Lindsay Oades on academic wellbeing, connecting to strengths, meaning and purpose, and not taking the system too seriously

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Lindsay Oades is a Professor at the University of Melbourne, where he is also the Director of the Centre for Positive Psychology at the Melbourne Graduate School of Education.  He has co-edited the Wiley Blackwell Handbook of the Psychology of Positivity and Strengths-Based Approaches at Work. I caught up with Lindsay in Budapest at the 2018 European Positive Psychology Conference and was keen to talk to him because of his expertise in positive organisations and taking a systems perspective to promoting wellbeing at work. In this conversation we talk about his own experiences of changes in the academic sector, and his key learnings getting to full professor. We also talk about what positive psychology can contribute to academic work environments and wellbeing, covering issues around values, purpose and meaning, strengths, promotion processes, performance reviews, job crafting, and academic leadership. Listen out for his great terms like ‘academic feudalism’ and ‘justificationism’.

We got so caught up in the conversation that neither of us noticed that his microphone had dropped so there is about 5 mins towards the end when he is talking about job crafting. If his distant voice is too difficult to hear, stay on to the end of the podcast where I repeat what he said word for word. The verbatim text is also below for that section.

“Don’t take it too seriously, don’t get sucked into the rumination and the competitiveness that people go through, and the valuing of each other based on the academic gaze.”

“A lot of academics mistake seriousness with excellence.”

“I…coped through…humour, patience, relationships, being in good teams, being quite purposeful…about why I was doing it, so I didn’t have an instrumental view of academia of publications for publication sake, grants for grants sake.”

“Academics love autonomy. The best way to manage academics is to get out of their way.”

Overview:

01:30 Background

09:00 Changing challenges of academic life

16:45 Key learnings getting to full professor

25:30 Values, purpose, meaning and the promotion processes

32:40 Well-being and academia, and how considered academics create to absurd systems

41:00 What Positive Psychology is about, and how it impacts his management role

50:05 Taking a strengths-based developmental approach to performance reviews and job crafting

1:02:57 Final thoughts – towards the positive university

And in more detail, he talks about (times approximate) …

1:30 Lindsay talks about the different phases of his career, from clinical psychology, to doing an MBA and then moving to a business school, and now moving “from negative to positive, from individual to larger system”, an evolution in scale, and what systems thinking offers for him. From health to wellbeing to business to education.

Changing challenges of academic life

9:00 The changes he has seen in academic life over the course of his career – huge. Increased in student numbers, internationalization, reduced funding, more managerial/commercial style, contracting of competitive funding, freezing of PhD scholarship levels and students having to work much more. Quite a different place. What hasn’t changed is the undervalue that the Australian culture places on academics. Anti-intellectualism. Thinks intellectual life valued more in some parts of North America and Europe and popular media. Changes have led to fewer positions, skepticism about ability to develop careers, larger teaching loads, multiple people scrambling for small amounts of money (academic feudalism). “You see these so called good minds spending huge amounts of time to get access to $10K…relatively small amounts of money”. “A lot of academics are very detailed oriented people, what I’d call naive rationalists, they think they are going to get a solution through reasoning and then get frustrated when politics or economics knocks them around.”

13:30 Own experience? His academic vantage point quite different as professor and director of a centre. Reflects on when he was a lecturer, dealing with teaching load and applying for funding, but was doing more applied research so used consultancies as a way of generating funding to side-step the feudalism. A deliberate decision. Institution allowed him to have a slush fund. But not all academics or disciplines are able to do this. Still went for competitive grants but now with a base level source.

