the university in 20 years 2

The world is a wise thing and I need to become a better listener to what the world is whispering in my ears and shouting in my face.

I wrote yesterday a few words, no more than an abstract of an introduction really, about the university in 20 years.  No sooner had I written than TED emailed me the link to a talk by Erica Stone.  She talks about open access but much more than that.  She talked about researchers engaging with local media, sharing their results and using them to improve their local communities.

And I will admit, as much as I enjoyed her talk, that it hit something in me that I’ve been thinking about for a long time now, and it raises a question.

I am a pure mathematician, a geometer, working in a relatively small corner of the pure mathematical universe, which is itself just a part of the larger and wider mathematical universe.  So how would I explain my research to my next door neighbors and the people I work with?

I have one answer, which I don’t find particularly satisfactory I have to admit.  I can explain non-Euclidean geometry, which is the area I work in, and I can explain why non-Euclidean geometry is relevant to the world around us, but by using work done by others.  Not using the work I’ve done myself.  (But don’t worry – I won’t do that here.)

I think perhaps I’m suffering from the academic equivalent of the mid-life crisis, the need to do something different to leaven all of the same that I’m doing from one day to the next.  Or perhaps I need to view it as being the opportunity to start a new part of my journey.

Because I can keep doing the research I’m doing, writing the papers I write for the small audiences that will read them.  But I can do more than that.  I can start actively asking the question, how does this all affect the world around me, rather than waiting for something to find me.

I seem to be starting lots of quests at the moment, but I think they’re all tied together.  How I work as a academic mathematician.  How universities work.  How education works.  The connections might be loose at the moment, but we’ll see what we can do to bring them together a bit more tightly.

~ by Jim Anderson on 2 April 2018.

4 Responses to “the university in 20 years 2”

  1. A great blog Jim. Definitely a timely release given the broader conversations that are taking place.
    I do, however, have a few curveballs to throw your way, and I wonder what your thoughts are on these.
    First, you ponder the necessity of starting a new part of your mathematical journey. I wonder, is this actually necessary? Do you need to make your research relevant to a local audience? To me this seems like a case of trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. The contribution you (and all colleagues at the university for that matter) make is significant irrespective of the size of your audience.

    Regarding the question of affecting the world around you. To me, this seems like the crux of the issue. Social scientists might argue this is simply about making our work policy relevant. I would argue that all work is relevant but it is (how we define) the nature and scale of the so-called ‘policy’ that varies. Unfortunately I think this behaviour or practice is lacking throughout academia, not necessarily just in the UK or within our institution or within our respective departments. Taking some time to explore new audiences, new means of publicising/sharing our work, or new means of engaging with others could prove invaluable.

    Now a new question springs to mind. How can we do this? Of course, trialling innovative methods may not be to the taste of every academic. And publishing alternative forms of our work may be deemed too time-consuming. To counter these points, I would argue that it depends on where we place our priorities and values. If we truly want to engage with the community and step down from our ivory towers, we must make our work accessible. The majority of people we share our communities with have never encountered a journal, let alone written for one. We must be the ones to put the effort in, to engage and to be approachable.

    This, I would argue, must be driven from the top. I appreciate that colleagues are being asked to do more with less. This is the adverse situation we unfortunately find ourselves in. However, I think we should treat this as a timely opportunity, for change. Those at the top must make it easier for colleagues to spread their workload across multiple duties. If collegiality is a priority, it must be made easier. Our structural environment must adapt to be conducive to the diversity of tasks we are required to complete. At present, it is far from easy to practice this and divide our labour appropriately. This is exacerbated by frameworks like the REF, and journal assessment criteria, which are arguably unfit for purpose as they encourage the prioritisation if quantity over quality. Alas, this is a separate issue.

    Similarly, we must be open to this idea and make efforts to reach out and do a little work that might seem ‘extra-curricular’ but is, in fact, part of the process of engagement and making our work ‘relevant’ to various spheres (or policies) at various scales.

    I completely agree that these questions are all linked together. There will certainly be need for change, along with in-depth discussions with all colleagues. We should make use of this timely opportunity!

    • Dear Bradley –

      Thanks for the kind words and thanks for reading. I will admit that in my 2 years of Little League baseball oh so many years ago, I never mastered the curve ball but let’s see what I can do.

      For me, I do think that there is some necessity to starting a new part to my mathematical journey. I will continue working on the questions I’m working on, and the questions they lead to, wherever they might take me, and I don’t feel it’s necessary to make all of what I do relevant to a local audience.

