Free research questions about the academy

Given my research schedule is now full-up until 2018 (maybe 2019) – here are some free research questions that I’d love to know the answer to but have no time:

  • Why do sociologists always seem more stressed than management academics? Is it oversupply,  the need to churn out a monograph we don’t suffer from? Something cultural about the field?
  • If on social media, women academics, POC, LGBTQ etc need to put PhD after their name because of various ‘isms’, Does it make any perceptional difference if a white male academic does it or do people just assume you have a PhD anyway? 
  • If I gave student feedback on assessment as a two minute recording, how much more likely are they to engage with it than written feedback?
  • What if we got students to draw their module feedback? 
  • What would happen to the career choices of a full time Academic/Adjunct/Associate Tutor if they were given five hours of pensions guidance? 

Tips for being a good ally (part 1)

These were sent to me by a UK Female academic, I present them unedited:

I’ve been thinking about the practical steps white male allies can take to support women and ethnic minority colleagues. I suspect many of these could also apply to white women academics who consider themselves allies. Much of these relate to ‘speaking out’ which is probably easier for some than others. Some ideas, in no order.

1. Draw attention to all male/all white panels, meetings or committees. Are you in a position to step aside so someone equally experienced or qualified can take your place?If there is a social event, e.g. lunch with a big academic cheese – who has been invited. In my experience senior men invite senior men to give talks, and invite other men to the lunch or dinner.

2. Don’t just send your distressed students to your women colleagues. We have enough to do with our own students, never mind your work too.

3. Don’t send your work on to women to do e.g. you can’t work the VLE – please don’t send your material on to a woman who does know how to work it. Learn how to do it.

4. Please don’t come into my office and spend 40 minutes showing off your feminist credentials to me. Lets see a little less conversation and a little more (feminist) action please!

5. You’re at a meeting – are the appropriate people there? More than once I’ve seen all male academic meetings about a degree programme run by a woman. She’s not there to inform the discussion.

6. Please don’t laugh at sexist jokes in meetings. Please.

7. Notice who is and who isn’t speaking in meetings. Notice who is being heard and who is not being heard.

8. Look at the admin roles in your department – who has the high workload, low prestige roles, and vice versa. (often a teaching, research split).

9. If you’re a manager think about who you are allocating roles to. More than once I’ve seen (strategic?) incompetence rewarded, with roles taken away from those not doing them well and passed to those who will do them. This is not always a male to female transfer, but can be. Consider the implications here for career development and advancement.

10. This applies to us all but do respect people’s non working time. No weekend/evening emails – or at least don’t expect a response.

On this blog as a safe-space

Yowza – my previous blog post within 10 minutes of going up  resulted in me receiving virtually instantly a number of DMs on twitter from three female academics who were interested in writing an response. 

I’ll make anyone reading the blog the same offer I made them – I’ll publish anything you like on the topic with no-name and at no point will I reveal your name to anyone else or keep any records of your name. 

I did also receive an offer of a blog post talking about the struggles of white males like us via a throwaway email account – I’ll keep your name a secret as well but rather than offering you the opportunity of a blog post, I’ll leave you with this. 


On how White male academics fail as allies

A couple of recent things have made me think  how I conduct myself as an academic. My thought here are rough and might veer into #mansplaining. If they do, call me on it.

I’ve done UCU casework for a number of years at a number of different places – I’ve tried to help people confront bullying, sexism, homophobia, transphobia etc and hopefully make a little difference and along the way I get to pat myself on the back as a progressive chap who has done his bit. However the more I think about it the more I think as an ally I fail in two important ways. 

The first is that no matter how many times I deal with cases, no matter how many people I assist, I still have a lived experience where none of this stuff ever happens to me. I am absolutely the default which the academy is constructed for. 

I am the living embodiment of the default in the academy
I am the living embodiment of the default in the academy

Nobody doubts my credentials as a professional, students don’t engage in micro-aggressions, my contributions are listened to at meetings, no senior profs tried to feel up at a conference etc etc etc. Moreover when people talk about the stresses of the academy, I actually have a great time on a daily basis, many of the frictions that occur on a day to day basis just don’t exist.  

So here is the first way I fall down as an ally – even though I know on an intellectual level that all these things occur all day, everyday there is a little voice in my head that I have to constantly fight down which is saying “well it cannot be that bad” because emotionally this is all invisible to me. Every single experience I have as an individual gives me a set of mental heuristics that say “everything is A-ok!” 

So I wonder if I don’t push as hard as I could do as an ally because there is that dualism going on. This leads me to the second reason I think I fail as an ally, given the academy plays overdue attention to people like me – are we (people like me) really doing as much as we can to win structural meaningful change or am I happy to win tactical battles for individual people and then pat myself on the back? 