Key learnings getting to full professor

16:45 Key learnings getting to full professor? Patience. Not taking the system too seriously because academic life can be very disheartening. A lot of academics would say this, that they feel very undervalued by their own institution and most of the recognition they get is from people they don’t see, from overseas who recognize the quality of your work, yet in your own institution you are told you are not producing enough or teaching enough classes or whatever. So this weird local invalidation and validation from someone a long way away. So don’t seek validation in the wrong place. And remembering what a university is, this incredibly resilient organization. They’re 8 or 900 year old institutions. They do this partly through the slowness of themselves. A lot of academics mistake seriousness with excellence. The constant workload and multiple roles that academics have to cross between teaching, research, community engagement and administration, without a lot of understanding – most think of academics as a teacher. So no real understanding of what academics do. What he learnt was probably a light touch, non-grasping view of what it is, don’t take it too seriously, don’t get sucked into the rumination and the competitiveness that people go through, and the valuing of each other based on the academic gaze. Finds it comical at times. Valuing the absurdity.

21:45 Need to find good mentors, get into good teams. A lot his good research output is from being in good teams. And a healthy skepticism and sardonic humour. When he was younger, he felt academia was ageist. Couldn’t achieve criteria for professor unless you had time. “I’ll keep doing what I’m doing because I’ll get to professor anyway because age will take of it.” So somewhat of an ageism in the way it is structured, the system values declarative knowledge that comes with age. So he probably coped through a bit of humour, patience, relationships, being in good teams, being quite purposeful, “I’ve always had my own purpose about why I was doing it, so I didn’t have an instrumental view of academia of publications for publication sake, grants for grants sake.” So a non-instrumental approach. Care about it. Always been attracted to ideas and learning. Love of learning is one his number one strengths. Conceptually strong. Good with ideas. That comes naturally, easier for him than some other people. That combined with a value and purpose for why I’m doing it, that has buoyed him along.

Values, purpose, meaning and the promotion processes

25:30 In a team at Centre for Positive Psychology at the University of Melbourne, 17 people. A very values and purpose driven group of people. He has some very clear things he is working towards, helping other people, changing systems in service of well-being. So quite purpose, meanings-based initiatives. Keeps those close. And reminds himself. So no surprise he is attracted to ideas like impacts rather than h-indices and metrics of how we stack up against others. One of the frustrating things about that when going for promotion- it is very extrinsically focused. He didn’t like the psychological impact because it took him away from what he valued about what he was doing. But having to report on all the extrinsic things that don’t connect to love of learning or meaningful impact you are trying to have. [27:40]. Lower down the tree it was the external impacts. But now at professor it was about being able to get on committees, have an impact. He calls it rampant justifactionism.

29:07 His ideal promotion process? Prefers whole of career approach, more portfolio-based, less constrained of how you have to fit yourself into a box. Stories would provide more mechanism for people to tell their stories. Using other media to make the case in more variegated and meaningful ways. From a managerial point of view, one of the ways to exploit the workforce where people love their work. It’s a strength of the workforce but also makes it easier to exploit them. It’s a danger for people who love what they are doing.

Well-being and academia, and how considered academics create to absurd systems

32:40 Well-being impacts? Has been involved in surveys of academic and managerial staff. Academic experiences different to other sectors. Has seen in the data academics have high levels of workload and stress but reasonably high levels of job satisfaction. That says there is another variable accounting for that – some value they are getting through their work. Meaning, impact, connection. And not the place to go if money is your key driver. The triggers for the stress? A lot of factors – individual, institution, department. Which institution, which faculty? Different pressures. At the individual level, obsessiveness, narcissism, perfectionism – we see these in academics, we select for these qualities too. Overthinkers, good but if overused it is problematic. All these things play out. “One-on-one I find academics generally very nice people, easy to relate to, usually quite kind and considered people. Yet the systems we create and inherit can be kind of absurd.” And it is at the individual level, the considered academic is good. But put them in committees to make decisions and they can’t make a decision and they develop systems that provide justifications. So the systems they create are not that effective. The effect is that it slows everything down. So one-on-one good people, well-intentioned people, smart people, but not always smart in the sense that they understand organizational life. Some serious problems with that that need re-dressing.

What Positive Psychology is about, and how it impacts his management role.

