Workshop 2: The Parallel Week – a student report

The task was to think about how we spend our time during a working week, divide that time into categories and plot on a timetable what the ideal university week would look like. Due to the staff:student ratios (heavier on the student side) the conversations were mostly concerned with what students do in their working hours. We did this in four groups, mixing up staff and students, and then fed back to the room about what we’d decided re parallel timetable, what one thing in our current timetable we would most like to change and what non-parallel university impediments stand in our way.

What I took away from the discussions is that we generally want three interrelated innovations:

(1) enough structure in our weeks to facilitate a constructive and efficient work life, but

(2) not so much structure that we have little or no control over how we work, and

(3) more crossover of activities when it comes to   studying (and teaching).

Current and parallel timetable

The main issues motivating the desire for (1) seemed to be the difficulty of making effective use of a working week. The thought was that, especially in the case of an arts and humanities degree, the perceived lack of (for want of some better terms) focus or direction makes it hard(-er than it needs to be) to establish a routine conducive to good work. Other contributing factors included the centralised timetable and the great variety of things that need doing; I’ll come back to both of these as they link into the desire for (2) and (3).

Teaching only in the morningThe proposed ways of implementing (1) were varied. One group suggested teaching should just take place in the morning (or before 1pm), so that good working routines could be established, and that the rest of the day should be left free for more flexible, ‘self directed’, work. Another group suggested that raising the standard six hours of teaching time to ten would provide a more useful framework for studying generally.

Free day within a structures routineSo it does not appear to be the case that people find structure and routine inherently unhelpful or oppressive. On the contrary, the desire for structure and routine in our Parallel University was evident from the conversations. However it was felt that our current non-parallel structure was not conducive to an ideal work life. Which brings me to (2) – the desire for control over how we work (but, as we established, within a flexible framework).

Some rigid structure but mostly flexible timeIssues motivating the desire for (2) included the often inconveniently organised timetable we are given (resulting from the need to fit into the university-wide centralised timetabling system) and the disparate nature of the activities in which we engage. The depth of thought needed for work done in universities requires time to really focus on whatever it is that is being worked on. When there are lots of different things going on at once (e.g. work for different courses, different kinds of work within one course and ‘extracurricular’ activities) it become difficult to give the appropriate amount of attention to each activity. All of this combined with timetables that often break up the day in ways that do not allow us to organise our own time means that it can be difficult for each of us to work in the way we’d like to work.

In both the case of (1) and (2) it was felt that funding and space (for independent departments) were the main impediments to providing this sort of flexible structure. It was also noted that the same structure is always likely to fall short of ideal for some people. One staff member noted that they preferred to teach in the afternoon because they wrote better in the morning, so perhaps a degree of compromise is a necessary aspect of timetabling. But possibly who we compromise with could be changed, i.e. not everyone in the university.

The third thing I thought people wanted for their parallel university was ‘more crossover of activities when it comes to studying (and teaching).’ By this I mean there was a variously expressed desire for the things that we do to feed into each other a bit more. This came across in some peoples wish for ‘creative time’ in their week. That is, time spent talking informally about ideas, doing undirected reading, and all the other things that unofficially feed into a degree, or research. Another way this manifested itself was in suggestions about how teaching might be different. Lectures in particular were discussed in relation to this, for English at least. As they are not explicitly or formally reflected on after delivery, their usefulness is possibly equivalent to reading an essay with the same content, which would be quicker and allow for more to be extracted – so the thought goes.

Suggestions about how (3) might be achieved included more student-led discussion series, essay exchanges, reading groups and, importantly, more time spent linking up different aspects of the degree. It was suggested by one student that this would have to come from the staff as the current university culture, amongst undergraduates at any rate, would not support this sort of engagement. Changing the way assessment works was raised as a possible factor in this. One thing more crossover would achieve is to lessen the difficulty of managing a great variety of projects at once – one of the aggravators of (1) and (2).

The final thing I’ll mention is that there was the suggestion, or rather the sensitivity to the fact, that the ‘self-selecting’ group that attends a Parallel University workshop might not be qualified to speak for the wider group its hypothesising changes for. I would say, however, that there is still significant value in collecting the views of people who have spent time reflecting on their experience of university and examining the reasoning behind their views. It seems to me that this is what the Parallel University is doing. If so, great! If we all spent a lot more time thinking about what we think we’d probably think better, a good foundation for a university, parallel or otherwise, I would guess.

