Let’s be more frank with colleagues and students

Being head of undergraduate studies was an eye-opener for Stephen Curry

August 27, 2015
Stephen Curry columnist illustration

One of the more charming features of university life is that you can sometimes be thrust into a role for which you have had little or no preparation.

At the end of September, my four-year term of office as director of undergraduate studies comes to an end. It wasn’t a job I had ever thought I would take on. But I guess I had spoken out once too often at departmental staff meetings about the need to incorporate more maths into our life sciences degrees (a hobby horse of mine); and so, in the aftermath of a bruising departmental reorganisation, I was collared for the job. It would be tough, but I tried to be positive. I had long accepted the Faustian bargain that university life offers in return for the chance to set up a research group. I enjoyed interacting with students in lectures, tutorials and labs. Part of me thought that I might be able to do some worthwhile things to reshape the department’s teaching.

Even so, the job knocked me sideways. A restructuring exercise, part of a wave that seemed to be convulsing universities up and down the land at the time, had depleted our teaching staff and put the department under strain. The situation was exacerbated by the hike in tuition fees to £9,000, which has altered the intensity and tone of student demands, and by the freeze in the research budget, which consumed more staff time in the chase for funding. I started by sketching out my big ideas for reanimating our teaching mission, but was all too soon plunged into the alphabet soup of faculty and university committees, blizzards of unanticipated paperwork, and difficult conversations about workloads. In those first months, there was less of the cut and thrust of strategic planning and more of the run and mill of tiresome but necessary administration.

This was a pattern that I found difficult to adjust to in the ensuing years. I endured a fairly constant battle to balance the time and energy absorbed by being DUGS with the demands of my own teaching and research. I could have done with a more disciplined cast of mind. I lived at a pitch of stress that I had not known before.

Nevertheless, we kept the ship afloat, and I managed to steer in some new directions, overseeing the review of biochemistry and biology programmes, introducing maths and science communication courses, configuring a new workload model to promote fairer distributions of teaching contributions, instigating a good teaching practice workshop to better harness the skills already present (but often hidden) within the department, and pushing initiatives to bolster staff-student dialogue. None of these changes was especially revolutionary; none was implemented without misstep – my excursion into running blogs aimed at staff and students is probably best regarded as a noble failure; and none of them would have happened without the efforts of a great number of my colleagues.

It has certainly been an interesting journey. I have a sharper insight into university operations at all levels, as well as a greater understanding of the travails of large organisations. Problems arise, it seems to me, far more often as the unintended result of poor communication, itself the product of a structural lack of understanding between the different players in the university – academics, students, managers and administrators. I discovered the alarming speed at which misinformation can spread among students, primarily on Facebook, and how supremely unforgiving they can be. I find myself more in sympathy than before with government ministers caught in the turbulence of the latest media firestorm – I had plenty of my own firefighting to do.

The experience hardens you, which makes it easier to cope when things go awry, but you must not to succumb to bitterness or cynicism, however great the temptation. The tragedy of the human condition is that nobody can feel another’s pain, so the greatest lesson I can impart to my successor is the importance of effective communication. The second greatest lesson is that effective communication is very hard to do well.

But it is vital to be able to have open and frank conversations with staff and students. For me, this was one of the most rewarding aspects of the role. One of my deepest regrets is that I did not spend more time in the company of colleagues and students.

Good working relationships with staff require transparency – and hence honesty – about departmental goals and activities. Relations with students have been queered by the tripling of fees, which has been a mixed blessing for the sector. There is a more consumerist mindset among students and a greater inclination among universities to accede to student demands for satisfaction, even if these are not always well founded. On the plus side, however, there is growing recognition of and reward for commitment to teaching, which is healthy and welcome. I refuse to subscribe to the retail theory of university education: in our “business”, the “customer” is not always right because students don’t always have the experience to know what they are looking for. But I firmly believe in the importance of involving students in meaningful discussions about what university is for.

As the outlines of the teaching excellence framework start to take shape, threatening an intensified obsession with the same metricised instrumentalism that has disfigured the school system, it is increasingly the job of the DUGS – and of all academics, of course – to instil the sense that a university education is for life. Acquiring the professional skills to satisfy career aspirations is important for students who are to be saddled with tens of thousands of pounds of debt but – and I hope this does not sound too platitudinous – we must still strive to inspire the intellectual curiosity needed to understand and change the world.

Stephen Curry is professor of structural biology at Imperial College London.

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Reader's comments (1)

Problems arise, it seems to me, far more often as the unintended result of poor communication, itself the product of a structural lack of understanding between the different players in the university – academics, students, managers and administrators. Amen to that!

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