41:00 Positive Psychology – science of optimal human functioning, taking a strengths-based approach in the service of wellbeing. Historically a re-dressing of a deficits-based focus of psychology.

42:55 Impact of PP on how he plays out his role? All understand the language, have the expertise. But rest of the uni don’t have that language. And still a knowledge-behaviour gap in how they manage their own wellbeing, purpose etc. Everyone in the team has a wellbeing coach, wellbeing in the context of the strategy of the centre. Some take more a physical health approach. Others trying to manage their own perfectionism, change their mental attitude about how much they have to work. Ever since he had kids, he doesn’t work weekends. When he told team members they were shocked because they had themselves in the habit of working weekends. Not a sustainable practice. The critical point for him was having kids.

48:05 Another example: they have 8 people here at the conference, an expense to the centre, his view is that there is a wellbeing component to it. “My problem with my staff is not do they work hard, but do they work too much.” So this is an opportunity for them to have time to get sustained, rejuvenated. Not about reductionist managerialism/ROI.

Taking a strengths-based developmental approach to performance reviews and job crafting

50:05 At performance reviews, ask people what are they really trying to do, where are they trying to go. Have authentic candid conversations about what do people really want to do. What’s in this for them. People are varied. How do we enable different career trajectories? About knowing the people you are working with, and appointing them to match the role you want them to play. A problem though in the way universities appoint. He hasn’t formally done strengths-based recruitment but they have done teams-based strengths assessments with VIA and Realise2. Get individual profiles. And also get a team-based profile. “Academics love autonomy. The best way to manage academics is to get out of their way. If you want to manage a wild beast, give it a large paddock. …Academics love autonomy but they also love a rationale.” What Self Determination Theory tells us about this.  Autonomy doesn’t mean anything goes. Have some external research income targets to hit. Not negotiable. How do we do it. Then let the smart people do it. Don’t tell them they have to have micro-managed parts. They’ll usually find a way.

55:50 [Lindsay’s microphone dropped down here so the audio is not so clear. Here is a word for word transcript as best I could hear]

56:23 You have to do this both individually and as a group and I’ve been trying to push this strategy document so people can see where they fit into where we want to go. And that takes time.

[Turning the lens back to academia?]

It sounds really trite but the evidence bears it out. Fundamentally people at work often feel undervalued, in general or by their immediate boss. So simple things about what do you actually value about your staff and have you told them and in what medium have you told them. So that is number one.  And number two would be the stuff we talked before about strengths. Have you actually had conversations with staff about their role and the job description and how it can be crafted so that they can use their strengths more than they currently are. And that might take time as well because there are organizational constraints, that you have to deliver this or get this class taught or we’ve got to generate that income or we’ve got to get that contract done. So while at this moment we can’t get you exactly fully there at least have that conversation so there is a plan of how it is going to migrate there and those conversations are really important. Because again with academics, if there is a rationale and there has been a conversation, they will probably accept it for a while if there is good intent. So there’s a couple of things there, enabling them to feel valued and enabling them to use their strengths and mould their work, job craft their work from a strengths base.

[Doing that for each other too?]

59:03 I think too if you look at the history of the universities as well, they’ve been gendered so you have rationalist males that might not see the value of some of the stuff I was just talking about.  And […] they might not have had the skills for how to do it. And I don’t mean that in a nasty way. People have different skills. If academic life was originally a very cognitive, individual endeavor, you go into your room and do your work. That was old academia for a lot of people. This new academia, looking after people, many many more women in the academic workforce, also culturally much more externally focused than it used to be, much more community engaged, more demands from students, I wouldn’t say more demands, students have been enabled to give more feedback and they do expect a higher level of teaching quality. So a whole range of things that are different to how they have been.

[Loved job crafting, same job, but control, choices] And by job crafting I don’t just mean offloading your teaching. [Specific example of job crafting?]

