The need to address academic bullying

Posted September 4, 2018 by universitydiary
Categories: university

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In my 38 years of management in higher education – in roles from Department Head and Faculty Dean to President/Principal – one of the most difficult tasks has been to confront those few people who were bullies and who were targeting more vulnerable or less powerful colleagues. Bullying is of course not unique to universities, but it can be particularly difficult to address in the academy, because it can appear to be tied up with academic freedom and intellectual autonomy.

It could be argued that this is connected with a wider problem in universities, in that academic discourse is occasionally conducted in an aggressive tone, because it is thought appropriate to defend intellectual positions in a robust manner. It is not too difficult for robust argument to morph into personal aggression. When this is experienced by someone in a more junior or vulnerable position than that enjoyed by an aggressor it quickly turns into bullying, and moreover can become a pattern rather than an incident.

The journal Nature recently published a commentary by an American professor in which she suggested that personal bullying can be an issue in science laboratories in particular, where postgraduates, postdocs and junior academics can be dependent career-wise on lab supervisors, and thus may not only be subjected to aggressive behaviour but may also find it hard or even impossible to resist or escape from the situation. And of course one would have to ask why they should be expected in the first place to escape in order to experience appropriate working conditions.

It is right to call time on academic cultures that subject people to personal distress. And it is right to emphasise that no amount of academic freedom can justify the mistreatment of colleagues. Each university should have not only a policy on this but also mechanisms to protect the vulnerable, and evidence to show that these mechanisms are taken seriously and work.

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The academic life – student emails

Posted August 27, 2018 by universitydiary
Categories: higher education, society

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When I began any lecturing career in 1980, in the days before the internet or even mobile phones, it would have been totally impossible for a student to reach me outside of normal working hours. By the time my active teaching came to an end (in 2000), I was beginning to get both emails and phone calls into the night; though this was still a relatively rare thing, and almost always the students were polite when they reached me.

It became clear to me how much had changed when a colleague from another institution contacted me recently to ask me for advice, as he was seriously stressed with the number of student emails he was receiving; in particular because many of these were, he claimed, insistent in nature. He showed me some of the offending messages, and indeed it might almost be said that a small number of them adopted a bullying tone.

It’s not a unique problem, and some academics – such as here – have suggested guidelines for responding to student emails. One has to strike the right balance of course. Higher education teaching and learning is an interactive process, and we should not be discouraging students from using contemporary methods of communication. Universities should be student-centred institutions.

Equally learning how to use emails or other online tools appropriately should be part of the student experience, and academics should not be hesitant to point out where it is not being done to good effect or in an offensive manner. Students, like everyone else, may not always realise how their online communications come across to the reader.

But those academics who become stressed by their experience should do what my friend did: contact someone who can advise and perhaps offer practical help. Responding irritably or even aggressively is almost certainly never a good idea. Get help.

Oh very young

Posted August 22, 2018 by universitydiary
Categories: culture, music, society

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At a recent meeting with some students I was admiring the close coordination between two of them as they explained an issue to me, and complimented them by saying they were the Simon and Garfunkel of the gathering. They, and indeed everyone else, looked blank, and I suddenly realised that no one there knew what I was talking about.

I was reminded of this when I read the latest ‘mindset list‘ of things that today’s young people do not know or have not experienced, or in some matters take for granted. I rather think that my generation in particular always thought that our experiences and cultural preferences defined the age, not just for us but for younger generations sharing the planet with us. But we kid ourselves, and those of us who still manage to stay with the times do so because we have become followers rather than leaders in these matters. What was modern in the 1970s definitely no longer is.

But I will say this. I was surprised, and still am, that no one at my gathering admitted to knowing Simon and Garfunkel. If they had claimed the same ignorance of the Beatles or the Rolling Stones, or Elton John, or Rod Stewart, or even Cat Stevens, I might not have believed them. Our music at least is still out there somewhere in 2018, as the music of 1918 most definitely was not in 1968. We win on that one.

But overall, our influence is here today and gone tomorrow. And that goes for today’s youth too.

Oh very young, what will you leave us this time
You’re only dancin’ on this earth for a short while-
Oh very young, what will you leave us this time?

Changes

Posted August 14, 2018 by universitydiary
Categories: university

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Almost exactly 40 years ago I was sitting my final undergraduate examinations in Trinity College Dublin. In those days the finals were in September, which made it really difficult for some who needed their results rather earlier when making job applications. Anyway, I had, very late in the day, decided to pursue an academic career, and from TCD went on to do a PhD in Cambridge. I then returned to Dublin and became a lecturer in Trinity College. And on from there.

Those of you who read the North-East Scotland media will already know that, with effect from the end of this month, I shall be leaving my position as Principal and Vice-Chancellor of Robert Gordon University, a post I have held since March 2011. In fact I have spent nearly half my academic career leading two universities consecutively. That’s probably long enough.

However, I shall not be losing interest in the academy, and am already doing work for two books I am intending to write. And this blog will continue. But as I look back, what perhaps strikes me most is that my career never followed a predictable path. I left school in 1972, not intending to go to university at all. After two years in employment, I changed my mind, and went to TCD, intending to be a barrister. As an academic, I expected to be a researcher (and was for a while), but became a university leader instead. There is no such thing as a reliable career plan, and indeed this is more true now than it was then. And for me, there may be one more opportunity to do something completely different. We’ll see.

