Notes from an ex-head of department

Today is my last day as head of English and Film at Exeter, before moving on to a new role.

A lot of people in academic life wonder – no, they openly question – why anyone would want to be a head of department. It’s thankless, relentless and powerless. But there’s also more to it than that; being HoD is about people and culture. I’ve enjoyed it.

Below are some things I’ve learned over three years in the job. They’re not ‘how to do it’, because any of my colleagues will attest that I messed up, pissed off and muddled through, at least as much as anyone would. But anyone, also, can learn.


  1. Trust your colleagues

Why? Firstly, consider your options. Not many heads of department are blessed with the kind of power they might, in moments of late-night sociopathy, wish to have. So mistrust might lead to nothing more than antagonism and passive aggression, grinding on month after month. I think we’ve all seen how that works.

Secondly, they deserve it. Universities are full of driven, professional people: to use a totally made-up statistic, 99.2% of academics want to do a good job. It’s just that – and vice-chancellors tend to forget this – sometimes we can have a funny way of showing it.


  1. But the value of signposts

But let’s not confuse trust with a lack of direction. Higher education is awash with metrics and targets – REFs, TEFs, and so on – and we all have to be sensitive to that context. My junior colleagues, in particular, work towards challenging probation goals. But it’s also worth remembering the basics. Any department will do ok if it appoints carefully, mentors sensitively and promotes appropriately.


  1. And signs pointing in new directions

The dimensions of success in an academic career have shifted – stretched – in recent years. Perhaps most notably, impact-oriented work can absorb huge amounts of time, but if we get it right the rewards can be equally substantial. More than ever before, heads need to be alert to the different ways in which careers can take shape, and be ready to support and advance them accordingly.


  1. The people stuff

Shit happens, to everyone. As head of department, you see and hear stuff that would normally pass one by: parental deaths, caring responsibilities, illnesses, miscarriages. It’s humbling, really. You learn that good people can’t always be at their best.


  1. It’s amazing what you can’t do

I came to the headship after a spell as associate dean. That’s a wonderful role: you dream up all sorts of new policies, then leave others to make them happen – or not. I changed the world for a few years there.

But being head of department is different, because other people – the departmental directors of this and that – tend to have their hands on the policy levers. So affecting change is perhaps more about trying to set a tone, supporting the right people, nudging things along, and maybe choosing just one or two personal crusades along the way. It can feel like you’re doing bugger all; and maybe sometimes that’s just about what you should be doing.


  1. The value of rails

It’s also a job in which one appreciates the value of keeping everything moving roughly in the right direction most of the time. In an age when managers are all expected to be strong and strategic – shaking things about and breaking some of them along the way – just keeping things on the rails can be an under-rated skill.


  1. Also surprising what you can do

Heads of department end up on a bunch of committees. University committees get a bad press, but they’re rarely completely pointless, and in my experience most senior managers actually want to hear what colleagues in departments are thinking. Furthermore, in my experience an awful lot of shit gets waved through committees because people in the room can’t be bothered to read the papers. Hence anyone can make things happen – or unhappen – in the interests of his or her department, simply by being one of those who do.


  1. You can’t have a great department without great students

This is not to say we all need AAA students, but a culture of engagement makes a huge difference. Anyone involved with students knows that the ‘customer’ discourse is 90% bullshit; students are working harder than ever, and they are often deeply invested in their departments. If academics organize an event, a handful of students might show up; if students organize the same event, they will fill the room.


  1. No department is an island

I’ve worked in departments run like insular nation-states, complete with independent legal systems and customs-checks at the borders. But today education and research are both more interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary than ever: have a look at the growth in programmes like liberal arts; have a think about the trajectory of external research funding schemes. So while any head is expected to argue the department’s case for resources, there’s always a wider context. To recognize that is not necessarily to be weak.


  1. I’ve had it easy

For any head of department, the next three years are likely to be tougher than the last. The wheels of the REF will be cranking into action now that we’re getting clarity on the rules, while subject-level TEF is likely to become a reality. Meanwhile competition to land student numbers is becoming more ever more intense. Heads will find themselves in some challenging conversations, with both colleagues and senior managers.


  1. If you start a blog, choose a title that will last

‘Head of Department Blog’ was a nice title at the time, but what the hell do I do now? ‘Dean of Postgraduate Research and the Exeter Doctoral College Blog’ just doesn’t cut it. I’d appreciate suggestions, but I’ll continue one way or another, and I’ll be very grateful to readers who stick with me. Thanks, as ever, for reading and sharing.

English studies: a mid-life review*

  • I wrote this piece for an excellent new journal launched last month by Exeter’s graduate students, Exclamation – working on the presumption that 25 years of employment in English departments gives one the right to reflect and pontificate. ‘Mid-life’ , by the way, refers to my life, not that of the discipline, and frankly it’s a little optimistic.

