Wednesday, 2 January 2013

Why Wiggo

I am not an enthusiast for participatory TV shows: I do not care whether Britain has strictly got talent, an XFactor, or has to dance its way out of here, with or without an apprentice dragon. I don't usually vote in anything but general elections and those for my learned societies. But I did vote for Wiggo in BBC Sports Personality of the Year- the first time I have done such a thing. I'm also delighted that he has just been given another, rather different award, and is now Sir Wiggo, joining Sir Dave, Dame Sarah and of course Sir Chris amongst the enobled of British Cycling. Undoubtedly this will be a very popular award, even if we didnt, for once, get asked to vote this time.

So why do I, in common with so many others, feel so strongly about Bradley Wiggins' achievements and what is he doing on my blog about academia and DH? I think it is this: Wiggo represents, for me, the end of excuses. He famously said something about finding it hard to take in having won the Tour de France because that sort of thing just doesn't happen to working class boys from Kilburn. But of course it does, as does winning an Olympic Gold a few days later and all manner of awards as a result, SPOTY and the knighthood being just the latest. Wiggo is an inspiration for anyone who has ever had an ambition to do something that they believe, and perhaps others believe, is beyond them, which is why I think he has become so popular. It's also evident, if you read his books, that the kind of work he had to put in did not come naturally. He isn't the kind of person who has an innate ability to stick to a routine over a long period, and thus, despite massive talent, he was in danger of becoming another typical British also-ran, who never quite lived up to his promise. Yet he came back from almost being sacked by Team Sky, via a broken collar bone, to winning the Tour two years later. This he puts down to a mixture of a decision to work harder than he ever had, and to risk very public failure in the cause of success.

He also attributes his success to the support of those who helped him at Team Sky and British Cycling (notably Sir Dave of course). I also find them admirable because they made a commitment to success that would be based on fair means at a time when cycling was riddled with cheating and doping. Team Sky even made a public commitment to win the Tour within five years of being established, which seemed a complete impossibility at the time. Yet they did what they promised, and they and British Cycling have, arguably, surpassed all expectations. They did this by questioning everything that was done, traditionally, in cycling; looking for marginal gains in terms of kit, training, selection of riders, and the way they are looked after. Nothing was a detail too small to be questioned, to the extent that the French press were not sure whether Dave Brailsford was joking when he explained British Cycling's Olympic success as being due to very, very round wheels.

Team Sky and British Cycling also take very seriously the mental side of sport. I was privileged to meet the team psychiatrist, Steve Peters, who is a remarkable human being. He's truly dedicated to making sure that riders are in the best mental form they can be, but not by intimidation or coercion: indeed he is one of those remarkable people who just seem to exude kindness and positivity. He is proof that you can get the best performance out of people with kindness and patience, not, despite much coaching orthodoxy, by yelling at or intimidating people. Steve is a true inspiration to those who work with him. He's also an inspiration to me.

What the triumph of British Cycling and Sky shows is that questioning tradition, attending to detail and doing the right thing do work, although it is harder work than the lazy option of cheating. It's wonderfully reassuring to feel that sometimes the good guys do win and that the baddies are punished- Mr Armstrong, you know who I mean- in real life, not just in the movies. But what of Wiggo? He is certainly a good guy who did the right thing, but for me he's more than that. I think most people have a dream of what they'd really like to achieve that seems impossibly ambitious, and too far out of sight. There's always that temptation to make excuses for not trying, to say to yourself 'Well of course I'd love to do X or be Y, but you know, it could never happen to someone like me, from my background.' It's also very hard to make a public commitment to that attempt, especially if it ends, initially, in a disappointment that seems to prove the doubters right. So most of us don't try, or don't give it their all, because after all it could never happen, so why upset yourself by risking failure, and maybe make a fool of yourself in doing so? I think Wiggo's  experience puts an end to that. He dealt with the doubts, took the risks, put in the work, and achieved what had seemed impossible. A working class lad from Kilburn did win the Tour after all: what excuse is there left for the rest of us?

Thursday, 11 October 2012

Oh Pioneers!

