Monday, September 29, 2014

Day 81 - Finding the time

There is never enough time.
But the point is to make use of the time that you have to do what you want to do rather than becoming time's slave.
I have been leaving writing my blog until late (like tonight) and this has resulted in me not having enough energy to write what I want to write, and therefore I have missed days. And this is annoying because there are things I want to write about - for example, my philosophy of management, reflections on programme teams, and the responsibility of the composer - but I feel that if I can't write them properly, I shouldn't write them at all.

This is obviously all part of my ongoing battle for effective time management, and my suspicion is that this is not a battle that will ever be over but that's ok. I'm probably never going to be intuitively organised in the way that some people seem to be, but I like the idea of working on the art of being alive, and being actively engaged in the process rather than it being something that happens behind my back.

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Thursday, September 25, 2014

Day 77 - I love it when a plan comes together

Today, I gave the inaugural lecture in my research centre's new series of open lectures entitled 'Music in a Globalised World'. Given the modest advertising I put out, I was actually quite pleased with the audience of around 15 who heard me speak and asked questions afterwards.

In the large scheme of things, that's not a huge number, but I'm not going to fixate on that right now. I'm very aware that everything has to start somewhere and we can't always expect the first event in a series to be oversubscribed. A reputation builds, and this is what I'm hoping for my little series.

The lecture was videoed, and, once I've edited it, I'm planning to upload it to iTunes U so that it is available to everyone with internet access. This is my plan for the entire series, should the speakers be happy, as it enables us to kill two birds with one stone. On the one hand, we are building a genuine research community within the campus that complements the existing research communities, but on the other, we are also dipping a toe in the water of open access online presence.

When I was an undergraduate student, I attended the department's guest lecture series and got quite a lot out of it. When I was a PhD student at the same institution, I was a regular fixture. When I came to my current institution to teach, I did really miss that. I think it's important for academics to continue to engage with what their peers are developing, and that research doesn't just stop with our own interests.

I think it is especially important to provide a platform for academics to hear their colleagues, within the same institution, speak about their research, as it builds awareness and mutual respect, and although I think that we largely share a lot of respect for each others' teaching, respect for research can only generally function on the basis of productivity and visibility rather than on interest and quality.

So today was a tiny step in developing this idea. I'm hoping that the audience will return in October for the next session and that they will grow.

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Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Day 76 - I've got a little list

I have two lists.
One of them lists everything that I feel I need to get done at work.
The other lists everything that I feel I need to get done at home.
I'm working my way down both very slowly.

When I was writing these lists, they seemed quite easy to accomplish - a couple of days work possibly - but when they are slotted into everything else, it is quite a different matter.

The timetable for performance exams has taken me a couple of days to organise, and that's just one item on the list. It's a task I have done for the last five years I think, and one that I sort of enjoy (like a crossword puzzle), but often one that gets done when I get tired of students hassling me for it. So this year, in line with what I was talking about yesterday, I decided to sort it out now for the entire year. So that should put me ahead of the game a little. I still have to assign staff to assess the exams, but I want to discuss the workload implications with our line manager first.

I have a couple of reasonably large tasks left on my work list, as well as some pretty minor ones, but the investment in time will probably be worth it in the long run. Sometimes, I think that these tasks could be done by others, whether that's HR when it comes to writing to all of our hourly-paid staff, or someone else, but I know that I will have a better chance of getting a result with which I will be happy if I do it myself to create a template. Once I've done that, I can step back and allow others to improve it and use it for the next few years.

My list for home is moving very much more slowly. It seems difficult to motivate myself to improve the flat while there is so much work to be done. I know that has to be addressed for my own sake. The more that the flat is organised the happier I will be. I guess this comes down to the question of life-work balance, prioritising my life as much as my work, and taking action instead of treating the 'life' section of my life as an excuse to hide from a lived life.

It's funny how, even when you're 36 years old, so much of life is about taking a day at a time.

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Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Day 75 - Tomorrow is the first day of the rest of your life

Twelve days have passed without me posting.
Twelve eventful days.
During that time, my country has voted to stay within the UK, to my disappointment, and I have been promoted. The term has started properly and we've got through a week of teaching and nothing has gone wrong. Yet.
I may go back and fill in the blanks another time, but I'd much rather just keep on going for the time being.