1:00:53 Yeah there are a few. In academic life there is obviously research and teaching but the …it may be changing the type of teaching you are doing at a subject level or also gradually doing more research led teaching or face-to-face teaching or particular type of teaching like workshop style, lecture style. Or gradually trying to move to more admin and leadership roles but doing in a way that uses my particular skills or strengths. [end of lost mic – shorter notes continue]

1:02 So there are different types job crafting might look like – tasks, relationships, So different forms of what job crafting can look like. So different ways. Enabling people to take charge of their work life, their career. Academics are sophisticated people. They think a lot and they are willing to work hard. So it’s about capturing that.

Final Thoughts

1:02:57 Currently trying to champion the idea of positive universities. People usually just think of student wellbeing. But it is broader than that – student wellbeing, staff wellbeing, positive organizational practices. How do we take science of wellbeing approaches and apply them to universities? A group of universities around the world currently thinking about it. A bigger picture way of looking at it. He has a paper called “towards positive universities” about how to do it at a tangible level. When people talk about wellbeing, they think it’s the positive experience, feeling happy, but don’t take the functioning bit. Wellbeing from a eudemonic perspective involves positive functioning, growth, virtue. Wellbeing includes good functioning, not just feeling good but functioning well and doing well. That’s where the meaning and purpose part plays a big role. Big changes coming. Universities resilient, they adapt. Not as simple as the commercial arrangement would suggest.

Student wellbeing programs still deficit focused. Working on wellbeing literacy. We don’t have a way to communicate about wellbeing. Positive attributes. More than the absence of anxiety and depression. Wellbeing in the broader sense –where students can communicate about what is self-regulation, what is using strengths, what is wellbeing, what is meaning, what is purpose, and communicate in a way that is meaningful for them. Having senior leaders able to see this relationship between wellbeing and performance and communicate this to staff and students explicitly and implicitly.

01:10:46 Repeat of the content where Lindsay’s microphone dropped

01:14:43 End

Related Links

Lindsay Oades: http://www.lindsayoades.com

Centre for Positive Psychology, Melbourne Graduate School of Education: https://education.unimelb.edu.au/cpp

9th European Conference on Positive Psychology 2018: https://ecpp2018.akcongress.com  

Barbara Frederickson’s Broaden and Build Theory: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Broaden-and-build

VIA character strengths: https://www.viacharacter.org

Strengths Profiler Realise2: http://www.ppquarterly.org/portfolio/realise2-next-generation-strengths-assessment/ Now Capp: the strengths experts https://www.capp.co/Home

Self Determination Theory: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Self-determination_theory; http://selfdeterminationtheory.org

Job Crafting: https://positivepsychologyprogram.com/job-crafting/

Book & Papers:

Oades, Steger, Delle Fave, Passmore (eds), “The Wiley Blackwell Handbook of the Psychology of Positivity and Strengths-Based Approaches at Work”

https://www.wiley.com/en-gb/The+Wiley+Blackwell+Handbook+of+the+Psychology+of+Positivity+and+Strengths+Based+Approaches+at+Work-p-9781118977651

Oades, Robinson, Green & Spence, “Towards a Positive University”: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/17439760.2011.634828?journalCode=rpos20

Oades & Johnston, “Wellbeing literacy: The necessary ingredient in positive education”. https://juniperpublishers.com/pbsij/pdf/PBSIJ.MS.ID.555621.pdf

Jan Gulliksen on middle management, leading autists, and building values and trust… with drama

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Jan Gulliksen is a Professor in Human Computer Interaction and Vice President for Digitalization at KTH in Stockholm Sweden, among various other national and international leadership roles. He was also Dean of school for 7 years and we talk here mostly about his experiences and thoughts on middle management and academic leadership. He shares his personal development as a leader as well as some practical strategies, many using techniques from his background in theatre and drama, for example, in how to read and interact with people, or in using improv theatre to create insight and shift values around PhD supervision.  We also touch on a range of other issues including the nature of academic freedom, building organisational values, the importance of 2-way trust, what makes good role models, the problems with meetings, the ‘too’ in working too much, and much more.

