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.

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

‘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.

‘Hey boss, where’s my research day?’

Whenever I look to weeks ahead in my diary I keep an eye on two things: whether I can get to the swimming pool a couple of times, and whether I have a ‘research day’. The research day is an interesting convention. It’s not in any academic contract I’ve ever encountered, nor is it factored formally into any workload model I’ve seen, yet many of us (especially in the humanities) see it as a right.

I want to think about the research day here, and propose something that may initially feel retrograde but seems to me worth saying. I wonder, in short, whether our fixation on a research day is helpful. In particular, I wonder whether it may exacerbate stress: that sense that there’s never enough time to do our jobs. All the evidence suggests that that’s not getting any less of a problem at Exeter; indeed nothing worries me more about my department than the reported levels of stress. So stick with me; I’m on your side.

Let’s start with an English professor’s mathematics. Our workload model says that an academic on a standard ‘education and research’ contract, without grant funding, should be devoting 25% of his/her time to research. Actually that’s quite a lot when one considers that roughly 85% of our income comes from students’ fees. One might expect the students would want us spending more time in the classroom; in fact, though, we asked them about this when the fees were increased, and they accept the arguments for allowing education income to subsidize research. Up to a point, anyway.

So, if a lecturer is working the standard year of 220 x 7.5-hour days (which is what the research councils tell us we do – 1650 hours – so who’s to argue?), that means that our employer expects 55 days of research per year of us. Now, if this lecturer takes a research day each week of 2 x 12-week teaching terms, and another research day in each of six weeks otherwise devoted to preparation and marking, that gets him/her to 30 days. Then there are another fourteen working weeks: let’s say s/he focuses on research through those, but takes one day per week for teaching and/or administration. That, then, is another 56 days. So s/he is devoting 86 days (39% of the 220) to research.

And what about research leave? Old expectations of rotas may have broken down (in some places, old expectations of research leave itself have broken down), but let’s just say that this lecturer gets six months of research leave once in four years. This means 110 days devoted to research, which we might add to the 301 days from the other 3.5 years in the cycle. That’s 411 days out of 880 in a four year period, or 46%. And that’s before we factor in grants.

I accept that these figures are artificial. I accept also that not many academics work as little as 220 x 7.5-hour days; although I’m not so sure whether we overwork (i.e. exceed what our workload model expects of us) more on teaching or research. I suspect we do a bit of each. But I think my point, which is simple enough, stands. I’d be very surprised if I had a single colleague who was not working the days of research expected – and funded – by our employer.

Therefore (and here’s the point), if there are weeks in term-time when the pressures of preparation and marking are intense, why should we worry about spending that prized ‘research day’ catching up on teaching duties? Some people do worry; they’ve told me. Why not think about the twelve-month period – the four-year period, even – and remind ourselves that actually we’re doing ok? And if that sounds like a head of department urging his colleagues not to work so hard, maybe that’s exactly what it is. All the evidence suggests that many of us work too hard.

Objections? Somone will say: ‘but I can’t afford to drop my research in term-time’. Well, that’s not what I’m suggesting: we all need to devote some time to research during the term, but maybe not that whole day every week. Someone else will say: ‘it’s alright for you, but how am I going to get promoted if I don’t stack up the publications?’ That’s a tougher question, but I genuinely believe that quality matters more than quantity when decisions about promotion are made. And I also believe that it should be possible to produce quality, in sufficient quantity, in the time that we are allotted. The REF asks for four items in six years; how many of us produce significantly more than that?

And someone else again will say: ‘but I like working more than 1650 hours in a year, and I want to publish more than four items every six years’. Actually, I suspect quite a lot of us would say that; we’re fortunate, most of us, in having jobs we enjoy. But there’s always a risk that our pleasure becomes our default pastime, and our default pastime becomes our source of stress. This is one reason why I look, when perusing my diary, not just for the research day but equally for the sessions in the swimming pool.

And finally another voice will say: ‘What planet are you on, buddy? I haven’t been able to take a research day all term.’ That’s the response I fear most of all, because it’s not easy to fix, but it would be helpful to hear it.

This is why I’ve been heard to mutter about ‘the myth of the research day’. It’s a prevalent myth, and on the whole an attractive one. But it’s important to recognize it for what it is – one model for balancing our different responsibilities – and to be prepared to put it in a wider context of workload management.

Thoughts? Mathematical corrections?

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.