Half of the problem for a high functioning procrastinator like me is that we have excellent plans for tomorrow. As the days pass us by, our deadlines move steadily into the future, keeping a parallel course. As long as tomorrow is the day we start our new gym regime, research project, rewritten slides, etc., we can feel not too awful about ourselves, enough to carry on with life.

And life doesn't stop happening, especially in academia. The emails keep on coming in that need to be answered today, the students have crises that need to be addressed today, and suddenly you have to teach the class that you were going to prepare tomorrow a week ago. This is all familiar territory for many of us and we make a virtue of our ability to cope with whatever life and our institutions throw at us, all the time entertaining the illusion that we will do better tomorrow.

So how do we stop the treadmill and actually address this? I don't actually know, and I'm in the process of trying to work it out. So far, I'm not doing a great job, but I'm doing better than I have in the past, which has to count for something surely. I suppose part of the problem is that every successful solution to this sort of dilemma is not just one solution, but is a concatenation of a series of coping strategies. It is unrealistic to organise your entire life and expect it to run to plan tomorrow, but better to address it in phases. This requires a bit of analysis of what it is you want to address. What will make a difference to tomorrow? No. What will make a difference to today? Implement one phase. Don't get annoyed that you haven't changed everything. Be patient. Make realistic plans over a series of weeks instead of just trying to change tomorrow. No. Instead of just planning to change tomorrow.

So tomorrow I'd better do something about that.
Or at least try.

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Thursday, September 11, 2014

Day 63 - Considering next steps

It's always an interesting point in the year, on the brink of a new term, just catching your breath after the admin of the last academic year.
I haven't got a set workload agreed yet, and no priorities officially planned, although I have plenty in my head. A few things could change based on discussions yet to be had, but there seems no reason to hold off thinking about this until this happens because otherwise, there will not be any decisions made.

I plan to go through what I project as my workload for the year, and begin to assign it to my year in quite a specific fashion, to give myself a good idea about what I think is a reasonable division of my time. This is quite exciting for me because, although I will be losing some freedom, it will give me firmer limitations to what I am trying to do, a more realistic idea of how long certain tasks take, and the beginning of a real sense of control over what I do when.

And that can't be bad.

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Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Day 64 - And this is why I do this job

I sponsor a child in Cambodia, and every now and then he writes to me.
Today I read his latest letter which said that his studies were going well and that he hoped to go to university because it would make a significant difference to his family's living conditions.
The power of education to transform lives is one of the motivating factors that keeps me engaged with the whole process. I've spoken before about the importance of education for education's sake, but the way in which it provides options for people who otherwise would not have any is just as important to me.
That is what makes working where I work as fulfilling as it is. If I was only interested in education for education's sake, I would crave a research-intensive post, but I do enjoy what I do and I do get a lot out of the return that I get from working with these students.

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Monday, September 08, 2014

Day 62 - New faces

Today was the first day of the trimester with the new Freshers starting.
So far, so good, and everything seemed to go smoothly.
This is the second year I have planned an extensive programme of events that covers the whole week and a range of topics. The first year I was programme leader, it was mostly crammed into one day and I could see them fading and not taking in information even as I gabbled it at them.

I think that what has been most liberating this year, especially, has been the acceptance that I do not have to do everything myself. I have divided up my plan between all the available staff, and entrusted some sessions that I delivered last year to some of my colleagues - a bit step for a control freak like me - and I know that it will be ok.

Being a member of a team where, even when we have some disagreements about how to do certain think, you can rely on the others to turn up and do the job is not something that you necessarily expect to find in HE nowadays and I am so very grateful that I have that.

Tomorrow, I have an interview elsewhere, and am not going in to my campus except to stop by for lunch afterwards. My colleagues are handling it all. How many other programme leaders can say that with any confidence?

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Day 61 - To make the punishment fit the crime

I spent what felt like a lot of today compiling the programme handbook before the first day of Freshers' Week.
In the end, it is 47 pages long, and over 10,000 words. If I had written them all, I would be feeling pretty proud of myself, but I mostly copied and pasted them from other sources (although I feel slightly proud of my assessment matrix at the very end).
What bothered me about the whole process was primarily that it is in the wrong format.

I think that the format you make something available really matters. If you are handing out a physical handbook, this has a different function to an online handbook. What I have been required to create this year has been neither. It looks like a printed book, but functions like an online handbook.

