Rambles around computer science

Diverting trains of thought, wasting precious time

Fri, 28 May 2021

Role again

Sorry for the pun. Yes, it's supposed to be about rolling the dice. I've recently(-ish) handed in my notice here at the University of Kent. In July I'll be starting a new job (the same job, but) at King's College London.

The reasons for the move are primarily personal. Of course, that doesn't mean they are unrelated to work... in academic jobs especially, work is personal.

The move is not a promotion. In terms of accumulating money and status, if anything it will probably slow me down. So, it's just as well that those are not what motivate me.

What does motivate me? In work terms, my strongest motivation is to make progress with my research. In career terms, it's to find a home, metaphorically speaking. I will leave behind at Kent many great colleagues, and an institution that I'll remain fond of on many levels. Still, ultimately I had to admit that Canterbury didn't feel like home, and neither did the institution.

It would be wrong not to regard that as a failure. Both institution and city have many home-like qualities. I have failed to turn them into an actual home. I've also failed to repay the confidence of the institution and the senior colleagues, who invested in me on the promise that I would do so. I don't feel great about all this. Being an engineer, occasionally a scientist, I suppose I shouldn't mind failing when it teaches me something. But I prefer to succeed... and although I've learned a lot, I'm not sure it amounts to enough for me to succeed next time.

What I do know is that for most of my time in the job I've been putting a cheery face on an unhappy existence. Even before the pandemic, my move to Kent had coincided with both work and life generally becoming a lot less fun and a lot more stressful. My research usually felt like it was barely moving forwards. That does likely owe partly to my incompetence, sloth and/or feebleness of constitution. However, although I was once slapped down for saying it, I'll say it again: the teaching load has been unquestionably high. That's not a function of the number of lectures per year so much as of less quantifiable factors: the huge amount of direct contact with students (often with few TAs to absorb this), the poor design of admin processes (academics are not removed from the loop to anything like the extent they could be), and a heavy reliance on coursework and the like. (There's more; I'll save the complete list for another time.) The kinds of work that give me satisfaction are not just research—they do also include giving good lectures and explaining stuff to students. But in all cases, the satisfying kinds of work have been a small part of what I do, and the ones that feel most squeezed by other things. In all this, the institution has more often felt like an adversary than an ally. I really hadn't been expecting to apply for jobs elsewhere—my tentatively planned “drastic life change” was something like “move to Whitstable”—but when the pandemic hit, my ties to the institution felt weak. The noises coming out of the central university ‘management’ left me feeling more alienated than ever. Suddenly, moving seemed like the right thing.

Will I enjoy things better at King's? Obviously I think there's a chance. It's difficult to feel certain though. While the University of Kent has been going through an especially rough patch lately, no UK university is in great shape. My impression is that the marketisation of HE has been particularly unkind to Kent—an institution born in the optimistic sixties, and firmly of a plucky-yet-small character. It's located in the corner of a wider region not short of powerful “competitors”. Historically, public policy gave institutions room to carve out their own niche, amid an environment of only gradual change. Since the nineties but especially in the last ten years, politicians have cast aside stability and artificially induced competition. To understand the present, you can do worse than look back twenty years and recognise the glacial forces in action. Kent's Research Strategy from 1999 tells the story of those times: despite working harder and doing better, government policy had already placed it on the side of the curve that is deemed to deserve less, in a misguided belief that induced struggle would lead to a better-functioning institution. It hasn't.

Staying with the history theme, I enjoyed reading Graham Martin's account of the University of Kent's first twenty-five years, “From Vision to Reality”. Those years included an especially high-minded first fifteen followed by an apparently strong showing in the next ten, even when university budgets were coming under a big squeeze under Thatcher. Someone still needs to write the next book, covering 1990 onwards, which I would love to read. Somehow, those thirty years somehow went from pragmatic getting-by to a battle for survival. A (very) senior colleague from another department mentioned that when he had started as a lecturer, for undergraduate applicants Kent was “a viable second choice to Oxbridge”. Some of its sibling “plate-glass” institutions, such as York and Warwick, have consolidated that status... Kent definitely has not. I don't know when or whether a change occurred, and perhaps the memory is a little rose-tinted. (I'm curious about what happened around 1994 in the graph on page 11 of a little report I wrote, where the research indicators started going down... not clear it can be explained simply by sudden competition from ex-polytechnics. In any case the data is noisy.)

Another major factor for me has been that Canterbury, although charming, is a small place. I tend to like smallish places and was feeling pretty optimistic when I moved. In hindsight I should have foreseen that there is a world of difference between Cambridge and Canterbury. Not only is Canterbury half the size population-wise, it has less than half of the cultural activity. In fairness, that is mainly because Cambridge punches far above its population-weight on that. Canterbury is a fine place if you're a family type, and it's great for countryside, coastline and lazy weekend charm. For a thirtysomething single person who wants culture and social life, it's not the best. London is just far enough away to be an exertion. Back when concerts were a thing that happened, I lost count of the times I pencilled in my diary “maybe go to London to see X” on some weeknight, but just wasn't up for the trip. Reverse-commuting from London might be a better option, but that entails the double-whammy of London housing costs on a non-London salary. Big-city living doesn't appeal much to me in any case. (I've already moved back to Cambridge, and will become some kind of “part-time commuter” for my King's job.)

