Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Policy discourses...

Many moons ago, when I was putting together my slides for a class where I introduce my students to critical narrative approaches to policy analysis, I came up with the following. I think it's quite clever and amusing, even looking back on it, so I thought I'd reproduce it here.

In the spirit of Deborah Stone's causal stories I tell my students a story, with a beginning...

"Once upon a time there was a village called Ricarston. All the villagers lived peacefully, growing crops to eat and working very hard in the local University. But, on a hill above the village was a cave and in the cave lived an evil dragon called Napier. Mayor Matthews, who ruled Ricarston benevolently, was scared of the dragon..."

A middle...

" dark and stormy night Napier swooped down from his cave and breathed fire throughout Ricarston. The poor villagers fought the fires on their thatched roofs. At number three Hermiston Walk, poor Mrs Chapman, the widower who took in orphans, burnt to death along with three-year-old Tommy..."

An elaboration:

"...Napier also swooped over the fields, scorching the earth and burning all the villagers’ crops. It was too late in the year for the seeds to be sown again so the villagers only had the food that could be saved from their stores. By the end of semester two they were so hungry they failed their exams..."

And an end:

"...The villagers were very angry. Just when they were going to give up and move to Edinborough, the great and fearless knight Sir Gov Ernment rode into town swinging his battleaxe with great big knobs on. He led the villagers on a charge up the mountain to Napier’s cave. After a short skirmish Napier was captured and imprisoned. He spent the rest of his live providing sustainable heating to the village of Ricarston by breathing fire."

I ask my students to identify who the story positions as the victim, who is to blame and who was the hero.

I then present an entirely different story, taking from the mythical policy document: Together, Forever: A Policy on Dragon-Village Relations in Edinshire

"Under the Universal Dragon Rights Directive, all dragons have a right to reside where they settle without interference from local communities. There should be an expectation on local communities to reinforce their dwellings from fire using steel sheeting and asbestos. Communities near a dragon nesting site should also take necessary action to ensure a secure supply of food in case of fire-based communication breakdowns..."

To demonstrate how causal stories can be hidden in technical language but still apportion blame and heroic status. So, do you support dragon rights?

Sunday, 10 February 2013

Labor omnia vincit

Wincit or vincit? Either way it's pronounced it's the motto of my home city of Bradford. A wonderfully evocative motto of Victorian values - work conquers all. It's also the title of my first self-published ebook.

The title of the blog is linked to the genesis of this book. I came into town planning and urban studies from a undergraduate degree in History. Way back when I'd wanted to be an architect, but couldn't do GCSE Art so couldn't then go onto apply to architecture courses. Doing my history degree I became very interested in urban history and modern history - particularly the agenda set by Peter Borsay's The English Urban Renaissance, Asa Brigg's classic Victorian Cities and post-war history. These interest coalesced into a dissertation where I researched the comprehensive redevelopment of Bradford City Centre in the 1950s and 1960s, which famously led Bill Bryson to describe Bradford thus:
"Once this was one of the greatest congregations of Victorian architecture anywhere, but you would scarcely guess it now. Scores of wonderful buildings were swept away to make room for wide new roads and angular office buildings with painted plywood insets beneath each window. Nearly everything in the city suffers from the well intentioned but misguided meddling by planners."

Broadway in the mid-1970s after pedestrianisation
(on the site of the buildings in question were very few Victorian buildings of note, bar the Swan Arcade, and the insets were marble, not plywood, but that's by-the-by).

Given I had the research written up and ready, it was recieved well at a seminar at the University of Bradford two years ago, and there is renewed interest in Bradford City Centre due to "Wastefield", the City Park (one of the best urban spaces I have ever seen, ever in the World ever), and the campaign to save the Odeon, I thought it was an opportune moment to publish it as a book. All yours for £3.60.