This week I was at Manchester Metropolitan University, where I had the great honour of opening their new series of lectures about digitalhumanities. I was talking to someone there before the lecture, who said that he supposed I must be one of the pioneers of digital humanities. Of course I am very proud to be asked to give lectures such as this one, and to be identified as a well-known digital humanist, but I had to correct the misapprehension that I am a pioneer in this field. As a result, I thought it might be worth writing about this on the blog, at least briefly, because it's possible that other people who are new to digital humanities may not know about who the real pioneers of DH in the UK are.

It's a great pity that the recent growth in interest in DH has come about just as many of these men and women are coming to the end of their careers, or have retired. We, the next generation, benefit from all their hard work but there is a danger that they may not receive the credit they deserve for it. I had the great privilege to work for some of them and to get to know others as part of the digital humanities community. Even if I only confine myself to the UK pioneers, it's still pretty impressive roster. This is also only my opinion, others might want to add different names to what is probably far from an exhaustive list.

I would suggest that anyone interested in how DH really came about should read the first chapter of Susan Hockey's, still very valuable, book, Electronic Texts in the Humanities. This provides a very interesting history of the development of DH. Susan herself was, of course, one of the great pioneers of DH, and my predecessor but one as head of Department of UCL Information Studies (then SLAIS). I regard her as a very important mentor: without her support and encouragement my career could not have developed as it has. I also worked for Lou Burnard when he was head of the Humanities Computing unit at Oxford. Lou also had a huge impact on my career, since this was my first job in digital humanities. He's also had rather a significant impact on the World Wide Web, as one of the leading developers of XML markup. 

These are the two innovators in the field that I know best, however, there are others equally important and equally as eminent. For example, Harold Short, who was until recently the head of what is now the Department of Digital Humanities at King's College London (then CCH) did a huge amount to establish the discipline in the UK. Willard McCarty, of the same department is justly celebrated as a leading innovator in, and deep thinker about our field. Other celebrated pioneering UK digital humanists include Mark Greengrass and Seamus Ross who set up the DH centres at the Universities of Sheffield and Glasgow respectively when such things were the extremely rare bastions of what was, for far too long, a rather small and embattled discipline. David Robey has had a vital leadership role in DH, whether for his work as a scholar, or for the Association for Literary and Linguistic Computing and in the context of the Arts and Humanities Research Council. Also at Oxford, Alan Bowman, has also done very important work using digital techniques to aid the interpretation of  ancient manuscripts. 

Of course Marilyn Deegan, who moved from Oxford to KCL is another extremely eminent DH scholar; an inspiration to women DHers  in a field that has always been remarkably female-friendly despite its techiness. Another important female DHer (who nevertheless did not like to be defined by her gender) was Jean Anderson, who worked on linguistic copora at HATII (the Humanities Advanced Technology and Information Institute) in Glasgow, and contributed so much to the ALLC executive.

I tend to regard Andrew Prescott, the new head of DDH as a contemporary of mine since, in common with colleagues such as Melissa Terras, Lorna Hughes, John Lavagnino, and Ann Gow, he is still very much in the thick of shaping the present and future of DH in the UK. Perhaps Andrew wouldn't thank me for saying it, but actually he has a much longer history in the field than I do, given his pioneering work on the Beowulf manuscript.

Thus without looking beyond the UK to figures such as John Unsworth, and the late Antonio Zampolli it's quite easy to compile an impressive list of the genuine DH pioneers, and, as I say, this is just my own selection (Do comment and suggest others, if you'd like to) So if you're new to DH and you haven't heard of the work of the people I have discussed, I'd recommend that you find out about them as soon as possible. Like the man said, those of us in the next generation are standing on the shoulders of giants.

