Archive | October, 2015

The best academics

26 Oct

The best academics are the most generous. I have been in this ‘game’ for a long time. I have known a lot of academics types: the fragile (everywhere), the bullies (mainly York), the egotists (everywhere), the shockingly dull and boring (everywhere, but north America is over-blessed with them), the management drones (sadly an increasing bunch), the lazy (everywhere, seriously), and the out-of-their depth.

I am also privileged to know (and to have known) lots of extraordinarily talented academics – those that are effortlessly coherent on a conference panel, those who write with such fluency that I think of great literature (a few even write as clearly as EM Forster), or those that have read so widely that I think they must never sleep. These academics drive us on – they inject our debates with ideas and concepts that make us think. Even those academics whose arguments/interpretations I disagree with do us wonderful service in stimulating debate and causing constructive controversy.

But, by far, the best sorts of academics are the most generous. By generous I mean those who devote time and enthusiasm for others. That is not always easy. We all have our own concerns and think that our own time and our own research agendas are the most important things in the world. The political economy of academia gives no rewards whatsoever in taking an interest in the professional welfare of others.

Looking back over my career (and I hope I have a couple more decades to go!), I can think of many academics who have been encouraging, sympathetic, humane and personable. I can think of very many who have not. I will concentrate on the former category and I will mention names – quite simply because they deserve it, and I hope I do not embarrass anyone.

So, many years ago when I was PhD student (perhaps the loneliest station in life) I remember walking along the Politics Department corridor at Queens in Belfast and Elizabeth Meehan saying ‘hello’ to me. Every time we met she asked how I was and how my work was going. She was not my PhD supervisor, but she took a genuine interest in students. She probably did not realise it, but her interest was invaluable. She made me feel that it was worth it. And then there was David Denver. I was a rookie lecturer at Lancaster (and had the office next to his) and I remember going to a conference with him at Salford University. David – a senior professor – sat directly in front of the podium as a series of grad students gave papers on electoral studies (his specialist subject). It was nerve-wracking for them. But David had words of encouragement for all of them. “Well Done” or “Absolutely” he would say as they gave their papers. I contrast this with the cat torturing mouse dissection of grad student papers that I have seen by other senior academics (who clearly have enormous insecurities that they take out on junior academics). I could names here – many of them are at the top of their game and have no need to be so gratuitous.

And then I remember Andy Williams who came up to York to give a paper when I was a lecturer there. On the morning after his paper I stumbled across him having a bacon sandwich in the college café. There began a friendship and academic partnership. He showed me that it was possible to be an academic and to be (reasonably!) normal. We talked about family histories and how we are a small part of a large machine. The personal is the historical and the political – a really important lesson.

I cannot help but mention John Darby, who gave me my first job. John was a truly inspirational figure (and cannot be discussed in isolation from Marie, his wife). John was a real leader in the field of peace and conflict studies. I was privileged to work with him. One of his many great qualities (apart from his fantastically dry sense of humour – believe me, he cut me down to size every day) was that he did not lavish praise. If you did a good job he would praise it. But if you did a mediocre job he did not. I learned a lot from that.

I also remember an ISA panel in … I forget which city. David Chandler was the chair/discussant on a panel comprised of PhD students. Rather than show off his genius, he took the opportunity to reflect seriously on the papers that had been given. He was genuine in his praise but gave useful critiques of their papers. He could have simply sat back and been a time-keeper, but he chose to be supporter of grad students.

And I remember the very many internal and external examiners I have worked with on PhD vivas. They worked hard to keep students calm and focussed. Vivienne Jabri gave a master-class – a really tough examination but fair and humane. But Roger Zetter, Roberto Belloni and many others showed how to be tough but fair.

