentration, hypersensitivity, etc. that are often symptoms of migraines.

That this has hit me after only one full day at work annoys me. I should have better tolerance for slings and arrows than this. How can I hope to survive life like a normal person if I'm so useless?

But I reflect - the worst stress is that which is self-inflicted. We do it to ourselves. Over and over again.

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Day 38 - Review of the Year

I've been putting off writing my Programme Leader's Report for this year.
What, in effect, it requires me to do is to read every single module report on my programme, diagnose themes that emerge from this, address them and a lot of other things that they want me to address, and then come up with an action plan.
The real question is then, what happens to this report?

I understand that it is read by my Subject Group Leader, and forms part of his annual report, and that it will be read by at least the head of quality for the School, but given the amount of work that it requires, it's a big investment of time for a return that is, at best, unclear.

I suppose that the only way to engage with this, is the way that we deal with everything else - how can I look at this meaningless bureaucratic task so that it works for me? In terms of the programme report, it gives me an opportunity to weigh up a number of different perspectives on how things are going and have gone. It forces me to engage with difficult questions about what we can do as a team to improve the student experience and address areas of academic rigour that might not otherwise get addressed.

It feels like a lot of work, and also feels like it makes a lot more work, because once you've observed all of these things, they then have to be actioned, but, for me at least, this is the only way to deal with things like this. You can pay lip service to them, and burrow your head in the sand and pretend that everything is lovely (because, after all, it will be fine whether these things are addressed or not - they always are ok, but I think we should be doing better than ok) but that is really not my style.

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Day 44 - Out of control

Last week, I was driving back from a well known flat-pack furniture score, with a bookcase that was threatening to flatten me every time I went around a corner. It was raining hard, and I was driving around a roundabout. Suddenly, I felt the wheels slide under me and I was beginning to turn in directions I did not want to turn. I was skidding. Fortunately, I remembered what to do, and I seemed to do the right thing, regained control, and before I really thought too much, I was back on the right road, facing the correct direction, and driving home.

That is one of the best ways I have for describing how going back to work after a long(ish) period away feels like. I feel like things have the potential for completely sliding out of control, and therefore I throw myself into intense organising activity - drawing up class lists, trying to predict how some things may pan out or not - as if this frantic activity will stave off chaos.

And I have no idea if it actually does any good or just makes me feel better.

Today, I have been worrying about student numbers, replying to emails, and generally feeling important (although I'm quite aware I'm not). And I've been having that feeling that the wheels are shifting. I'm sure it's an illusion and things aren't that bad, but it feels difficult to adapt. Like when you get to the end of one of those moving walkways.

I think that this might be why I prefer not to take too many holidays, and prefer to 'keep my hand in', doing a bit of work throughout the summer. I find it difficult to adapt when I'm back at work, dealing with the quotidian outbreaks of chaos.

Lesson learned from this year is to give myself more time to get back into the swing of things. I like Lauren's suggestion of leaving July as leave time, with June dedicated to winding things up for the academic year, and August devoted to preparing the new one.

After all, most of these tasks are not huge surprises - they happen every year - so why don't I plan with that in mind?

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Day 37 - Nearing the end

As I approach the end of my period of annual leave, I have to stop and look at what I've accomplished.
Have I written my book proposal? No.
Have I finished the open score ensemble piece? No.
Have I finished the new piece of virtual percussion and variable ensemble? No.
I have moved flat.

And I'm not feeling guilty. I thought I would.
I had such high hopes for this summer, and most of it has been taken up with moving and entertaining family and friends.
But that's what the summer is for. That's why we have annual leave.

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Thursday, August 21, 2014

Day 36 - No agenda

There are days when I have a very clear idea about which I want to write.
Today is not one of those days.

This leads me on to an (at least for me) interesting question:
How do we deal with meetings without agendas?

I think that these come in two different flavours:
  1. The meetings where an agenda is present, but the chair just hasn't revealed it to the meeting
  2. The meetings that are literally there for the sake of having a meeting
Flavour 1 can be countered through administrative assistance and is not really as worrying as flavour 2. When I am chairing a regular meeting, I try to ensure that there is something useful to discuss in every meeting. It might not be urgent, or even necessary, but it should be useful and require discussion, not merely reporting. I think that there is a space for reporting, but staff meetings should not turn into a school assembly.

Every agenda point should result (or have the potential to result) in an action point.
Every staff meeting should be minuted and the minutes distributed.
Action points should be chased up.

I'd like to think that all of this would go without saying, otherwise why are we doing it?
It's not just to see each other and spend time in each others' company. There are too many other things to be doing. And I'm not suggesting that the bureaucratic side of all of this is the most important thing. I've spent far too long in meetings in another institution where so much time was spent revisiting the minutes of the previous meeting that we didn't reach the agenda of the current meeting.