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Calm for Heads of Department

Over the summer, as I said in my last blog entry, I took a lot of time off. I also made the quite difficult decision not to follow a possible career path, at least for the time being. At the time I wasn't sure I had done the right thing. Now, with every day that goes by, I feel calmer, more content and less stressed about work and so I know that I have. I tweeted about this sense of relative serenity, which prompted a fellow Head of Department to ask how such a thing might be achieved. So I thought for a change that I might take inspiration from Prof Serious's occasional advice blogs and write one of my own. Obviously, these are just things that work for me- other HoDs might disagree. However, much of what follows is the result of conversations with various mentors, who have all been HoDs in their time. I hope they will be pleased to see that I'm finally trying to put their excellent advice into practice, although it has taken a while to sink in.

So, here we are: the little blog of calm for HoDs, or how to stay sane(ish) while running a department.

Learn how to say no.

Yes, everyone tells you this, but you are the HoD so you have to say yes to everything, right? Wrong. You cannot possibly do everything that's asked of you; so work out what's essential, what's desirable, and what might be nice if you had infinite time. Realise that you may only be able to do things in the first category, and maybe the second, but that life is too short for the third. Then learn to lose your guilt about telling people that you can't do what they want you to: that includes people senior to you. In fact senior managers do understand the problems you face, because lots of them have been a HoD, so they may be surprisingly sympathetic when you admit you can't do everything. If something is important, but impossible for you to achieve immediately, ask for more time, help or extra resources with which to do it. You don't have to do everything yourself, right now, nor is it actually possible. If there are no such resources, there must be legitimate questions about whether the activity really is critical.

Also realise that sometimes you will be asked to do something because you are known to be good at such things, and it would be easier for others if you said yes, just like you usually do. The person asking probably knows you are overwhelmed, and fully expects you to say no, but they have to ask. This is so that they can tell others involved in the relevant board/committee/panel/working party/conference that the obvious candidate has been approached, but can't do it, so another must be found. It is also so that you, the obvious candidate, don't get offended and huffy because nobody asked you. (Go on, admit it, you would be, even if you knew you were too busy to do it). If only, like Latin, there were different words for a question expecting the answer yes and one expecting the answer no: life would be so much simpler and more guilt-free.

Decide what you like doing, and do it.

The admin part of being HoD is pretty circumscribed, but you still have some control over the rest of your career as an academic. Work out what you enjoy and make time for that part of your job: some people love teaching, others writing, giving talks, being part of professional bodies, so be honest with yourself about what you look forward to and what you'd rather avoid. Say no to at least some of the things you don't like. If you can't dump the other stuff completely, try to change the balance in favour of things you like and are good at. If you don't want to say no outright, and it's something you'd like to do in future, postpone. Thus you can ask people to contact you again next month, term, year, or when you have finished being HoD, by which time you may have the time you currently lack. And yes, some people will always be huffy and ungracious when you say no, but try to remember that's their problem not yours.

Slow down.

Your career has almost certainly been a success so far, or you would not be HoD. But doing the job for five years will probably mean that your meteoric career progression will slow down somewhat. You will probably publish less, be able to PI fewer grants or not have time to write The Big Book: this will make you CV look less stellar. Well, stuff happens, so get used to it. It's only five years after all, and you get a year off afterwards to get back up to speed. Don't fret about what you can't change. You probably have at least 15-20 years of your career in front of you, so there's plenty of time to recover. I mean, what's the point of doing everything at breakneck speed then finding yourself in your early 40s with no professional ambitions left? (That's not actually rhetorical: if anyone has an answer, I'd be grateful if they'd share it...)

Take time off

Like most academics you have probably never taken enough of your holiday before. Start doing so now. Being HoD is a terribly pressurised existence, and you absolutely have to take time away from it to recharge and recover, or you will become steadily less effective. You might feel guilty about doing this, but as one senior person said to me last summer, you will be no use to anyone if you burn out. People work less and less efficiently the more tired they get, so if you want to do a good job and be helpful to your colleagues, you have to take time off. There is also the added benefit that your colleagues will feel that they can take holidays too. Managers who seem to work every hour of every day of the year, are, in effect, communicating to their colleagues that anything less is unacceptable for anyone who wants to be considered a success. You may not mean to do this, but you need to be aware of the, perhaps involuntary, messages you are sending if you don't take leave yourself, or spend your entire 'holiday' doing work email.