The contributors to this inaugural volume of Exclamation are at the beginning of their careers. For me, it’s now 25 years since I was given the key to an office at the University of Sydney, and a list of nine classes (of the same module) to teach each week of the year. I think I was given a computer, though that wasn’t standard; I can date myself by having worked in newspapers when computers consigned linotype to history, and in universities when email made handwritten memos an oddity.

So this seems like a reasonable time and place to ask two questions. Firstly, what’s changed in the discipline of English, for those of us teaching it? And secondly, what comes next?


English really mattered in the 1980s and 1990s. Politics and post-structuralism were blowing open the canon. It was never entirely clear whether someone at Cornell really was ‘teaching the phone-book’, but I swear that made the newspapers. And there was a genuine political force behind the motivation to put women and non-white authors onto courses, and question the politics of literary representations. Lit crit changed lives; or we thought it did.

These movements also changed departments. Australia had always been more susceptible to new ideas about the discipline; many of my colleagues at Sydney were veterans of one arguably the most bitter departmental splits anywhere in the world on Leavisite grounds. And in Australia since the 1980s traditional canon-based English curricula have been eroded. Gender studies, film studies, postcolonial studies, theory, creative writing, indigenous studies, and so forth, have transformed the shape of the discipline in that country. Personally I don’t see this as right or wrong, and I appreciate the powerful cultural reasons for it in a country I love. But it’s an interesting case-study in the nature of our discipline, and of how quickly things can change.

In the United Kingdom, change has been more incremental. I see that as partly a result of the more central cultural position of the basic idea of ‘English studies’, partly a result of the power of the enduring disciplinary brand within an A-Level system that is wary of change, and partly a result of a coordinated national curation of disciplines via the QAA’s benchmark statements. The English Benchmark Statement, in its recently-revised form, is a sensitive yet essentially conservative document, informing the way English is perceived and taught from schools through to universities.

But a high degree of stability in the classroom has been coupled with radical transformations in the shapes of academic careers. The RAE has been an extraordinary agent of dynamism: manufacturing lifetimes of anxiety on the one hand, but with the promise of swifter career progression on the other hand. A culture of external grants has changed the way we do research, increasing its pace, levels of collaboration and interdisciplinarity. In teaching, we’re perhaps performing the same functions but in different ways. In particular, forms of assessment have diversified, while technology is transforming how students access information, and maybe even how we all think.


So where to in the next 25 years? Based on nothing particularly scientific by way of evidence, here are some predictions. With a bit of luck I’ll be around to see how successful I am.

  • Let’s start with the negative. I fear that some of the core values of our discipline are under pressure. What has always typified English for me is a commitment to close, independent critical engagement with texts. What worries me is that students seem increasingly less prepared, in general, to commit themselves to this activity. Maybe this is caused by the way they’re so ferociously prepped for A-Levels, maybe it’s a product of the discipline’s stretching; or maybe this is simply the perception of someone growing old and grumpy without noticing. But if we lose these core values and practices, what’s left to give us coherence?
  • I expect we will all need to become more pragmatic and employability-focused about what an English degree might involve. Internship-based modules are becoming common, and rightly so. At Exeter we’re not alone in having introduced modules that directly face the creative industries and digital humanities. Of course changes along these lines may, through unintended consequences, place still more pressure on those core values (above), but I think this is where we’re heading.
  • Student numbers in English are currently in slight decline. I think it will remain a robust discipline, but that’s not to say that the decline will quickly be arrested or reversed. I even wonder whether the small-nation political connotations of ‘English’ as a brand, however much we vociferously contest them, might rankle a little with the Brexit generation (and even more so with international students). In practical terms, I expect departments to close at some (maybe many) universities that do wonderful work but simply lose out in the fierce competition among universities for a limited pool of students.
  • I think we will increasingly find ways of collaborating with other scholars in our discipline across the world. The growth areas for English are not in the UK; they’re in Asia. Many of today’s PhD students may find careers in places they hadn’t expected.
  • Interdisciplinarity will continue to transform the way we do research, especially anything externally funded. The rise of the medical humanities is instructive in this regard. It remains to be seen whether the Global Challenges Research Fund will be as powerful an agent of change, but it’s indicative of changes that today’s early-career researchers would do well to notice.
  • How will we be publishing our research 25 years from now? The monograph has proved astonishingly resilient; certainly a lot more are published now than when I wrote my first one. But the open-access movement, and the availability of digital technologies, really must at some point shake our lives more than they have to date.
  • Finally, I wonder whether academic careers might become more varied and multi-dimensional. In a world where most people change jobs frequently and careers occasionally, academia is an outlier, and our discipline more so than others. This gives us security and continuity, but can also leave us desperately exposed when funding is tight. Given greater levels of openness, especially in relation to the impact agenda and the creative industries, maybe this will change.

