About Me

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London, United Kingdom
I am an engineering academic at University College London where I work on the sustainability of urban water systems. I am interested in the role of engineers and technology in sustainable cities.

Thursday, 5 January 2017

University reforms in a complicated world


Apart from the food and festivities, the Christmas break is a time to catch up with friends and family, debrief the year that was, and think about things to come. The social media meme that summed things up best for me about the past year was a version of the old proverb 'if you think you know what's going on you probably don't know how bad things really are'. 2016 was a year when pundits and experts were made to look silly. It was also a year when war and terror destroyed lives. If I learned one thing this year, it's that the world is very complicated. I am one of the most highly educated people I know, and am really struggling to figure out what's going on.

In my annual holiday catch ups with friends who work in universities we swap our various analyses of events from different personal and theoretical positions. Then we talk about work. Invariably we kick off the annual championship competition for the 'most Kafkaesque experience of university administration' of 2016. This is cathartic and amusing, but given the state of the world, the state of our universities is increasingly becoming a source of shame and despair.

The world needs people who can think clearly. Now more than ever. The role of universities is to do some of that thinking on behalf of society, and to educate people to be able to do it for themselves.

Yet, when I talk to colleagues from universities all over the world, each year we seem to be moving further away from this purpose. University leaders are caught up responding to constant changes in government policy driven mostly by ideology, untested by an electorate who don't know that 'higher education policy' is anything other than tuition fees. University administrators are absorbed implementing reform to address a murky mixture of myths and realities about inefficient services and out-of-touch academics. Academics muddle through. Year after year, policy reforms come and go, consultants march in and out, surveys and focus groups and system reviews roll on, all in the name of improving the capacity of universities to respond to a changing world.

The tragedy is that the more intense and ambitious these processes of change and reform, the less capable universities seem to be in actually delivering on our core purpose. Processes that are sold as improving efficiency and reducing barriers to excellent teaching and research seem to create new and moving obstacles. My friends may be a cynical bunch, but never have I heard anyone who works in a university say 'we went through a really difficult and far reaching administrative restructure, but thankfully now it has released me to truly give my best to my students and to produce ground breaking research'.  Continuous improvement never rests.

The world needs clear, critical and creative thinking. It's time for universities to step up. We certainly need to change the way we work to be able to better address a changing world, but we also need to draw a line against endless distractions of reform and get on with the job. Knowing how and where to draw this line requires wisdom and good judgement. Where would you go to find people like that in a chaotic world? Let's hope we don't have to look too far.  

Monday, 31 October 2016

Enthusiasm Deficit Disorder

The quality of teaching and the 'student experience' have been rapidly rising up the agenda for universities in the UK. This is partly driven by a sharp jump in student fees and partly in anticipation of the Teaching Excellence Framework which will form the basis of government funding allocations. It is disappointing that money seems to be the main motivation for universities to give student learning the attention it deserves. But here we are.

At the heart of the new emphasis on student learning, the National Student Survey (NSS) is a key measure of the quality of student experience. Completed by undergraduate students at the end of their course, it highlights areas of strength and room for improvement. This can be very useful in helping to improve professionalism and performance of university departments and academic staff. However, the NSS is not a checklist of what constitutes a good education, nor should it be a to-do list for teaching staff. Identifying actions in response to the NSS and any form of student evaluation requires thoughtful analysis and creativity which universities should be good at. I am beginning to worry that we might not be living up to the possibilities that a renewed emphasis on student experience provides.

One of the statements on the NSS is 'Staff are enthusiastic about what they are teaching'. This seems like a reasonable way to evaluate how engaged staff are with the courses they teach. Staff and students should be on the same side - no-one wants to teach material they have no enthusiasm for. 'Enthusiasm' seems like a quick win for university administrators looking to improve student experience and NSS scores. We are encouraged to 'be more enthusiastic' and 'friendly' in our interactions with students. Surely we can all manage that?

I am not sure its quite that simple. Enthusiasm and joy for teaching is not something we can just switch on. If university teachers aren't 'enthusiastic' about their subjects then it might be a sign that something has gone wrong. Are people being asked to teach material they think is irrelevant or outside their areas of expertise? Are they so terrified about being judged for their accent, appearance and delivery by large classes raised on TED Talks that they have lost the love they once had for learning? Are academic staff so overwhelmed by pressures to bring in funding, publish in high impact journals, work with industry, engage with the public, make YouTube videos, speak at the right conferences, figure out the latest expenses system, monitor students against their immigration visa requirements, book rooms for tutorials, chase accounts payable on behalf of suppliers... that they are walking into class under prepared and exhausted?

Even when we are doing our be very best to use innovative teaching methods, teaching and learning will not always be fun. Our work is serious. Some of the stuff we teach is hard. We should be professional and respectful in our teaching but it is not always possible, or desirable, to be cheerful and enthusiastic. I expect my GP to be knowledgeable, respectful and to listen to my needs, but I don't expect her to be 'enthusiastic' when she gives me her diagnosis. It is curious given everything university teachers have to offer students, 'enthusiasm' is deemed to be important as an end in itself.

