This is a brief (ish) reflection on the joys and trials of being a Principal Lecturer and Programme Lead as I come, I think, to the end of my service in the role. Trigger Warning: contains opera lyrics, I’m afraid.
Starting from First Principles, from Values, and while for me this is Oxford Brookes, the lovely and infuriating and supportive and dismissive organisation that has been my work home since I moved from being a Headteacher in 2002, I don’t think I am alone in education in any phase or sector in the joys or the frustrations I’ve met with. As an aside, I’ve only just seen this piece in the local press: my comment on leaving Bartlemas bear a striking resemblance to what I am about to say here! This link, in any case, takes us to the Brooks strategy and vision of the University: https://www.brookes.ac.uk/about-brookes/strategy/strategy-2020/ and I’ll pick out some important ideas.
…committed to leading the intellectual, social and economic development of the communities it serves…
We will continue to enhance the value – and the perception of value – of our social as well as educational mission…
Oxford Brookes University will provide an exceptional, student-centred experience which is based on both internationally significant research and pedagogic best practice. We will build on a tradition of distinction in academic, professional and social engagement to enhance our reputation as a university which educates confident citizens characterised by their generosity of spirit.
This is fine stuff, but perhaps I would amend it to warn against the rise of what Paul Gilbert referred to recently as “non-compassionate processes.” There has to be room – as Helena Mitchell and I are pointing out in a forthcoming chapter – for compassion and self-reflection as a way of cutting through what one writer calls the ‘semantic mess’ of educational values.
It would be easy to cite some of the less compassionate processes, and the UK is not alone in seeing managerial/administrative creep introduce these to the cost of staff and (very possibly) student experience. Say this to many public-sector (or quasi-public-sector) workers and a car parking debate will not be far behind. I will not dwell on the negatives, in case it looks like I am giving up the role out of pique, which is emphatically not the case. Instead I want to think about three phrases from my quotation above. Let me put the first two together as parts of the same idea:
Leading the intellectual, social and economic development of the communities it serves…our social as well as educational mission.
The Programme Lead is really responsible for a rather odd set of tasks that make up a bigger picture – not so much a mosaic as an anthill of duties of various sizes: performance development review; watching over quality returns of all sorts; chairing meetings, sitting in others; teaching and supervising; that knock in the door or the call that says “can you just…”; selling the programmes from first enquiry to beyond graduation… It is sometimes hard to see how the little tasks fit with the grand schemes, especially the aspirational stuff about leading social development and student-centredness. Gregory the Great (d 604) complained of the tensions and the perils of the distracted (Pope or Programme Lead) have not lessened, as the Barber of Seville noted:
Tutto mi chiedono, tutti mi vogliono,
tutti mi chiedono, tutti mi vogliono,
Qua la parruca, presto la barba, presto il biglietto, ehi!
Where does coffee fit? The chat on the bus? The head round the door to “just check…”? How do I find time to further the grand purpose when I have these minutes to review? Or how does tine management becomes so lacking in compassion? Or how might I discern an ethical aspect to these procedural tasks?
Uno alla volta,
A university which educates confident citizens characterised by their generosity of spirit.
It’s interesting to see the parallels between this statement from Oxford Brookes and Geoff Taggart whose vision for the Early Years is that “Compassionate pedagogy seeks to nurture children who are vocal, capable citizens as well as secure, well-adjusted people.” In the same way, at Brookes we educate [sc “people to be”] confident citizens in the midst of what some have described as a Mental Health epidemic. Is an academic a Canute, failing to hold back the tide? I would argue not, despite growing calls for better engagement from academic staff with the mental health of students, although I do think Paul Gilbert’s warning about processes that are “non-compassionate” is worth remembering: to redress the balance in what are potentially non-compassionate situations we need “intentionality and commitment:” vague notions are not enough. What struck me most, in a personally significant, moving (and manic) few days in May, was the Compassionate Mind conference in which leaders in all sorts of sectors were united in a plea to return to first principles, to re-examine practices and attitudes that were toxic: overworking; rising levels of stress-related illness; the extra hour’s emails when you get home… Generosity of spirit can feel a bit like a drive to work harder and harder, from a position in which the individual is the slacker. If our first principles include generosity, we must consider emotional and physical wellbeing as key to that, and leaders (including Programme Leads) have to see that generosity includes gentleness, and role-modelling concern. If “what will survive of us is love” (a line I cited earlier but with added poignancy as I start to pack up) then it starts now or more likely should’ve started years ago, before the packing boxes, or crisply worded email or the exasperated comment, or receiving these and storing them away (yes, Nick, that means you – and yes, St Benedict thought this all over in Ch 4 of the Rule centuries ago…) or even the setting up of the shiny new system for this or that: its chrome plating does not guarantee its ethical worth. Gosh, that was a long sentence! I think very often- and this year or two in particular- I have seen (like I have never seen before) where love and compassion are, and where they are not, in my own work life. Partly, where they are not are in the internal and external drivers that make me feel bad when I cannot deliver. Where they are, are among the trees on my lovely campus, green places, the student whose need or query I can meet, the quiet (or not-so-quiet) time with friends, the mind-stretching afternoon thinking through research. Wild Spaces, Wild Magic has to have a mention here – and brings me to my leaving.
