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.

 

Let’s pick(et) our battles wisely

VROOMFONDEL: We demand that machine not be allowed to think about this problem!

DEEP THOUGHT: If I might make an observation…

MAJIKTHISE: We’ll go on strike!

VROOMFONDEL: That’s right. You’ll have a national philosophers’ strike on your hands.

DEEP THOUGHT: Who will that inconvenience?

MAJIKTHISE: Never you mind who it’ll inconvenience you box of black legging binary bits! It’ll hurt, buster! It’ll hurt!

     From Fit The Fourth of The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, Douglas Adams.  Broadcast on BBC Radio 4, March 29 1978.


I suspect that this is going to be a contentious post.

Having spent my time on the picket lines over the last eight (non-)working days…

…and last year,

… I am acutely aware of, and deeply sympathetic to, the issues underpinning the strike. The speeches at yesterday’s closing rally — including that from the ever-impressive Lilian Greenwood, Labour MP for Nottingham South (and someone for whom I will again be voting in a week’s time) — brought home the exceptionally precarious and deeply unfair working conditions that so many university employees endure under zero hours contracts. Even Spiked! magazine — whose coverage of universities usually fixates on hysterical fantasies about the infestation of evil, leftist, free-speech-suppressing, no-platforming Cultural Marxists indoctrinating our children — saw fit to publish a rousing article supporting the strikes.

There has similarly been a series of compelling and affecting pieces over the last few weeks that drive home the damage that the ever-accelerating corporatisation and marketisation of our universities is doing to education. One of the more comprehensive analyses I’ve seen is The Seven Deadly Sins of Marketisation in British Higher Education by Lee Jones, Reader in International Politics at Queen Mary University of London. Thoroughly recommended.

But what have these eight days on strike actually achieved?

Yes, I know that we’ve demonstrated a great deal of solidarity and that the time on the picket lines has been morale-boosting (and at least it wasn’t as sodding cold as last year). But still, pragmatically, what did we achieve?

Here at Nottingham, at least, the response from the “powers that be” has been a deafening silence. (And Nottingham’s hardly alone in this.) For many departments, including my own, it’s been business as usual; the car park has been full, lectures and lab sessions went ahead with nary a disturbance, and coursework was dutifully marked and returned to students. This is not to downplay in any way, I hasten to add, the heartening efforts of my UCU colleagues and our incredibly supportive students, including, in particular, those who occupied UoN’s iconic Trent Building…

And I’ve also got to highlight the incredible energy, charisma, and tenacity of Matt Green, the President of Nottingham’s UCU Committee, who has been as outstanding as ever.

But the upshot of our eight day strike is that …drum roll… the UCU is going to call for yet more strikes in January. The argument is that we’ve got to keep the pressure up. But who, exactly, are we pressuring? Or, as Deep Thought puts it in that salient quote that opens this post, who, exactly, are we inconveniencing? We’ve hardly brought senior university management to their knees, have we?

For those who, like me, were on the picket lines — and, indeed, for those who weren’t — ask yourself this: which of the options below hurts the university more? Which is more likely to cause some sleepless nights for the senior executive?

A. An empty seminar room or lecture theatre,

B. A five- or ten-strong picket line chanting at a university entrance,

or,

C. A low score in the National Student Survey/ low league table ranking/ damaging media coverage for their university?

Not only did we have PVCs and other senior staff crossing picket lines with wild abandon, but quite a few union members — and, indeed, some erstwhile union reps — didn’t strike, let alone picket. University management will be well aware of this lack of engagement with the strike either now or when the figures for non-pay in January are returned. They save on the salary bill and they can rest easy that the impact on students’ progression is minimal, at best, and negligible, at worst.

Because what most matters to universities is their brand. If we want to have greater influence and bargaining power I would argue that we have to be a little more canny in our tactics and exploit exactly the corporatisation and marketisation culture we criticise and that underpins the behaviour of the 21st century university. (I’ve written before about the frustrating tendency of the left to not always be entirely cognisant of the value of “optics” and PR.)

Sceptical? Here are a few examples of brand management that might help to make my case…

Along with a number of APM colleagues, I spent six months chasing up a (very modest) honorarium payment for an invited speaker. Six months. The speaker eventually reached the point where, exasperated, she tweeted about the University’s lack of payment to her tens of thousands of followers (tagging in @UniOfNottingham). Within minutes she had a response from UoN, and within days the money was in her account.

Down the road, at Nottingham-Trent University (Guardian University Of The Year 2019), Liz Morrish was subject to disciplinary proceedings when a post hit 10,000 views on Liz’s own blog and trended at the Times Higher website, as described in the article linked in the tweet below.

And Warwick hardly covered itself in glory in this appalling case because they placed their brand management well ahead of students’ safety. That’s how engrained the importance of protecting the university brand can be.

“The top six universities are like the most beautiful cities in the world, reputable even if they have failing ­sewers, arrogant mayors and dodgy no-go areas…A folklore builds up around them, as do money and fans.”

(From Beyond the super-brands, universities are strengthening their positions, Times Higher Education)

So let’s stop trying to repeatedly use the same seventies strategies to attack a 21st century problem. Let’s think a little bit more about what really matters to university managers.

It’s not the students*.

It’s not the staff.

It’s the brand.  


 

* …although it’s certainly the student numbers.