And to give you an idea what your £3.60 will give you, here's an exclusive excerpt of the postcript that I've written for it, almost ten years after I completed the original research:

Postscript: 10 Years Later, Wastefield

When this research was being completed the buildings around Forster Square and Broadway were being emptied ready for demolition. I could peer into the lobby of Forster House and see the dated frieze on the wall of what was once the pride of Bradford city centre. The other of the two large office blocks that flanked Wardley’s civic way to the Cathedral – Central House – was only occupied by Bradford Metropolitan District Council, a hangover from a deal with Hammersons in the mid-1960s to complete this building if the local authority agreed to be a tenant in perpetuity.

Bradford Metropolitan District Council and the Regional Development Agency, Yorkshire Forward, had agreed a deal with the Australian shopping centre developer to build a new shopping centre, with a new road layout, on the site leased to Hammersons. Then 2007 and 2008 saw a run on the Northern Rock Bank and the seizure of global credit markets in the wake of Lehman Brothers Bank. Proposals for Westfield Bradford were rapidly shelved and Bradford has been left with a large hole – colloquially known as Wastefield.
In many respects this mirrors the story from 1945 to 1965. In the post war stop-go, Keynesian controlled economy, plans often came to fruition in the fevered heat of a boom which quickly had its steam taking out. Plans were halted or scaled back. The unregulated boom from 1993 to 2007 was an even more dramatic example of this. During this period Bradford’s broader economy has also weakened as the wool industry has now almost completely collapsed.

Bradford, like many former industrial towns and cities in the north of England, is now a rock-pool of unemployment, both unemployed labour and land. The long boom meant the tide of economic growth poured credit into the redevelopment of the City. Now it has receded back in the long period of economic slump, it seems impossible to imagine this neap tide will ever get high enough to lead to a rejuvenation of Bradford City Centre.

Returning to Bradford as a qualified town planner I can now also see how development trends since the late 1990s have also limited the chances of a rejuvenation of the City Centre. Wardley’s vision was for a tight-knit City Centre served by buses and car parks around his inner ring road. That inner ring road has now been largely removed. The inner ring road now is that planned by Wardley’s successor – the large dual carriageway circling the city centre from Great Horton Road and round to the Hamm Strasse. This has led to a development pattern driven by the car. The city centre has turned itself inside out, becoming a doughnut of developments with vast acres of tarmac given over to car parking. The Forster Square retail park is largely the retail centre; the office blocks between Leeds Road and Wakefield Road are the commercial centre; and the Cineworld complex is the arts and culture centre. All the parts of Wardley’s 1948 plan for the City Centre are there, just one mile outside the traditional centre in urban wastelands, disconnected from the traditional civic core.

As with the redevelopment in the 1950s this has been driven by market trends and the actions of planners. The office space in the Hammerson development was poor quality and investors and tenants, to be tempted to a marginal market like Bradford, needed modern office space with car parking. Bradford needed the jobs provided by major employers such as Santander and the Yorkshire Bank, so was seemingly willing to allow their offices to be built on the periphery of the City Centre. Similarly, the units in the Forster Square Retail Park are ideal for modern retailers, compared to the cramped, awkward, old shopping units in the core of the City Centre.

These planning and development decisions within Bradford have taken place within a context of a changing regional pattern of development. In the late 1960s retail development in Leeds struggled as much as that in Bradford – the Merrion Centre was one of Oliver Marriot’s “white elephants” that remained vacant for many years. With the redevelopment of the Victorian Arcades and the opening of Harvey Nichols in Leeds in 1996, led to step-change in the retail offer in the city. Increasingly Bradford, and the other smaller city and town centres in West Yorkshire just could not compete.

The draft Regional Spatial Strategy developed by Yorkshire Forward initially had Leeds marked as the regional centre for the greater West Yorkshire conurbation. After lobbying from Bradford it was included as a regional centre in the final plan. However, in reality, continuing planning decisions and the real estate investment market have relegated Bradford to a subsidiary shopping centre behind Leeds, exacerbated by the out-of-town shopping centres and large supermarkets. Does this mean Bradford city centre is doomed?