Anna Symington, English and Philosophy, Yr 3

Workshop one: how do we spend our time?

The parallel university, if it existed in the real world, would currently be topping at least one league table: our staff-student ratio in the first meeting was 6.66 (20 staff; 3 students). Obviously this is more of a problem than an asset, given the kind of conversations we want to have, so we need to work harder on getting the word out to students. However, the first meeting produced some really useful and interesting conversations. The bulk of this post will be concerned with the worksheets we distributed and asked people to fill in as a basis for our discussion, and as a basis for our forthcoming workshops.

Handout workshop one

When we asked people to reflect on the process of filling out these sheets, a number of general comments arose. It was suggested that the problem of organising academic work was less a problem with what we do (broadly: teaching, research, administration) and perhaps also less a problem with when we do it, but more a question of how that work is done. Concerns were also raised about the direction or aims of this project or experiment: are we radically reimagining the university from a blank piece of paper, unbounded by practical concerns? Or are we trying to come up with a way of rearranging / reconstituting matters with a view to practical implementation? My own sense is that we might do both – that the former might be a way of moving towards the latter – but I can see that clarity may be lost in the process. Another thought arising from the conversation is the sense amongst staff that they have limited control over the things they would like to see changing. We hope that this project provides a space for colleagues to think about what they would do if they had such powers. If we have a clearer sense of what that might be then we may be in a better position to persuade those people who do have power to make decisions that improve our working lives. It may also be wise as this project moves along to think less about a single parallel university than about a number of them – a number of spaces which attempt to solve specific problems. That may also prove to be unmanageable.

What do you do?

Most staff listed the core activities of academic life – and some quantified the amount of time they spent on each. One colleague started with 100% – the work they are contracted to do – but there were a further three activities, work they felt they needed to do but which was not budgeted for in their project, taking them to 135%. Often administrative tasks (‘sitting in front of a computer’) topped the list, research and teaching coming further down. People on fixed term contracts said that they were doing some ‘voluntary’ work (including teaching), dealing with difficult commutes or working at multiple institutions. One colleague interestingly suggested that ‘creating time’ for research and impact activities was in itself time consuming (and that was ranked ahead of actually doing research and impact). This kind of meta-work seemed also to be behind another respondent who said much of their time was taken up with explaining what they did with their time, and why they did it (the irony of this was duly noted in the workshop).

When colleagues wrote about teaching preparation, they spoke of it as being too time-pressured, and therefore not as tailored to individual groups as they would like it to be. There is not often (or never?) time to re-read the things one is teaching (never mind reading new things about the material one is teaching). Email contact with students and personal tutoring too often consists of chasing up / checking on attendance. Administrative colleagues told a similar story, interestingly – fighting fires, much time discussing and planning things in meetings, and dealing with a number of different systems and processes.

What does parallel you do?

The majority of respondents, in their parallel modes, were still happy to engage with teaching and research, and admin to an extent, though the general feeling was that there might be less of it, or at least that it could be better spread amongst colleagues and made more meaningful. Other things suggested included ‘having lunch’ (and particularly having lunch with other people, talking informally to colleagues (including students), feeling a part of a community (a ‘community of knowledge’ related by some to research-led teaching and teaching not overly driven by assessments), and going for walks with or without canine companions. Having weekends came up a few times too, as did worrying less about the future and ‘targets’. As well as wanting more time to read (i.e. do research) at work (50% of each day, suggests one), some wanted more time for reading outside of the workplace. Some staff wanted the pressure to write research grants removed altogether. More specifically, there were also desires to ‘not respond’ to the REF (Research Excellence Framework). Another colleague suggested that 2 or 3 manageable ‘career streams’ would make their working life more rewarding, less disparate, less hurried. It seems to me that these responses are much more about how work feels, much more about reducing the dominance of work in a life. They are notably calmer, perhaps predictably. They are less about the consumption of time by a series of occupations, and more about the enjoyment of that time.

It’s notable that admin colleagues also expressed a desire to be more involved in the life of the school, for more collegiality and cooperation. This seems to me to be an area that could benefit from our attention, though it is also one that is possibly tricky to negotiate in the light of some academic colleague’s desire for less administrative duties, or at least administrative work that is more ‘purposeful’). One suggestion for reducing admin was the removal of ‘counterproductive’ oversight like QA assurances.

