Trying to keep the plates spinning

August 17, 2001

Multi-tasking Lindsay Taylor strives to keep her balance and save students from themselves in the third in our series from the grass roots.

I have a mental picture of my job that closely resembles the circus act I remember from childhood involving a man, invariably wearing white stretch trousers with stirrups, who manages to keep a large number of plates spinning on top of long poles, rushing around trying frantically to reactivate those that are wobbling most precariously.

Periodically, I am asked by the institution to evaluate what percentage of my time is spent on management, administration, teaching, research, meetings or other, in any one week. My first reaction is always to ponder what it would be like to know what to expect at the start of each day and to be able to fill in the form in a matter of moments. I suspect I would not like it. As no two weeks are ever the same or could even begin to be described as typical, I am always left trying to devise what the agenda might be and therefore what spin is appropriate to this particular exercise. I am also becoming aware that more and more of my time is being spent on the mysterious "other". Like most heads of department, I emerged from the teaching ranks, but have been gradually acquiring quite a few transferable skills.

Pastoral care is an area that is growing rapidly. Students are getting into the usual scrapes: pregnancy, trying to avoid arranged marriages, financial crises, problem landlords, but are increasingly suffering from serious stress and depression. In an ideal world, these needs would of course be handled by professionals, but the welfare officer is overwhelmed and less serious cases can be identified and covered by the department. However, considerable time is required and a quiet uninterrupted space - commodities that are in short supply.

Then there is the matter of dealing with a surprising volume of phone calls from chancers who think it would make a fantastic student project to design and make a wedding dress for them, recreate an embroidered family heirloom or stage a fashion show for a worthy cause next Tuesday. There have been three requests for wedding dresses in a single week, and we do not even have a fashion course. When asked what budget they have in mind, the response is invariably one of indignation that I cannot see an opportunity to develop the course when it is handed to me on a plate.

An irritating amount of time is devoted to imploring/threatening/begging students to keep the workshops tidy and serviceable and to show some respect for the wonderful facilities that they will come to appreciate only after they have left. This is closely linked to mediation between irascible students who believe they have inalienable rights to monopolise a certain piece of machinery. Meanwhile, there are 108 students who have not done the calculation that they are each entitled to 1/108th of my time not allotted to the other things on the form.

It is always in the final term that the machinery breaks down, partly because of increased use and partly to do with Sod's law. This leads to a number of crises, trying to replace expensive items when the budget has run out or begging and borrowing access to other sources at short notice. Accidents also proliferate at this time as students get tired and therefore less careful. Equipment is plastered with health-and-safety warning notices that are seldom read, but we are constantly adding to the collection as students devise ever more unusual ways of damaging themselves. We now have "DO NOT STAND ON THE LIGHTBOXES" for example. I keep meaning to find time to do the first aid training course, but I am perfectly able to call the ambulance.

The writing of references can occupy large tracts of June, just when there are pressing things such as final assessments and degree shows to hang. Second-year students are applying for summer jobs, third years for work placements and scholarships and fourth years for anything and everything going. I am fighting the impulse to have standard responses on disk. These would not necessarily fit the individual format of the requests. As few references are confidential due to data protection, the art of constructing something subtle that can be read between the lines becomes increasingly important, and is very time consuming.

"Meetings" is a particularly large category. I regularly clock up four lunchtime meetings a week but have yet to score a five. Even the heady delights of high-street store sandwiches can pall after prolonged exposure. However, one of the real privileges of working at the Glasgow School of Art is that some of the most tedious meetings are held in exquisite surroundings. A particular Mackintosh detail, previously unnoticed, can be appreciated at leisure and can inspire all manner of ideas for design work that will have to be accomplished in another life.

Unfortunately, there is no obvious solution to all this. Finances do not permit administrative assistance and most of this plethora of bits and pieces could not easily be delegated. However, I would hate to suggest that there is no excitement or fulfilment amid all this multi-tasking. I get my vicarious thrills when the graduates emerge and secure jobs I would rather like myself. Some who go on to work in the field of predictions for large sportswear companies have job specifications that seem to involve going around the world shopping, trying to divine what is in the ether and observing street style in clubs and bars. Others work in French and Italian couture and are sent to India to source fabric and trimmings. Hopefully they will attain positions of power and influence from where they can be prevailed upon to contribute to the success of the next generation.

I suppose if it all gets too much, I could always run away and join the circus.

Lindsay Taylor is head of textiles at Glasgow School of Art.

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