Janet Read on charm bracelets, finish tape & the work to be a complete academic

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Janet Read is a Professor in Child Computer Interaction at the University of Central Lancashire in the UK. Janet’s path to academia was via maths teaching, and then falling into a PhD after she had a family. Our discussions are wide ranging and throughout she is incredibly thoughtful, reflective and proactive in how she goes about unentangling processes and challenges, always striving to understand and develop, not just herself but also those around her. Because this ends up being a long conversation, the high level topics are below, along with more detailed notes, and has two parts - see below.

We have a problem right through the whole system, understanding what the academic does.

So the complete academic probably collapses on a Friday evening with a glass of wine. And gets up on a Saturday and starts doing work again.

Daughter (9yr old) said “Mum when you are working at home, the children don’t know if you are being a mum or not.”.

Deep work is the valuable work for academics... A really hard thing for academics is finding that deep work space.

[Management ideal] It’s the encouragement, understanding individual needs, motivate, say well done. Wouldn’t it be nice to get “a well done”!

In the first part, up to about the hour, she explores her own journey learning how to do research, how to supervise students, and how to support good learning experiences. She has some really interesting things to say about today’s university process-driven culture and argues that we need to do much better at understanding students and how to better support the learning experience, not equating attendance with learning.

In the second part, she talks about being a complete academic, that one of the challenges is that no-one really knows what an academic actually does. She talks about how she deals with the demands on her time, the potential costs of being too efficient, being proactive and looking after your own needs, creating a collaborative group culture, wishing for encouraging and supportive leadership and saying ‘well done’.  

  • PART 1:
    • 02:40 Path via teaching to a PhD, and into academia
    • 18:50 Learning to supervise PhD students
    • 32:45 Getting to understand processes, value of reflective writing
    • 39:08 University culture, process management, monitoring attendance, supporting the student learning process
  • PART 2:
    • 1:01:09: The complete academic
    • 1:06:05: Understanding what the academic does, being efficient
    • 1:14:20 Speaking up, looking after yourself, managing time
    • 1:22:45 People management & leadership

With more detailed notes, she talks about (times approximate) …

PART 1: Path via teaching to PhD and Academia:

02:40 Janet talks about her unusual path to a research/academic career via a maths degree and high school teaching, wanting to have children and working part-time, having to change schools to do this, resigning in response to an unreasonable unfair workload demand compared to male colleagues, moving to a local college as an IT lecturer, and landing in university by pure chance to cover classes when someone went off for an operation, so never had an interview for her current job!

09:10 Moving on to do a PhD part-time while working, with four kids, cats. Well supported but no-one on university team did research. Advised to go out and meet people, get work published. First experience at Sunderland HCI conference, heard Leon Watts ask a good question and thought ‘I want to be that guy’. He was gentle, constructive, and clearly coming with deep knowledge. Dead cool!

13:25 Got PhD. And got the bug (not the book :-)). Got into child-computer interaction at the right time when it was accelerating. Wrote a book with Panos [Markopoulos] while doing PhD. Quite a lot of luck but also some of it active on her part going out travelling and doing things.

14:36 Every single time she asked for money for travel she got it because no-one else was asking for it. So had opportunities. Sad thing now about how PhD work is funded in the UK as doesn’t typically come with travel funding so doesn’t support the process of delivering a really useful researcher at the end of. So was lucky, met some great people, made friends with everybody.

15:40 Lots of networking, mainly with men, over beers; much less good at networking with women. Went to a couple of women meetings and they felt a bit like moan fests and didn’t want to be somewhere with just women but lot of women in academia felt they could only go in women spaces. Networks better with women who don’t have a gendered position.

16:34 And British HCI Community was really good to her. Joined committee, went to conferences. But the changing academic situation means that regional things like this become less important and people don’t publish there so much and then the community I lost which is a shame. When she first started, BHCI was well regarded. Now they go to one conference a year and send students to regional conferences but they don’t get to meet senior people.