"You are building an organisation and you are actually building values. This is probably the single most important thing…around the values that you are bringing…and trust is then intimately connected to these values."

"Everybody should be able to play in the organisation on equal terms."

"I never say I work too much. It’s when people add that word ‘too’ that it becomes a problem…claiming [it’s] more than they want to [and] not in control of setting that. But...it is always our own choices how many tasks we take on."

"We have too many [meetings] that don’t contribute and don’t make efficient use of people’s time."

Overview: He talks about (times approximate) …

1:30 Jan introduces his background and current role.

3:27 He notes the values embedded in my question about his choice to do more strategic impact and management work. Discusses being in management roles for the last 10 years and motivation for doing this. Got a management role of 45 people as part of his package when he moved to KTH. Must have done well as he was then promoted to Dean two years after, which is not the obvious way to do this as usually appoint older people. A former colleague said “Jan are you going to be a dean? But you’re actually a good researcher!”. Fascinating because it showed the values that says doing leadership or management is not considered as prestigious or as good as other things. He finds this strange.

6:35 Strategic choice for management an option? But we don’t always do strategic choices. Discusses how we didn’t use to have metrics or Google Scholar and no-one was talking about citations etc then. So you can look at different people in the past who happened to make choices that benefit them now eg in high h-indexes but they were lucky to have made that choice. He believes that leadership roles should be valued much more. He didn’t do leadership as a prestigious thing but because he thinks he has something he can contribute and wants to be part of shaping how we do these things.

8:45 Formal training for leadership roles? Yes. He really likes these internal training programs. Started with pedagogical training courses because they were rewarding and he learnt new things. Inspiring and wanted more. What came next were different types of leadership courses. Every time you join a leadership course, half of it is about leadership, the other half is about personal development. So that was a way to use these courses to mature and reflect on how you. Joined every leadership course he did at Uppsala. And when he came to KTH, joined their leadership courses. Final step was that he went to INSEAD and did their advanced management program for a full month which is something that shapes you up a bit. He also joined as a mentor for others which is also a way of developing.

11:05 What were the personal qualities that made the role a good fit? Jan finds an enjoyment in seeing other people’s development. That’s why PhD supervision is the most fun and rewarding thing academics do. Similarly the thing he likes with management roles is not what people would think. Now that he has gone from dean to Vice President, he used to have staff responsibility for more than 400 people but as vice president has no staff responsibility. People say ‘lucky you’ but he thinks that is the most rewarding part, the between 4-eyes meeting with staff, mutually solving problems to help their development. Much more fun than working on strategic plans or management group meetings that you also need to do. Typically HR issues is the biggest part of leadership roles.

14:00 Practical skills he brought? One of his backgrounds that he uses a lot in his leadership role or any role is that he started out with theater and drama. Wanted to be an actor, director. Read a lot, did a lot. Learnt a lot. Uses that knowledge every day without being aware of it, reading people’s eyes, trying to watch what is happening from the outside as a director, shape what is happening there, simply by how you phrase things and speak you can control the stage there. Thinks drama should be one of the core subjects for schools. Can use that knowledge to control your voice, your body, how you pause, create awareness by being silent and being ready to be silent for a longer time than you do. Both reading, seeing, observing and then also turning it into something you do yourself. Classes on improvisation, and how they make the story line continue etc but clear rules on how you make an improvisation that you need to follow to develop the story. These happen in real life.