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

A global view of the discipline: English studies and the QS international league tables

While most university league tables come and go without cause for comment, some present trends that are impossible to ignore. For me, the recent QS subject-level table for English Language and Literature falls into the latter category. The top-100 list includes fourteen Asian universities, up from three the previous year. All but one of these has moved forward significantly: two have leapt from outside the top-100 into the top 30. South Korea has four universities on the list, having had none before.

For those of us comfortably settled in Anglophone countries, rather assuming that we have a natural disciplinary advantage in this particular discipline, these figures pose some interesting questions. What might they tell us about the way the discipline is perceived internationally? What might they suggest about the future?

Making sense of QS

The QS tables are at the ‘rough and ready’ end of the market, less prestigious than the THE equivalents (which don’t break down to subject level). They’re compiled on three bases: citations, academic reputation, and employer reputation. This year the rise of Asian universities has been the headline across the board. Looking elsewhere in the humanities: in History there are twelve (three new entrants); in Modern Languages there are eighteen, though that’s fairly stable from 2014. (How QS distinguishes between ‘Modern Languages’ and ‘English’, since the latter is a subset of the former in many parts of the world, is another matter.)

How might we explain these trends? The authorized account, put forward in The Guardian report, is that Asian universities are aggressively investing in higher education while the UK is treading water. This is absolutely true. Asian countries (in fact, all sorts of countries apart from the UK) also tend to be more elitist in their funding models, identifying a small number of institutions for enhanced support. If these conditions hold over coming years, it’s almost inconceivable that the overall trend will not continue, and equally inconceivable that the trend for UK universities will be down rather than up.

I wonder whether another explanation for the shifts on the English list might lie in methodological tweaks. (There was certainly something curious happening behind the curtains, as the release of these results was delayed for several weeks.) For instance, might there have been more Asian responses this time to the reputational surveys? Given the size of the Asian population, this would perhaps make sense: and an employer in Beijing is not very likely to list UK English departments as favoured sources of employees. Might there have been more attention, in the citational data, to Asian (and Asian-language) journals? There are a lot of them in our field. Whether these changes are ‘corrections’, ‘over-corrections’, or something else again remains to be seen. But I think it would be foolish to ignore them.

The QS guide to the future

For me, this league table gives us a fascinating glimpse of how our discipline is viewed across the globe. It’s a growing field in many parts of the world: growth fuelled in part by demand for English speakers, and in part by growing signs of interest in what the humanities might offer (as opposed to vocational, science-heavy degrees). My hunch – not entirely without evidence – is that the growth of liberal arts education in Asia could be one of the big international educational trends of the next twenty years. Futhermore, once there’s a critical mass of English departments and academics across the region, it makes sense that they should professionalize in all the usual ways: establish their own journals, conferences, and reputational hierarchies. All of this is happening.

And it should be said that the discipline, in these contexts, looks very familiar. There’s unquestionably considerable emphasis on English language and linguistics in such contexts, as one might expect. But there’s also a consistent attention to more traditional, period-based study of English-language (especially English and American) literature. I’ve visited a few of the Chinese universities on the list and been impressed by the range, ambition and resources. The staff-student ratios at Peking University (number 30 on the QS English list, and bound to rise further) are beyond the wildest dreams of anyone working in the UK.

I know less about South Korea, so I spent some time with websites. There are some substantial, literature-focused departments, on the list, staffed by research-active academics. At Seoul National University the mission-statement begins: ‘The Department of English Language and Literature trains students in English language skills necessary for scholarly research, and provides students with in-depth knowledge of a broad range of subjects in the fields of English linguistics and literature. Students may specialize either in English linguistics or English and American literature.’ Many UK and US departments would be happy to stand behind that.

So what might all this mean for the future of the discipline? It’s interesting to me that, despite a league table listing English departments from all over the world alongside each other, there’s still relatively little engagement between departments in some parts of the world and those in other parts. English literature academics occasionally talk about the discipline ‘on both sides of the Atlantic’, as though this is the extent of it. (As an Aussie, I’ve always found that a bit offensive.) Conceivably this could continue: we could have a discipline fractured into geographical sub-groups, all with their respectable forms of interaction.

But I hope not. The opportunities for creative international engagement, and for refreshing our discipline in the process, are huge. We’ve made some initial steps in this direction at Exeter, and we’re certainly not the only ones doing so. And in my own field of research, some of the work on global Shakespeare is at the cutting-edge of the discipline, using digital technology to forge international dialogues. If ‘English literature and language’ academics on all continents start to move in these directions, looking for ways of collaborating in research and teaching, we all could be in for exciting times.