Get over the idea that the department will disintegrate in your absence. It won't, as long as you make plans about who will cover what when you are away. You will probably find that if you want to take more than a week off, you will need to plan it some time in advance. This is a good thing. It means you can tell everyone when you will be away, including colleagues, PhD students and your line manager- this gives them time to get over the shock. Do what you'd do with any other important commitment; put it in your diary, and the departmental calendar, if you have one, then keep your resolution and decline all work-based invitations to meetings etc during this period. If it's utterly essential that you are represented at a given meeting, this gives others time to rearrange or find someone else to deputise for you. Having made your decision, don't beat yourself up by comparing yourself to a fellow HoD or senior manager who seems to get by with no sleep and no holidays. That's their decision and it's their life; you don't have to do the same.

Oh and when you take time off, take time off properly. Don't even read work email, let alone reply; don't blog or tweet if you usually do so as part of your professional identity. People might find this odd, if they can't resist it themselves, but warn them in advance, then persist, and they'll get used to it. And don't read work-type books on holiday. The only way properly to relax and recover is to take it as seriously, as an activity, as you would your work.

It's only a job

Try to cultivate a sense of detachment about the job and its stresses. In the end, it is only a job, and not even a very important one at that (unless you are the very rare kind of academic who really does saves lives and cure dreadful diseases). It is not worth ruining your health or your relationships over what is, in the end, just a way to earn money, however much you might enjoy it. So use this knowledge as a way to help you say no, back off, chill out or take time off.

Remember that it's not just about you.

Spare a thought for your family, especially your partner. If you are a moaner, they will have to listen to your woes in far greater detail that they might wish to: if you are a sulker, they will have to bear your silent, black moods with equanimity. They will also have to put up with the times you come home late, having been to some professionally-related event that you cannot get out of because you are HoD and suffer from the time you spend away from them, dealing with the typical HoD's workload. So remember to forgive them when they finally snap or, ideally, try to remember to thank them for their tolerance, and spend enough time with them before that happens. This is all part of the reason for taking time out- your partner, friends and family need to see something of you as well as your colleagues.

That's about it. Of course this is not easy, and you may need to practice some of the more difficult things, such as saying no, several times before you succeed. Treat it like a diet. Don't give up in despair just because you ate a bag of crisps; forgive yourself, try again, and eventually you will get used to it. Good luck!

Thursday, 20 September 2012

Tides, travel and travail

There is a tide in the affairs of men
Which taken at the flood leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat,
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures.
(Julius Caesar, Act IV, scene III)

This, probably much-over-quoted passage has been on my mind a lot recently. Perhaps I remain enough of an Englit type to default to Shakespeare in times of uncertainty. Or perhaps it's because I've been thinking about my mentor Wil, a Shakespeare scholar, who died almost exactly 10 years ago. (I do begin to wonder whether I am doomed to mislay mentors once a decade at about this time. But I digress, and I have barely started). In any case I've been pondering the whole life, career, happiness, motivation thing a lot recently, and my conclusion is this, to quote another fine piece of drama, Housman's (actually very funny) Fragment of Greek Tragedy, 'Life is uncertain'. As a result knowing when to catch a flowing tide, is, it seems to me, vital.

The last few years have been like being on that full sea: mad, hectic, exhausting; sometimes for positive reasons, sometimes very much the opposite. It's hard to believe how much my life, especially professionally, has changed. In January 2009, I was an average Senior Lecturer, quietly doing her DH thing and keeping out of people's way. Since then I have become a professor, vice dean, and head of the UCL Department of Information Studies, not to mention serving on more committees, panels, boards and working parties than I dare list. Perhaps the greatest, and most amazing change is that I have been partly responsible for establishing the wonderful UCLDH, complete with a successful Masters course, lots of PhD students, and award-wining research projects. I could not have imagined this in January 2009; yet here I am now, the co-director of a thriving centre of which I could not be more proud.