Learning to supervise PhD students:

18:50 Now been trying to run PhD schools at their university to invite PhD students from the UK as networking for the students. PhD system in the UK is broken. Can’t get PhD students from EPSRC grant money and push for doctoral training centres (DTC) so puts all students in one place, turns out cloned set of PhD students, any uni that doesn’t have a DTC becomes second rated. What you want is a student working with a supervisor who is passionate to get that work done. Ultimate success story. If you have a supervisor with 10 students they’re not getting s good experience from that. Once read you can’t supervise more than 6 students at the one time ideally. At times she has had 14! Crazy. Currently has four. Would like to have 3 full-timers and a couple of part-timers. Currently 1 full-time, 1 part-time, 2 overseas, and named on a couple of others.

21:40 Learning to supervise students? Back when she did her PhD, had a dedicated supervisor. At time her PhD finished he quit and department had just Janet left to take on supervisions as she had a PhD and was research active. So she took on being director of studies of three other PhD students he was supervising, felt a rookie. Happy to take them on. At the uni, was supposed to put people on teams so they could get some experience. But didn’t want to get people put on teams if they couldn’t do the work. A tension there. Wrote an essay on this: ‘Supervise to fit or fit to supervise?’. Also read papers on supervision, and so not going to be beaten down on decision not to put people on just for their ‘tick’ box.

24:43 So went out and found three friends, experienced professors in the UK, to help out on these supervisions. They did this for free. Great. They were all different and she learnt from them. One was like a butterfly thinker. Absolutely brilliant at the beginning of a PhD, though less brilliant these days. Would work with a part-time PhD more than a full-time. Others were better at sitting back and letting the student say what they wanted to do and gently pushing them back to where they thought they should go. Some more hands off, some more hands on. Students all different too so might be different for different students. Learn as you go along. Supervision changes.

26:40 Core lessons around supervision? Maybe a bit of a dinosaur but still maintain that you should be supervised by someone who is an active researcher, who is publishing, and who knows the community you are publishing in. Should be no supervision under that line. Need to know methods, how they publish, what others are doing. But prevalent in universities. Many years ago made a ‘Doing a PhD with me’ booklet, saying here’s what you can expect. When she was first supervised didn’t know what her supervision team brought, how she worked with the, publishing protocols, their limitations. Will tell them what her experience and style is. Lays it out. They also have to express what they think they’re getting. It’s kind of like a contract, as a trigger for a conversation. Where you start from important. Was asked to reflect by Head of Department on PhD success, what made some more successful than others, what they were doing as a team, about supervision process. Had a big conversation about that. One of the key things was also understanding what skills the student brought.

30:50 Got to do a Doctoral Consortium when she did her PhD. And they asked them to line in order of how far into PhD. Struck her though that years into a PhD is not a good measure. Was about understanding your maturity. So how do you figure out how far you are in PhD? And how to know you are finished? Has another booklet on ‘How do I know I’m ready to be examined for a PhD’. Has a checklist. And has a cosy model around progress. Written up somewhere. About assessing how much you know, how famous you are, how significant your work is, against learning outcomes for a PhD.

Getting to understand processes, reflective writing practice:

32:45 Influence of teaching background? Early days could teach without a lot of paperwork, but now unis are doing this too. Quite analytical because a mathematician at heart. So likes to understand processes. Knows they’re noise but likes to try to tidy them up. Detangling problems, step-by-step as you do in teaching maths. So says build a website, being published, meeting your community, identifying your heroes. And from this had a charm bracelet, could win charms. Has used this in Doctoral Consortium. What students want there are your pearls, your wisdom, the nuggets. So used the charm bracelet in a BHCI consortium to try to help them understand the low/high points, that it is a journey, understanding that others have done it. So has a gun for the night when you felt like shooting yourself, a rope when you have untangled a really complex problem. Used as props to help people understand the process. If only there were props for academic writing. All academics should have charm bracelet. When started PhD had a fight to get topic agreed at the uni. Wrote an essay about being in the tunnel and not coming out (reflecting a Thomas the Tank Engine story).

37:45 Reflective writing? Comes and goes. One of aims is to build a blog page. But then thinks has to write something. Had done the 750 words/day challenge, spent a week reflecting on teaching with students (teaching in Hanoi). Good to express. Sometimes have to rant but not to the wrong people.