The story above is strangely quiet on one of the biggest changes in Bradford over the period – the impact of migration into the City. Labour shortages after the Second World War led mill-owners in Bradford to seek migrant labour firstly from Eastern Europe and then from newly created Pakistan from the late 1940s onwards. During the research the impact of this migration would appear from time-to-time in racist letters in the Telegraph & Argus or quaint articles about how the new settlers were, supposedly, settling happily into city life. One of Wardley’s last acts for the Public Works Committee before his early death was to listen to delegation from a group of local “Mosselmen” who wished to find land to build a temple. At the next meeting it was noted that land had been found for a mosque for the moslems (terminology was almost correct by then) at the junction of Westgate and Lumb Lane.

The impact of migration into Bradford has clearly had an impact on the development of the City. As with most new ethnic minorities in cities, the Pakistani migrant community clustered in Little and Great Horton and Manningham, moving into cheap Victorian terraced houses left vacant as the white working class, increasingly affluent in post war Britain, moved into the new, suburban houses that were planned in Wardley’s 1953 Development Plan in places like Heaton, Wrose, Bierley, Buttershaw and Eccleshill.

The riots in 1995 and 2001 were the shocking outcome of this spatial and cultural divide that had emerged in the City. A broader story that has come to dominate Bradford is an implicitly racist story that links this increasing ethnic and culture diversity to Bradford’s economic decline – a story used to drive politics of race hate. The third or fourth-generation migrants who are now very much Bradfordians are disparaged as living off benefits, being stupid and lazy, and a burden on the City. This ignores the amazing growth of entrepreneurship in the City, with companies associated with Bradford’s ethnic diversity being nationally and internationally renowned. As someone who’s left Bradford, I find my fellow white British people have usually been to the City for the National Media Museum; fellow Asian British people have usually been to the City to buy clothes from Bombay Stores, visit relatives, or get long-missed foods from shops.

The story of Bradford in the 1950s and 1960s told here is one of wily London property developers and a planner who was keen to see his vision realised. Bradford in 2013 can tell a different story in the development of City Park. When this was first announced it was mocked as being a “puddle”. By closing off Channing Way, the Bradford planners in the 2000s inadvertently did what the civil servants in the Ministry of Town and Country Planning wanted Wardley to do in the 1940s. The resulting civic square, owned by the people of Bradford through the Council which can be enjoyed by all of them for free is a real testimony to excellent planning and urban design. It is one of the best urban spaces in the UK.

This publicly owned and developed space and the ethnic diversity of the City come together in what could be a new vision for the City Centre. A centre of civic life that celebrates diversity through a range of shops and nurtures civic life and creative industries through free space or low rent property. Bradford will never be able to compete with Leeds. However, it can cut out a new niche for itself in the modern World.

So, get this, and more, and learn all about the unique history of a City that comprehensively redeveloped its city centre even though it had not been bombed - for £3.60.

Saturday, 2 February 2013

Academia's working hours culture

It’s the time of the head when myself and colleagues are doing or annual performance reviews so work-life balance has been the subject of discussion quite a lot – helped, I think, because my school recently had an equalities and diversity study carried out. I’ve blogged about the subject before. If you get a load of academics chatting about work-life balance it quickly turns into something like this:
To lay my cards on the table – I arrive in the office between 8:30-9:10 every morning, depending on what train I get. I leave the office about 5:30-6:30 (I’ve only had to sign the late-working book once in two years) and quite often have a relaxed lunch away from my desk with colleagues. And I very rarely work weekends. I reckon I put in about 40 hours a week. But the cause of this blog entry is a tweet I sent last night just as I was leaving work:
As I unlocked my bike, I realised I was going to get quite a few responses. When I got home, lo and behold they were waiting for me:

Over on Facebook the chat went like this: 

In this post, I particularly want to pick up on Janice’s point – how do I do it? Well, it comes down to fortunate contextual factors, fortunate departmental factors, and a hell of a lot of individual choices.