While this song does go through my head from time, this
Notte e giorno faticar
per chi nulla sa gradir;
piova e vento sopportar,
mangiar male e mal dormir!
Voglio far il gentiluomo,
e non voglio più servir…
is not really me… A gentleman – even of leisure- doesn’t seem to suit me, although the old designation of Gentleman Scholar would be fine. I think I am sorted enough in my going that I will not be an Independent Scholar, at least, a phrase that reminds me of the Abbot in Brian Moore’s Catholics, adrift and alone, prelatus nullius, nobody’s prelate. As Julie Fisher has said “Independent Learning is not Abandoned Learning” – and I hope my plans for reserach and writing are the same. Not to see Thursbitch again would be painful.
But since I’ve launched into one other language, and while the clouds lower over this blog, here is the gloomy Chorus from the end of Anouilh’s Antigone:
Et ceux qui vivent encore vont commencer tout doucement à les oublier et à confondre leurs noms.
Finished. This is the greatest fear, I guess, of humanity, and it does, in some way, strike me as I write this: the fear of being asked “Who are you?” when one expected to be recognised. Will I continue to contribute or merely haunt? The revenant in stories usually has some name, whether (in my family) their vision is now reckoned as beatific (it’s his feast day as I write this section and I will confess I have always wanted the hat he wears) or something less rewarding. The notion is that these spirit-presences at least are not forgotten…
Let’s not end there. Let’s search for another, livelier, image. More from Don Giovanni?
Finch’han dal vino
calda la testa,
una gran festa
Or is that too out-of-context, too frenetic? There is no “great feast” but maybe there are friends and people without whose love and support my world would be a greyer place… and maybe a beer or two. I’m back from the greyer thoughts of leaving to the much richer remembering how lovely these last few years have been, genuinely connecting with people whose love and friendship sustain me. To move away from grand opera to Gershwin:
They can’t take that way from me.
I’ll end by reflecting on the title of the blog. I started from core beliefs and values, and nothing has exemplified how easy it is to lose that vision of “enhancing the value – and the perception of value – of our social as well as educational mission” than the criticism that a student-initiated project on Mental Health was “not Brookes Branded” and “untidy.” I won’t rant, but since this has been so much about music, here is a piece of beautiful, lively, moving – and tidy – music. A bit of Bach never comes amiss. And here is something else – also moving, well-thought-out, heartfelt, beautiful, but much less tidy: Vaughan Williams in a piece I’d like to think of as the soundtrack to walking to Thursbitch. Is tidiness per se part of the University mission (I don’t just mean Oxford Brookes)? Does corporate image drown out how we relate to the individuals? Does single spacing in a Programme Handbook serve to advance or inhibit student satisfaction?
We might argue that tidiness allows for things and people to know where their best chance of flexibility lies, and that untidiness makes for reaction-led work, chasing around stables locking the doors. I think this has been my problem for some time, and I also think that reactionism is maybe where UK Higher Ed finds itself at the moment on student and staff mental health, but as we contemplate shaving down resources, focussing on core business, we must go back to the core ideals of “exceptional, student-centred experience.” And I have come to realise that student-centredness has to include the open ear, the compassionate stop in the cafeteria, the smile… and it starts with the people who work in Higher Education, just as it does in Early Years: it comes down to genuine interest in Nursery and Reception and it comes down to it in seminars and classes at Oxford Brookes, too. Buzz-phrases to finish with then: I stand up for relational pedagogy and compassionate pedagogy wherever I may find them, hand-in-hand as they must be, and will continue to do so.