And so it is with many of the items on the 'higher education checklist' that the NSS has become. The NSS is not intended for this purpose, but this is how it is being translated in departments under pressure to get the right answers. Student feedback is essential in delivering a high quality education. We need to listen to what our students tell us about their experiences, and we need to be thoughtful and professional in response. We also need to demonstrate the critical and creative thinking that universities exist to provide. The renewed emphasis on student learning and feedback is an opportunity for us to improve the quality of university education in an increasingly complex world. Like students who ask 'will this be on the exam?', if we focus our efforts at improvement entirely on NSS questions and answers we might miss the point entirely.

Thursday, 25 August 2016

The ways of the sexual harassment ninja warrior

In the last 24 hours I've had two separate conversations strategising with friends about how to deal with idiot men in the workplace. The sort who don't understand 'boundaries', who call you 'young lady', who make fun of your work in meetings 'just to get a rise'. Not all, but many, men.

I then noticed a retweet of a Guardian Academics Anonymous post about how terrible it is that women in science have to strategise about how to 'cope with' sexual harrassment. The Anonymous Academic was collaborating on a grant proposal with a senior colleague who had harassed one of her students. The post described how the student, her mother and the supervisor had to figure out how to work around such bad behaviour. The 'scientific community' and 'professorial staff' should take more responsibility for making such bad behaviour unacceptable, so women don't have to 'deal with it'.

I hate having these conversations. I hate reading these blog posts. My inner nineteen year old is screaming 'THIS WAS MEANT TO BE SORTED OUT IN THE 1980s'. My outer forty-two year old is bored and annoyed.

So here are some tips.

Sexual harassment isn't acceptable. Anywhere. Not at the bus stop. Not in the lab or at a conference dinner or the tea room.

It is simply not possible for anyone who has been in the workforce anywhere in the free world in the last 30 years not to know what sexual harassment is. 'But I was trying to be nice' is never an excuse.

No-one wants to be sexually harassed. No-one deserves it. Don't even go there.

If someone sexually harasses you or anyone you know, you should not accept it. You have options. Your options depend on the stage of your career and your circumstances.

All institutions have formal procedures for dealing with harassment and bullying. This might be the right thing for you to do. Find out about it, and make your own mind up. You'll need to weigh up the personal costs of going through the system, your urge for 'justice', and the greater good that might come from properly holding the creep to account.

Most of the stuff we feel crappy about are those annoying moments of ickiness that don't add up to enough for a formal complaint. In those moments, we just want to be that badass with the perfect one liner. We want to deal with the creep then and there. But sexual harassment comes as a surprise, and we are left paralysed and tongue tied.

Badasses are made, not born. In an ideal world we wouldn't need to be badass sexual harassment ninjas. We wouldn't need to 'deal with it'. Unfortunately we work in the real world with men, some of whom are creeps, many of whom are clueless. And we are real people too. We aren't born knowing how to defend ourselves. We need to learn.

Practice the ninja arts of badassery. All those things you wish you'd said, say them out loud. Hear your own voice say 'thank-you for the compliment, but I'd prefer it if you didn't comment on my appearance.' Practice your withering stare. Imagine yourself physically taking his hand off your shoulder, or maybe just start with a really big shrug. Concentrate on not doing the girly giggle that makes everyone feel OK about stuff that's really not. Workshop all this with your friends, while you make fun of the slimeball who looked you up and down in front of your team. Don't just 'wish' you'd said something, or hate yourseful for not standing up and walking away, practice it for next time. Next time you just might say something. It might be in a small, shaky voice. You might feel like an even bigger idiot, but it will be something.

If someone is a creep, tell people you trust. You don't have to publically bad mouth the sleazoid, or assassinate their character. Don't gossip. Just quietly let people know 'so, this happened'. Reputations get around.

If someone relatively vulnerable tells you they've experienced creepy behaviour from a more powerful person, believe them. Don't try to explain it away. If you can't act on it imediately or are not sure if it is quite right, just file it away for future reference.

Be choosy who you work with. When you are early in your career this can be difficult, but after a while you'll build your own reputation and you'll have more options. Don't work with anyone who has a reputation for being a creep. This is what I found most baffling about the Anonymous Academic. To me the answer to the dilemma was clear  - you harass my student, I never work with you again. There won't be any drama, I'll just prioritise other commitments. Your sales rep sends a dirty message to my purchasing offer, you don't get our business. Make a pass at the adminstrator who checks you in for your interview, you don't get the job. This is not cutting off my nose to spite my face, and it is not kangaroo court. It's clarifying priorities. So many people complain about being overworked. 'Don't work with creeps' can be a handy workload management strategy. There are more than enough non-creeps out there to build a successful career.

Change the conversation. If you know that your workplace isn't doing enough to eliminate harassment, make a fuss. Suggest that everyone takes a really boring sexual harassment training course, again, in person, not alone on their computers. Re-write the policy. Call out the bosses on their 'pinkwash' gender diversity clap trap if it doesn't ring true.