The fortunate contextual factors have been or are:
  • when I first started I happened to have a very light teaching load which gave me time to write the papers from my PhD and complete a major research project. This means my CV looks very strong for the stage of my career I’m at.
  • due to the ongoing slump in the property market, and other factors, the classes I teach are mercifully small. This makes teaching a joy and marking light.
  • I’m still not on many journal editors lists as a possible reviewer. I plan to keep it that way, though I’ve not refused to peer review an article yet.
  • most importantly, I have no caring responsibilities. Really, as the feminist debates around academic working hours highlight, I have absolutely no idea how people with caring responsibilities (predominantly women) maintain any semblance of an ongoing career rather than just keeping going at their job.

The fortunate departmental factors are:
  • Although I lead a postgraduate programme, as student numbers are low, this is a fairly low commitment.
  • I lead two courses and will lead on a third from next year. As we are focused on research intensity, I am never going to have more than three courses to teach as a lecturer. This gives space for other work.
  • We have an amazing amount of flexibility around assignments which means I can manage my teaching load around other commitments
  • Other than that my admin commitment is very light and manageable.
  • All my teaching is on a Monday. Six hours straight. I am a very odd person at the end of this (sort of bizarrely hyper whilst being simultaneously exhausted) but it does get everything out of the way quickly.
  • Low student numbers also mean dissertation supervision requirements are low.
  • I’m a social scientist. I can’t interview people at the dead of night. I can’t really set up experiments that run for hours on end. This puts a natural boundary around my working week.

The individual choices are a bit more complex, and are also linked to my skillset. Firstly, I avoid making work for myself. As soon as I set my first ever assignment I realised the easiest way to make work for yourself in terms of student emails is to be unclear in communication and especially expectations in assignments. When setting assignments I make sure my brief is fairly exhaustive and clear as to what is expected of the student and the marking criteria I will apply. This minimises the number of “how do I do this” emails greatly. I also ensure I use class time to clarify points and deliver instruction efficiently. I got caught out this year when after I changed an assignment and some of the details of last year’s instructions rolled-over, confusing some of the students. Rather than waiting for 33 emails I just took an hour to go through the VLE and my documents clarifying things.

As a programme leader I get a lot of the VLE announcements from my colleagues courses, as I’m signed up to them so I know what’s going on. A mistake I see happen quite often (resulting in endless extra announcements and tutorials) is lecturers expecting students to guess what is expected of them in assignment as part of the assignment. This strikes me as utterly daft. I’m not promoting spoon-feeding, but if someone can’t work out what to do from your instructions, then your instructions might not be right. And I don’t do simple assignments either – I’ve set: equalities impact assessments; professional reports; essays; personal development plans; even an assignment where students could do whatever they wanted. And none of this resulted in much work. I’ve also pioneered using techniques like audio-feedback to improve the efficiency of feedback and interaction with students.

Relating to this, I also work hard at reflecting on how I use my time to ensure I’m using it efficiently. So, this year I’ve changed my coursework assignments so they still have a fantastic breadth and really push the student, but they have a single hand-in date, meaning I can plough through the marking in three of four days. I’ve also staggered the hand-in dates either side of Easter so I have time to mark. If through some miracle of NSS scores (did I mention we’re the best planning school in the UK?) we have 150 level 1 students next year I will very rapidly re-design the assignment so I don’t have 150 3,000 word essays to mark, but can still measure intended learning outcomes.

One of the major complaints of my fellow students on my PGCAP course was the time commitment in attending classes and completing coursework. But I’ve applied the same sort of logic to that. For one major piece of coursework, I focused on internationalisation, because I knew this was of strategic concern to the School and my discipline. This meant I got extra brownie points for doing something I had to do anyway. I’ve done similar things with my successive assignments.

One thing I’m increasingly doing is leaving little fiddly tasks on the to-do list and making sure I do these in my down-time – the post-lunch lull and other periods where, even if I try my hardest, there is absolutely no way I can bang on 3,000 words of perfect prose. I can read that report I’ve got sitting in an email folder unread. The other thing I know I do is get incredibly stressed when I have quite a few things on and a lot of deadlines to finish, work ridiculously hard and then suddenly find I have a week free to, almost literally, twiddle my thumbs. It’s how I respond to stress. I’m learning about it, and now learning to use it wisely (if I did it all the time, I’d burn out in days).