University culture, process management, monitoring attendance, understanding the student learning process:

39:08 Don’t work in the greatest university in the world, ok, a modern university so has modern uni behaviours, like no confidence in itself or its academics, doesn’t trust the academics, everything has to be double checked, quality audited. Creeping to old ones too. But in that space has great colleagues, who will stop her when she gets to the ‘quit’ moments. Have honest conversations. Gets grumpy about justice issues, wants things to be adequately explainable. Gets angry about things in the background, shady dealing. Believes we should be entirely transparent, justify what we do. A lot in many universities is decided by a little gaggle of men in the corridor, sometimes women. A lot of decision making without reasonable or adequate awareness of other people and not being involved in the decisions.

41:30 Interesting thing about women, not just women, a family thing going on. Putting in for an Athena Swan thing. About realizing people with any caring responsibilities – sometimes less likely to get involved in these peripheral things but this is where things happen. Even promotions, promoting people they feel are safe. Would be interesting to turn it upside down and let the professors run the place. Would have happier staff, people feeling that someone actually understood what they wanted to do, a set of processes. The amount of process management has probably doubled in the last four years. Gone crazy. And the responsibility devolved down to staff from above a tragedy, nobody has thought about the quality of teaching or student experience. Equate student experience with attendance and grades. Who cares if they are attending if they are engaged with the learning process in any way that suits them. Instead have an attendance rule. Had a rule they had to sign in to classes. She would say ‘sign in and leave’ if it was clear they didn’t want to be there. Can’t do that anymore. Have to swipe in with electric cards. All pretend activities that make someone in uni think the students are engaged. What happens when your managers don’t understand education and the modern student. The modern student is not the student the academics were when they were at uni. She used to go to only 4 classes a week herself, got to the end of the year, crammed, got through. Top 5% can get away with this. Wrong approach, how can we give our students good experiences they can learn from.

47:05 Talks of own kids going through uni. Eye opener to see the other side of the learning process - given powerpoints, Moodle, then exam at the end of the year. How do you find what you want to revise when they are all on Moodle. Can’t search. She now chooses to stack her ppt slides so one set of slides at the end so they can search on it. Other thing is student email. No student reads email. But we talk to them via email. So we completely misunderstand them. Doesn’t know the answer. Communication is a challenge. The answer is not to not understand the student.

49:20 Deadlines at midnight Sunday. Then they get sick Sunday afternoon but can’t contact the tutor. Deadlines should be on a weekday. Only come to that knowledge by observing, saw this with her own daughter who got a migraine at the weekend and couldn’t email the tutor. Universities typically lag behind the school system. Predictive scoring, personalized learning trajectory. Can criticize. Uni just starting, trying to show student at risk. These work in schools where you have a relationship with your teacher but doesn’t map to the uni environment.

53:14 Brought in originally to deal with Tier 4 students on visa who have to be in attendance – government made it the university problem, they have a legal requirement to mark attendance. Now mark everyone to not discriminate. Stephen Fry, one of the smartest guys on the planet, he never attended at Cambridge. Think in the future unis will start to credit learning from somewhere else, dual role in giving out knowledge. An interesting way to think of unis. Has read history of unis. First unis in Germany. Prof would announce a lecture on topic. People came to listen. People access their education because they are curious. Now end up with a curriculum. John Ruskin, great philosopher’s story. Once with a curriculum, hard to get credits. Versus making your own curriculum.

57:30 Quality – remember being shown a graph of number of first class degrees awarded by competitors. They were lower. Drive about not giving out enough firsts. Policy changes. Now give out more firsts. In the UK, 70 was a first. Now closer to 80. Classification of degrees an interesting space. A tool for governments. Same with PhDs. Can be a broad difference but considered enough. Also does external examining of courses. I do believe you have to be a complete academic. And will say about standards and say “you are overmarking”. 

PART 2: The complete academic:

1:01:09 What makes a complete academic? Teaching, research, administration, outreach. Have to teach some of the time. Have to do research. Good friend Scott MacKenzie says research isn’t research until it is published. Some outreach. Just finished doing 5 weeks in a school. STEM important. Innovation strand because if only writing papers, not making a difference. By making or changing something. Likes the impact agenda of the REF. The REF in the UK (research excellence framework) a lot wrong with it, have to capture publications that are ranked, just gone through a big review, the Stern Review. Downside of ranking that uni equates whether a publication is ref-able so if you want to go to the British Computer Society can’t go because it isn’t counted (though REF doesn’t say this).  National conferences low in the ratings. Impact agenda – have to tell a story. Likes that. Hard but it says your research does more than just an academic paper. People can play the game too.