Looking back, I almost find myself thinking 'How did that happen?' It seems too implausible, but maybe it was just that flood tide running. It felt like the time to say yes, to try things, to work harder than I could ever imagine possible, to establish some new things, mend, tweak, prod or restore others, and to do it all at about 90 miles an hour, because it seemed that there was no alternative speed. Everything had to be done now, if not before. Looking back it seems almost as if it happened to someone else; rather as you sometimes think you remember doing something, then recall that it was in a dream, a movie or a novel. It seems vivid, but you know it can't have been real. Too many unlikely things seem to have happened in that time, both good and bad, to be credible, and yet they really did take place.

As wonderful as all this was, though, it was equally exhausting. I took on too much, wore myself out and got far too close to an edge I didn't really want to peer over. I took a lot of time off over the summer, and realised that I cannot sustain the pace I'd been living and working at for the last few years. In any case, I get the feeling that other things are changing too. That particular tide has run out, life is in a different phase and different things are called for: not so much set-up and firefighting as consolidation and gradual development, achieved at a pace that's closer to the speed limit. This will still require plenty of hard work: when flying an aeroplane, if you don't move forward you stall and crash, so stagnation is not on the menu either. But then again, if you push the envelope too hard, the wings fall off and by last summer I swear I could hear some ominous creaking.

But when you have been used to living on adrenaline, how can you motivate yourself to move forward at a gentler pace, and how to you know what to aim for? I am still grappling with that problem. I am not really sure what I am going to do in future or where I am going, career-wise. I had a map, but I've used it, visited the places I wanted to go, and some I didn't even know existed and come to the edge of the page: it's all terra incognita from here onwards. I can't actually spot any dragons, but neither can I see an obvious path to follow, or landmarks to aim at; or maybe I can see several and don't know which to pick. I can't decide where I'd like the next tide to take me, even if I am able to catch it.

In the summer, I talked to some wise people about this peculiar situation and one of them said 'Well, why don't you just enjoy what you have achieved, and the fact of being where you are for a while.' I realised he was right, and that realisation brought great relief. After all that rushing about, maybe it's time to slow down, look around and enjoy the scenery a bit: to reflect on a hectic journey, successfully completed and be grateful to have arrived. I never intended to end up in this exact place, but in the end, it seems like a reasonable destination, at least until I decide where I'm going next. If I take time to sit still, look out of the window, and notice the details, the view begins to look surprisingly attractive after all.

Monday, 7 May 2012

Worthy to be here

These days my blogs seem nothing but a homage to Athene Donald’s acute observations. But, in my defence, I have been meaning to write this for a while, it’s just that her recent blog on the humanities and science has finally stung me into action.

Since I was once a humanist I chose to start this post with a quotation (apparently I no longer am, but that’s getting ahead of myself) If I were still a literary scholar I’d probably hope that at least half of my readers would not recognise or understand it, which would make me feel clever and superior. Given that I no longer am, it’s from the poem Love III by George Herbert, a seventeenth century devotional poet on whom, in my former life, I did some, probably not very good, work. The speaker expresses anxiety about not being a guest of sufficient eminence to be at a feast. God (personified as Love) answers that since He made humanity the speaker, a human, must be welcome, and the poem ends: ‘"You must sit down," says Love, "and taste my meat."/So I did sit and eat.’ 

What has this to do with DH? Well, to me the question of worthiness and inclusivity is key to what I love about DH, but is an issue about which, as a DH piggy in the middle, I observe different attitudes in the humanities and sciences and engineering. Last summer this was made uncomfortably clear to me: I was invited to a conference at which most attendees were scholars of literature or history and a very few DH people. At the post-conference reception I was horrified to find that we DHers were left on the edge of the crowd and ignored, except by the person running the conference who was, of course, doing his job politely and properly. Clearly the other attendees all knew each other, knew they did not know us, and as a result, assumed that we could not possibly be important or worth talking to. The only exception was someone with whom I’d worked on a previous project many years ago when she was a PhD student and I was an early career lecturer. Despite this she actually felt she had to ask the conference organiser to introduce us. This confused the hell out of me. ‘Why did she not simply come up and say hello? That’s what would have happened at a DH conference.’ I later asked the conference organiser, who replied that she felt an introduction was necessary because I am now a professor and well-known DH person thus far too important for her to approach. This he seemed to regard as eminently reasonable but I thought completely deranged. 

