Friday, 25 September 2015

I love admin staff, all of you

One of the tropes of my favourite genre, the Death of theUniversity, is that the global multiversity is overwhelmed with “administrative”staff. Spurious statistics about massive increases in the amount university’s spend on “admin” are banded about. The people involved are characterised as monsters, intent on destroying academic freedom. The most recent of these was an attack on marketing from a physicist who had once done a marketing module at undergraduate level. Personally I feel fully skilled to comment on quantum physics from my B at GCSE A level, watching a few episodes of something by Prof. Brian Cox, and a quick flick through Nature.

There is no doubt some truth in some of these frustrations, but their unquestioned acceptance by many irritates me for three reasons. Firstly, I am a critical policy scholar, but in my work I would never criticise an individual or even a group of individuals for doing their job – they know not what they do (although I’m just about to start reading Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem, so that may change). I will criticise the job they’re doing, and I will criticise the organisational practices and wider social structures that cause them to end up doing what they’re doing, but I won’t criticise them. It’s grossly unfair.

The second reason is I’m of the centre-left and in my trade union. Most of these staff are also in my trade union, or trade unions that closely work with my own. Attacking these staff is an attack on solidarity – the very thing we don’t want to attack. Much of the support for these vindictive statements treats them as hilarious cutting satire. Well I’m sorry, but I don’t think people doing fairly shitty jobs should be the subject of satire from the people who work with them.

Lastly, I dislike these attacks because in my broad experience administrative and professional support staff are wonderful. So I want to write a love letter to all the professional support staff who have helped me.

I love you student office staff, who tirelessly answer all the banal and quite frankly stupid questions from students that don’t hit my inbox; who deal with the ever-increasing pressures from us teaching staff as we struggle to meet the expectations of students; and that through your tireless hard work now know more about the University regulations that anyone else in the institution and stop us getting sued.

I love you research office staff, who without batting an eyelid, or letting me know that you want to kill me, will happily provide all that help that I needed a week ago, but just couldn’t manage to get around to because me and my colleagues are just too disorganised; you who can crack a laugh when you’re manning the registration desk at a conference when there’s a million better things for you to do.

I love you information services staff, who step in and upload my papers to the repository when I fail to do it every time, and get the books my students need with barely a fortnight’s notice because I left it too late to complete the syllabus. The library is a truly wonderful place, I just wish my students would use your resources more.

I love you equalities and disability staff; your emails asking for a syllabus a month before I’ve even thought about it irritate the f*ck out of me, but because of you people who even a decade ago would never have gone to university are sat in my classroom, engaging in teaching and learning and adding something new to the institution. Your incisive analysis of working environments and cultures helps me realise what’s happening around me. By working all the hours God sends, you vainly try and make it so not everyone has to work like this.

I love you research office managers, who surveys the field, knowing the bear pits that lie out there, and has the strategic adeptness to steer this ship of the university on a vaguely correct path; you know we’re pissed off at the world of research and the pressures we’re under; you know you have to make us look good in the REF and all sorts of global rankings. Writing those emails at 9pm on a Saturday night, you try your best to bring in the best, and deal with the worst.

I love you marketing managers, who can tell me how a 20-year-old in Shanghai views my institution and whether we should bother targeting rUK students in recruitment; your tireless efforts keep my classrooms full and diverse. I was befuddled when you removed the line from the university logo and changed the font, but when I look at my old slides I see why you did this.

And, yes, I love you vice principals too; you could pay me twice as much as you get and I wouldn’t do the job for the amount of shit you get from all of us. Oh yes, these meetings you chair are dull, but you are at so many more of them than me. I recognise that every other research strategy aims to put the university in the “top decile” and that decile can’t be all-encompassing, but I know you know that too but the strategy might just make the research environment more supportive for you. Your teaching and learning strategy will get howls of rage for its neologisms, but we will continue to educate to the highest possible standards with the best facilities.

I love you all. If people attack you as individuals because of things you have to do for systemic reasons, I will defend you. If academic critics attack “administration” I will ask them to do your job. Without you, this big, complex messy organisation called the university just would not work. 

Friday, 18 September 2015

The social attitudes of my students

Every autumn semester I run a gigantic second year module called SPCU913 Understanding Social Policy. In the first lecture I get them to answer a selection of questions from the Scottish Social Attitudes Survey. In the second lecture I then compare the class responses to the Scottish data. I'm a bit naughty in that I remove the "don't know" or "neither" categories for my students to force them to answer.