White male academic to the rescue! Look he's got a blazer with brass buttons he must know what to do. 
White male academic to the rescue! Look he’s got a blazer with brass buttons he must know what to do. 

So what should I do? Well I guess I get to Listen more and speak less and think a bit more. 

On working with industry – show me the money

So you find yourself as an academic having the opportunity to do some research work with industry and even better they are willing to fund all or some of your work. So you take that bag of cash and run and… 


If you are going to be working with industry you need to be exceptionally carefully about what you need to do and why you are doing it. If the project goes well everyone will appear to claim ownership, if the project goes badly then everyone will disappear and you will find yourself in a big puddle of shit without the right shoes for it. 

The following is not an exclusive list but should act as a guide to getting started – also be mindful that academic cultures vary so much that what makes sense in HUM/SS makes no sense to the hard sciences so seek specific discipline specific advice.

Project sponsor

  • You have clearly defined and agreed the scope of the project – If the Project is about X, then you put in sentences to make clear it is about X and specifically excludes Y
  • You have clearly defined the work packages and associated costs – for example if you are doing field research you have clearly defined how many sites you will visited and how much time you will spend on each visit (you also need to budget for travel costs, transcripts)
  • You have clearly indicated to the sponsors the risks involved and quantified the risks and the ways in which you will mitigate these risks
  • You have written into the contract a right to publish (often after they have looked over something) – I’ve lost track of the academics who sign contracts without reading them properly
  • You are clear about who own which bits of IPR
  • You have checked what the liabilities and penalties are – if they think your agreed deliverable is crap – is the University expected to pay for someone else to complete the work?
  • You are aware of the penalties are if you exceed the deadlines – this isn’t like working with other academics who will shrug if you blow your deadlines, if you agree a deadline either hit it or start communicating early that you will miss it
  • You have agreed how many revisions a client can expect – if you don’t put this in, clients can and will try for endless revisions to a product or service and that leads to function creep where they try and get more and more for no more money
  • you have indicated the indicative length of any reports  – don’t say you will “write a report” because that could mean anything


  • You have checked with the University that they classify this as either contract research OR ‘pure’ research – if you have no idea what I’m talking about, STOP and go and talk to your research office. 
  • Before you agree a price with the client, you have a clear understanding of what your on-costs are (effectively the base charge that occurs everyday regards of what you do). I have see academics agree contracts without doing this and then realise that they are at least £10,000 out on the budget
  • You have run the costs past an internal figure (research office) to check them
  • You have run the contract (often the client’s standard contract) past your legal team
  • You have worked out how must it is costing to buy you out of other duties (teaching) and that is built into the bid
  • You have it agreed in writing that this money will be used for the purposes indicated. Academics find that they bring in money that buys them out of 10 hours of teaching a week and yet mysteriously their teaching load is the same as before.
  • If you are doing contract research, what is your margin (the difference between the cost of doing the research and what you are charging the client)?
  • What is happening to your margin? The centre will want a cut but if you don’t get to retain any of it for your own (legitimate) purposes what is the point? 

Two final tips: 

1) don’t be tempted to under cost the research to get the contract – you will end up working every evening and weekend to complete the project because you have blown past the contract hours and still don’t have a deliverable that the client will accept. you will also then crash all your other research projects because most journals will not threaten to sue you if you don’t submit revisions on time.

2) at the start, it is common for the client to say ‘The Budget is £50,000’ and then just before you sign the contracts either they (or often) someone else will ring you and play hardball and try and get you to reduce the price claiming the price is over the top for the work – its just part of the game. I once spent four hours on the phone and in the end they got £500 off the work. So it’s worthwhile having both the quoted price and an actual price which is the minimum you would do the work for. 

I’m sure there are hundreds of things that I have missed but this will get you started…


On working for free (Academic labour – part 1)

I seem to be having the same conversation over and over on twitter and am in danger of being a one trick on a particular issue – that of academic labour and working for free. 

I never do it*, something will have gone seriously wrong if I ever have to do it. I’ll point out that my current employer Edge Hill University has never asked me to work for free so none of the examples I’ll discuss applies to them.

Let’s get the caveats out of the way first:

  • If you are happy and comfortable to work for free, more power to you, we need to change the underlying systemic issues not snipe at each other
  • I’m a white heterosexual man with no disabilities and have all of the advantages that occur in a system where people’s default idea of the academy is a white hetrosexual man with no disabilities. In general I never suffer from the micro-aggressions that many people have to deal with multiple times a day. I’ve never detected any problems with coming from a working class background. I know this stuff goes on because people tell me (and if you want to debate that it goes on – this is the wrong blog for you) but its invisible to me. 
  • You really think that your career would suffer – then go for it, I’m not you and thus why this makes sense to me might make no sense to you
  • You have a passion project that will not happen without free labour

With that in mind, why don’t I work for free? 