What are they doing to the English Benchmark Statement?

The QAA is currently in the process of rewriting the English Benchmark Statement, and is calling for comments. So far, though, this news has been met by deathly silence in the corridors of my department. Maybe my colleagues think the QAA will disappear: this, admittedly, is more possible than we might have thought just a few weeks ago. Maybe they just feel that this document has little impact on their lives. I expect I’m in a minority in having read it.

But it seems a significant enough moment in the history of a discipline that is not old, by many standards, and has changed greatly even in my own lifetime. The proposed version will constitute the document’s third edition, replacing the 2000 version (which was lightly revised in 2007). And while the Benchmark Statement was, and remains, a fairly broad and liberal-minded document, it has a significant role in defining what we do to the outside world. ‘Subject benchmark statements,’ in the QAA’s words, ‘describe the nature of study and the academic standards expected of graduates in specific subject areas, and in respect of particular qualifications. They provide a picture of what graduates in a particular subject might reasonably be expected to know, do and understand at the end of their programme of study.’

I like the existing statement. It reflects the discipline as I know and love it. It leaves me with a warm feeling inside. Really. But I’m approaching the proposed version, I think, with an open mind. Change is inevitable: and there’s been an awful lot of change in the discipline and the UK HE sector since 2000.

So: to the document.

Who’s written it?

These things are written by committee. In 2000 there were six academics from (what are now) Russell Group universities, and nine others. This time there were four from the Russell Group and eleven others. So that’s less representation from the elite, while Oxbridge involvement has evaporated entirely (a move that feels a bit like an own-goal). The 2014 group also included non-academics: two QAA officers, an employers’ representative, and a student representative. Signs of the times there.

What do they say has changed?

  • ‘The imminent arrival for the first time of a Creative Writing Benchmark Statement has prompted some revisions.’
  • ‘More emphasis has been placed on the role and value of English within culture and society, and its international scope.’
  • ‘References to generic and subject-specific employability skills have been updated and enhanced, in response to feedback from a range of employers of English graduates.’

What, really, has changed?

  • Size. It’s about 40% shorter. I rather like the wordiness of the existing version, but anyone who’s tried referring to it at open days will attest that a trimming might make it more usable.
  • Words. So which words, in particular, are out, and which words are in?
    • Out go: imagination, problematise, interrogate, acumen, conceptual sophistication, openness of mind.
    • In come: commercial, economic, tourism, relevant to contemporary society.
  • Is it really, then, all about employability? But, before we jump to conclusions, let’s put those shifts into context. As a predominantly outward-facing document, for a £9000 world, fresh emphasis on the place of the discipline in the wider world was inevitable and necessary. And many of the changes strike me as excellent. The ‘graduate and generic skills’ section, for instance, has more bullet-points than 2000 but fewer words, making its powerful case in a concise and readable manner. But the ‘look at how relevant we are’ tone may grate on some readers. The second paragraph of the ‘defining principles’ section is a new statement devoted to our cultural and economic position. We are told, for instance, that: ‘The subject attracts international interest in the UK’s cultural heritage and creative industries, promoting tourism and other economic activity.’ Do we really see this as a ‘defining principle’ of what we do? And the assertion that our graduates can ‘look beyond the immediate task to the wider context, including the social and commercial effects of their work’ is well-meaning, but again perhaps bends over too far to argue for our relevance in the (private-sector) workplace.
  • What are we teaching? The sections on the content of our programmes are substantially consistent with the 2000 version. The fine paragraphs on the ‘nature and scope’ of an English degree, most notably, are barely changed at all. Ditto the commitment to students gaining ‘knowledge of writing from periods before 1800’, of ‘the range of principal literary genres across prose, poetry and drama’, and of the ‘breadth of literatures in English’. But I detect slight shifts of emphasis. There is perhaps a little less concern with interpreting texts in relation to contexts and ‘cultural norms’, and perhaps also rather less commitment to theory. The 2000 claim of ‘ability to interrogate different theoretical positions’, as a ‘generic’ skill, is gone. More explicitly, we lose ‘broad knowledge of the history and development of the English language’, which is surely bowing to undeniable changes across the country.

Conclusion: tourism in, problematizing out

I am of the problematizing generation: it’s what we saw as the business of an English degree. But I accept that times change, and equally that it may not strictly be necessary to wave our jargon around in a benchmark statement. I also accept that we need to be able to demonstrate to future students – and their parents, and their possible employers – how well an English degree will prepare them for the world. We have a story to tell, and we can’t tell it often enough.

So: I think I’d suggest a softening of tone here and there, but I can live with this benchmark statement. Indeed, for a student of texts and their contexts, it seems to me to say a lot about where we are.