Names and Faces: the Academic Frontline

As I start the final movement of this blog diary, I’m thinking of what lies ahead. According to my university’s press releases, my students will be on campus for 40 to 60% of their class-time next semester. I wonder what they’ll be doing there. Where will they go when it rains? I’m especially wondering who is planning the ‘student experience’ for our first-year cohort in French. We offer just two core French courses to First Years in semester One, and students take either one or both, depending on their programme. I’m going to be in charge of one of these. Unless UCD is intending to replace the three senior staff (senior in years as well as in experience) co-designing and co-delivering ‘my’ module alongside one hourly-paid post-doctoral tutor, all the lectures and tutorials will be delivered by the four of us entirely online. And even if we were all replaced with similarly experienced, similarly qualified, research-intensive staff, where, pray, would the university find suitably sized classrooms, spaces allowing even 1m distancing? Especially when 3 out of 4 of our school’s generous teaching spaces were demolished in a corporate-style makeover of our wing two years ago? I expect it to take at least six weeks of concentrated work between now and D-Day to re-imagine the way we will draw these students in, engage them, motivate them, get to know them, and assess them on this module. Speaking for myself, this is going to be one of the biggest challenges of my teaching life, but also a really exciting obligation to go back to the drawing board and redraft everything with an eye to first principles. We have had, truth to tell,  some difficulties with first-year on-campus delivery ever since online communication with students via the ‘Intranet’ intensified. In fact, first-year disengagement and absenteeism have been very concerning, even in the first semester. After the first few weeks, especially if slides were uploaded to the Intranet, lecture attendance would regularly attract only 50% max and, more worryingly, tutorial attendance was also prone to falling off. Erratically, yes, but often steeply and always disruptively. On occasion, we might have full attendance in a given seminar – when assignments were being returned, for example, but then sometimes the tutor would walk into a room with just five or three students present out of fifteen. Worst of all, it wouldn’t be the same five or three each week… I think that, counterintuitive as this might seem, by applying all our ingenuity to the realignment of first-principle engagement with more non-anonymous assessment, we may be able to do better for this year’s intake than for any other over the past decade. And this brings me to another point. Yesterday I looked at the way UCD is managed. The top management team has a number of working groups with set meetings throughout the teaching semesters. Each one has a very long list of members. There isn’t one single name in any of these lists: they are all ex officio – heads of this and that, mostly of things I didn’t even know existed. It’s one giant bureaucracy – from memory, an EDI group, Global engagement group, Student Experience group, Academic group, Strategy Group, Campus Development group… This made me understand in a flash why the University has seemed to implode this summer. Just imagine how our continent would have coped with the Pandemic had the EU bureaucracy been in charge. Where precisely was the unity or the Union when trouble hit? Missing in action, that’s where. Who said the nation state has had its day? Not only was it France looking after France, but it was not the central administration but the local municipal officials, especially the elected mayors, who really took charge (of sourcing masks, of keeping schools closed when the advice from on high was to open, etc). Similarly, nothing in the way of practical guidance has emerged so far from the UMT or from any of its ‘groups’, nothing apart from magical-thinking fiats that seem to fly in the face of reason and sanity. And predictably, what stands right now between ‘my’ students and a total first-semester vacuum is most certainly not UCD’s top managerial cadre, much less their managerial groups, committees or superstructures. And so, as common sense and logic dictate, the only thing that will put and keep a Higher Education show on the road – in my discipline anyway – is the dedicated and engaged frontline professionalism of the course coordinators, lecturers and tutors, who will have been willing to sacrifice their summer research-time in order to re-think course content, delivery and assessment. I don’t know what proportion of frontline academics feel that they have been, in the past, treated disrespectfully by the organisation’s superordinate cadre. I don’t know whether there are many of us who have felt belittled, ignored or taken for granted because we weren’t ‘officers’, because we were the ‘head’ of nothing. Because we were just a name and a face to our students and our colleagues. I hope it’s a small proportion, because the University certainly needs now to be able to count on very significant levels of goodwill from the people that our new students are going to be clinging to as their main campus names and faces. I am so glad now that, as UCD took off into its own delirious world of corporate creep, malignant bureaucratic expansionism, commercialism, real estate speculation and a certain amount of research vanity to boot, I am so glad now that our discipline kept its collective head. And so glad personally that I kept my two boots in the trenches. So glad to have remained connected to the real-world energy and challenges of education, custodianship and transmission. For me at least, and for all my colleagues I hope, it’s some consolation to know that, if the University gets through this crisis intact, it will be all thanks to the front-line troops of lecturers and tutors like myself. It will be because of people who are well used to putting their research and their extraneous activities on hold while they re-design, re-think, renew and test their work on their students. Ours are the names, ours are the faces in which the students put their trust and the University had better not forget that ever again.

Tomorrow, July 20th, my Research Leave comes to an end and I’ll have to decide whether or not to take any Annual Leave. I have never, as far as I remember, ever claimed such leave from UCD, because academic work has always filled my time so totally: all my published work was written at night when my children were young, or at weekends, and mainly during the two to three months that were more or less free of the most pressing teaching and assessment concerns. I haven’t been able to do much ‘research’ per se during this ‘leave’, but I’ve done a lot of writing. It’s been such a tumultuous time for anyone interested in how writing re-members the experience of domination. I sense that the Pandemic has pulled the scales off many sets of eyes, just as it has torn the mask off many faces. Every day brings a harvest of new exposures of the misdirection of energies in our universities. The Irish Times has published letters of indictment by one senior UCD academic and one senior TCD academic. The home truths that they spell out must be very shocking to those for whom they were news: ie. for readers who hadn’t heard the warnings of my own Academic Armageddon or of Brendan Walsh’s Degrees of Nonsense. The abrupt and highly premature resignations of not one, but two university heads, is one thing; the two Irish Times letters, two broadsheet denunciations – of staff recruitment practices at UCD and of morally unsustainable levels of dodgy overseas involvement in several universities – is quite another. And on top of that national press and broadcaster exposure there has been some excellent commentary and coverage in the student press. TCD’s admirably unconstrained University Times and UCD’s valiantly probing College Tribune have swung into action and there have been a couple of extremely watchful and insightful Higher Education blogs as well. One is Greg Foley’s regular blog diary ‘Tales from Academia’ and the other is a piece by Enrica Ferrara that was published on IFUT’s blog. Greg works in Chemical Engineering, Enrica in Modern Languages, most recently in my own scorched-earth parish. All of Greg’s posts and Enrica’s first – of many, I hope – drop the convention of academic impersonality. This is why truthfulness burns through the words. Enrica’s piece on the cruelties of our dystopian version of university ‘humanity’ with its ‘aunts’ and ‘handmaidens’, its frozen egg accounts and ligatured fallopian tubes, is a transfixing account of the suspended lives imposed on the (at best) 9-month contract researcher legions. As for Greg’s suitably eviscerating thoughts on the ‘Pink Floyd’ armchair makeover recommended for Irish Higher Education by the former Higher Education Authority CEO, it should be the first item on the mandatory reading list at the Irish Ministry of HE for the next five years at least. When, like Greg and Enrica, somebody like Thomas Grund from UCD Sociology, writing in the College Tribune, uses his voice to comment on contradictions that everybody else can see but few are willing to name, it’s as an individual. Individual authority and personal experience have been, you see, largely sidelined in the highly bureaucratised Higher Education equation (in UCD anyway). And this eclipse of the name, face and life behind the grade, office, and h-index, has happened at enormous cost both to students and to academics themselves.

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