So how do we deal with meetings without agenda?
I've read suggestions that you simply refuse to go.
I don't know how my manager would respond to that, and it's almost guaranteed that the meeting you refuse to attend will be the important one.
It would just be nice to attend more staff meetings which didn't result in me writing 'why am I here?'.

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Day 43 - Dreadful email

Today is my last day of my annual leave and what bothers me most is catching up on email.
I have never been very good at dealing with email, or at least in keeping up to date with it.
I have literally tens of thousands of emails in my inbox dating back to the start of my employment (2008), and no real sense of how to deal with it all.
I've got a lot better at responding to email (still some room for improvement of course), but no closer to coming up with a sensible and systematic way of organising it.

How does anyone decide what you need to keep and what you can delete?
I've been so pleased that I've kept correspondence that seemed trivial at the time on a few occasions that I don't just want to start trashing everything.

I think I might start experimenting with adding an automatic rule to incoming emails, to initially filter them into folders for students, colleagues, and leave external mail in the inbox. I can see that this might be a system that gets polished over time, but I think that it has some merit. I'm thinking that I might even filter student email into year group, which would then mean that I could archive it most efficiently.

I think I'll start small and work out from there. No point trying to solve every problem all at once.

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Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Day 42 - Criteria

I've been thinking a lot about criteria lately.
Not just how we mark assessments, but how we communicate what it is that we are looking for to the students, and how we communicate how they met up to those expectations after they've done it.
I've been working on identifying specific skills that run, like a thread, through a number of modules in a number of different levels, and tracing how we assess those to demonstrate consistency and transparency.
It's difficult, and has met with some resistance.
My aims are really two-fold:
  1. Increase the information available to the student about the component parts that we are looking at (i.e. if the formatting of the essay affects the mark, let's reflect that in the criteria)
  2. Reduce the amount of open feedback it is necessary to write.
I find that I tend to write a lot of the same things over and over again when I'm marking. In this case, why not embed it into the criteria?
I'll possibly give a few examples of how this is currently developing on another day's post after I've had a chance to work on the two specific areas I'm currently looking at,

I suppose that this is a perfect example of how I want to take a task that may seem like a bureaucratic administrative nightmare and use it to my example. Criteria should be there to help us in our task, not to just waste our time.

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Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Day 35 - Workload (part 4)

The final part of the workload calculation is the least defined, and the area that is probably most open to negotiation with managers, and that is called 'Support'.
It includes elements such as School-wide management areas (being head of department, for example, and mentoring), participation in University committees, and time spent on an approved higher degree or professional qualification (part-time).
I find the lack of definition and opportunities for more support roles rather disappointing, and I hope that this is an area that is developed in the future. It does seem to reflect the rather traditional approach to academia as a solo sport rather than a team activity.

So that is the entire calculation of a workload. What does it actually mean in practice? How can we use this model as a way of planning ahead?
For an individual, I think that it gives them a very powerful tool for working out exactly what they can be expected to take on in a year, and what they can expect themselves to take on in a year. For a manager, it gives a good snapshot of activity. It does seem though, that more could be done to integrate the programme leaders into the process, who, after all, are normally the ones responsible for ensuring that all modules have people teaching them. The model needs to be a dynamic and reactive model - you take on a new responsibility, and either agree to work over the stated limit, or someone covers another element.
What usually happens, because of its complexity, is that the workload for the academic year is calculated on the basis of what has happened. Or is calculated at the beginning and either treated as a straitjacket for the staff member, or ignored.

I am a firm believer in empowering staff to have more of a role in understanding and applying their own workload models. If academics understand the consequences of taking on new responsibilities, or of dropping some modules, then they can go to their manager with proposals for solutions, rather than just problems.

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Monday, August 18, 2014

Day 34 (revisited) - There must be a better way

I headed back to work today for the first time after two weeks of leave.
Two weeks of moving furniture, building furniture, cleaning the old flat.
Two weeks of my parents' company.
Two weeks of thinking about music without having to do anything about it.
Two blissful weeks of (mostly) ignoring my email.

Halfway through the afternoon, something struck me as I was answering an email query: this feels like hard work. During my normal term-time schedule, I will probably answer quite a few email queries every day. Some of them will be quite mundane. Quite a lot of them will involve me looking up a piece of information that my correspondent could find themselves if they knew where to look. There are also quite a few bits of paperwork to address, and to file where no-one will ever look at them. There will be quite a few emails I send to colleagues that will be skim-read and then forgotten.

I want to come back to email another day, but for now at least, I'm aware of this like a warning alarm.
There must be a better way.

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Day 41 - Getting back on the horse

Having been interrupted by the interruption of my internet connection last week, I will attempt to return to something like a normal schedule of posting. I also intend to 'make good' on my missed posts as well, posting maybe two a day until I'm up to date.
We'll see how I get on with that.