It made me realise how happy I am that this is not how we do things in DH. If I come away from a DH conference and have not met new people I regard it as a failure. It’s always been the DH way to try to talk to people you don’t know at conferences, because they might be doing some new and exciting DH that you really need to know about. Even if they are not, it’s just friendly to make people feel included, and in DH being friendly and inclusive is important. Apparently this was a deliberate policy begun by early DHers who hated the hierarchical, exclusive attitude of their old disciplines. I certainly found this attitude a wonderful change when I joined DH, a young scholar still bruised by her ejection from the world of literary studies. 

I’ve found a similarly welcoming attitude among computer scientists and engineers when it comes to DH. They seem far keener than most humanities scholars to get involved and find out what it is all about. Even if they don’t persist they will give it a try. As Athene Donald argues, I have always found scientists far more ready to respect and give credit to humanities scholarship in general than the other way round. I know eminent scientists and engineers who are interested in, and knowledgeable about, literature, music and art and who have enormous reserves of good will towards the humanities. I don’t have any evidence that humanities scholars outside DH feel the same about science or engineering.

This attitude has always surprised and saddened me, perhaps because of my background. My mother is a geographer, most interested in its more technical disciplines such as geomorphology and economic geography; yet she was happy to facilitate my teenage Shakespeare habit, and enjoyed trips to the theatre, and extensive discussion thereafter, it as much as I did. She is also an extremely gifted musician. My father was an engineer, but I probably ended up reading Classics and English myself because of his passion for literature, history, and all things Roman, including, but not limited to, their remarkable feats of engineering. But for every poem he read me, I was also told stories of the achievements of his hero Brunel (another engineer from the West Country) or of the discovery of stainless steel- actually very exciting, honest. I’ve always enjoyed lots of different subjects myself, and would have loved to be an engineer or scientist, but I turned out not to be very good at maths. 

Thus it may be that I was born (or perhaps raised) to be DH- because it gives me scope to wander into and between so many fields of enquiry. But I still don’t understand this difference in attitude to inclusivity. I am touched by the fact that the UCL engineers seem very keen to claim me as one of them, and have never pointed out that I don’t have enough maths to understand most of what they do. Yet, despite the fact that all my education pre-DH is in the humanities, I do not feel so welcome in what is supposedly my own field. Just the other day someone told me that my attitude to research- that what I do must be useful and meaningful to others, and not just about scratching a personal itch of curiosity- means that I am not a humanist. I am quite certain that it was not meant to be a compliment. I, of course, didn't mind at all, because I don't see being a humanist as neccessarily more valuable than being anything else. That, probably, is proof enough that I really am not one.

To me, though, that comment was just another symptom of a humanities attitude I see so frequently. Humanities scholars seem want to keep most people out of their fields, to be exclusive, to turn people away and tell them that they do not belong. The implication, I suppose, is that only the very cleverest are good enough to do such research, and if you exclude someone you are implying you are more talented than they are. I don’t know, because that attitude is so alien to all that I believe in. But it’s odd: scientists and engineers, at least the ones I’ve met, don’t seem to feel that only by excluding others do they assert their own intellectual superiority. Perhaps they feel that intellectual worth is tested by including different voices in the conversation, and creating new knowledge from the resulting discussion, rather than telling unfamiliar people to go away or keep silent. I know that’s what I think.

Perhaps, then, I am not a humanist, but I know I am a digital humanist. I am glad that I am in a field in which a big tent has been pitched, and that we welcome all sorts of people to live underneath its canvas. If DH ever starts to take a turn to old-fashioned humanities exclusivity I shall fight it with all I have in me. If that makes me an engineer, then good for engineering; as Herbert’s poem reminds us, we should be careful when we make assumptions about who is worthy to be here.

Sunday, 22 April 2012

Should women fail?