We work in an industry in which peer praise is rare (I nearly fell off my chair recently when I received – unsolicited –an email from another academic praising me for a review article I had written). The main currency in contemporary academia is critique: that interpretation is wrong, that conceptualisation is too shallow, that view is a-historical; you have not read enough. Frankly, much of the literature is a whinge “this is wrong, that is wrong”. Obviously we need critique. But I look back and I think we need more encouragement too. We need mentors and encouragers. We need the sage words of wisdom that I was not bright enough to appreciate (Adrian Leftwich, John Darby), we need the inspirational teachers (Frank Wright, Mick Cox), we need the subtle mentors who are too good to give overt advice (Neil Carter, John Anderson), the good chat over the nice pint (or beverage of their choice) (Jim McAuley, Marie Zoelle Zahar, Aaron Edwards, Marie Breen-Smith, Tim Jacoby, Kris Brown, Alp Ozerdem, Landon Hancock, Jon Tonge, Richard English and loads of others), more junior scholars who show us how it is done (Stefanie Kappler, Birte Vogel, Sukanya Podder, Chrissie Steenkamp, Helen Basini, Gezim Vizoka, Laura McLeod and Walt Kilroy (who I hope are not offended by being called “junior”)), the collaborators that really stretch how I think but make allowances for my sloppiness (Oliver Richmond, Pamina Firchow, Alp Ozerdem, Roisin Read, Sandra Pogodda, Madhav Joshi, SungYong Lee, Roddy Brett, Jen Peterson, Birte Vogel), the people I know in person shallowly but are encouraged through their Facebook posts (Kevin Clements, Richard Jackson, Sherrill Stroschein, Lyndsey Harris and many, many more); the huge number of MA students I have taught and are inspired by their work for the UN, INGOs and NGOs; and – of course – those outside of academia that remind me that academics rarely have the answers. Mrs Mac Ginty works very hard to keep me grounded (though ‘floored’ might be a more accurate term). Everyone needs a Mrs Mac Ginty.

I do not claim to be the most encouraging or humane academic out there. I try, but often I am tired, distracted, and (I am sorry to say) not terribly interested. But I do look back and think of all the academics I have met and think: how un-encouraging most (yes, most!) of them have been. I remember at Lancaster as a new lecturer and thinking how spectacularly unfriendly most of my new colleagues were. Surely we can all do better. We do so little to encourage, celebrate, and champion others.

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Walking with students

12 Oct

I have been experimenting this semester by holding “walking meetings” with students rather than meetings in my office. I was inspired by listening to a talk given by John Paul Lederach – albeit he has the advantage of the beautiful Notre Dame campus for his perambulations with students. But I also like walking and find it a useful antidote to the sedentary academic work-style.

The “walking meetings” are one-to-one start of year meeting with MA in Peace and Conflict students. It is an opportunity for me to get to know the student a little bit, and an opportunity for them to share any questions or concerns they may have.

So why do it? Well, the primary reason is because I like it. I would rather walk around campus than sit in my office. But there are other reasons too. I want to break down – as far as possible – the student/teacher distinction and to engage in a mutual activity. Many of the students are coming to the UK for the first time, or are studying at a UK institution for the first time. Many come from educational environments where there is a very hierarchical relationship between student and teacher. Some students might find the office environment intimidating: it is “my turf”, a desk sits between us and it is full of books which they might think I have read. I certainly haven’t read them all or anything like them all!

The dynamic of walking with someone is very different to a desk-bound meeting. For a start, we are side-by-side rather than face-to-face. We are both engaged in a shared task – navigating our way through a busy campus and its surrounding streets. We can talk about the weather, squirrels, the campus deck chairs, and other ice-breaking non-academic issues. And there is a park next to the campus which is often filled with weird public art that induces mutual wonderment.

Obviously there are a few pre-conditions. I ask the students if they are comfortable with this approach and it may not work with some students with disabilities. And it depends on Manchester’s weather. But so far, I have only had to have one office-bound meeting because of the rain. The start of term weather has been surprisingly clement.

There is a great literature on walking and its relationship with social, political and religious movements. Whether it is Robert MacFarlane’s work on “old ways” and the folk and social history of walking routes, the persistence of pilgrimage routes, the historical importance of the Ramblers’ Association in challenging the privatisation of the countryside, or political marches by Gandhi or Mao, it is clear that walking is not just putting one foot in front of the other.

But mostly I do it because I like it.