Friday, August 18, 2006

Slippery when wet ... or, how to make a long day longer

Over the course of this year I am undertaking a leadership course called Headstart. It's designed for people facing the prospect of becoming head of department. There are twelve of us doing the course. Some are doing it in hopes of enhancing their chances of becoming head; others, like myself, are doing it because becoming head, or similar, seems inevitable, and they want to be able to take on these jobs without making too many mistakes. It is without doubt the best such training program, for anything, I have ever done. Unlike selection committee training, which was shamelessly about how to avoid being sued, or performance development training, which was built entirely around a laboratory-based structure of supervision by senior academics, Headstart is geared brilliantly to its subjects, and is both intellectually engaging and personally challenging. Some of the sessions on university governance have seemed a little arcane (though many of the university's structures ARE arcane), but most of the sessions with current heads, deans, deputy vice-chancellors, and so forth, have been interesting. We get to sit in on high level meetings and get debriefed at length by the vice-chancellor afterwards; and later in the year I will be 'shadowing' some lucky senior figure for a couple of days. There is also space for one-on-one sessions with the wonderful Antony, the external consultant who leads the program.

I missed a whole day session on 'difficult conversations' when I was in New York having fun conversations about Chaucer, medievalism and why the Boston Red Soxs hate the Yankees so much (thanks, Frank!), and it became quite clear on Monday, when we had a whole day session on 'managing change', that Antony has taken off the gloves with which he was handling us all in the first half of the year, and by which he has been able to develop the reasonably safe and supportive environment that makes most of us, I think, actively anticipate and enjoy the sessions. One of the beauties of this course is that we get to work with people from different disciplines (I'm working on a project, for example, with an art historian, a botanist and an economist; and this has been great fun for me).

'Managing change', in 2006, is something every single member of the university is doing on a daily basis. We are undertaking a radical re-structure of our curriculum, shifting several areas (law, medicine, etc.) into graduate courses, abolishing concurrent combined degrees like arts/commerce, and ruling that all students must take 75 out of 300 points of their degree from some other Faculty. My own Faculty of Arts is also undertaking its own re-structure, so the Department of English will disappear at the end of 2006 and become something like the discipline of English Literary Studies in a school of Culture and Communication. We are also revising our entire undergraduate curriculum, and I must find a way of rationalising my smaller Chaucer subject with my larger Medievalism in Contemporary Culture (I'm thinking of a subject called Medieval Temporalities that would read, say, both Chaucer and Malory and post-Chaucerian and post-Malorian texts, plus work on medieval understandings of time and modern understandings of periodisation, etc.: watch this space). But it's a measure of the dramas unfolding every day this year that relatively calm committees are having fiery debates; issues are put to the vote where normally silence is taken as consent; and the budget for this Sunday's Discovery Day, when prospective students and parents come on campus, is about seven times bigger than usual.

Monday's sessions involved a very canny kind of role-play. Like most academics, I hate the idea of white-paper sessions and full-on role play (and Headstart is brilliant at flattering academics by saying they know what they can and can't do with us). Our sessions involve not so much 'playing' at taking on some other personality, but rather performing (in a quasi-Butlerian way, almost) a position. We took as our example one of the Faculties that has really had to agonise over some of these changes, and all took turns at seeing the issues from the perspective of the vice-chancellor, the dean, a head of department, and a member of the teaching staff. Sometimes there would be three or four of us being the v-c, sometimes all but one of us were lecturers. We rehearsed the 'no-holds-barred' meeting where the v-c, dean and head met with the department to answer their queries, and learned how to give straight answers, addressing concerns without adding spin, or patronising the questioner. Antony would occasionally intervene and ask us to do question and answer again, or provoke debate by caricaturing what one of us had said, and even personalising his remarks to a degree. The dramatic high point came when one of the group had to sit in the middle of the room as head, and have the vice-chancellor, the dean and the whole of her department literally shouting at her with demands, questions, needs and desires.

It was at this point that I realised how far the group had come over the course of the year, since as far as I could tell (and I hadn't, it's true, had everyone shouting at me), everyone seemed perfectly cool and fine with this. None of it led to any kind of breakdown or resentment; it had been done as a well-managed intellectual exercise in assembling a range of perspectives.