I thought I'd share the data here in these slides. It's always very interesting. My students, by their nature, are incredibly different from the rest of Scotland's population - on average much younger, more affluent and more educated. Yet their social attitudes are incredibly similar. Just like Scotland, they're actually very centrist in their political views - if I were a stats whizz I'd calculate some confidence intervals around the questions on benefits as it does seem my students are marginally more left-wing than the rest of Scotland. But, as I've commented on before, it's remarkable for the political discourse, how right-of-centre some political views are in Scotland, and so are my students. The vast majority of people in Scotland think most benefits are claimed falsely, as do the majority of my students. 

The real divergences really only emerge on touchstone issues, like university tuition fees. For a policy that is so totemic of progressive politics in Scotland, free university tuition has remarkably low support (26% in 2013). Yet among my students, unsurprisingly, 70% are in favour of free university tuition. However, I wonder if this is down to the way the question is asked. I wonder which option would be most popular out of these?

  • Pay fees from a loan and receive a means-tested grant of up to £5,000 a year
  • Pay no fees but receive all your living costs as a loan of up to £9,000 a year
I asked my students these questions on the 18 September last year (2014) and yesterday (17 September) 2015. What I think is most striking is the data on party affiliation. On the day of voting in the Independence Referendum last year support for the SNP among my students was very low, just 26% compared to 40% support for Labour. Yet now the stats have more than reversed, with 59% supporting the SNP and only 19% of Labour. Very clearly, among this demographic, the SNP and the Yes campaign lost the referendum, but in the year since, have won the political argument. 

Friday, 11 September 2015

Honest methodology

One of my favourite journal articles is this strip cartoon by Jones and Evans in ACME on creativity and the research process.

In the most recent set of reviewers comments on a paper I’ve been asked to talk more about the methodology. This will involve a lot of fancy-sounding post-hoc rationalisation. I’d like to write an honest methodology, but that would never get published. But I thought it would be fun to do. So, here goes:

Honest methodology

The scope of the review was decided through the following process. The funder hadn’t received any suitable expressions of interest for the first call, so was fishing around for someone to do the work. One of the author’s former supervisor put them in the frame. They figured it would look good on their CV and the funder needed it doing. One of the authors scrabbled together an expression of interest based on vaguely recalled stuff about the topic from their thesis literature review they did six or seven years ago.

The period for the review was chosen because the budget wasn’t very big and X years sounded vaguely enough that the authors would be able to manage the evidence and data within their limited time and budget and it would look half decent. Post-hoc rationalisations for this decision included stuff about the financial crisis, changes in government policy and the useful fact that another major review article was published in ####.

One of the authors searched key terms on Web of Science and got thousands of results and panicked that it was going to be too big a project. After a quick email to the funders they were able to chuck a load of that out as it was decided the project would be more focused. Then the researcher remembered Web of Science wasn’t very good for social science so panicked a bit more and spent the afternoon reference-chasing, sending occasional tweets, and searching specific journals. Even to this day they come across papers and think “bugger, this would’ve been really useful for that project”.  

The research team missed the deadline quite spectacularly because one of them was overwhelmed with teaching and was moving jobs and the other was on sick leave. When they did eventually submit the draft report it then went through endless iterations with the funders where they’d point out really obvious flaws or gaps and then the research team would think “FUCK why didn’t we include that?!” and panic and go away and do some research into it.

Eventually they produced a vaguely convincing narrative on the topic concerned that they were actually quite proud of. 

Thursday, 10 September 2015

Predictive social science

If you do an introductory sociology course* you'll at some point bump into the argument about social sciences not being sciences because they can't predict things will happen. This also comes up quite a lot in the evaluation literature, which I occasionally dive into like Tom Daley, as evaluations tend to be bloody useless at predicting what will happen if a policy intervention is rolled-out to a wider population c.f. the endless bloody debates about double-blind randomised controlled trials.

However, I just saw this tweet;
And could proudly say, "we predicted that" - in this paper, I blogged about here. The paper came about from an ESRC seminar series and just some thoughts I had about our previous work on middle-class activism and how this would interact with the new neighbourhood planning system in England.

I don't have anything profound to say about the philosophy of social science and my ability to predict the future. But it does seem to me that social science can predict some things, the question is what things, and what are you predicting. We could never say exactly how many more neighbourhood plans there would be in affluent areas compared to deprived areas, but smashing together some theory, some findings from an evidence review and some statistical analysis of the British Social Attitudes Survey, we could roughly say "you'll probably get more neighbourhood plans in these sorts of places because of these reasons..." 

I should also add, I think this does say a lot for the realist school of evaluation from Ray Pawson's work on realist synthesis. It forces you to come up with predictive, useful, rules of thumb for whats works, in what contexts and why. This means we could easily apply the findings of our earlier study to the case of neighbourhood planning. 

In the meantime, PayPal me £20 and I'll predict your lottery numbers for you.

*I wistfully recall my A Level Sociology course and one of my friends proudly stating "a dog could walk off the street and get an A in A Level Sociology" to which another friend replied with "I got a B".