Ironically, the university itself is surely a place where its educated thirtysomethings could find community. But the idea that academic staff can expect to find not just “work” but also community in their jobs is increasingly alien. At the departmental level, we in “Computing” (I still hate that name) do very well at being a friendly and sociable bunch. But more widely in the university there are few footholds available. (To an extent, students at Kent also seem to get siloed by subject, which can't be good.) The relatively small numbers of PhD students and research staff at Kent also means there isn't a “long tail” to the age demographic, which might organically mix together lecturer with postdoc with graduate student with undergraduate. Such an organic long tail is of course something Cambridge thrives on... in addition to a considerable institutional culture of community-building. (In Canterbury, as I guess at most “normal” institutions, institutionally provided booze does nor pour forth to anywhere near the same extent.) In former times at Kent, I imagine that the Colleges would have provided something of these kinds of community, though they appear not to done that for some decades now. In fact rumour has it that “they never worked”... but I've also seen evidence that they once worked a lot more than they do now. The closest I get to feeling part of a wider university community is in union meetings, where I am reminded that I do have peers in the wider university, but we're all exhausted by our jobs. Indeed I'm sure I could have made a better go of things socially in Canterbury if I'd had more energy to spare.

Despite all that, I am seeing a few green shoots at Kent. In the new School-in-Division structure, we have better availability of certain kinds of support staff. At the very top of the institution there is a potentially leaner and more academic-focused structure including several fresh faces. The Senate is once again (just about) a majority-academic body that is starting to rediscover its voice. The university is unfailingly keen to reassert itself as a still-“excellent” research university, even if ‘management’ knowledge of how to do so seems patchy. In Computing I am seeing (unscientifically) a small increase in the average quality of our undergraduate applicants. We may even have made headway against the chronic understaffing and duplication of teaching work that have overloaded us during the few years I've been around. That's all good.

However, in common with many institutions, I also see signs of the opposite: the still-expanding reach of an entrenched managerialism, poor judgement in treatment of staff and finances, an ever-increasing culture of top-down decision-making, the creep of corporate culture at the expense of the academic, and an increasing disconnect between ‘management’ and the academic staff who carry out the mission of the institution. Just as some ‘management’ want to get more serious about research, so the same people seem to view this simply as a way to make academics raise an ever-greater share of the funds behind their own jobs. All UK universities are subject to these or similar forces right now. My pessimistic take is that our universities are managing to preserve academic values only to the extent that they preserve academic self-governance and self-administration—that is to say, hardly at all. Even in Cambridge, where academics have both a culture of pushing back and some mechanisms for doing so, it felt to me much like the option take up a cudgel while the artillery rains down. It's unlikely it does more than fractionally slowing the institution's progress in the sector-wide race to the bottom. That helps to preserve its advantage, but doesn't make for a well-functioning institution.

So, in my new job at King's, the most reasonable expectation is an institution with a somewhat different selection of faults. I have to roll the dice and hope that what turns up is a better fit for me personally. It's also a chance to think more strategically about what I want to do with my limited time on this planet. The past few years have been a blur. I've tried to keep too many plates spinning, with the result that all of them are teetering if they're not already on the floor. My health and self-confidence have suffered too. I'd been considering Kent the only roll of the academic dice that I was likely to get, so I'm feeling fortunate to get another one. I mustn't waste it by plodding on with “more of the same”.

I will have to let go of some of my research avenues, so that the others might actually lead somewhere. I need to focus on the ones where I'm most likely to make a difference to the world over the course of a longer stretch of my career. It takes courage to adopt a longer-term view. I will need to care less about covering my backside on short-term “impact” or “track record” issues. In caring less, I will likely trade away short-term productivity for the potential longer-term... so will probably close myself off from future rolls of the dice. I therefore need to make sure that my long-term plan can actually deliver.

I will need to be more ruthless in protecting time for the things that are important, and organising my so-called (work) life a bit more selfishly around what works for me. If I do this right, I will sadly be a less generous colleague who more often does a poor job of certain less important things. This brings an emotional cost; I enjoy doing a good job of things, even the unimportant ones, and am averse to disappointing people.

Another way to see that is that I need to choose the strategically better flavour of disappointment, and get used to it. I have repeatedly let my mind and schedule become overwhelmed by admin, teaching, marking, service, and making myself available to others. That's not a statement of how generous I am, but of how limited my capacity for those things really is. Recently it has become self-defeating, and I've been disappointing myself and others in what really matters—research very much included. It's been a downward spiral that has limited my ability to function in general. The lesson seems to be that in this job you need to declare bankruptcy early. Bad feeling is guaranteed in some form or other. I need to do what is in my own interests, and be hard-nosed about that.

“Nose of steel” is not one my attributes. And more generally, although I consider myself a natural “classic” academic, I'm still not entirely convinced that modern academia really is where my vocation lies, or should lie. I am especially resistant to shaping myself into the mould of “fundraiser–manager”—increasingly the presumed template for “science” academics, in the eyes of universities and funders and governments. Although it might make sense in bench sciences, it is a poor fit both for the work I do and for me personally.

Despite all that, the academic role is emphatically not one thing, to the point that generalisations quickly get annoying. The regrettable “winners and losers” political set-up amplifies even more the extent to which the “same job” can be radically different for different people and situations. It also means that change is possible. It seems worth one more roll.

[/highered] permanent link contact

Powered by blosxom

validate this page