One year as head of department: six things I’ve learned

A year ago I was appointed head of one of the UK’s bigest English departments. I produced a storming interview, largely on account of nobody bothering to tell me that I was the only candidate. Then I was left to work it out as I went along.

It wasn’t a job I had been expecting; nor, given that I was running three funded research projects and preparing another application, was it necessarily the right time. (See point 3, below.) But having spent a few years working at other levels in my university, it was nice to come home. Good departments, after all, make great universities.

It was also a year to learn a few things. Below are some of the ones I feel I might be able to say without getting myself into trouble.

  1. Worry less what others can do for you

At Exeter we have three tiers of academic management: the department, the college, the centre. That’s pretty standard. One negative consequence of this model is that it’s always possible, at whatever level one happens to occupy, to assume that somebody else will fix the problems. Indeed it’s even possible to get quite indignant about this: somebody else really should fix these problems.

The problem of research impact is a good example. Much of the past year I’ve fretted about what’s not happening at other levels; I’ve even written blog-posts about it (here and here). Actually, for all sorts of boring local reasons, I think things will change here on that front; however, I recognize now that my mistake was to spend too much time worrying about what others were not doing, and too little time thinking about what we could do ourselves. A department can actually achieve a lot if it wants to.

So this year I want to change my attitude. My departmental motto for 2015-16 is: if in doubt, do it our bloody selves.

  1. Academic motivation is more complicated than the size of a pay cheque
Give these people a bonus

I’ve spent a lot of time this year thinking about money: partly as a result of the wrangling over promotions and retentions that are the stuff of departmental life, partly through my role as chair of a group charged with reviewing professorial pay at Exeter, and finally through involvement with a new bonus scheme.

On the whole I subscribe to the view that there are things more important than money for the average academic: time is one, respect is another. But getting the rewards right does matter: partly because we operate in a competitive market, but equally because rewards are never entirely distinct from respect. And as a result even relatively small bonus payments, I learned, can have a significant effect on morale, because of what they signify to the recipient.

  1. Over-performance is as big an issue as under-performance

The bonus scheme has been labelled ‘above and beyond’. That makes sense in practical terms: it’s a way of recognizing people who have done all that might be expected of them, but then something extra as well.

But one of my department’s problems – and I’m sure we’re not alone in this – is people driving themselves into the ground by attempting to do too much. If we start from the preconception that all academics are lazy, then doubtless we need ways of driving forward basic levels of work. And that can happen; I’ve worked at a place, long ago, at which under-performance was so normalized that it was hard, as a junior lecturer, to get a grip on what might be reasonable. But in most departments in the UK under-performance is actually pretty rare, so surely it’s worth focusing instead on different management challenges.

If we strip the job down to the metrics – four items for the REF every six or seven years, satisfied students, efficient administration – it doesn’t look too hard. The challenge, especially, with a young department that teaches a lot of students consistently well, can be training people to pace themselves with competing demands (hence my ‘research day’ blog), and also to think about when to say ‘no’. As I’ve said many times this year, there’s not an awful lot of point arriving at a REF with a bundle of excess two-star publications and a chronic state of exhaustion.

  1. It can be easier to talk about ‘crisis’ than to recognize success

I’ve been banging on about the supposed ‘crisis’ in the humanities all year. There are always challenges (e.g. enrolments down in North America; politicians across the world – many of whom, of course, humanities graduates themselves – calling for a focus on STEM), but the humanities remain strong in the UK. Research funding is a key battleground in the coming months, but student demand is up, the global scene is good (more on this in my next post), and I was encouraged, in terms of public discourse, by an excellent article in Forbes magazine about the value of humanities degrees in the job market It seems to me that the humanities in the UK have a lot to celebrate.

  1. June is the cruellest month

There were several months in the year when I felt that being head of department was a bit of a wheeze. But next December, when I find myself feeling guilty that I’m not working as hard as some of my junior colleagues, I’ll remind myself of June. Because June is the month when a university tries desperately to finish things – assessments, appointments, working groups, and so forth – and it turns out to be a right bastard for a head of department.

  1. If an orthopaedic surgeon describes your feet as ‘dramatic’, you’re probably heading for the wrong kind of theatre.
The head’s foot

And that was pretty much the story of my summer.

Thanks for reading the blog this year. And thanks for the retweets, which make a huge difference. More to come in 2015-16. Andrew

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