Random Acts Of Selfless Kindness

The piece below features in this week’s Times Higher Education as part of an article entitled “Is these still a place for kindness in today’s harsh academic environment?“. My original title was that above, which is a play on Jack Womack‘s almost criminally overlooked “Random Acts of Senseless Violence“, a cyberpunk-esque tale of a crumbling society. Given the lack of impact of Womack’s meisterwerk, the THE sub-editors were absolutely right to re-title my contribution to the article as “Kicking Against The Me, Me, Me”. And, as ever, the piece was improved immensely by Paul Jump‘s edits. I’m posting my contribution to the article here for those who don’t have a subscription to the THE. 


It’s exactly one month to Christmas Day as I write this. Academics and students alike should be drafting their letters to Santa and looking forward to the festive season after toiling all term in lecture theatres, seminar rooms, workshops and – very occasionally – libraries.

Except that today is also the first day of the latest round of strike action by members of the UK’s University and College Union. This time, the issue isn’t just pensions: the strike is also in protest at pay, equality, casualisation and workloads. But universities’ reactions are familiar from the previous strike in 2018, with reports of draconian measures being taken against not only striking staff but also, unforgivably, students who support them.

It is clear that senior management and rank-and-file staff are unlikely to be on each other’s Christmas card lists this year. Nonetheless, in these days of ever-increasing and ever-more-infuriating corporatisation and depersonalisation of universities, it’s important not to lose sight of the collegiality that still exists, and the sense of community that is fostered when students and staff (of all stripes – from the cleaners to the professoriate) look out for each other.

This has certainly been the case during my 25 years in the University of Nottingham’s School of Physics and Astronomy. Indeed, the often-clueless, metrics-driven management style foisted upon us from on high results in an “us versus them” mentality that only serves to bring us even closer together. I hesitate to use the hoary old Dunkirk spirit cliché, especially in these days of Brexit-inspired Little-Englander fervour, but it certainly captures that sense of fighting back from the chalkface. In solidarity.

It’s the little things that matter most: those seemingly small acts that cultivate a culture of kindness, kicking against the me, me, me of metrics and the tediously relentless pseudostatistics of league tables. I’ve lost count of the number of times that students and staff have gone the extra mile to brighten up someone else’s day, week, month or year. Examples range from the tea-room coordinators who put aside particular fruit, biscuits and cakes because they remember just what each member of staff likes with their beverage of choice for “elevenses” (Anna, we salute you!) to the tutees who turn up with gifts, cards and messages of thanks for their tutor; the anonymous faces in the lecture theatre who take the time to nominate members of staff for various teaching awards; and the graduates who email unexpectedly, years after they finished their degrees, to describe how fondly and gratefully they look back on their time at university.

Sometimes these random acts of kindness make you smile. And other times, I’ve been moved to tears. A couple of years ago, I was in the middle of a phone call when a knock on the door interrupted the conversation.

“Just one second!” I called out, and finished the call as quickly as I could. When I opened the door, there was no one there. But at my feet there was a big box of chocolates and a card containing the simple message: “Thanks for everything”. It was from a student who was severely autistic, with whom I had communicated almost exclusively via email over the years of their degree.

Forget my latest publication, or research grant, or citation count. That simple message meant so much more.

 

’twas the night before Christmas…

Published at the Times Higher Education website Dec 24 2018.

‘Twas the night before Christmas, when, on a paper-strewn desk
A mouse is stirring, a blue-toothed pest…

Dear Santa,

I know I’m well past the deadline to submit this annual report and request, but if you’d seen the sack-full of papers I’ve just finished grading, you’d understand. I’ve been a very good boy over the past twelve months, securing a substantial rise in my Student Evaluation of Excelling in Excellent Performance in Teaching Excellence scores and establishing a new programme of physics-cum-engineering research on a topic of particular interest to your team, viz. Sleighed: Under what loads can reindeer achieve speeds of 100 mph or more? Our sponsor, Mr. Holder, is eagerly awaiting snowfall so we can test the latest developments in our state-of-the-art sleigh technology. The impact component of this case is particularly exciting, and we’re looking forward to rolling out the results in the New Year.         

I very much hope that I make it past the Elf Review Panel this time. As you may recall, the damning report from Relferee #3 was instrumental in my ending up on the Naughty List last Christmas. (Yes, I appreciate that the feedback on that particular piece of student coursework was perhaps less restrained than it could have been. And the relferee was absolutely correct to highlight this. But, in my defence, thirty-nine comma splices in a single paragraph would push anyone over the edge.)

I have followed the sage advice of your elves and have substantially reduced the number of presents requested. While I don’t agree with the elf panel’s suggestion that I was vigorously over-egging the pudding last year, I’ll admit that I was perhaps a little bit too full of Christmas spirit at the time I was writing the letter. (You’ll be pleased to note that the five star doggy hotel holiday for Maxwell, my Maltese, is not on the list this year.)

My 2018 Christmas list is as follows, Santa. Fingers crossed that at least one of these is going to appear below the tree this year. (And no fobbing me off with a subscription to the THE. Again.)

  • 4* Paper Detector. I’ve yet to get a definitive answer from anyone, at any level, in any institution, at any time as to what definitively defines a 4* paper in the Research Excellence Framework. No, it’s not the impact factor of the journal in which it’s published, they’ll say. Nor is it the name of the journal, or its perceived prestige. Nor is it the number of citations. Apparently, it’s all about research quality – the panel members actually read the papers and they know quality when they see it. I need a 4* Paper Detector this year, Santa, so I can see what they see.
  • Corporate-Speak DeBolloxerTMEngaging our stakeholders in innovative synergies, going forward, by expressing our USP in an environment where excellence is paramount ….” Arrrggghh. Make. It. Stop. Please, Santa, I really, really, really need the DeBolloxer this year so that I can translate, into gold old honest-to-goodness English, the torrents of this nonsense that infest and infect my inbox.
  • League Table Legends board game (with all-new Metrics Massager). This is both a fun and educational present, Santa. I’ll be able to learn all about the bells, whistles, tricks, and japes that make university league tables such an exciting part of the higher education landscape. Choose a university and manage it to maximise its league table ranking! No need to bother with all that old school 20th century stuff like trusting staff and providing an environment in which they can flourish. No, just rely on massaging the metrics until they bleed – so much more entertaining.
  • “When I Were A Lad…” box-set. (A total of 48 two hour DVDs, each narrated by Jordan B. Peterson, Professor of Psychology at the University of Toronto, in his own inimitable style.) I’ve got to be honest, Santa, this one’s not for me. It’s instead a gift for one of my somewhat more jaded and knackered colleagues who, despite all evidence to the contrary, points to those halcyon days of yore when men were real men, women were real women, and students would rise at dawn to do triple integrals, vector calculus, and eigenvalue problems before breakfast, all the while debating the merits of a Keynesian approach to fiscal policy as they composed their latest symphony.

Yours in anticipation,
Philip (aged 50)
School of Physics and Astronomy, University of Nottingham, UK