19:15 Subtle herding of cats, or leading clever people? Management book, writing about management from a conductor’s point of view (Esa-Pekka Salonen). Leading artists. Which is bit like herding cats. He felt that when he became Dean. Wants to do a follow up, leading autists, simply based on the experience of leadership in academia. Can seem like an insulting title but clearly have brilliant people, many of whom probably have some cognitive special skills, that makes you need to be more aware of your leadership skills. Another aspect of academia that should be debated much more, compared to leadership in business or public sector, and that is the concept of academic freedom. Academic freedom means nobody should influence you on what types of methods or research questions you use but many academics, particularly the higher you get up in the academic career, would want the concept of academic freedom to be read as “I don’t have a boss, nobody should tell me what to do” rather than it is about your research and the freedoms in relation to that. So management in that sense becomes very complicated because you are supposed to be a manger of people who are of course highly skilled, more skilled than you are in their particular topics but still there are things you can contribute to their development. This is something that probably will change in the future because he doesn’t think it is a sustainable solution to have universities run in the leaves of the organization and where the management roles don’t have any opportunity to steer or control how things are happening. He has heard something said about a president at a university that when they make a decision it is heard as a statement in an ongoing debate. This is bad as it means a president can’t make any decision and how can you develop and change a business if that is the perspective.

23:50 Business of academia? Discussion of different way that the term ‘business’ is used. In Swedish have the word ‘verksamhet’ which is best translated into English as business but it is a concept about ‘work activity’ but more than that. Wants English to inherit that word. So talking about teaching, management tasks.

27:20 Navigating boundary, encouraging people to participate in the business of academia? Usually go to a leadership course on individual management between two people to have difficult conversations, then courses on strategic management, but really not a course for middle management and middle management probably the most tricky side of management. He has had a manager above him and is managing people so has seen this tension in the middle management role. Also works fairly well in industry but there are things that need to be developed in academia for middle management. How do you contribute to delivering on the development plans of the manager above so decisions are channeled through. But he sees this autonomy makes a management meeting on the top a tricky issue, and need to come up with a decision. Middle manager may have been fighting for the opinions of their groups but may not have got their will through and how do you deal with that. He has seen many middle managers go back to their group and instead of saying “we had discussions, made tradeoffs and agreed on this that we have to deliver”. Instead they say “I really fought for you and these stupid managers above didn’t listen to what we said so now they are forcing us to do this.” But this is not in the management spirit. He would love to see a management course to help with the struggle of that role that has contradiction in terms, fighting for subordinates upwards and then have to communicate decisions down.

32:10 A better way of doing it? Role play or drama might help you think about these different roles. When you are middle manager, you should talk much more “we”, “we made a decision, we did this” and talk about the collective of management that made the decision. But he hears instead that “he made the decision” and distancing from the decision and keep on fighting that instead of being part of the collective making that decision. As a manager of a group, need to be the advocate for the joint decisions being made and even if you didn’t like the decision, your role is to make it happen than fight against it. Need to reflect on how to tell the story about why the decision was made. We are in the trust business. So need to build that trust so people can see that different views were considered. Then eventually decisions had to be made and different tradeoffs.

37:00 Trust also works both ways. Talking about needing to trust our managers, but managers also need to be able to trust staff to work in this fashion. You are building an organization and you are actually building values. This is probably the single most important thing to do, is around the values that you are bringing – so that people like we are moving in this direction because we share a set of values in this organization and trust is then intimately connected to these values. How to do this practically? Openness and transparency is a value but you can’t be open and transparent about everything as a manager, sometimes not even allowed to be. But if generally have the notion, openness needs to work in collaboration with trust, that if we appoint someone as a leader, we need to trust the leader to take the wisest choices. Delegating the management role.  Equity also important. Everyone’s point is important and valid. The more heterogenous the group is, the better choices you actually make. It is involving every staff, students, administrative staff in management team.

42:00 Next issue is a lack of respect between faculty and administrative staff. In Swedish, the word ‘administration’ is seen as not prestigious, for the lowest in the income scale etc. But still everybody should be able to play in the organization on equal terms. How to have these conversations? In groups, coming up with concepts you can stand by. In other situations, they come in organically. Busy academics can feel these types of discussions are beyond the limit of what they can do. So may need to trick that in to get discussion. Talks about some issues related to harassment based on what people are earning. How to work with these issues? 