This creates a couple of problems. The first is that, as a Word document, one can follow all the embedded links, but it remains an editable document (although there are ways around that of course) and the glossy pictures mean that it is huge (around 10MB), but as a PDF, unless it's converted using proprietorial Adobe software, you can't follow the links (although this reduces it down to 5MB). In order to read it, one has to download it, and do we really need such enormous files? The second problem is the logistical problem of reading the document. Getting from one page to the next is fine, but if you then want to go back to the contents and then hop forward, hop back, etc., it is not really a very good format for doing this.

It amazes me that, while we have the online VLE that we have, that we do not make more use of it for exercises like this. A web-based handbook in the same environment that the students are required to use, that doesn't need to be downloaded, and that is easily navigable, is surely what we should be working on instead of this ineffectual hybrid.

I suppose my point is that if you want a printed handbook, provide us with a template for a printed handbook, and if you want an online handbook, provide us with a template for an online handbook. Stop hedging your bets and putting all your eggs in the 'corporate' basket.

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Sunday, September 07, 2014

Day 60 - There are no words

My former teacher Christopher Fox, posted a link to this article on Facebook today: Q&A with Stuart Dunlop | People | Times Higher Education pointing out that the interviewee had just been appointed as a director of music in a university that had shut down its music department.

How does one direct music in a university without a music department? The answer is quite simple, and the reasoning behind it can be read between the lines in the interview. He states that the UEA has made a 'substantial commitment to music', which may seem like a contradiction in light of the departmental closure, but it depends on how you define 'music'.

Stuart Dunlop states clearly that he believes that music 'should have a place in the heart of every university' but dodges questions about whether music is a serious academic subject. In fact, his dodging of the question is so left field (anecdote about a Stuart Bedford programme note) that it masks his real answer which is 'of course music isn't a serious academic subject - it isn't an academic subject'. He believes that reading about music (or presumably thinking about it) is missing the point. Music is all about the listening.

For a performer, this is a bit of a strange thing to be saying, but seems to be at the heart of his mission - it's not about teaching performance; it's about creating an outward-facing visible musical presence for the university, rather as corporations might hire a string quartet for a function or sponsor the local music festival.

And although one could interpret his response to the question about 'Eureka moments' as a rather weak attempt at a joke, it also contains a rather anti-intellectual barb that seems peculiar for someone who is supposed to be working alongside academics. The disjuncture between the questions and the answers is striking, with the questions aimed at an academic and the answers replied to by someone who see himself more as part of a professional services/outreach team.

It is also interesting to read this in the light of a provocative question I asked at yesterday's NMS day as to whether universities should be functioning as knowledge hubs for the wider community rather than simply servicing their 'paying customers'.

In case there is any confusion, this is not what I meant.

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Saturday, September 06, 2014

Day 59 - New Music Scotland

Today, I drove over to Glasgow for the New Music Scotland day. I have lots of thoughts about what I heard, but at the moment only a few coherent ones to share.

The theory behind NMS is that it is an organisation for the benefit of its members - composers and performers active in new music in Scotland. For me, the day threw up some fascinating questions, for instance, is there such a thing as a New Music Industry? Terms like 'commercially viable' raised their head and then disappeared again, and the discussion on commissions missed what, for me, was an important point (but not one I'm going to talk about tonight - it's too late and I want to get up earlyish). Economics and new music are not good bedfellows for obvious reasons, and I believe that much of what we produce as composers and performers actually defies straightforward commodification. When we actively conspire to produce a commodity, I'm not sure I really know what we're doing any more.

Thankfully, most of the discussion avoided this and we talked about building audiences, and Graham McKenzie (of the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival) spoke about (at least this was my take on it) building international audiences while building an international network of co-funders to remove the burden of commodification from the shoulders of the performers, the composers, and the audience. This brought home to me again the importance of having someone financially literate on any team that is involved in anything where currency exchanges hands - not just because they will be better at this sort of thing, but it means that the artists aren't allowing the money to dictate the music.

So I'm an idealist. So shoot me.

In this field, what is the role of the university composer? If I am commissioned to write a piece, what happens to my fee? Do I use university time to write the piece but pocket the cash? Do I pay the university to buy out my time, or take unpaid leave? Does this piece then not count towards my research outputs for the REF because the university wasn't paying for my time?
I don't have any answers. I only know that it's a problematic area and a very grey area. I don't want to imply that I'm judging any practice, just that, at some point, we in the industry may have to think about this seriously. Because if we don't, someone in charge of a university's commercialisation and intellectual property will, and then where will we be?