It seems that we are all imposters. Judging by the comments on Athene Donald’s excellent blog on the subject, it appears that many of us feel, not so secretly, like fakes in our professional lives. Scicurious also argues that it might be welcome if senior scholars, especially women, felt able to admit to their failures and didn't seem to need always to look like perfect, successful academic exemplars. Her argument, which is a convincing one, is that if those in senior positions could be seen to have feet of clay, then it would make them seem more real, and as a result easier to emulate for those earlier in their careers. This makes a lot of sense, after all, which of us, really, is perfect? We all fail; we all doubt ourselves and feel that we are not doing as well as we ought to be. Some of us feel that most of the time, however it might look on the outside, it's just that in academia we don't like to admit it. The projects that go sideways are the ones about which we publish little or nothing, thus the illusion remains in place.

However, much as I'd like to follow her recommendations and go round admitting to everyone about how useless at my job I regard myself as being, I think that there is a real problem about this for women in senior, or leadership positions. The sad fact is that numerous studies have suggested that women actually do have to be better at a given task than men before most people will regard their efforts as equal (the multipliers vary according to studies, but it seems to be about three times) When women scientists, for example, apply for jobs or promotion they need more publications than men for their CVs to be rated equally, but often actually publish less, for various perfectly legitimate reasons. When letters of reference are written men tend to be described in more positive terms, and more active, assertive descriptions are given of their virtues. Even if a woman, trying, perhaps unconsiously to make up for these disadvantages, is assertive in a job interview, she is likely to be perceived negatively compared to a man. If a woman and a man in a leadership position act in the same way, one is likely to be perceived as decisive, positive and acting as a leader: the other tends to be regarded as a bossy, bitchy termagant. Guess which gender tends to get the negative reviews. This is horrifying, but it seems that studies are well founded and can be replicated. I’ve only linked to a selection- sadly there are plenty more, and the more you read, the grimmer the picture gets.

How could this happen? Well, it is a truism that the most effective espionage works by convincing people of something that they were already disposed to believe. Thus, in World War II it was possible for the allies to convince the Germans that the D-Day landings would happen in the Pas de Calais, because this seemed the most obvious location. I fear, therefore, that there is a deeply-rooted belief in our society, on the part or many women as well as men, that women simply are less good at things, especially being leaders or being truly excellent in their chosen career or craft, than men. Even most women want to work for a male boss, after all.

As a result therefore I am very chary, as a senior woman in a leadership position, of admitting in public to any failures, doubts or weaknesses. It seems to me that what follows from the findings of such studies is that if a senior male admits to doubts or failures, he will be regarded as charmingly modest- a trait of which I actually do approve. But if a woman in the same position says the same things, I fear that most people will believe her simply because she is female. There are also very few people of either gender who are so successful that there is nobody left to impress- university senior management, research funders, academic peers etc. Thus we still need to big ourselves up to create a good impression, however distasteful an activity we may find this.

Also, and admitting this may make me sound unutterably sad, I have always rather liked the people I work for, and my academic heroes to be just that: people I admire, look up to, and actually regard as slightly super-human, rather that rubbish like me. If someone who is managing me admits to doubt, failure or weakness it tends to make me feel a bit anxious- after all, if they don't feel they are in charge, then who is? If someone who is very successful, can't do something, what hope have I of managing it? Also, as I have written elsewhere, I am rather wedded to the ideal of being a swan: grace under pressure is always more impressive, in my opinion, than loud, panicky splashing.

I am aware however this does not help the next generation of academic women to progress in their careers or to feel that they do not have to emulate what is an unrealistic standard. After all, the studies I've referred to above suggest that we are all doing that already- trying to be three times better than men, just to be regarded as equal. What therefore can be done? Given the societal prejudices that appear to exist I think it's too early for women to go round admitting loudly and publicly to doubts and failure. Such things are, perhaps, better dealt with between consenting adults in private; with close colleagues, academic friends, between mentor and mentee. It follows, therefore, that if you are an early career woman, and you want to know what it really takes to climb that proverbial greasy pole, and how we really feel about doing so, you may just have to make friends with someone more senior than you, be they male or female. In doing so you might just gain a powerful ally and mentor with whom to share the successes as well as the tougher times.