  • There is the opportunity cost – every time you work for free you commit time that can used for something that actually pays.
  • By working for free, you send the signal that either your time isn’t valuable or your expertise is worthless. 
  • If you are already working for free, why pay you? 
  • If you are working for free, why not ask you to do more – because the marginal cost of asking you to do more to the person asking is… zero
  • There is the multipller effect – I once was asked to attended a conference and was expected to pay for it myself, it came to about £800. This was ten years ago, I stuck the money into my investments and got a average return on that £800 (even during the financial crisis) of about 12% – I cannot even remember what the conference was. Working for free is stealing from your future.
  • Every time we agree to work for free, we make it harder for all of us to be paid.
  • I’ve been poor, I didn’t like it – it was the most stressful experience you can think of and is even more stressful now given the language of ‘scroungers’ – “oh my god, what if they invite me to join them for coffee, I’ll have to do without dinner” (if you’ve never been poor that might make no sense to you, if you have been it makes perfect sense to you).

Now at this point some of you are disgusted:

what sort of academic is this guy who is concerned about money? aren’t we all suppose to be doing it for love?

Doing it for love is fine if that floats your boat but I don’t plan to be eating dog food on retirement or if I get ill or if my job disappears and I don’t want my family to have to do that either. I also don’t trust in Govt. to provide. To me sound financial planning is the same as regularly exercising and not eating kebabs every evening – it just makes sense.

There is a secret about the academy, there is money, they just don’t want to give it to you, I’ll return to this but some examples to finish with on that theme:

  • Along with some other graduate students, I was invited to mark some dissertations for free that needed to be done quickly – I promised to turn them around fast but needed to be paid, the others did it for free. There were some uncomfortable conversations later… 
  • I did a post-doc where I asked the salary and we talked about what they were going to pay me. I found out later that rather than spilt the money between me and two other Post-docs, they paid me at the top and then at the bottom of the grade, simply because they hadn’t asked. 

We’ll return to this again.

* OK I likely do it in ways that I’ve hadn’t thought of – but before someone suggest working at weekends and evening – I do neither – if it doesn’t get done in the day it doesn’t get done. 

Getting students to improve the quality of your assessments

One of the challenges of a new semester is ensuring that we produce high quality rigorous assessments. Here’s a quick and easy way of improving the quality of your assessments.

I teach a third year strategy module.  Two weeks before I officially handed out the assessment, I uploaded a copy of the previous year’s assignment to Google docs with students having viewing rights a week before. Briefly the assignment asks students to assess the market performance of a chosen organisation and make recommendations for changes. Students were asked to consider the following:

  • ·         Does the assignment make sense?
  • ·         Which elements need clarification or changing?
  • ·         What organisation shall the case be based around? Should it be more than one?

I then asked them in their seminar slots (there are six running in parallel) to edit the document or make comments on it.  

On the left is the assessment, on the right are the comments. 
On the left is the assessment, on the right are the comments. 

During a period of around four hours, the students made around 5000 edits to the assignment and I believe this act of co-creation had the following positive benefits:

  • It alerted me to problems with my own writing where I thought I had been clear but had not;
  • Most of the conversations on the day were student to student and therefore the knowledge creation about what should be in the assignment or what elements were unclear was self-directed;
  • The students had a much deeper understanding of what the assignment required because they had to consider carefully which organisations would best meet the learning outcomes and assessment criteria;
  • JISC talks about developing digital capabilities that will make someone fit to live, learn and work in a digital society. One of the key attributes is the ability to collaboration and co-ordinate activity in a digital environment. This works perfectly for that type of development. 

One of the interesting side-effects was that although I stated to students that they only had to edit it during their normal seminar time, many continued to edit all day or for many days afterwards. 

The end result was that many things that I thought were clear were obviously not and together we produced a much clearer and stronger assessment. I now do this for all my modules. 

My hardships as a working class academic

There has been a lot of commentary recently about what it means to be a working class academic and someone mentioned to me, I should discuss my hard hard path to being an academic – here is my story. 

I grew up on a council estate and worked in the local meat packing factory. When I went to university, I found it a massive shift because…. oh wait I am white, straight and male, I didn’t find it a shift at all.

Many years later after working in industry (meat industry then some IT stuff), I went back and did a Master’s degree and found this a shift because… no wait… being white, straight and male, I didn’t find it difficult at all.

Then I did a PhD and this was difficult because… no wait it wasn’t because being white, straight and male people made the assumption that I was A) already someone with a PhD or b) already an academic.