Transport and social mobility

Posted August 6, 2018 by universitydiary
Categories: society, technology

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As we head into the next wave of technology-driven social and economic change, it is worth asking whether we always focus on the most important elements of such change. Looking at at the impact of previous and current industrial revolutions, it seems to me that the key drivers of change have always been information and mobility. The printing press opened the previously closed world of scholarship and learning to a much wider social group – potentially to everyone – while the railways introduced physical mobility, thereby effectively ending the feudal system. In particular, mass transport introduced the growth of urbanisation.

As we survey the momentum of change associated with big data, robotics and automation, we sometimes forget that transport and mobility will also be key drivers of social and economic change in this next industrial revolution. But government planners are remarkably unimaginative about this: generally it is planning around faster trains, bigger airport runways – essentially improvements in existing frameworks of transport infrastructure. Other preoccupations are, understandably, focused on technology to reduce or remove polluting emissions.

But if the 18th and 19th century railways enabled people to make more autonomous choices about where they would live and work, and if that was a key to economic re-positioning at the time, what will be the equivalent in the next phase of human development? To get to the right destination, we need to do more than just tweak or slightly modernise the systems we have now. We need to ask questions of social policy, about what kind of mobility will enhance the quality of life and the generation of fairly distributed wealth, and how that can be delivered. More importantly, we need to decide what social and technological research should start now to make that possible in the near future.

The era of aggressive obsessions

Posted July 31, 2018 by universitydiary
Categories: politics, society

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Those of us – and I know this includes me – who spend too much time on certain social media platforms come to witness one thing very quickly: that we live in an age of irate obsession. This hit me very starkly on my most recent holiday, which was in South Carolina. The state is historical and very beautiful, and Charleston in particular is one of my very favourite cities in all the world; I may publish some photos from there presently.

But South Carolina is also the reddest of red states in the US. ‘Red’ in America does not have the same connotation that it has in Europe. It refers to the colour of the Republican Party. The Democrats are blue, and so, to take an example, Massachusetts is a ‘blue state’.

Back to the red South Carolina. The state has voted Republican in 13 of the last 14 national elections. In 2016 Donald Trump got 1,155,389 votes here, compared with Hillary Clinton’s 855,373. But while that was a solid majority for the current US President, Clinton’s share still came to over 40 per cent of the vote.

But within these camps, the tone is becoming more and more divisive. Like elsewhere in the US, success within a political division now increasingly depends on aspiring politicians moving as far away from the centre as possible. Just before I arrived there, a long-standing South Carolina Republican Congressman, Mark Sanford, lost the local primary election to an enthusiastic Trump supporter; he had not been wholly obsequious to his President, and so he found that political moderation did not pay. In neighbouring Georgia there is a Republican candidate for Governor who boasts that he owns a truck so he can personally round up illegal immigrants, and he has been running a television advertisement ‘in which he points a double-barreled shotgun at a teenage boy asking to go on a date with one of his daughters.’

It’s not all on one side: in New York the long term Congressman Joe Crowley has just been ousted by the self-proclaimed socialist,¬†Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. She is young, inspiring, charismatic – but certainly not seeking out the political centre.

Of course this centrifugal political tendency is not just in evidence in America, though the rhetoric there is particularly stark. It’s all over us everywhere, including the UK (where it’s all mostly about people aiming abuse at those who disagree with them about Brexit) and much of Europe. In fact, just not being on the high-volume off-centre edge of the spectrum itself qualifies you for abuse right now, as the ‘centrist dad’ epithet illustrates.

Is this all a product of the social media era? Have we all become locked into our echo chambers in which we can only compete with others by out-shouting their tirades of anger? Is this the inevitable grade inflation of indignation and outrage in which there are only totally right and abominably wrong opinions, with nothing in between? Is this the era in which obsession has moved from stamp collecting into politics (and everything else) while also acquiring the garments of visceral anger, often over nothing much in particular? And has this been transferred into our lives more generally, so that we can only ever either adore or despise people?

In America I watched some of the news networks, and watched how everyone was really only articulate when expressing hatred of someone or something. Surely, surely there must be some way of extracting ourselves from this madness.

Linguistic pedantry

Posted July 17, 2018 by universitydiary
Categories: society

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Every so often when I feel moved to correct someone’s English (and I’m not really proud that I do this at all), I usually apologise quickly and point out that English is my second language. I learnt it at school, and with it the relatively few rules of grammar that come with the language but which almost none of its native speakers seem to know these days.

So, when I encourage people to use the subjunctive in appropriate settings I only get blanks looks. I recently also drew a blank when I suggested that, in a particular sentence, the indefinite article would be better than the definite article. You get the idea. But then I remember that English evolved by use and custom and that, until recently, rules of spelling and grammar were not really common or accepted. Really, I should just shut up.

But occasionally there are things that just annoy me, not always for easily understandable reasons. For example, I despair at the increasingly common mistake of saying ‘with regards to’ when the speaker is not referring to presenting his or her best wishes to someone. It should of course always be ‘with regard to’, without the trailing ‘s’. And of course there is everyone’s bugbear, the inability of far too many people to distinguish between ‘its’ and ‘it’s’.

But as I said, the English language is constantly evolving. Does it therefore need grammar at all? Or does grammar still serve a purpose, that of facilitating accurate communication?