Today was not just my day to start writing, it was also one of the islands of work days around which I have booked my annual leave this summer. We had an exam board and I had arranged a meeting to discuss criteria (more on criteria tomorrow!).
Going back to work for just a day does not fill me with enthusiasm for going back to work at all, and I will (on Thursday) be back at work, just about until Christmas. I feel like I'm going to have to make some real changes to my working life and my life life in order to make getting up in the morning not just something that has to be done, but something I want to do.

I don't quite know what those changes are yet, and I'm expecting not to really know for a while. I think that it's going to be trial and error, and I think that there are going to be times where I struggle. And I think that this is ok. We don't solve problems like this over night, whether these problems are in academia or in the privacy of our own homes.
I think that sometimes, we can kid ourselves into thinking that, as academics, we should be able to fix entire modules, administrative problems, study skills programmes, etc. in the space of one summer, and then feel alternately intimidated or like a failure when that doesn't happen. Most of us are making this up as we go along - based on experience and on our reading and discussion, sure, but it's still largely extemporised based on what gets thrown at us on a daily basis. We work our way through on the basis of advice from colleagues, advice from students (which is sometimes the best and most perceptive advice and feedback going: please listen to what your students are saying [and not just the superficial message - listen to what they mean]), empirical observation, self reflection, etc. and, generally speaking, things get better.

There is one module that I have been teaching for six years, and I have grown to hate it. The logistics of the module have been complex, and students have been frustrated by it, and frustrated by my inability to bring order to it. This year, I taught the whole thing myself. It was time-consuming (I wrote a lot of new material) and a little stressful, but I enjoyed teaching it so much. And the students loved it (at least they said they did) too. I followed the small voice I'd had in the back of my head from almost the very start of the module: the small voice that I'd ignored year after year, but the small voice that knew what it was talking about.

As I contemplate the beginning of a new term, I'm thinking about this cyclical pattern of the years. Is it a Sisyphean treadmill, or a process of perpetual renewal, and what can we do to transform it from the former into the latter?

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Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Day 34 - Technical issues

After I went to the trouble of writing the weekend's posts in advance & scheduling them to post at the correct time, my Internet connection in my new flat has failed to come online on schedule. So tomorrow I will have to phone them in an attempt to discover how they intend to rectify this. So no clever thoughts from me tonight. Maybe tomorrow.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Day 33 - Workload (part 3)

Now we come to the hardest part of the workload, which is also the most controversial.
I think that the allocation of a specific budget of time to a specific research project kind of cuts against the grain, especially in the humanities, and perhaps most so in the creative arts. I've been writing music for almost all my life, but if I was to estimate how long it's going to take me to write this piece I have on my desk right now, I would struggle.

I've been doing some reading about managing the creative arts but haven't come to any conclusions yet. I think that it's worth chipping away at, because it enables us to put our research activities on a more professional basis, and I refuse to entertain the idea that could be a bad thing!

The typical research allocation for an academic at my institution is 130 units per year. That works out as 10% of the workload, and therefore around half a day a week (3 hours 30 minutes), but the actual allocation of this research time is problematic. Line managers don't always allocate this, and it we've been told that it is not a guaranteed allowance. My philosophy is that if we allocate specific projects with specific durations and outputs, rather than just assuming that we have half a day per week to do open ended research, we're more likely to be productive and more likely to get allocated the time.

We get an allocation (negotiated with line manager of course) for roles such as Research Centre Director, and I'm given 130 units for this (so 10% of my time again). I believe this is pretty much normal for my institution.

PhD supervision is allocated as 195 units per student across their entire study time (3 years for full-time students, 5 years for part-time students). This works out as 65 units per year for F/T PhD students, and 39 hours per year for P/T PhD students (around 105 minutes per week for F/T, and around 63 minutes per week for P/T).

On top of this there is funded research as well, and knowledge transfer, and commercial activity.
This is a bit of a hot topic in my institution at the moment, as the difference between these different areas is masked by them being lumped into one category and leads to (quite often) an undignified scuffle over how research budgets are divided. For a time, my institution regarded research as being an area that it didn't want to invest too heavily, focusing instead on industry engagement through KT and on money-making commercial activity.

KT (engagement with industry) is a difficult area for me. My specific research is problematic for any money-making venture, but also I'm not sure how I feel about how the relationship between academia and industry can be negotiated. I've recently been in discussions about establishing a KT partnership with a commercial partnership (a concert hall), but this wouldn't be an area that I'm really engaged with, and I would really only be steering the partnership. I suspect I will have more to say on the subject on the future.

Commercial activity consists, for us, mainly in our summer school activities. We currently run three summer schools, only one of which is run by our institution; the other two are run by other agencies and only use our building. This does mean that we have a steady income every year, and this has been really helpful for our research activities, and much more helpful (financially) than the REG (Research Excellence Grant), which is top-sliced to such an extent that we don't get a large amount of it. After the upcoming REF (Research Excellence Framework) assessment exercise, we will probably have even less (because my institution did not contribute in my field... a story for another day!), so this is a fantastic financial resource.

