Posted tagged ‘communication’

Please talk

July 23, 2008

Earlier this year I had the privilege of being present to support the launch by all the Irish universities of the ‘Please Talk‘ campaign. The purpose of this is to encourage students to talk to their friends, family, counsellors and faculty about any problems they may have. For many, a university can be a lonely place; before they get to us, they will usually have been in a school setting where much more attention is paid to them individually, and where social networks are highly developed. But when they get to university, they are expected to be self-motivated and autonomous; many thrive in that environment, but for some the transition is difficult.

Even later in their studies, some students may find that they are facing worries or concerns – whether in their studies or in their personal lives – that become a burden for them. The ‘Please Talk’ campaign aims to make them aware of how they can access people who will be able to offer them support and listen to their problems and issues. 

In fact, not long after arriving in DCU I took the view that being accessible to those who need help is a vital part of my role also. Every year I write a letter to all incoming undergraduate students to reassure them that if they need advice and support they will have access to help, and inviting them to email me directly if they are unsure about whom to contact. A number of them do, and I am usually able to get them in touch with someone who can help – or else I will talk to them myself. Similarly, university staff with personal issues get priority in my calendar.

My point here is not to suggest that I am doing anything special – it’s just my job. Rather, it is that we all still need the personal assurance that someone is always willing to talk with us and to support us during difficult times. Large organisations – and all universities are large organisations – have special responsibilities not to let anyone get lost in the system and find themselves in despair.

So, to be true to my claims, my email address is president@dcu.ie. Please talk.

Going online

July 19, 2008

Today marks the 20th anniversary of my very first email. I used a friend’s computer (mine wasn’t ‘online’ and wouldn’t be for two more years), and to ensure that the person I was addressing would actually read what I was writing, I had to call her first to tell her the email was coming and to get her in turn to seek out a computer that could receive it. She then rang me to confirm she had received it and to ask if I had seen her reply. And so I was introduced to the wonders of electronic communication (well, not quite – I had sent internal messages on TCD’s mainframe computer for the previous 6 years, but only to the college’s computer centre; this was the first off-site message I had tried – indeed it was an inter-country one).

Back on that day in July 1988, I sent one and received one email, while on the same day (according to my records) I typed out and sent five letters and four internal memos, and received three letters, two memos and one fax. Yesterday, nearly 20 years later, I sent 38 emails and received 96 (not counting some 45 spam emails). I received three letters and sent none. And in addition I read various other online communications on websites and blogs. Indeed, I am networked into a web of local and global communication which, 20 years ago, was still unimaginable.

What does all of this mean? One way of looking at it would be to say that I am in instant touch with people and with ideas and that, working in an intellectual environment, this gives me an extraordinary opportunity to communicate and receive analysis and insight, to be well informed and to assist and support others. Another way of seeing it might be to say that the sheer volume of all this – I estimate that last year I wrote about 350,000 words in emails – must detract from other important tasks, such as actually seeing people and talking with them. 

Email has certainly changed my life. I count many men and women all over the world as my personal friends, despite the fact that I have never met many of them and probably won’t. I know much more about other people’s thought processes and cultures than I could have imagined in the 1980s. But also, how I work has changed dramatically: my working day never ends before midnight, and often considerably later, because the late evening is a perfect time to write in an undisturbed environment and to catch up on my work. So the day and early evening are largely for meetings, and the late evening is for writing; in this way I can (I hope) continue to meet the need to see people and talk face to face with them, while also having the opportunity to exploit the full advantage of online communications. But it is at a cost, as no day of the year and no time of day would now be considered by me to be work-free. That may work for me, but it could not possibly be a model for everyone.

The world is now online, and will continue to develop online. But perhaps we need to think more deeply about how we manage this, and how we ensure that online communications help and support people rather than intimidate and overwhelm them. I think it is wonderful that there will be people in other continents who will read this post in this blog – but I hope many of you will also feel able to switch off the computer and go out and do something in your ‘real’ world.

Blog about a blog

June 13, 2008

Today (June 13) this blog got a mention in the Irish Times, so I’ve had a lot of traffic, and some interesting comments. I have indeed said that I should also consider a blog on Facebook or Myspace, or maybe Bebo. I am as it happens a member of all of these already, so it would not be a big step – perhaps in the autumn.

It is however important that the university community more generally gets better at communicating with stakeholders. Whenever we are under pressure, there is lots of evidence that the general public does not regard universities as institutions that should attract their strong support, and there are still many who believe that we under-perform and don’t use our resources well. Those who work in today’s universities know that, as a generalisation, such complaints are very far from the truth – but we are not good at persuading the public that this is so.

So I hope that many academics and university staff become bloggers in the public arena, stimulating debate and helping to explain what we do, and what intellectual, financial and ethical value we provide for society. And maybe we also need to accept that, sometimes, universities (like all other organisations) get it wrong, and sometimes we need to show a willingness to listen to the outside world and change as a result.