As an illustration of the concerns with how work is done in universities, several respondents wanted to have more meaningful contact between staff and students: not answering queries about referencing, but giving advice and answers to specific academic questions. ‘The parallel me,’ writes one colleague, ‘is able to discuss issues with students more openly, without an eye on the clock or the assignment’. This seems to be related to another colleague’s wish to find ways of cultivating more comfortable relations with students, to have ‘intellectually, ethically, politically engaged discussion not tied to individual learning objectives’, and to see less of a distinction between teaching and research.  Others wished for more time to think deeply about how they teach – again, a demand for more time and space. Students too seemed to be in favour of more relaxed, less formal contact with academic staff, and for things like discussion groups with MA and PhD students as a way of supplementing the curricula and fostering a sense of community. Another student would like discussions with their fellow students to continue outside the classroom, and others wanted to see a change in undergraduate culture – ‘more enthusiasm’ and ‘keener peers’.

For some colleagues on fixed term contracts or those finishing graduate work, security and not having to plan the whole of their careers urgently is a clear concern. They also, like staff in all kinds of roles, express a desire to do more research-led teaching, and concerns with the rigidity of curricula. Some research-only staff were conscious that they may be in an apparently enviable position (having time for research) but were anxious about not having enough experience in the other core areas of academic activity and the damage that does to their chances on the job market. Undergraduate students also mentioned the amount of time they and their contemporaries seem to spend applying for jobs or internships, thinking more about the future and less about what they are doing now.

Admissions also came up in conversation and on paper. One colleague would like to have a better confidence in the transparency and fairness / equality of our admissions system (indeed, of the national HE admissions system). Another pressed for better integration of widening participation work into our mission, for it to be a given, and not something that needs to be argued for on a regular basis. One respondent would like to spend 20% of their time on outreach, public engagement, and WP; a likeminded colleague wished to write for wider audiences about bigger ideas, instead of producing narrowly focussed research articles. One of our students suggested that their parallel self would be in an institution that was more engaged with the wider community.

There were a couple of stark binaries recorded by colleagues:

Not Researching | Researching

Worrying | Not Worrying

These two seem to encapsulate the ways in which this discussion was both about what people do in universities and how it impacts on their well-being. What we have identified, it seems to me, are a series of problems and a series of desired outcomes, but we have not yet started thinking clearly about possible solutions, something we need to begin in forthcoming workshops.

For more information contact john.mctague@bristol.ac.uk

The Parallel University

Parallel, n.,

7. a. Close correspondence or analogy; a point of comparison or similarity between two people or things. Hence also: an act of drawing such correspondence or analogy; the placing of things side by side mentally or descriptively so as to show their similarity. Freq. to draw a parallel . 

7. b. A person who or thing which corresponds to another in such a way; that which is equivalent in essential features, function, role, etc.; something analogous or comparable; an equal or counterpart.

c. A region or level corresponding or analogous to another. Obs. rare (but cf. parallel universe n.)

adj. 

2. a. Having a similar or analogous objective, tendency, development, method, etc.; having a similar function, role, or structure; corresponding, equivalent, or equal (to).

b. Concurrent or contemporary; existing in the same period of time.

The Parallel University has its roots in conversations amongst staff and students working in the Arts and Humanities at the University of Bristol. Those conversations – taking place both informally and in specific meetings – centred around the challenges facing higher education, and what effects marketisation, downward pressure on pay and conditions, and tuition fees were having on our working lives and our working relationships. The project was conceived as a space in which staff and students can collaborate in modelling a parallel course or program, a department, and a university, starting with a blank piece of paper but working within realistic (if not real) constraints (the Parallel University’s coffers will not be bottomless, for instance). It is our hope that by moving sideways, as it were, we might be able to focus our attention more readily, and to sidestep – if only momentarily – some of the apparent barriers to institutional change (lack of time, external or sector wide constraints, institutional memory or amnesia). It is also our hope that sidestepping in this manner might enable us to return to the ‘real’ university with some concrete proposals. At the least, in documenting the process on this blog and elsewhere, we will be able to think critically about the difficulty of doing so.

In our first meeting on Thursday 24 February 2015 we hope to clarify to each other what it is we are all doing at university, as a way of demystifying the labours of staff and students, labours which are only partially visible, we think, to each demographic. So we are going to begin the conversation with the following pair of questions: ‘What do you spend your time doing’ | ‘What does parallel you spend their time doing’

Parallely yours,

John