Archive for July 17th, 2009

Down these mean streets

July 17, 2009

Instead of Bad Science, more ephemera and academic angst. Dr Aust has been missing his meetings. Well, I don’t mean “missing”, more missing, if you see what I mean.

While Dr Aust was away at his conference last week he managed to miss a couple of staff meetings. One of these was a “Principal Investigators Meeting”.

“Principal Investigators”, or “PIs” is what we are now encouraged to call lab heads, or group heads, or “academic staff”.

I don’t much like the term “PI”, which strikes me as a slightly heavy-handed attempt to make us sound like a US University. Having said that, I guess it is slightly useful as a term which differentiates us from the teaching-only academic staff (“investigator”), and “PI” does usefully encompass both lecturers etc. (staff paid from public funds to teach and to do research) and research fellows (paid by public or charity money to do almost exclusively research). But it still grates a bit.

And personally I can’t say or hear “PI” without thinking “Private Investigator”.

Perhaps I should start wearing a trench coat and carrying a loaded water pistol.

Anyway, at this PIs’ Meeting we were to meet our new Line Manager. The Line Manager is somewhat like a Head of Department in the old days, though the Department no longer exists as a geographical entity (the grouping our line manager manages is now split over three, or possibly four, buildings), and now contains some sixty-odd “PIs”.

Now, one of the difficulties with the kind of re-organisations that David Colquhoun is always bemoaning is that they inevitably lead to situations where people do not know the people they are officially being managed by. Or, conversely, the people they are managing. Hence the need for meetings to Meet the New Boss.

Though Dr Aust missed the meeting, he is fortunate (or perhaps unfortunate, depending on how you look at it) that he already knows the New Boss from having taught on the same course unit a few years back.

It’s, like, the matrix, dude

Another characteristic of large “matrix management” systems is that one inevitably ends up being “line-managed” by different people for different parts of one’s job.

While this may not seem that odd, and is commonplace in the commercial sector, it does potentially present problems when the different parts of the job all have to occupy the same time, and when many bits of the job (notably research) are “elastic” – as in, they expand to fill any available amount of time.

Academics in UK Universities have classically had three jobs – research, teaching, and University administration. (Nowadays one might add a fourth, public engagement activity. I am still trying to work out if anonymous blogs count for this bit, by the way)

Much of setting workloads in academia involves the trade-off between research on the one hand, and [teaching plus admin] on the other. The notional percentages in this split vary between jobs, and institutions, and perhaps between managerial regimes. Historically the split was very vaguely defined – indeed, when I started twenty-plus years back nothing was said at all, and you were left to get on with it.

Anyway, getting back to the trade-off of research against the other stuff. It is fairly obvious that this trading off (and the setting of tasks) is intrinsically easier and quicker if the person for whom one does these two jobs  – the “line manager” – is the same person.

If the people are different, as is now commonplace, it is more difficult to make the trade:

“I can’t take on X job (teaching on course Y) as well as Z job (admin task) because I will then not have the time to do ABC jobs (research) effectively”.

Not impossible, note – just more difficult, involving more arguing and running backwards and forwards from one line-manager to the other, none of whom may know you and your work very well.

The Spreadsheet has Spoken

Nowadays this sort of discussion also usually involves a very very large Excel spreadsheet.

Sometimes I actually have the feeling that my bosses see me almost entirely as a line of cells in an Excel spreadsheet. Probably with many of the cells coloured red.

Indeed, with the computing power and logic operations now available, I am pretty sure the Excel spreadsheet can identify me automatically as a “possible problem”, without any input from my human bosses being required at all.

Still, at least I don’t work at the neighbouring North of England University whose academic staff were telling me at the conference that they are being threatened with having to re-apply for their own jobs.

So as usual, “tout va au bien”, as Voltaire might have said, “dans le meilleur des mondes possibles”.


PS – If you hadn’t spotted it, the title of this post is a reference that I have dragged in kicking and screaming from the work of Raymond Chandler, noted writer of classic Private Eye (PI) fiction and creator of the immortal Philip Marlowe.

“Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor. He talks as the man of his age talks, that is, with rude wit, a lively sense of the grotesque, a disgust for sham, and a contempt for pettiness.”

— Chandler “The Simple Art of Murder”

Apart from the fact that I have always loved Chandler’s books, the phrase “a disgust for sham” makes me think that Chandler would have been a natural sceptic.