At the end of the day, we were all exhausted, but not, I didn't think, wrung out. I went back to my office, gathered my things and climbed on my bike. It had just started to rain, but not heavily, and I was looking forward to getting home (my son had had his first music exam that afternoon and I was keen to hear how he went, and relieve the friend, his accompanist, who had brought him home; my partner was away in China). Coasting along the brick path, I must have taken the corner awkwardly and skidded on the slippery path. I did the classic thing: put out a hand to steady myself as I fell, and ended up with a sprained wrist, a patch of skin missing from one hand, and a bunch of bruises up and down both legs that are still, four days later, emerging. Some students helped me up and true to form, I reassured them I was fine before sitting down to have a bit of a cry in the rain, half hoping someone I knew would come by, half hoping they wouldn't! I then numbly rode home, fired by adrenaline and desperate for warmth and comfort. There was time enough the next day for the doctor and the x-ray.

Now, I know what klg over at Fugitive Phenomenon will say about this: typical Aries, racing around too fast, no wonder she cuts and bruises herself. The scientist might observe the customary slipperiness of the wet road. This is the third time I have come off my bike in years of commuting and cycling: it's my characteristic luck in the world that I've only ever made contact with roads, paths and barriers, never vehicles. But was I more affected by the day's events than I had thought? Was this spinning out of control an indicator of what the day had done? I'm going to send an email to the group inviting them to read this blog and see how the rest of their day went on Monday ...

6 comments:

KLG said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
KLG said...

[Copy-edited version, minus ludicrous typos]

Oh well, you know -- a properly medieval pursuit, astrology.

What I actually thought was

1) Oh, my poor little friend, I hope she is okay.
2) Bloody Melbourne, always raining.
3) If it's the brick path I'm thinking of, it tends to grow moss in the shade that's slippery when wet and a cyclist's nightmare.

And only then did I think

4) Typical Aries, always rushing around hurting themselves. Etc.

This kind of sequence of events makes me realise that learning the terms 'objective correlative' and 'pathetic fallacy', way back when lit students did such things, was in no way a waste of time in relation to daily life.

Stephanie Trigg said...

thanks, klg; wrist is good now; just a bit tired at the end of the day, you know? Yes, I agree about the objective correlative, principally as a metaphoric device: spinning out; wheels falling off, etc.

And here's a posting from a fellow partipant in Monday's events (up to the bit where I fall off the bike, anyway!). Thanks to Nilss for these remarks:

Stephanie,

I have just read your blog. Thank you for sharing that with the group (and, I guess, the world).

I was interested in your reactions to the whole program and, to the role plays in particular. This time last year, I would have run a mile, if not further, to get away from a role play. Yet, each one we have had, and especially the ones in which I have been a participant (and most notably the one I was involved in last Monday) have taught me so much about how to deal with difficult situations more honestly and more openly. I found Monday's role play (where I was the V-C) excruciating at first and, as you picked up in one of your comments on the day, I responded to the situation initially in a not altogether helpful way. But Antony's prompting and the group's willingness to go along with the role play in a non-judgemental way, meant that as things proceeded, I felt that I handled it a little bit better. In other words, I learnt!

Sorry to hear about the bike accident. I'm also a bike commuter but fortunately haven't yet had a tumble quite like yours. Hope all is well now.

Cheers

Nilss

PS Feel free to post this as a comment if you want.

J J Cohen said...

I wish I had some kind of training before becoming department chair, other than the two days of PowerPoint lectures I get to look forward to next week ... and Headstart sounds like a brilliantly creative way to tackle some of the problems of getting outside of a small departmental view.

By the way, what is "Boston Red Soxs"???? PLEASE, there is no plural here, and it is self-evident why Red Sox fans don't care for Yankees fans. Geesh.

Stephanie Trigg said...

Oh. Yeah. Ok, Sox then, obviously! Thought it was unlikely my attendance at three games over four years might truly have qualified me as an expert...

Ian said...

Hey Stephanie - Thanks for the de-brief. It can take a while to get over one of those intense Headstart sessions. See you on the 5th for another one!