‘Hey boss, is anyone listening to me?’

When I labelled a session at our September departmental away day ‘Questions of Voice’, it became apparent that some people were expecting a discussion of poetry. Short memories: the 2012 Exeter staff survey put ‘voice’ high on the agenda. We now know that the results for the 2014 survey were slightly better, but still a cause for concern.

The survey’s questions on voice were: ‘I feel able to voice my opinions’, ‘I am confident my ideas or suggestions will get listened to’ and ‘I am confident I will get feedback on my ideas or suggestions’. These are things that I think we all want in a working environment, and probably things that, as academics, we rather expect. We’re people who tend to think rather a lot. We can have strong views – occasionally even strong language to match. So how do we make that a strength in a department, rather than a source of frustration?

I think it’s important to understand, first, the context in which we’re working. Our university management structures have been more top-down than most over the past ten years or so. There have been very good reasons for that, and it’s been extraordinarily successful. We were outside the top 30 in the national league tables when I was employed here in 2000; now we’re fairly comfortably inside the top ten. The other thing we’ve done – and this is very common across the sector – is lodge what was once a School of English as one department within a College of Humanities. I was involved in college management for a few years and I know that some people at that level do worry about voice and engagement; however, one unavoidable fact of the structure, for all its strengths, is that most academics’ primary identification remains with their department, while most of the decisions that really matter are made beyond that unit. These include, of course, decisions about budgets. So while it may be true that a head of department has opportunities to feed into decision-making, it is also true that s/he stands at least one remove from most decisions; and the average lecturer may inevitably feel quite a distance further away.

There are efforts being made beyond the department to address some of these issues. Here, though, I’m particularly interested in the challenges for departments. My starting-point is that it makes a difference when academics understand where and how decisions are made. There’s nothing more frustrating than getting ourselves worked up within the department about an issue over which we have no control. Maybe that sounds overly pragmatic; there’s a value, admittedly, to a bit of passion, even in a lost cause. Been there. But I think it makes sense to know how best to direct one’s views. If we’re going to yell at someone, it’s worth yelling at the right person. Been there too.

Within my own department, we run straight up against the challenge that I discussed in my first blog-post: size. I’d been primed to expect difficult department meetings; so far, my biggest concern is that people at the back of the cavernous room can actually hear me. Then, in a meeting of that size, it’s simply unrealistic to expect that everyone will have a say within two hours. The experience for many will be one of not using one’s voice at all. This problem is perhaps exacerbated by our large number of early-career colleagues. In my view, we can learn an awful lot from such people, since they bring fresh perspectives. But it’s not always easy for individuals to appreciate that themselves, and perhaps easier to feel a little bit at sea. Nor is the position of fixed-term colleagues straightforward. I’ve been there myself; it’s not easy to feel part of the team when you have one eye on next September.

So how else might a department properly engage with all colleagues? One thing that rang out clearly from the discussion at our away day is how much people value control over their teaching. (And what winds us up, consequently, are initiatives introduced with little consultation. As a former associate dean, I’m guilty as charged on that one.) In this context, our departmental learning and teaching seminars make an awful lot of sense. They appear to have emerged organically and are not managed by the head of department or director of education – and they work. We all care about our teaching and want to discuss what we’re doing and how we can do it better. We also have a chance, in these meetings, to consider shifts within the university, and indeed the sector. Our recent discussion of online marking, for example, was an excellent thing. It won’t stop arguments in the future – since this one isn’t going away – but it helps us to think things through and hear different views.

Might a similar model work in other areas? In our History department, to take another example, early career staff successfully convene their own research seminars, thereby helping to set the agenda within their department. Meanwhile, though, all departments at Exeter are uncommonly light on formal committees (education, research, and so forth). Would they help us? Committees are certainly how I first got involved in departmental decision-making. Are short-term working groups, which we have in abundance, a more – or less – effective model for ensuring engagement?

Then there are informal methods of engagement. One question for me is: if, say, early career colleagues are meeting regularly for lunch, how might those who are too old for such things ensure that this becomes positive for the whole department? Short of bugging the tables, how might it help with the challenges of voice? And we have a coffee shop again – and, for that matter, a director of HR who believes in common rooms. Seriously.

And finally, one of my contributions is this blog: not perfect, and never as interactive as I’d hoped, but occasionally a starting-point for conversations in corridors. I’ll take that.

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