This week we launched a creative commons multimedia e-textbook, Fundamentals of Music Theory. This came about as the result of a pilot Open Educational Resource project, and – funded by a Student Experience Grant – we paid three Music student interns to work on the transfer of a range of existing digital materials into this new source, providing some valuable work experience. (The valuable part came from the tutelage of the OER team, with their experience in collaborative project working and their handling and direction of the interns. It was also valuable for me to watch how they did this, and to see our students operating in a different context, away from lectures and tutorials.)
Overall it was a very positive experience, though the timing of the project meant that it took place across perhaps the most stressful and intense period of working of everyone’s career to date. First discussions then application coincided with the end of a period of industrial action/the onset of the pandemic. The recruitment phase took place in lockdown Semester 1, 2020. The active, funded portion ran from January to June 2021 while we struggled on to the end of the locked-down academic year.
The irony isn’t lost on me: that while I push myself to develop free, open educational resources (no royalties, creative commons) through very positive OER initiatives and, well, University branding… that little by little over my 14 years of service, my daily working life at the University has been stripped bare of meaningful opportunities for generosity, where we can perform kindness though hospitality and inclusion. The spaces and chances to give and receive (Would you like a cup of tea? Let’s eat together. Come sit down, let’s talk!) – where we can rehearse and model authentic dialogue – have been squeezed out as a result of other ‘efficiencies’, or deliberately culled.
Academic communities’ primary work is to share what they know and to keep learning more. Here’s a thought that’s crossed my mind: We’re naturally all a bit perfectionist and peculiar, we’re not always great at interpersonal dynamics – and these current circumstances of our professional accommodation and facilities are de-skilling us further.
The example of PhD viva voce examinations: an extended, rigorous, intellectually and creatively gruelling dialogue between scrutinizers and defender, the culmination of a minimum three years independent work by the candidate. Pre-meeting, examination, and feedback session all in cannot take less than 3 hours. Yet in my role these days as supervisor, or examiner, or chair of these events, it comes down to me personally to make provision of anything beyond a glass of water. No tea or coffee. No biscuits. Forget sandwiches! And don’t even dream of a hot meal, who’s got time for that?
There are of course ways and means of advance planning and reimbursement: but these are all tasks that require my attention and time. Alongside the practical and mental preparation for my actual, academic role in this essential award-determining business. Is this dance of form-filling and justification really what the University wants me to spend my salaried hours on? (No. They want me to spend unsalaried hours on it.)
Beyond that specific example – which also flags up general issues of debilitating busyworkload – I’m not talking about anything fancy here. Just talking about, you know, physical areas to congregate which function well because they are properly provisioned, and pleasant, so that people want to spend time there. Quiet and private spaces are necessary, too. With some office furniture designed for conversation. Maybe even, rain-proof accommodation that keeps your professional belongings and books dry. (Ask me about that.)
UCU is balloting. I’m weeping at the thought of more strikes, distressed students, pay loss. My pension is slashed, my income shrinks further in real terms, this affects my whole life and my family’s. And this is all secondary – in how I feel – to the fact that I’m made to compete constantly for funds, for time, for space with my own colleagues.
UCU is balloting again, and what am I supposed to do? It doesn’t take a PhD does it. I can just read back what I’ve written here and see it’s a no-brainer.