Step up. There are creeps so creepy, and sleazeballs so slimey and institutions that are so structurally dangerous and chronically dysfunctional that sometimes the nuclear option is the only option. Sexual harrassment in the workplace is illegal. There will be times when the law is the best answer. There may come a point where it is right to go public with your experiences, particularly if others share those experiences. At some point the Anonymous Academic might need to take off his mask. Doing this on your own takes a lot of courage and can be costly, but the cost of 'putting up with' degrading and demeaning behaviour can be much higher.

'The scientific community' shouldn't accept sexual harassment. This is true for everyone who is part of that community. It is not the responsibility of women, particularly young women, to hold every creep to account. Our brighest minds should not be wasting their precious brain cells figuring out workarounds to 'deal with it'. And yet we can't wait to be rescued by enlightened professors. We need to empower ourselves and each other, because that is ultimately what sexual harassment is about. It is the abuse of power. There are formal and informal ways of taking back some of that power from the creeps. These are the ways of the sexual harassment ninja badass. Be more ninja.

Friday, 24 June 2016

Democracy, knowledge and universities

I was one of the 78% of people in the London Borough of Hackney who yesterday voted for Britain to remain in the EU. I work in Camden where 75% of people voted to remain. I am an academic in one of the highest ranking universities in the country. I was born overseas, as were most of my students, colleagues and friends. I have a PhD, I eat quinoa and I ride a bicycle. I am a member of the global elite.

This is not an easy identity for me to own up to. I was the first generation of my family to get a degree. I grew up in a country town in Western Australia. When I was a child both my parents were always in work and we always had food on the table, but most of my clothes were hand-me-downs. For a long while my Mum did a special contortionist trick involving keeping her feet on all three pedals at once to prevent the car from stalling at every intersection. During 'the recession we had to have' in the late 1980s when interest rates rose to 18%, my parents couldn't pay their mortgage.  

I know what it feels like to sit in a car full of kids, in a second hand school uniform, hoping we won't stall, listening to politicians on the radio talking about how all this economic reform is in our best interests.

I get it.

But twenty five years later here I am. One of the metropolitan, global elite. Completely out of touch with the 'real people' out there who chose to leave the EU.

The 'real people' aren't stupid, and most of them aren't racist. Some of them have legitimate concerns about the impact of immigration on their communities. Mostly it seems that  people want more control - over their own lives, and the people who govern them. Everyone voting yesterday knew the risks, and they chose to take their chances.
 
What troubles me is how far away the conversations I have in Hackney and Camden are from the issues that motivated the majority of the country to vote as they did yesterday. How have those of us who work in universities and urban professions become so detached from the worries and aspirations of so many people?

Colin Macilwain wrote about this problem from an American perspective in Nature News back in March. Universities and scientists have enthusiastically aligned themselves with the interests of big business and centrist politics. We've pursued a 'deficit model' of public engagement, preferring to talk at rather than listen to 'real people'. Too often we fall into lazy political arrogance assuming 'if you knew what I know, you'd agree with me'. If people disagree with us, it's because they are ignorant, possibly stupid. We've been complacent, and we're becoming irrelevant.

In coming years we all have to work together to figure out a positive future for a UK outside the EU. Those of us in universities also need to think harder about our role in all this. How is knowledge used in these messy debates? How well are we preparing our students to participate in this new style of democracy? Why do people choose to ignore evidence and expert opinion? Who is it that we serve? How can we better fulfill our primary purpose - to create and share knowledge for the greater good?

I don't know the answers. With colleagues we are trying our best with the Engineering Exchange and modest research and citizen science projects. We'll have to adapt to a changed funding and policy landscape. Collaboration with European colleagues will be more difficult. But the biggest challenge might be how to bridge the divide that seems to be opening up between power and knowledge.

Thursday, 23 June 2016

Sewers, the EU, Jo Cox and me

Last night in London we had a torrential downpour. This means the sewers have overflowed into the Thames. It's a fairly warm day so dissolved oxygen will be low. This is just about the worst case scenario for the health of our magnificent river.

This morning I voted to remain in the EU. I was almost in tears at the enormity of the decision.

Now I am in a French cafe drinking coffee on my way to a walk along the route of the historic Fleet River. The Fleet was turned into a sewer 150 years ago. One of those sewers that overflowed last night. The sick old Fleet, breaking through to the Thames again.

This afternoon I am going to the Houses of Parliament for drinks with the Thames Estuary Partnership. People who care about the river and know about sewers and dissolved oxygen. They also know that the sewer overflows mean we are in breach of the EU Urban Wastewater Directive, which has been adopted by UK Parliament through various water acts in the last decade. Legal action and threat of fines is one of the key drivers for the London solving the sewer problem. Construction will soon start on the Tideway tunnel, which will stop sewage overflowing into the Thames, thanks in part to our membership of the EU.

The event in Westminster was to be hosted by Jo Cox, who lived in a boat on the river. She's dead now. She was killed for her politics, including her campaigning to remain in the EU. We'll remember her as we share a drink by the Thames.

And it is also National Women in Engineering Day.

I feel like I am living a badly plotted political short story.