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Friday, September 05, 2014

Day 58 - Just write

Today, after what felt like a long morning spent with a couple of our instrumental tutors covering a variety of topics, I went home to compose. I spent a fruitful afternoon and came up with a harmonic structure for a new piece with which I was happy.

In my inbox was an email from a fantastic performer, thanking me for an essay I had sent to them detailing some structural analysis of a piece that I wrote around 15 years ago.

I'm happy that I'm writing music, but not happy that I'm not writing words down. I've thought for some time that it was worth going back to essays such as that one, combining it with other things I have noted, and seeing if there isn't a grown up analytical paper there. But I don't.

It's easier to 'know' that you could do something if you put your mind to it, than to put your mind to it and risk failing.

But I'm writing music and trying to switch off from other pressures from work. I definitely feel like I have a way to go when it comes to compartmentalising the different aspects of my job, but at least, for one afternoon, I sat down at manuscript paper and wrote some music that I will hear soon.

And that's a great feeling.

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Thursday, September 04, 2014

Day 57 - It's Always a School Day

Today, I put my name down to undergo some training in the area of mentoring.
I am also (finally) finishing my PGCert and will actually have a teaching qualification (after around 10 years of experience in HE).
I also know that at some point, I'm going to need to have some training in the PDR process to adequately fulfil my role as research centre director.
All of this adds up in terms of time.
Reading up on each of these requirements, I think I'm going to need around 268 hours of time over the next year. Exactly how this is going to impact on my WAM is anyone's guess, but it's likely I will be doing less of something.

Why bother with all of this? I'm not overly keen on collecting pieces of paper, but I think it's nice to have some kind of official reflection of the skills that I'm developing. This official reflection will be (I imagine) important in terms of my advancement in any institution, but I am also hoping that the process of going through these courses will enhance my reflections on my practice and put in place new approaches and ideas.

Trying to fit in these courses and classes around your teaching is always tricky because, so often, both are fixed at specific times. When you rearrange your teaching, you are disrupting the schedules of many people. Is it better to organise another time or to arrange cover?
If you arrange cover, does the department have the budget to do so? Do your colleagues have space in their own workload to cover you?
If you organise another time there will be students who cannot make the time because they work or they can't arrange child care or because they forget (because that's what students do - I certainly forgot a rearranged lecture or two when I was a student).
Also, if someone else is teaching your class, do you trust them to do this?

The impact of these disruptions is wider than just making me rearrange my diary. It impacts on colleagues, on budget, on student experience. It is far more than just 268 hours a year.

I'm at the point where I can plan out my entire year's teaching, so it's good that this has come up now, but there will be other bits of training that I should be doing, and fitting them in will be a challenge and will cause ripples to spread.

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Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Day 55 - Look back

I started the task of writing my programme leader's report today.
For me, that means reading every module report written by the teaching team and attempting to tease out some narrative threads that link them together.
This is an intensely annoying process because each report is saved as a Microsoft Word document on a shared drive. In order to read them, I have to download them to my computer and open them one by one. Tedious. Unnecessary.

But. I enjoy this task every year. You may ask why I bother, because after all, I'm meeting with the teaching team throughout the year and have a pretty good idea about what worked and what didn't work (and why), but the reports give me another angle - how the lecturer, looking back, perceived things. This often includes elements that they may have not spoken to me about, that they only realised were relevant when writing the report and reflecting.

There's a widespread feeling that the module reports are meaningless and pointless and that no-one ever reads them. I want my teaching team to know that I always do. I think that one of the ideas is that I read them all, and reflect on what this means for the programme, and then put this in my report, which is then read by the department head, who reads all of the programme reports from their department, and reflects on what this means for the department, and then puts this in their report, which is then read by the Head of School, who reads all of the department reports from their School, and reflects on what this means for the School, and so on and so on.
That is the plan anyway.

And I like sharing in the reflection. Seeing what individual lecturers see as the important elements of their modules is a revelation, and enables me to support them better. Perceiving a slight disconnect between the delivery of linked modules in the reports last year, I have worked hard to bring the team closer together and to discuss shared practice. It looks like that may have paid off. Either that or they're humouring me.

