‘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.


Is My Department Too Big?

Over the summer, when most academics have better things to do, heads of many of the more successful academic departments across the country are being asked the question: ‘How about taking another X students this year?’ (In my experience, X = a figure between ten and fifty.) The answer, if not predetermined, is weighted: saying ‘no’ would not be a good career-move, and would probably be futile anyway.

Before getting grumpy, it’s worth being aware of why this question is being asked. The current admissions system makes it logical to take extra students, if applicants are available at an appropriate quality. This may, in some instances, be a case of vice-chancellors – bless ’em – finding it difficult to walk past £200k when they see it. More often, it will be a case of departments with stronger recruitment patterns making up for departments with weaker patterns. There’s a risk here of using strong departments to paper over endemic problems in weaker departments. There’s also a risk of managers setting the weaker departments unrealistic targets, in the knowledge that someone else will pick up the tab when push comes to shove. But it’s also undeniable that the ABB system hasn’t been easy on some disciplines (as I discussed in an earlier blog). Norms, quotas, targets, and so forth, become more fluid under these conditions. And it’s much nicer, in this world, to be head of a department recruiting 250 students a year than of one struggling to reach twenty-five.

My worry, though, is that ‘another X students’ is the wrong question. We’ve done this in English at Exeter more years than not recently, and we’ve always managed well enough. Student satisfaction rates are consistently high; tariff-on-entry is excellent; drop-out rates are very low. In these conditions, the difference between, say, an expected intake of 250 and an eventual intake of 275, with some extra teaching support provided to cover the additional classes, is somewhat notional. It becomes almost illogical to say ‘no’. But when this happens repeatedly, intakes can quite quickly increase substantially, and departments become rather different places. Might a better question, then, be: what’s the optimum size for my department?

Size is probably more good than bad. In global terms, it helps to put a department on the map: most of the top state universities in the US are very big (Berkeley, for instance, lists seventy-three faculty). We surely wouldn’t have leaped forward in the international league tables the way we have if we had remained at the size we were ten years ago. In other words, a big UK department could probably do better on some metrics if it was smaller, but the reputational gain may be worth the hit. And I think there may be more good than bad to size as far as students are concerned. The ‘knowing everyone’s name’ effect surely fades away quickly once a cohort gets over 100, and we’ve learned to compensate for this by getting pastoral-support structures right. The benefits of size, meanwhile, include breadth of coverage in a discipline, and greater resources. Some of those electronic resources, for instance, that can make such a difference for staff as well as students, can be very expensive.

But there are also risks attached to size. Firstly, there are management challenges. I’ve been acutely aware of these, being in the process of returning to my department as head, after some misspent years at college level. In the days after accepting the job, one senior colleague told me we now had ‘more than sixty’ staff, another told me it was ‘more than seventy’, and a third ‘more than eighty’. And so last Friday I became line-manager of an unknown number of people. Size of this dimension affects the feel of a department. I’d apply the ‘coffee test’: i.e. is it feasible that a head could maintain meaningful contact with every colleague by meeting for an occasional coffee? That can be done in a department of twenty-five, but leading a group of eighty will require different methods, and probably different structures as well. I’m not convinced that the university/college models for departments adequately acknowledge this point. Secondly, change becomes more challenging – more like turning a super-tanker in the open sea – in a big department. We began a process of curriculum reform about seven years ago when we numbered 30-40, and produced a lovely new Level One. Rethinking levels two and three will happen, but it feels like the stakes a higher, and there are bound to be more voices demanding to be heard. Thirdly, while we’re good at maintaining overall student satisfaction, ensuring equality of experience is a concern. And fourthly, big departments are exposed to shifts in patterns of student demand. There’s nothing natural about the current size of English departments: these things can change.

There are also risks attached to unplanned growth. We tend to address the ‘extra X students’ by employing fixed-term Education and Scholarship (i.e. non-research) lecturers. We get great value from these people, but there are risks attached to depending so much on so many junior lecturers, who are inevitably juggling other priorities as they try to build their careers. And will we be able to meet all the demands of the new University Education Strategy with such a high number of E&S staff? I’d also note that this is a strategy that masks underlying workload pressures in the department. There’s pressure on colleges not to make E&S appointments, in order to prioritize investment in research, but removing them from English would be interesting.

We’re in a fortunate position. There are plenty of departments, across the country, that have precisely the opposite problem, and that can be a matter of survival. But I hope that we will have the opportunity, as a department, to consider fundamental questions of size and structures. And I will be very interested to know what my colleagues think.