That’s my story, hope that helps – now excuse me, I have to leave for my yoga class. 

Saving time with appointment slots

Since for those of us who work as academics in the UK system teaching is about to commence, Below is a summary of some work I did automating my diary so students could book straight into it. Since writing it, I’ve switched to Calendly because of its integration with O365 but the basic principles remain. 

The TLDR version – it’s a real time saver, students come to meetings better prepared, it reduces the administration burden on me and I prefer it to office hours. 


·         Students were given access to an electronic diary for a period of twelve weeks which allowed the booking of appointments without needing to email or speak to the academic about their availability.

·         This system resulted in a reduction of email traffic/information overload for the academic and a more transparent appointment system for students. Informal feedback from students suggests that they find the system both easy to use and highly valuable in helping them to manage their time on campus and seeking advice/guidance from academics.  

·         This is a very limited one person POC, a wider trial of such a system should be consideredin regards to 1) reducing the administrative burden of academics and 2)  the possible positive impacts on the students/academics and wider universities and by extension areas of the National Student Survey such as ‘Academic support’ and ‘Assessment and Feedback’.


The objective of the proof of concept was to explore what would happen if students were able to book appointments without contact or permission with me. The hope was that such a system would reduce email traffic (information overload) and free up time spent fixing up appointments to be better spent on research, service or learning and teaching activities.

How the system works:

As the student body makes use of Google apps accounts, it was decided that the best approach was to make use of the built-in appointment slot system[1]. The account holder simply decides on what time periods are open for students or others to book appointments and then the time allowed for each appointment. For the purposes of this trial, 30 minutes slots were provided to students.

The link to the diary page was then added to my email signature. Students when clicking upon the signature were taken to the following page:

The open slots in the diary
The open slots in the diary

Students are only able to see when there are available appointments and not appointments made by other students or any private appointments that are present in the diary. A student would then click on and book whatever appointment slot was available and then add some information about what the appointment was about. 

What they see when booking
What they see when booking

Below is the view seen by the account holder, it show not only the appointment slots but also other appointments and teaching commitments.

My full diary, students cannot see my other appointments. 
My full diary, students cannot see my other appointments. 

 The account holder receives either email notification or a text message providing the name of the student and the time and purpose of the appointment.  If a student was unable to attend a slot or no longer needed an appointment, they deleted it from their calendar and the slot reappeared for others to book. If a student (as many have done) had linked their university account to their mobile device (iPad, smartphone etc.), then the appointment would appear there as well.


Impacts for academic:

From a lecturer perspective, the main saving has been from the reduction in the number of speculative emails from students seeking to book an appointment at a certain time on a certain day and the email traffic and administration that this results in. It was made clear to students that this did not mean that I was not in my office at other times but simply that they could know with confidence that I would be available to speak to them at those specific times. Over a 12 week period, 150 slots were booked out and the attendance rate was 86%. Many students continued to simply ‘walk in’.  As an individual academic, I plan to carry on using this system because of the many benefits that both I and the student body obtain from it. Other academics  who have heard about the system have used it on an informal basis to better manage their time and it appears to be seen as highly valuable.

Feedback from students:

A number of students were asked about their experience in an attempt to gain some informal feedback. The general consensus was that the system was easy to use and was seen as much more productive than simply trying to guess if an academic was available or make a trip to the university for the same purposes. Typical comments included:

·         ‘no offensive to anyone but it can often take a week to set up an appointment, you set them an email, wait a couple of days, you email them again, then the original date has gone’ (Student 007);

·         ‘I don’t like bugging lecturers so if they don’t reply after a couple of days, I just try and get on with it’ (Student 003)

·         ‘It is really really simple that is the good [aspect] of it, I saved a link in my ipad so if I need to see you, I just look up your diary and often I can see you are free in an hour, so I book, stay on campus to do some work and then come up and see you’ (Student 004)

·         ‘I don’t understand why I have to spend so long hanging around in corridors waiting to try and find a lecturer. Most places in 2012 don’t work like that, why does this place?’ (Student 003)

Wider usage scenarios?

It is arguable that such a system may have a number of positive benefits for the individual academic, the student body and the University as a whole. In particular, such a scheme may have a positive impact on categories with the NSS such as ‘organisation and management’ and ‘access to lecturers’.

At present, the Higher Education system has a myopic focus on Teaching Enhanced Learning from a limited perspective of what happens within contact hours or from material provided to students via VLEs such as blackboards. It is undeniable that such facilities need to be provided and utilised to best benefit. However, the re-engineering of processes such as student contact with academics outside of the Lecture threat/classroom might have an equally positive benefit but for a more modest economic cost.


[1] A number of UK universities including the University of Sheffield and the University of Glasgow already use Google appointments for this purpose.