I’m also well aware of how I write - this is vital for an academic. I’m an editor, not a writer. I just pour forth bollocks onto the page and then spend days going back over it polishing it up. I use the peer-review process as part of this. I don’t send off horrendous papers, but I do submit papers knowing full well that the reviewers will expect corrections and I’ll welcome their comments on improvements. This fits into how I structure my week. I work from home on a Thursday and this is my “writing day”. Actually, I very rarely write. But it is the day where I plough through things I know I need to concentrate on without being disturbed. And so far it works really well. If you follow me on Twitter, this is why I always tweet a lot more on Thursdays – I have no one else to speak to apart from the automatic checkout in Tesco when I pop out for lunch.

My policy with emails generally is, if you don’t send ‘em you don’t receive them. It works well and my inbox is fairly well managed. I’m also ruthless on deleting them. Every morning I get the batch of updates from the JISC mailing lists I’ve signed up to. I scan the subject lines and delete the lot in five minutes. I keep my email open in the background so I can just keep on top of them during the day, deleting the vast majority of them with barely a glance. The important ones get sorted into a folder and flagged as unread. One thing with my new toy is I have had to switch on email push to get my calendar to sync. This means I can be very aware of emails piling up, so I need to watch myself on this.

The most important thing, I suppose, is I don’t beat myself up, set daft targets and I’m happy to say “no”. This requires planning, and this being academia, a lot of flexibility in that planning. Right now I have enough on my plate to keep me ticking along quite nicely until about November, when, all being well, another big task will commence. If you ask me to do anything now I’ll say no, especially if it’s a major commitment. Also, if you’ve seen me speak at a seminar, I’d wait a while before you come back for more. Much as it’d be nice to do a well-polished new paper for each seminar, at the moment you’re going to learn about non-straight people in deprived Scottish neighbourhoods and middle-class activism. It’s what I have ready to use so I’ll use it.

This attitude to my job comes out in the Facebook discussion. Yes, I want to do well at my job. It’d be really nice if I was a professor one day. But, I earn plenty as I do and have no real burning desire for rapid career ascendency. As Sarah pointed out, academia can be addictive – it’s a vocation. I do really enjoy my job. So much that it is definitely part of my identity. However, I also really enjoy swimming for three-and-half-hours a week and doing another hour of fitness classes. I enjoy commuting by bike and train, even though in many cases I could save time driving. I enjoy having the weekends to read the Saturday Guardian and get annoyed at how smug and middle class it is and cook a Sunday roast and then go to evensong and go to the pub afterwards. I enjoy being able to have the occasional evening out during the week, or friends around for dinner.

Most of all I love and respect my partner who is not an academic but also has a highly pressured job. I like to be able to cook dinner about half the time. I like to be tucked up in bed, together, at a sensible hour so I am vaguely refreshed the next day. I like to cabbage on the sofa in front of the TV and watch a couple of hours together. I love my family and friends as well, and much as I’d like to spend more time with them than I do, I do make some time for them, including the regular natters with my mum. All these things are more valuable to me than my academic vocation. Even if I tried to push my hours, in the range of activities I do, I could probably only squeeze another five hours into my working week, and I know for those hours I’d be so exhausted my efficiency would have plummeted. To stay in a job I need to get a “satisfactory” in my annual performance review. So I’ll always ensure my forward job plan is achievable.

Two final points to note are, Firstly, the one thing I know this work pattern means is that I don’t read enough as I would like to do. Note: I would like to do. I don’t actually feel like I should be reading much more than I do. Just that it would be nice if I could. I know if I could read academic literature before going to bed I could increase how much I read, but it sends me to sleep in two pages because it’s hard work and generally quite dull. Give me a rollicking Ursula K Le Guin novel any day. The second point is, is this work? And is chatting about academic stuff on Twitter work? Or even, is reading a quick journal article work. It is and it isn’t. And this is where the problem of academia being a vocation comes in. What I will say, was when my academic twittering did become more problematic and was filling too much of my time, I did stop it. And that, is how I do it.