Sensibly, commercial activity workload allocation is divided into Commercial Support, which I believe would include the administration of these projects (being a Principal Investigator), and Commercial Delivery, which would involve the actual activity itself.
This division into administration and delivery enables (again) line managers to assign appropriate workloads, and should counter the standard approach of assuming that administration time is invisible in projects such as this.

There's a big responsibility on the shoulders of managers to understand and implement these allocations, and the relationship between top-down and bottom-up management of these allocations is a tricky one.
I'll have cause to talk about the difference between top-down and bottom-up management another day, but for the time being, I'll just say that the difference is primarily whether you manage allocations from the perspective of looking at the entire academic team as a potential resource amongst whom you can divide various responsibilities, or looking at individuals and managing them as such. My own perspective is that you have to start off with a top-down approach, but customise it to be bottom-up later in the process. Both perspectives have to be maintained simultaneously, rather like those Magic Eye pictures.

It's not easy, but I think it's worth the effort.

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Saturday, August 09, 2014

Day 32 - Workload (part 2)

Having started off yesterday talking about teaching workload, I thought that I would finish it today.

The remainder of teaching allocations include things like module leadership, personal development tutorials, and things like programme leadership, and school-wide roles.

Module leadership and personal development tutorials come with a specific allocation – you get 15 units, and 0.1 unit per student on the module for module leadership, and 2 units per student for tutorials.

I try to see all of my tutees twice every term, and I allow half an hour for each meeting, so that works out as fine, and I’m quite happy with how that all matches up.

Module leadership involves weekly tasks like collating registers, monitoring attendance, communicating with teaching teams (where relevant), updating the VLE, and making sure that everything is in place for the next week. I think that 30 minutes a week is probably enough for most modules. There’s quite a lot of admin to put in place to ensure that modules run smoothly during the trimester, and quite a lot afterwards (assessment organisation, mark collation, writing module reports), so that doesn’t leave all that much time… Let’s suggest a class-size of twenty for a hypothetical module. That gives us a total of 17 units. If we spend 0.5 units every week of the teaching term (12 weeks), that leaves us with 11 units. Allocating 1 unit to organising assessment, 2 to collating marks, and 2 for writing the module report leaves us with a total of 6 units for preparation. That’s not bad.

We have a scholarship entitlement, which I suppose charges us to keep up to date with the latest publications in our area. That comes to 65 units for the year. If we treat this as being spread out over our entire working year, that comes to around about one hour and fifteen minutes every week. That’s not a lot, but what would you say if I proposed that you spend one hour a week in the library reading journals? I’m not sure that’s something that many of us really feel that we have enough time to do in the course of our weekly routine, but I think that we really should take this seriously. Work out when the journals you read have a new issue, and plan to spend the time reading it. And if your job involves performance, I think that it’s worth considering concert attendance, if correctly planned, as scholarship. One hour a week during teaching terms comes to around 30 hours for me, so leaves 35 hours during the summer. Not a huge allocation, but one to be sensibly applied.

Much of the rest of the teaching budget appears to be up for negotiation between the line manager and the staff member concerned. There are set allocations for specific roles such as programme leader and director of student experience, but no real transparency with the hoi polloi regarding what those set allocations actually are. The official documentation says that ‘Schools differ in their organisation structures and allowances for roles such as…’ so it’s a shame that the school doesn’t see fit to issue further documentation.

And that’s our teaching allocation covered.

You’ve probably gathered by now that I enjoy this sort of thing, and that I’m planning to apply it to my own weekly workload. This isn’t an approach that will work for everyone, but for me, it’s the beginnings of a manageable implementation of my integrated academic framework.

We’ve been told that the workload allocation model is going to change, and the final tweaks are being made to it, so, to some extent, this is all a waste of time in terms of my actual institutionally supported process, but quite aside of that, this is a useful model for me to look at how I manage my workload on a weekly basis and provides the opportunity in looking at the division into different tasks in some detail.

I’ve also been thinking about the ‘missing’ 205 hours per annum unaccounted for by the WAM, and concluded that we should see them as contingency time. I don’t think that we’re really all that familiar with the idea of contingency in HE. We allocate time and resources like bus timetables are written. You work out how long the process optimally takes, and then fill your schedule to match this. If something goes wrong, we find time from our own schedule to make this up.

What if we were all going to plan our weeks but allow around 1 hour a day for which we have no plan? How much of a luxury would that be?

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Friday, August 08, 2014

Day 31 - Workload (part 1)

A while ago, I said I was going to talk about how my institution calculates workloads, what that means for me, and reflections on the whole business of managing workloads.
The disappearance of my internet, and the generation of a buffer of posts to cover me until Monday seemed like a good time to actually get to grips with it, so here goes.