1:04:26 Has to write two impact cases in next two days. In her group, all say together, brainstormed, came down to four, now wanting to invest in these. But need money. Great work with children in India, Mumbai, in Africa. Put in for money to do this but didn’t get it. If in a big institution have lots of people behind her. Also discusses lead in time that no-one notices.

Understanding what the academic does, being efficient:

1:06:05 We do have a problem right through the whole system understanding what the academic does. So the complete academic probably collapses on a Friday evening with a glass of wine. And get up on a Saturday and start doing work. Has spent a lot of time reading time management books. Has conversations in her group, most have young families, she now has young grandchildren. Sometimes just want to have coffee with a daughter. Nice to be able to do those things. Has four children, when two youngest were little, older ones noticed, 9yr old said “Mum when you are working at home, the children don’t know if you are being a mum or not.”. Says to group don’t work at home when you are being a parent. Look after the kids or work from home. Productivity Ninja book – says there are different types of work you can do. Can decide to delete your inbox as low effort job. And another great book called Deep Work. Talks about how people do deep work. Deep work is the valuable work for academics, completely engrossed. Really hard thing for academics is finding that deep work space because there’s so much noise and clutter. Can be in the building for 8 hours and come home and not think she has done anything.

1:10:05 Has all these sheets at home, when children were young and doing her own PhD. Printed out on A4 paper. Would count in and count out the hours.  Counting in if had overworked. Had a nice female head of dept, once said, ‘Janet if you can do 100% of the job in 80% of the time because you are super-efficient, then don’t feel you have to fill the other 20%.”. She is efficient can do full time job in 3 days. If you are good at your job, if you are not careful you have this terrible protestant work ethic guilt and what else can you take on. Very subconscious. Academics find it very hard to accept doof (?) work. Clears work before holidays. Doesn’t think about work. But we're really bad at understanding and giving ourselves rewards [when we get things done with time to spare]. Trick is to work fast 3 days a week and then walk in the hills. Shouldn’t have to justify that. Last head of department said they were interested in outcomes not hours. But that is hard. Many years struggling with children etc. Feel guilty that she had to make up the time. Management problem to deal with people who also take 7 days to do 5 days work, helping them do good enough work on a job.

Speaking up, looking after yourself, managing time

1:14:20 Sometimes go into carnage, meltdown. Fascinated especially about academics as never really studied. Has a bullet journal book, makes a list of projects, when she has 53 projects, recognises too many, and that’s when you go the head and say you are in carnage, important to be able to do this. Example June 17, emailed head of dept and said I am going to be in carnage next semester because she had looked ahead. Smart academics, look ahead. Needed something taken off her. Didn’t happen. So carnage did happen. But she could say she had warned them. In academia this sort of thing isn’t taken seriously. People have to be honest. IT’s the number of projects you end up, not necessarily the size. Saddest thing then is that things that really matter get left. The book you are trying to write. Deep work. Importance of protecting that time. Shut up and write days. Protect your time, protect your space. Another colleague, taking the journalistic approach to writing, writing every day.

1:17:40 Interesting when you go into academia, no-one tells you these things. You have to find them out. Why does no-body learn. You have to look after yourself. Does some sewing, sailing in the summer, running. For a little while did the miracle morning. Meditation, affirmations, visualisations. Has moments when she goes on off things. Meditation, read on the bus. Don’t pretend I am magic. Sometimes on a roll. Great productive day. Other days a rubbish day. Every so often you get on top of things. Great under pressure. Written 5-6 big EU grants. Never got one but likes writing them with great team. Deadline juices it. If you need the adrenaline to get it out of you, hard to get started early. Other people can never work like that, need everything ready 6 days before. Have to understand the people around you. Have to understand each others’ team practices and how you want to work. Collaborative management task.

