Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Baffled about Imposed Misery

Ten days before the start of the new semester, rumours of new university-wide Personal Tutor scheme began to emerge, and about three days before, departments were sent information.  It is Mandatory and must be Implemented Immediately.  Personal Tuition is a local name for a role somewhere between advising (help students navigate the university and make good module choices, signpost them to various support services, advocate for them if they run afoul of some part of the disciplinary system) and individual tutoring in Skills (help students understand their feedback from modules and develop Action Plans For Overall Improvement, give them individual help with the referencing system and basic essay writing etc. as needed).  The old system required three meetings per academic year between student and tutor, the only documentation was an attendance record, and it emphasised the advising side of the role.  The new system requires 8 meetings a year, each documented using a lengthy form, and emphasises the individual tutoring side of the role.

This is a near-tripling of the workload per student.  Individually, it's not much - if each meeting is 20 minutes long, adding five is less than two hours.  Doing the paperwork is supposedly the responsibility of the student, but the staff member is ultimately responsible and is required to set the appointments, remind the students, keep records of how they 'supported' any non-attendees (e.g. offer alternative appointments and file the email trail appropriately) - this will add a bit of bureaucracy time.  Maybe 3 hours per student over a year, on average?  However, with a staff-student ratio of say 20:1 in a department, that is 60 hours - one and a half working weeks, according to the Stated Working Hours - of extra work for every academic in the department.  PLUS the Department needs to have a Designated PT Champion who will ensure the system is working, meet with student reps, address any issues that arise due to say staff sickness or absence, study leave, students having Issues with particular staff members... oh, and collate data and write regular reports for the relevant Provot's Office.  Needless to say, we are not allowed to drop anything else - oh no, those classes were advertised in the calendar, and that administrative special project is vital, and you still have that Triple Research Income In Five Years requirement - and there is no funding for extra support, not even a graduate student worker or admin assistant a few hours a week to help keep the paperwork straight.  Some of my colleagues literally do not have enough spare hours in their teaching schedules to fit all the individual appointment slots in the 'standard day' (9-6, when appointments must be scheduled to avoid inconveniencing students) in the mandated Individual Meeting Weeks.  Apparently time to eat or pee is not something academics need.

The documentation tells us that this new system was developed during a two-year process of research, planning, consultation and piloting (not in the STEM faculty, possibly explaining how we were expecting recommendations or a reminder to follow the current policy, not a totally new and punitive mandate).  Yet it was released THREE DAYS BEFORE THE START OF SEMESTER.  The administrator in charge is a Deputy Dean, only partially seconded - as in, still teaches one or two classes and has a small research group, as well as DDing - and rose from the faculty ranks after a couple of decades as an excellent teaching colleague and solid researcher in a department closely related to mine.  He led the whole process, the pilot concluded early last academic year, yet no information went out to departments AT ALL until two weeks before the semester.

Can any Miserian tell me what could have possibly happened in two short years of secondment to make a formerly respectable colleague think this was in any way a good idea, or a valid way to implement something foisted on them by a higher-up?

I met one cohort of my Personal Tutees over Monday and Tuesday.  I asked them how they felt about the new system - did they think it would be more supportive, did they feel it was what they needed, what could I do within it to help them as individuals? (customer service speak TO THE MAX).  The comments included "it feels like being back in High School" and "it's stupid" and "the leaflet explaining it talks like we're all helpless thickos not university students."

Hopefully this will be a one year thing, then will quietly wither away over next summer.  But in the meantime, where's that extra week and a half coming from in my schedule?  Annual leave, or research writing (which will affect my career progression - I don't think PTing is going to COUNT in annual reports any more than it does already somehow), or sleep?


  1. Aargh. I have no answers to the perfectly reasonable questions you ask, because I don't think there are any answers. It seems like the sort of situation that a union would be all over, because it is, indeed, so quantified, and quantifiable (it also shows all the downsides of endlessly trying to quantify and report the educational process, from all angles; there's a very real danger of the self-perpetuating administrative bureaucracy tail wagging the educational dog. We're very close to that point, if not already past it, in many K-12 schools in the U.S., and it's creeping ever upward. Timothy Burke has an excellent recent post on related patterns/problems in assessment over at his blog, and cites the UK as a cautionary example for US academics (with a wonderful image: " This is not some exaggerated dystopic nightmare at the end of a alarmist slippery slope: what I’m describing already happened to higher education in the United Kingdom, largely accomplishing nothing besides sustaining a class of transfer-seeking technocratic parasites who have settled into the veins of British universities." So I guess your question is now whether a perfectly useful symbiot in the academic body can somehow be transformed into a "transfer-seeking technocratic parasite" over the course of a few years).

    I don't know what the solution(s) is/are, though I suspect that increasing attention to the costs of administration (which is really the only area for cost-cutting left, since every other area has been squeezed beyond dry) may help, at least in the U.S. As I've said before, my preferred solution would be a requirement that administrators have extensive, ongoing, teaching experience, and very limited terms in any one administrative post, with returns to the regular faculty in between. But I doubt that's going to happen, especially since the M.A.s and Ph.D.s in higher ed my university and others are merrily producing aren't necessarily qualified to teach anything/anyone (except more candidates for M.A.s and Ph.D.s in higher ed). Also, that plan doesn't seem quite as promising given the case study you provide (though I guess we're not sure if the subject expects to return to the classroom, and be subject to this mandate himself, at some point).

    In the meantime, I'd definitely center the meetings around filling out the form, feel free to write "ran out of time" somewhere partway through if that's the case, and just file the stupid things in whatever form they turn out. Ditto for sending back forms with "student didn't show up for scheduled appointment; no time to reschedule during mandated period" written at the top. I feel for the poor person who then has to wrangle the resulting (non-) data (because it surely won't be the DD himself), but sometimes you've just got to use the tools they provide to represent back to them the chaos they've created.

  2. Is there any way you can make the work rebound on the Former Respectable Colleague?

    That's usually the best way to kill an initiative: make the people responsible have to do more labor too. "Oh, I'll happily fill out this form. I'll be over at 3 pm so you can tell me what entries I should put in each blank." It has to rebound on the administrator, though, not staff.


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