I am contracted to work 35 hours a week, so approximately 7 hours a day, 5 days a week.
I have 46 days of holiday every year, the timing of 14 of which are non-negotiable (public holidays, Christmas vacation, etc.).
Looking at September 1st 2014 to August 31st 2015, there are 52 full working weeks and an extra Monday. In total, that comes to 261 working days.
Less my 46 days holiday, that comes to 215 working days.
Given a 7 hour working day, that comes to 1505 working hours.

We are each assigned 1300 work units for each academic year. I have no idea where this number comes from, but it is quite clear that a unit does not equal an hour. Except it's sort of assumed that it is.
In fact it's around 69 minutes and 28 seconds.

The workload allocation model is divided into four areas: Teaching, Research, Commercial or Other, and Support.
I'll talk about teaching tonight and tomorrow, research and commercial on Sunday, and support on Monday.
On Tuesday I'll try to draw everything together and shout at it.

So. As mentioned above, each unit counts for around 69 minutes and 28 seconds of my working life.

I'm going to deal with different types of teaching first of all, and go through what they actually entail:
  • Lectures: 1 unit per taught hour, with another unit for each taught hour to cover preparation/support
  • Seminars/tutorials: 1 unit per taught hour, but the preparation time per taught hour decreases depending on how many of these seminars or tutorials you actually take
  • Honours year projects (such as dissertations):  Here the allocation is calculated as including teaching, preparation and assessment, and falls into one of four bands. There is not very clear criteria of how to interpret these bands (and that which is given is irritatingly science-based), leaving it worryingly open to abuse. Our dissertation module includes 12 hours of supervision across the year (half-an-hour a week if distributed evenly), while another similar module on a different programme might involve only 3 hours of supervision across the year. Looking at the guidelines, they are regarded as being equivalent.
Then we look at assessment. Basically, for each student taking 20 credits, there is one unit. This means that if you are marking essays for 30 students, which is 50% of the mark weighting, you're probably going to get 15 units for your trouble (around 35 minutes per script). That doesn't seem too bad, but remember how much time you spend messing around with a marking grid, refamiliarising yourself with the topic and the specific question. Having worked that out, if you have any moderation involved, you should really be allowing some for the moderator, so you have to take that out of the allowance for each student.
Again, reflect that some modules may involve multiple forms of assessment, and may involve blind double-marking. You won't necessarily get an allocation for the time it takes you to mark.

Let's assume for a minute that we are going to be cynical about this.
Let's look at what the allocations actually mean for us as lecturers.
Importantly, for me, I can see that fewer assessments in a module will give me less work for my time. Although the calculation is apparently fair, it takes time to change gear between assessment types. One can get 'into the flow' of marking essays (as well as hitting a wall!) that will be interrupted if we also have to mark harmony exercises.
Any module that involves double-blind marking is inefficient since you are basically doing twice as much for no more time allowance.
Also, taking seminars and tutorials will not get you as much time allowance as teaching lectures. Now, I believe that the equation for working out preparation time for seminars/tutorials is generally a sensible one, but the consequence of this is that I get more allocation from teaching lectures.
The final observation to make is that if I don't change my teaching, I still get the allocation for preparation without having to actually do it.

What this means is that, according to this system:
  • traditional lecture-based modules are more cost-effective than any other more interactive formats;
  • it is not cost-effective to change your lectures from year to year;
  • traditional essay-based assessment is more cost-effective than any other more interactive formats.
That's pretty depressing.

Let's just go back to dissertations for a second. Let's say you convince your line manager to regard the dissertation as a 'Band 2' project, which carries with it an exciting 10 unit per student weight.
You spend 12 hours across the year supervising their project, for which you will probably do some independent research on the topic yourself in order to help them on their way. You will probably mark drafts of the work, giving feedback as the year goes on. Then you will mark the thing (ours are 11,000 words and are blind double-marked). If this was a lecture-based course, you'd already be on around 25 units per student.
It's likely that we should revisit the amount of supervision our dissertation students receive, obviously!

What is clear to me, is that these things are never discussed when it comes to discussing module design. Actually, nothing is really ever discussed when it comes to module design, but that's a rant for another day. It also isn't discussed when it comes to the PGCert for teaching in HE, but it's a reality of managing staff, managing a programme, and managing one's own workload. Why is this?

I have a depressingly easy answer to that one. Nobody really understands these numbers. Academic managers (and I mean heads of department or similar here) are in the position that they are in because they published a couple of books, or have been around the block a few times, or made the mistake of catching someone's eye in a meeting when they should have been looking at their feet, not because they're skilled at admin. Some are (thankfully) but (in my experience at least) most aren't. Calculations like I have been discussing today scare many academics because they aren't (except when they are) accountants. They are musicologists and pianists and experts in literature.

The other problem is that induction programmes and PGCert programmes are not designed to train you for the realities of teaching. They are idealistic in their outlook. Which is all very well, but it's a bit like teaching a child that the world is a wonderful place full of welcoming and innocent people and then dropping them in the centre of town.

