Letters – 14 February 2019

February 14, 2019

Owning up to failure, by sex and seniority

I appreciated reading about scholars’ experiences of mistakes they had made in their careers (“My biggest mistake”, Features, 31 January) and was particularly touched by the example from Susan D’Agostino, which brought a tear to my eye.

Of your six academics featured, five were female. This caused me to wonder: is it the case that only women will own up to epic fails; or that more women genuinely make these mistakes; or do female staff have these experiences in part because they face excessive pressures or lack the support that buffer men from these issues?

A wonderful mentor, Katharine Perera, taught me a valuable lesson during my time at the University of Manchester as part of a women in leadership programme. Contrasting how men and women self-regulate at work, she illustrated how women who overshare aspects of themselves and their experiences in life often appear less capable than men by doing so. Men say less, appear more enigmatic and are viewed as more competent as a result.

As for the feature, I wonder if men and women were equally willing to come forth and own up to errors, or if it was mainly women who offered their confessions.

Chris Bundy
Professor of behavioural medicine
Cardiff University

Editor’s note: most of the academics who shared their experiences in the feature were commissioned by Times Higher Education after replying to an earlier tweet on the issue. 

Successful failure requires an openness to acknowledge mistakes but also a willingness to share lessons learned. Reflecting on mistakes, as those scholars in your feature did, promotes workplaces that use failure better and foster success and mental well-being.

Yet notably absent were the perspectives of senior leadership.

At a recent keynote plenary for academic leaders in the UK, we were struck by the palpable and widespread concern most felt about poor mental health in the academy. Yet this was accompanied with a wall of personal reservations about owning up to any professional or departmental failures, let alone sharing them.

It became clear that fear of being judged negatively by senior management and leadership peers dominated. Fear of corrosive negative judgements was rife: “What would the v-c say?”

It’s understandable yet ironic that university leaders see failure as antithetical to the success-oriented cultures in modern academia. If success is what we want, building vibrant, constructive and open cultures that learn from and adapt to all situations and results – successful or otherwise – is the right foundation.

Senior management can make a uniquely valuable contribution to achieving academic workplaces that use failure better.

Vice-chancellors and other senior managers: do you reward staff’s hard learning over their easy successes? With your deans, do you provide and encourage open feedback on what you both learned at every step? Because of your senior status, not despite it, do you share openly reports about your own failures and failings?

If you really care about success, you should.

Alexander M. Clark, associate vice-president, research, and professor, University of Alberta
Bailey J. Sousa, institute director, University of Alberta

Burdens not shared

Re “Academic workload models: a tool to exploit staff and cut costs?” (News, 7 February). As a full professor who has been teaching for 18 years, I am paid about twice what lecturers get. But on the workload model, I have the same allowances for course preparation, supervision and research. My full professor colleagues use the model to load up junior faculty to where they can barely breathe – and they are obsessed with keeping track of their every hour. Where are the citizenship behaviours counted? Workload models are not bad in theory but have been executed poorly – if still a bureaucrat’s dream.

Via timeshighereducation.com

Naked truths

In choosing to use her naked body as a means of political protest (“A full-frontal assault on Brexit”, News, 7 February), Victoria Bateman stands in a long line that goes back at least as far as the prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 20:3), and includes, among others, early Quakers and the Doukhobors of Canada. Yet while “going naked as a sign”, as the Quakers put it, can be an effective form of protest, I take issue with Bateman’s claims about Brexit. Today’s most significant feminist innovations in Europe come from the government led by Iceland’s Left-Green prime minister, Katrín Jakobsdóttir, whose party is expressly opposed to Iceland’s joining the European Union.

Justin Meggitt

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