Monday, 16 April 2012

Encomium modestiae: or big up dissed

Someone asked me recently what I admire in people senior to me.I barely had to think about it: I admire people who work hard, are very successful at what they do, but are also modest about it. There is nothing more becoming in an academic with a global reputation than being understated about their achievements. When I think back to the people I respected as a student or early career scholar, people with that attitude were the ones I wanted to emulate. They were the people who you wanted to be taught by, whose books you read, who you wanted to become: everyone knew how good they were- the last thing they had to do was say so themselves. I still feel that way, really.

The problem is that understated modesty is out of fashion in the university of today. We are forever having to write things about how wonderful we are at this, world-leading at that, excellent at another thing. If I'm not doing that for my department or for UCLDH, as HoD I am writing recommendations, references, nominations or reading drafts of such things for others. The aim appears to be for the subject to big themselves up until they sound like a the most remarkable academic paragon of recent history. It gets extremely wearing, all this big up.

It's even worse when I have to do it for myself. Writing about my own career for my application for a chair really was the most difficult thing I have ever had to do, even if that other unpleasant ritual of professorial big up, the inaugural, comes a close second; but I have written far too much about that already. In comparison, writing grant applications, articles for top journals, proposals for conferences that reject 2/3rd of papers were as nothing. The whole process took months, and numerous rewrites in response to the criticism from almost everyone who read it, that I had been too modest. Not enough big up in other words.

Is it just me, or does anyone else long for the end of big up? It's an ugly phrase and, I think, an unlovely concept. It's symptomatic of a culture, if one can call it that, in which currencies keep being inflated because nobody can bear the idea that some universities might be more equal than others. The government thought that only the top Russell Group universities would charge £9,000 fees, but almost everyone has, for fear of being thought a lesser institution than their rivals. The Roberts report that first proposed the new RAE/REF quality profiles suggested that 4* would be exceedingly rare. The idea was that such a grade indicated a truly world leading scholar, and, logically it follows that not every university would have one in each unit of assessment- the world leader in that discipline might not work in the UK, and thus nobody would be given that grade at all. This now seems laughable: at UCL, as at other top research universities, the expectation is that every member of staff must produce outputs at 3* or, better, 4*. Even if only half of us manage it, that still implies that we have 2000 genuinely world leading scholars here, some of us working in the same fields. It is, of course, a logical impossibility according to the original intention but it all comes from this big up culture where nobody is allowed just to be good at what they do any more: even excellent is a little disappointing.

The problem is money of course. The reason we have to write all these things is promotion, prizes, grants, REF (and thus research funding), in which we are competing with others, or at least matching ourselves against criteria. Thus being modest and claiming simply to do a good job will not work if our competitors choose to, as it were, exaggerate a little. How else is money, or preferment to be handed out? I suppose in the old days the way to decide such things was by patronage; knowing the right people, being a good chap, being one of us. As a woman from a very ordinary background I can hardly feel confident that I would have achieved what I have under that kind of arrangement. Thus, perhaps big up is not the worst option.

Becoming as it is for people to be charmingly self-deprecating, it's also a very good way to do themselves down. I've recently been in a couple of situations where someone's reluctance to big themselves up has harmed their prospects. It's rather
like examining a PhD: if the candidate doesn't demonstrate that they know the literature, you can't assume that they do, even though it's probably the case. At least in that situation there is a viva in which such doubts can be answered. There are no second chances in a lot of the cases where big up is called for. If you are part of a large competition people assessing your case may not know you or be from an entirely different field, and thus not understand what you do. You have, therefore, to explain why what you have done, or intend to do, is important, excellent, worthy of their notice. Once you find yourself on the other side of the divide, where you are the one assessing, not just writing or supporting the applications, you begin to realise that what, to the individual making the case, feels like boasting, reads to the assessor simply as explanation.

It appears, therefore, that in the university world big up may be a necessary evil; perhaps the age of modesty, like that of miracles, is past. It may be that it's ugly but necessary. Nothing, though, will ever make me like it.