I've talked about cost-effectiveness, but how much does an hour of an academic's time cost? For anyone on my salary point (so basically anyone who is a non-probationary lecturer), the price including estates and indirect costs, is £56 per hour. That is the Full Economic Cost of my time - how much I cost the university to work for an hour.

Finally, I want to come back to this idea that we have 1300 units, but work 1505 hours per year. If we regard the difference as being spread out across the year, it comes to around four hours and a quarter per week. How much time do you spend in staff meetings, or in other similar meetings? As we will see, there is little allocation for this sort of activity, so it's probably fair enough to start viewing a unit as equaling an hour.

Isn't it? This is probably one of those questions it's not wise to ask.

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Thursday, August 07, 2014

Day 30 - Admirable and adorable hobbies

Today, I was sent a link to this article written by Patience Schell from THE entitled 'World less, do more, live better'. It makes a lot of good points, variants of which I have been making gestures at in my posts.

An element that immediately jumped out at me though was to think about how, in music and in other fields where performance plays a part, the time we spend organising and performing in concerts, productions, and other events becomes almost invisible.
I don't just mean the time that we spend going to concerts (although there's an argument for including at least some of that in your workload - it's not an argument I agree with 100% but I can see the logic), even when those concerts are given by your students, but I mean the time when  you are conducting the university orchestra, or stage managing the production of Orfeo, or even examining a final year performance.

The reason it becomes invisible is, I think, two-fold:
  1. We do it because we love it
  2. Music is still frequently viewed as an admirable and adorable hobby - a free-time pursuit
The time we spend at our desk earnestly whittling away at our latest magnum opus regarding the use of double-sharps in Peter Maxwell Davies' earlier Orcadian period (not something I'm planning to do, but it sounds like it could be fun), or even noodling away at a composition, or a teaching plan seems real, tangible, and like 'proper work'; working up a sweat directing a bunch of students making ephemeral music seems less worthy somehow.

And that's not something that is easy to change. It isn't just to do with how we think about our own work, but has a lot to do with how the society around us views work in general. The identity and role of work is determined through use, and so it's something that is in flux, and not something that can be changed by any one person. So we have to stop complaining about it, accept that it's going to happen, and get on with things.

What does this mean for the music academic? I think it means that we have to be sensible. Take care not to take too much invisible time as part of your workload. You can allow some to slip in, but if you take on a considerable amount, it will be assumed that you can do this (no sweat) on top of everything else because you're driven by our admirable adorable dedication to your art.

And it's not enough to blame management for this. Blame management for many things, but having a Machiavellian grasp of your workload is probably not one of them (and indeed, you may wish to blame management for not having more of an idea what is going on with your workload). This is something that you're doing to yourself. It's up to you to stand up and count your hours and be sensible about what you're going to expect yourself to do.

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Day 29 - Where are the breadcrumbs when you need them?

On Friday, I will have my internet connection cut off, and it will not be restored until Monday.
The prospect of an entire weekend where the only internet connection I will have is via 3G on my iPhone is a bit strange. I watch TV over BBC iPlayer, read blogs and newspapers online, and solve crossword puzzles online.
I suppose it's a good discipline to do without it for a weekend (although, let's be honest, I'm not actually going to be off my iPhone all weekend so I'm hardly going to be offline) but it's amazing for me to think about the difference between now, and when I first started using the internet.

It is 1996, and I am an undergraduate student. I have never really used the internet before, only read about it. It sounds strange and dangerous and enticing. I can 'meet' people on the other side of the world that could turn out to be rapists or millionaires. I can communicate almost instantaneously with anyone.
Most websites I visit are dominated by frames that my browser cannot quite decipher. Navigation is frequently terrible. It's like being abandoned on the ground floor of a library, aware that there is a hell of a lot of information there, but with no clear idea about how to access any of it.
Email is read and written via Unix. I forget my password for an entire year. The sky does not fall.

I think what is strangest about all of this, is that the internet was the beginning of the virtual realities that my beloved sci fi had been predicting. I suppose the inelegance and clumsiness of the interface offered at this time made the whole experience anti-climactic. I found it non-intuitive and intimidating, while all of the fiction I had read made it sound intuitive and immersive.

I suppose it didn't help that we were accessing it on networked PCs in a computer room. I was paranoid that I was going to embarrass myself in front of other, more skilled undergraduates. The social issues at play paralysed me further.

It is 2014, and I am a lecturer. I very rarely go a day without accessing the internet. It is a quotidian part of my life, and, far from exciting, seems mundane. I correspond with a number of people I have not met in person for years, and with a few people I have never met.
Badly designed websites give me feelings of nostalgia and I enjoy accessing their information (as long as I can rely on elegant and modern design for the most part). Navigation is frequently effortless. This is a library I know well, and am on first-name terms with the other readers, the librarians, and the staff of the coffee shop.
Email is accessible on a number of platforms and the IMAP protocol means that how I read it is largely irrelevant. I have over 20,000 emails in my inbox. I write emails every day. If I didn't have access to email for a week, I would find it difficult to do my job.