      But I do want to take what I know of mathematics, whether it’s my specific area of research or just stuff I’ve learned over the years, and ask the question, what can I do with this. For me, and this might just be me, I don’t see the value in keeping all the stuff I know hidden, which is how it feels to me at the moment. And yes, this might just be a reflection of my academic mid life crisis, but nonetheless it is a bit of a splinter in the back of my mind.

      And I agree with your diagnosis of a major part of the issue being How and When, and I have an idea of how we can start to work our way through this as a general issue.

      What I want to start doing, for myself and others, is to ask the fundamental question, are the things we as academic and non-academic members of staff, as members of the university, providing value.

      I suspect that if we were to wander the halls and talk to people, they would focus their attention on administrative duties, and the administrative structure of the university, like that of any large organization, could stand some optimizing. But I think it goes far deeper than that.

      What is the value to a student of sitting in a room and listening to someone talk for 45 minutes or so, with little or no direct interaction, versus the value of having read and grappled with that same material and then being part of a small group working through issues with that experienced member of academic staff? I’m not advocating the blanket abolition of lectures, if only because that would be a massive and radical change and one that would need to be thought through, but I think that asking about the value of how we are using our time, not only in administration but also research and education, is the only way to create a significant amount of time to spend on this wider engagement piece.

      While it is true that long is the way and hard that leads from our present structure and culture to what we might ideally aspire to, we need to take the first step in the journey of a thousand miles, and the second, and the millionth, and keep going when we’re 247 miles into the journey.

  2. Jim

    The baseball training paid off – almost Cubs standard!

    Your point about adjusting does make a great deal of sense. It shows a broader personal desire to adapt and engage, yet with a more pragmatic(?) approach than I first assumed. I completely agree when it comes to sharing your knowledge with others, as it fits in neatly with the broader aim of Open Access. You may even stumble across audiences previously unbeknown to you. Perhaps your mid-life crisis shouldn’t be viewed as such… an epiphany?Another opportunity?

    Prompting a discussion on value would, in itself, prove valuable. When you suspect that others would cite administrative actions, do you mean they would see admin/structure as the main barrier to reform? If so, I think it permeates far deeper too, starting with individual attitudes. While the blanket abolition of lectures might not be a bad thing at all, especially if fundamental aspects/concepts are pre-recorded and stored online for several cohorts of students. As I say, if we are asked to do more with less, we need to think creatively. With the support of technology, including our recent move towards online content stores, we stand a good chance of adapting workloads successfully. Alas, attitudes are an essential pre-requisite (as we both have learnt in recent years).

    With people on board, then comes the challenge of adapting both digital environments (e.g. VLEs) and physical spaces (e.g. the ‘traditional’ classrooms). Have you been in contact with our Web Science colleagues recently? A certain Nic F. (et al.) is proposing some innovative ideas that may be incredibly useful for you going forward.

    Long is the way and hard, indeed, but the journey can be shortened thanks to the strong leadership team we currently have (much like the relief an automobile provides when one finds oneself on Route 66). Fortunately, I think we have already begun this journey; a wider conversation is taking place and your local contribution is driving the Southampton cogs.

    I wonder how far you, and the rest of the team, can take it before our cohort graduates. A challenge perhaps?

    • This is a conversation that will continue and grow, certainly, because change is indeed in the air. One of the interesting things about change is that it is relatively straightforward to get a general view of the Shining City on the Hill that we are aiming for, but the details of the City can be obscured by distance, and we might also not see all of the path getting us from where we are to where we want to be.

      And this also hits other things. Why for instance is it better to have a lecture recorded than written? Do we react differently, in terms of how we absorb material, to the spoken and the written? This is a whole other question, and is one of the questions that began one of my other current quests, but I think it’s critical we have the answers to such questions, to inform how we might design our Shining City and get there.

      I think the general view of administrative load is that it isn’t necessary and that time spent on administrivia is time lost. But I’m not sure this is the case. We need to recognize the environment in which we’re working and that forms the context of what we’re doing, and the requirements of that environment. The university is the size of a town, and it is a complicated organization doing a complicated set of tasks. Can we do things better? Most certainly, but this then gets us back to some of the same questions I mentioned earlier.

      We’ll do what we can, amidst the other things we’re doing. But do give me a prod from time to time, to get me back on the straight and narrow path.

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