47:12 Did a long project over a year and a half called a Sustainable Work Environment. Could see it was working in the annual work environment survey that harassment went down and trust in management went up. PhD students felt most pressure, to work long hours, not getting enough support from professors. These were also things to discuss. Got a theater company to come, interview PhD students and supervisors. Then gathered with all supervisors with theatre company re-enacted student views, then stopped and asked for what could be done differently that was then discussed. Then re-played with the new approach. Afterwards people could really see this was for real and how difficult it was to recover. So trying to come with these things that are fun, efficient, social, these are activities to help with development.

52:20 Did a lot of activities with PhD students. A lot of their problems is with time management. Didn’t do any relaxation. Tools to get more relaxed and work with own attitudes to work and lower self-expectations. And working with the supervisors about what is reasonable and to think about how expectations are communicated. Need to talk about it in a different way. Role models? Role models usually ‘stars’. Female role models to show what you can do/become. Didn’t work out as good as getting role models that were more ordinary that people could identify with and see this path as a great outcome. Role models shouldn’t be the top people in excellence.

55:25 Working hours role models? Talks about this freedom that we have … to choose where and when to do work is something that we really should treasure and treat with dignity. And trusting people to deal with their own time properly. Better to work with people’s way of managing their own time/work. It’s your own choice. That’s the important thing. Email is what people think is their biggest work environment problem. Interested in seeing what work will be like for the next generation that don’t do email. Talks about our digital environment, being able to take work with us everywhere we go.

1:02:45 How does Jan manage that flexibility? A lot is about how happy and satisfied you are with what you are doing. So not a big problem if working too much in periods. Other periods where you don’t work as much. Would never say he works too much. It’s when people add the word ‘too’ it becomes a problem, working more than they want to work, and perhaps not in control in setting that. As academics, our own choices how many tasks we take on. We need to set reasonable levels for what we are doing. Discusses his strategies for saying yes/no. Most of tasks are ones he has chosen because he can contribute something and add value. But we also go to too many meetings. Need to think through how we do meetings. Could have done better over the years having fewer meetings. The most rewarding meetings are between 2-3 people. Big meetings cost and we have too many that don’t contribute and don’t make efficient use of people’s time.

1:07:45 Discusses his own strategies as Dean for handling meetings, collecting them on one day, some you have to have. Could have prepared meetings better to have a more efficient meeting. But schedule became too crowded to do that. And maybe didn’t delegate enough. People also didn’t open agenda before they came to the meeting. Experimented with ways of making them more efficient eg Google doc that all could contribute to, removing need for a secretary. Good for losing time to translate notes to document but created less dynamics at the meeting with people distracted by their laptop in the meeting.

1:10:34 Final thoughts – for another discussion, about engaging with politics and think there is a lot we can do there. National and international politicians and their interests in wanting to contribute to society and their openness and curiosity to get knowledge from academia. An issue of them getting access and we’re not very good at communicating with them. Also brings in selection of research topics – do they contribute to our career development or to changing the world.

1:14:15 End

Related Links

Jan’s personal web page & blog: http://jangulliksen.com

Jan’s KTH web page: https://www.kth.se/profile/jangul/

INSEAD Advanced Management Programme:

The conductor Jan referred to is Esa-Pekka Salonen and he has given several talks and seminars on leadership in relations to the orchestra - how you see the individual and look at the whole picture at the same time. We’re unable to find the book but there are several articles in the newspaper media about it but not the exact quote, such as: https://www.metro.se/artikel/stjärndirigent-leder-chefer-xr. Or he talks about his leadership here: https://www.aktuellhallbarhet.se/esa-pekka-salonen-han-vagrar-att-lamna-havet-bakom-sig/

The word “verksamhet” is untranslatable as the following statement from the dictionary in Swedish explains: https://sv.wiktionary.org/wiki/verksamhet. A Google translate of the concept brings the following: https://translate.google.com/#sv/en/verksamhet. But Jan feels that the concept of  “Operation” clearly does not capture it.

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