There are two conclusions I draw from all of this:
  1. I'm going to need, at some point, to find other contributors to post as guests when I am on holiday or am unavoidably without internet (please message me!). For this weekend, I will write posts in advance to be released on each day.
  2. I often forget what it was like to not know what was going on.
That second point is (I think) really important. We have to go right back to the start and remember what it was like to be intimidated by knowledge, by our peers, and by the lecturers. I'm all for letting students get on with things, but at the same time we should be looking to design their interactions with data and opportunities so as to reduce barriers.

How do we do that?
I guess we have to just remember, and go from there.

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Wednesday, August 06, 2014

Day 28 - And sometimes you will have a better idea

Yesterday, I reflected on the problem that I had with a particular concert.
All day today, I've been discussing it with others and turning it over in my mind.
By the end of the day, I had a solution.
And do you know what?
The solution was better than the plan it was replacing.

Rather than holding one concert in October with student work and my own music, on the basis of which a competition would be judged, I'm proposing two events:
  1. A shorter concert of my own music demonstrating the relationship between maths and music in my practice, a 20 minute paper on this connection by me, a similar 20 minute paper from someone from the Mathematics department on the connection that they perceive between composition and maths, and the announcement of the competition;
  2. A concert of specially composed music by current and former students of my institution, culminating in the announcement of the prize.
The idea will be, with the initial concert happening in October, a deadline for submission in December, and a second concert happening in February.

This, to me, gives more scope and possibilities to the whole project, as well as raising the profile and awareness of the whole thing. It is possible that I may be accused of promoting my own work to the detriment of others though, and I'm not sure what to think about that.

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Tuesday, August 05, 2014

Day 27 - Idealism, realism, and sheer bloody-mindedism

Sometimes, you commit to something, and you think that you have plenty of time.
And then you realise that you really don't.

You have a few options.
  1. Cancel the project
  2. Postpone the project
  3. Bluff
Now I'm allergic to 1. I just don't like admitting defeat, and I prefer to make sure that the project happens one way or another. My default position tends to be 3, and I have had a lot of success in throwing projects together without sufficient lead-in time or rehearsal. But that only gets you so far, and if you want something to be as good as you imagine it can be, it's a shame to not deliver the project that you could deliver.

I think that a good approach is that if you feel that the project will be substantially better if you have more time, go for a postponement. Most times, it will be your project anyway, and the only person that you're really reporting to is you. Admittedly that can be a pretty scary person to report to, but you get used to it.

If you can see a way to make the project happen anyway, to a standard that you are happy with, then bluff your way through; improvise and make decisions on the hoof. I think that's a really good skill to have as an academic but also as an artist. Life frequently doesn't go to plan, and being able to make adjustments that deliver an uncompromised result without destroying your life will ensure that you can pull almost anything off.

I will also have to learn when it is appropriate to cancel, but I refuse to really engage with that at present.

I'm reflecting on this today, because I've realised that I have to be realistic about a deadline that I have looming. There's a concert coming up for which I have to write a piece (involving software that I don't know), organise performers, organise a competition (complete with panel), and organise some publicity. There is no way it will happen when it is planned to happen in the way that I want it to happen. I'm pretty sure I can finish a piece with which I'll be happy by the end of this month, and I'll be able to find people to play it, but getting others to write to the same schedule, finding players, organising a rehearsal schedule, and organising, advertising, and administering a competition is most likely beyond me.

So tomorrow I have to write a difficult email, because I have already postponed this concert once. I have to ask if we can hold it later in the year (but it has to be this year because of annoying things like the specific anniversary that this marks). I dislike having to show weakness in this way, but I also intend to send a plan of campaign with a schedule and timings for all the constituent elements that have to occur. This is useful for me, obviously, but also lets the other people involved know that I'm not going to let this happen again.

If another postponement isn't possible, I'm not sure what I will do. I'll have to improvise. As usual.

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Monday, August 04, 2014

Day 26 - Effectively shared

One of my plans for the summer is to start uploading my research a lot more to my institution's research repository.

'What' I hear you cry 'is a research repository?'
The Repository@Napier is intended to be an Open Access showcase for the published research output of the university. Whenever possible, refereed documents accepted for publication, or finished artistic compositions presented in public, will be made available here in full digital format, and hyperlinks to standard published versions will be provided.
Edinburgh Napier University staff and research students are required to place in the repository, post-refereed, accepted texts of documents being published, together with texts of papers given at conferences; but data sets, programs, images, scores, music, and exhibition catalogues should also be lodged in digital format.
For many composers, there can often be a lot of research which is never effectively shared (to use REF speak). We may present a final score with a recording, but the nature of the research questions that went into the process may be left to wide interpretation. Why is there so little research published about technical or aesthetic details of composers' work? I suspect it may arise in part from the fact that composers spend their time writing music, not words, but I think that we should be looking to engage a bit more with looking at how we present composition at research. I'll touch on this more another day - it is too late and I am too tired - but for today, I want to get back to the respository.