1:21:25 Think the Uni assumes people don’t have anything scheduled apart from teaching. And will suddenly put a meeting on the Wed and say you have to come, telling you on a Mon. Easy to say I’ll come because it is scheduled. That’s a trick you have to learn, to say no I have actually something that is more important than your meeting and stick to that. Talks of another book ‘Lean In’ – often listens to self help books when she goes running. Play them over again. Sandberg said she would put an appointment in her diary that sounded like something else when she wanted to go home.  About protecting time.

People management & leadership

1:22:45 Not person managed at a university. One daughter a manager at Clarks. Manages a team. -he is such a good manager. Hadn’t understood management until she watched her daughter doing management. That is active person management. She gets the best out of those people. Thinks to herself “Why have I not had the luxury of that kind of management”. Even her appraisal processes are really robust but at universities you don’t get any of that. All a bit ad hoc. Would have thought the least you would do is … not manage as in manage … but it’s the encouragement, understanding individual needs, motivate, say well done. Wouldn’t it be nice to get a “well done” from time to time. The other day emailed boss to say “hi had a great day today…” and did get an email back saying great. But want a little bit of encouragement. They have a finish tape (like on school sports days) and anyone who finishes something they’ve been struggling with can come and get the finish tape and tape it to their door to prove they finished something. And have certificates and rosettes ‘great work’. But the university don’t do this. Partly because of idea of academic freedom. Not really true. But also this idea that no-one quite knows what you are doing.

1:25:35 Final comments “I love my job” 87% of the time. I hate it when I am expected to do administrative tasks, not a snob about tasks, but they used to be done by administrative people. Think that is the administrative creep going on. Hate it when endeavours, hers and people she identifies with, are thwarted by some sort of random decision making that happens elsewhere (government, university). Derailing. Other 87% it’s a great job. “Still enjoy my job.”. If she didn’t like it she would quit. Lucky to have a spectacularly good team of people. Could be …. But a great team of people. Has some Readers promoted. Maybe you end up working with nice people because you are lucky, or you create the culture of being with nice people. Would love to manage them really. Management versus leadership. Leader is at the back, making sure no-one is getting lost. About enabling, helping people do things. Have done a course, read about leadership. Very few good books on academic leadership, partly because the context is so different. How do you help them bring out what they are good at. One of heads as leaving, said “Whatever you do you’re a star, continue shining, but don’t do admin, you’re rubbish at it.” Sometimes we don’t want to hear the reality of what we should and shouldn’t be doing. One of the tricks of leadership is helping people understand what they should be doing, what they’re bad at and could be fixed, and what things they should avoid at all costs. Got to know people, understand them.

1:30:34 End

Related Links

Janet Read - https://www.uclan.ac.uk/staff_profiles/professor_janet_read.php

People mentioned:

Leon Watts - http://www.cs.bath.ac.uk/leon/

Scott MacKenzie - http://www.yorku.ca/mack/

Janet’s book: Child computer interaction: advances in methodological research” Panos Markopoulos, Janet Read, Johanna Hoÿsniemi, Stuart MacFarlane. Springer.  https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10111-007-0065-0

Resources Janet has created:

Essay ‘Supervise to fit or fit to supervise?’

Booklet ‘Doing a PhD with me’

Booklet ‘How do I know I’m ready to be examined for a PhD’

Paper on cosy model

Charm bracelet

UK initiatives:

Athena Swan - https://www.ecu.ac.uk/equality-charters/athena-swan/

UK REF - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Research_Excellence_Framework

Stern Review of the REF: https://www.bisa.ac.uk/files/Consultations/ind-16-9-ref-stern-review.pdf

Books mentioned:  

 “How to be a productivity Ninja: Worry less, achieve more and love what you do.” Graham Allcott. https://www.amazon.com/How-Productivity-Ninja-Worry-Achieve/dp/1848316836         

 “Deep Work: Rules for focused success in a distracted world” Cal Newport. https://www.amazon.com/Deep-Work-Focused-Success-Distracted/dp/1455586692

 “Lean In: Women, work and the will to lead” Sheryl Sandberg. https://www.amazon.com/Lean-Women-Work-Will-Lead/dp/0385349947