L'administration leaves French flair undimmed

November 8, 2002

Continuing our look at the work of people in higher education, All in a day's work, Harriet Swain spends a day with the head of Nottingham's School of Modern Languages.


: Nicholas Hewitt

Post : Head of the School of Modern Languages (with more than 900 students), Nottingham University

How long in the job : Two years

Salary : £60,000

Loves : Management, teaching and research

Hates :Sometimes not having enough time for teaching and research

Slim volumes of literary theory and French literature line the walls of Nicholas Hewitt's office. Between the huge windows, overlooking a tree-lined avenue, he has hung black-and-white prints of Parisian cafes. A large French flag is draped over one doorway. As head of the University of Nottingham's School of Modern Languages, Hewitt is, of course, an enthusiast for his subject - 20th-century French literature and culture. But such a position demands other qualities, too. He was in charge of room allocation when the department moved premises a few years ago. Naturally, he says, he allocated this large, light-filled room to himself.

Hewitt arrived in Nottingham 13 years ago from the University of Warwick to become head of French. After getting his undergraduate degree at Hull University, he did postgraduate study at Hull and Harvard University, then spent the early part of his career lecturing at the universities of Hull and Southampton. He was dean of the modern languages faculty at Nottingham before gaining his present post.

Hewitt enjoys administration - or management at least - and teaching. He does not, however, regret the fact that he now teaches only one undergraduate module a semester, in addition to doing some postgraduate supervision and a few other bits and pieces. Instead, his time is taken up with things such as teaching strategy meetings and dealing with budgets.

Hewitt goes through post and emails and discusses with his secretary outstanding issues - documents that need his signature and meetings that need to be arranged.

Because today is one of his teaching days, he makes his way down the corridor to a classroom, where three second-year undergraduates are awaiting their first seminar of the term - the group is unusually small because of timetabling clashes. (Rising student numbers in the past five to ten years have meant ever larger classes, even in modern languages where nationally the trend has been downward, and Hewitt's morning class the following day is three times as big.) Hewitt begins by outlining the areas of focus of the seminar programme - talking about the sections from three French novels that they will tackle. He recognises that because of other commitments it may be difficult for them to read all three novels entirely. However, he reveals that the programme will involve each student giving a presentation. There is momentary panic over what exactly this will entail, but he reassures the students that they will simply be expected to raise questions and make the group think, although it will contribute 10 per cent to their overall final degree mark.

Hewitt has moved on to discuss "What is a novel?", working hard to get responses from the students. He continues until 10.45, when he leaves the students to select presentation topics and returns to his office.

Teaching has changed because of the greater number of students, but this is no bad thing, Hewitt says. "It means it has become more professional. If you are teaching larger numbers, you have to use student presentations and more interactive student activities."

A new lecturer in Spanish, Mayte Gomez, arrives to discuss two degree courses the university plans to offer from next year - one linking contemporary European studies with marketing, the other with Chinese. They discuss how to put details of the courses on the website and how to produce a leaflet.

Gomez says that she has never been responsible for admissions before, so Hewitt gives her pointers, including arranging an informal open day. He warns her that parents as well as students are now likely to attend such open days and ask probing questions. They decide that Gomez will arrange a meeting of the working group that designed the courses to finalise the syllabus.

Next up for discussion is the possibility of forging ties with the newly merged universities of Durban and Natal in South Africa, building on the many links and contacts of individual academics and departments. Hewitt says he has established links with one of the universities himself. He suggests that Gomez try to convene an informal South Africa group, comprising academics in the humanities with an interest in South Africa, perhaps over a glass of South African wine.

Gomez leaves, and Hewitt goes over his notes for the weekly school executive meeting, which takes place this afternoon.

Time for an omelette and glass of wine in the staff club - a slightly chintzy establishment with peeling wallpaper, starched tablecloths, waitress service and a bar where people discuss the meaning of consciousness over a pint. Then it is straight over to the executive meeting with the school's heads of department.

First on the agenda are proposed changes to the school teaching year, which are debated passionately. Eventually, Hewitt judges that they have reached a kind of consensus and asks everyone to consult departmental staff and report back. Next, he informs them about the previous day's meeting of the strategy and finance committee. He wants suggestions for using grants from the dean's fund, urging heads of department to "think adventurously" and tells them that the university is to get new, easier-to-use software. Incidentally, could everyone update their departmental website?

This is just the warm-up. Hewitt brings up a suggestion by the undergraduate studies committee that the year abroad should be credited to count towards an undergraduate degree, and debate becomes more heated. Another suggestion about capping student numbers sparks a row that seems to get personal. Hewitt calls order: "Let us at least row about something we can agree about," he says. The group is mollified by the news that the school is to get a full-time administrator. "This is the best news we have had in this executive in living memory," one member says admiringly. However, reference to the Quality Assurance Agency inspection, due next year, means the meeting breaks up on a less upbeat note.

"It is usually a fairly robust meeting," Hewitt says. "But I don't think anyone bears any grudges. I usually start off benign and get more and more irritable as time starts slipping away and people get more and more obsessed with detail."

Hewitt is back at his desk, checking phone messages and emails. These include minutes from strategy meetings, lots of irate communication about the proposed changes to the academic year and a student who was dithering about whether to stick with modern languages and has made a decision to stay. Gomez has also suggested text for the new leaflets and website.

Gomez arrives. She and Hewitt go over the text with a part-time administrator who will put it on the web.

Hewitt wanders slowly over to the clubhouse, where he has arranged a tea for new lecturers in the school to meet each other. Five lecturers have turned up - two are German, one Spanish, another Canadian. There is a great deal of amusement at the Englishness of the tea, which includes cucumber sandwiches and strawberries and cream.

Everyone sits around awkwardly while Hewitt asks them to explain their background and research interests. What do they think of semesterisation? he asks. What do they think of the library and other facilities? Are they doing enough teaching? Everyone laughs at the suggestion that they might not be. One of the Germans explains that he is unused to teaching such young students because in Germany they are usually at least 21, but he is learning to adapt his teaching style.

The atmosphere becomes more relaxed as Hewitt says that the university is generous with research grants and tells lecturers of a few to try. Potential new collaborations and degree programmes are suggested.

Conversation is exhausted and the meeting ends. Hewitt is pleased that the lecturers have got together and been able to raise issues. He returns to his office to sort out administration with his secretary.

A quick drink back at the clubhouse before meeting, 15 minutes later, with his deputy head of school, Bernard McGuirk. McGuirk, professor of Romance literatures and head of the department of Hispanic and Latin American studies, is warden of one of the university halls of residence, and they meet in his study there. This is a fortnightly meeting that usually takes place in the evening. They discuss what decisions need to be taken within the school and go over running issues. Today they talk about development and staffing for the postgraduate school of critical theory and cultural studies - the school has far more students than it used to have, and it wants to recruit more staff to meet the demand. They discuss strategies for making a bid to the university for the extra numbers. They also go over items from the executive meeting earlier in the day.

The meeting breaks up, and Hewitt's working day ends. It has been a typical Wednesday, he says, although his days can vary considerably depending on where he is with his research. All the departments in the school were graded 5 or 5* in the last research assessment exercise, and a strong research profile is a must for all staff.

Hewitt has just sent off the final revised manuscript of the Cambridge Companion to Modern French Culture , which he has edited. He has also recently finished a book on Montmartre, which he hopes will be published next year. He likes to do his research at home and his administration at the university, preferring to keep the two separate.

"Ninety-nine per cent of students wouldn't be aware that any of us had written books," he says. "They are genuinely mystified about what we do."

Next week: Angela Clow, senior lecturer in psychology, University of Westminster

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