I like the fact that I will be able to deposit conference presentations, or even sketch material (if relevant), and other forms of presentation of my research questions on the repository. I've already started linking (on my website) to the PDFs of some of the scores that I have uploaded, but I want to take this much further, and encourage my PhD students to do the same.

I'm a big fan of open access, although I am keenly aware of the usefulness of peer-reviewed journals to establish your name in a field. It might be interesting, if anyone has the time, or if it is even possible, to do a quick review of the journal articles published by academics in the 2014 REF (once it is completed) and see whether the higher rated articles are still in the higher rated journals. Although the regulations say that location of publication is irrelevant, with that number of outputs to be reviewed and with the small length of time allowed for the process, I'm not confident that there will be much difference. The rating of a journal is still apparently considered as criteria for notability of research within my own institution, and I suspect that may be the same across the sector.

I'm quite excited to be preparing presentations for INTIME 2014 on notation (and which will also feature a performance by me), and for Music and shared imaginaries: nationalisms, communities, and choral singing at University of Aveiro, Portugal on the Scratch Orchestra's Nature Study Notes. Once I've finished these presentations, they will be available on the repository and I will link to them from here.

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Sunday, August 03, 2014

Day 25 - Educating about transferable skills

Yesterday, this little story appeared on the BBC News website, and I posted it on Facebook.
Telling me that employers are looking for general academic skills rather than job-specific skills is rather like telling me that the earth is round or that dogs are cute. I have known this for some time.
But in the context of the rhetoric of some of my colleagues across my Institution, this article makes for interesting reading.

What is a university degree for?
I've already said on another day that I think that education for education's sake is a very good thing.
But I also think that university education can unlock potential for many sorts of employment that doesn't necessarily have anything to do with the specific modules that they study or skills that they pick up - it's all to do with how they process information, and the skills that they use to find that information
But I've also been talking for some time about how some elements of a music degree give students really useful transferable skills - team work, non-verbal communication (think how much time you spend following cues in your peripheral vision, or learning to breathe with an another player), self-discipline, etc.
Learning when it is appropriate to follow a leader, and when it is appropriate to stick your neck out and do something different is something that you learn playing in chamber music. You might not call it that, but that is (or should be) what is going on there.

And, for me, there's the main problem. I have always expected my students to be able to recognise and diagnose and celebrate these skills. I think that this was drilled into me during CV classes at secondary school. Since then, I've read some articles and chapters in books expressing the relationship between music and attractive transferable skills a bit more explicitly and just assumed that everyone else was doing the same.

I think that we have a way to go in making students learn the value of what they can learn at university. Not just from the lecturers, but from the experience of playing, writing, conducting, discussing, reading, etc. I guess one could cite Derrida here, and talk about much of what goes on at university as a form of destructive/creative writing - only instead of writing words, we are writing ourselves. I have a few ideas how to go about making this more apparent, but it's difficult to get around the rather doctrinaire approach of giving them handouts or lecturing at them. I think that they need to engage with the idea and take it on themselves.

Of course, if they all get the hang of this, we might have some other problems. But, then again, that might not be a bad thing either.

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Friday, August 01, 2014

Day 24 - Ambition

Another busy day, another short post.
Just briefly, I wanted to talk about my ambitions.
Where I want to be.

In one sense, I want to carry on doing what I'm doing - only more so. Writing more music, writing more words about music, and talking to more performers and composers; teaching interesting and engaged students.

In another sense, I want to be higher up the academic food chain. I want to be a head of department one day. I want the administrative responsibility from which I have seen academics flee for my entire university life. In other words, I want to take this idea of the integrated academic with me through the promotion route.
I don't want to just do research, with no teaching or no administrative responsibilities; I want to be able to facilitate decision making, support other staff members, and enable them to work as integrated academics as well.

I want to have a Chair one day, and I really want to be an emeritus professor after I retire. I cannot see myself retiring to sudoku puzzles and orchid breeding. I want to be writing music until I drop. I want to be writing about music until I can't remember the beginning of a sentence that I'm writing. I want to be listening to music until I can't really hear it any more. I want to be teaching for as long as I have something useful to say.

This may well all change if I settle down and have a family, but right now, I want to be doing this for the long term,

This may be a bit of a sad admission in some eyes, and in others, a breaking of the social contract regarding how we talk about our ambitions. Neither of these really bother, or indeed, interest me.

Music has become so much a part of my life, that I cannot really visualise it continuing without it.

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