I am a firm believer that the strengths of every robust team derive from the membership of the team, not from any leader, and that it is the responsibility of every team leader to bring the best elements out of their team. That is the strength of the leader. I think that it is a really challenging role, but it is one that I enjoy.

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Tuesday, September 02, 2014

Day 54 - Elite Institutions

Discussion in the media about elitism can be a bit weird.
Recently, I read that the UK is 'deeply elitist' because high proportions of top level business, political, media, and public sector leaders went to fee-paying schools and/or Oxbridge.
OK, so we seem to be saying that we should be seeing a wider proportion of leaders who went to other universities, right?
So what's the solution at grass-roots level?

The solution seems to be, largely, to encourage pupils from a range of backgrounds to attend Oxbridge. This seems rather like you're addressing part of the disparity that you have identified, but ignored the second half.

Recently, the cap on University undergraduate numbers was lifted, and Russell Group universities entered clearing with abandon, hoovering up students with promise. After all, if you have the choice to go to an ancient university with excellent funding and an excellent reputation, why wouldn't you? I would.

My own institution elected not to go into clearing this year, and I heard it said that we didn't want to be seen as the sort of university that has to go into clearing in order to make up numbers. The universities with the best funding and the best education will attract the best students and the best funding, no matter how much they charge. Lifting the cap on numbers of students will not necessarily benefit all universities, but will probably just benefit those in the Russell Group.

The funding model that allocates such a large proportion of money to Russell Group universities at the expense of other institutions is designed to maintain their positions at the 'top of the tree'. This is a free market economy, and the fittest must survive, whatever that means. As young academics, we have a future mapped out for us, where we aim for Russell Group universities as a sign of prestige and honour. In other words, we will be joining the academic elite.

And I don't know how I feel about that.

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Monday, September 01, 2014

Day 53 - Changing Face of Research

Today, I'm not really talking about the actual way that the sector is changing. I don't really think I have enough experience to discuss that. It's more that I want to talk about how the way that my institution is thinking about changing things.

Currently, we have six different centres for research based around English and Creative Writing, Publishing, Design, Media, Music, and Film respectively. Some of these research groups coincide with departmental (and therefore managerial) hierarchies, but not all. Some of these research groups coincide with REF Units of Assessment, but not all. Some of these centres have defined identities that function almost as a brand, others are more amorphous.

For me, looking at these groups, it seems clear that some of these groups are built around areas of excellence, where a clear specialism has been identified, but others are there to support research activity irrespective of any top-down strategic thought. I think that both approaches have their place, but that they shouldn't be confused.

Recently, we discussed the possibility of reshaping research areas into four: Music and Performing Arts, Art and Design, English and Creative Writing, and Media. I think that it's likely that existing 'brands' will remain as centres of activity, but not necessarily centres of support. From my perspective, this is a good move, and it means that it will be easier to develop a narrative around Music, Drama, and Performing Arts for the next REF in 2020. It also addresses the confusion (mentioned above) between areas of excellence/activity, and areas of research support. Although it means that more research areas will not map on to department areas, I don't think that this will lead to more problems, but may well alleviate areas where this is an issue.

This isn't just a matter of achieving consistency, but it's a matter of achieving parity. If there are many areas where the person in charge of the research centre is not necessarily the person managing the staff within the research centre, then there has to be a protocol or shared practice for including research in their workload, rather than the rather piece-meal approach we have at present. At least that's what I'd like to think.

While there are potential drawbacks to this approach (I will have more staff to support but no more time to do it in, for example; I will also have to liaise with at least two line managers rather than one) but I believe that the advantages outweigh the disadvantages.

It is somewhat ironic that this is happening as the University decides to reintegrate the two parallel areas of organisation that were established a few years ago: schools and institutes. Now, all research activity will be managed within the school, and teaching and research brought closer together. The parallel path would have been to ensure that all research centres were integrated with departments, but I'm glad that the opposite has happened. I suppose it could be said that the true irony was that although the School and Institute were separate, many of our Centres were identical to our Departments (and therefore the structure did not really change what was happening at 'grass roots' level, but problematised its management and organisation), and that this proposed change could energise rather than restrict research activity.

So, there is change in the air, which is just as well because there's change in the air nationally as well. There may be trouble ahead, but while there's moonlight, and music, etc...

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