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Adventures of a staff tutor

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Over the Christmas break I managed to acquire a new affliction: ‘Netflix back’. It’s a short-term physiological condition that is caused by lolling about on the sofa watching too much telly.

I really needed a break from everything over Christmas, and thankfully I was able to get a bit of downtime, which involved watching loads of Scandinavian crime dramas.

In my last column I wrote about feeling on the edge of burnout. The feeling of “just about getting everything done” returned within a couple of weeks.

It has now been over a year since I have last physically seen my staff tutor colleagues. The last time was at an event about the new AL contract which took place in Leeds. In normal times, we would be regularly meeting in the Computing and Communications staff tutor room at Walton Hall. In that room (a real one) we would regularly chat about what is going on, find out about what has been said in various meetings, and collectively solve all kinds of little problems and glitches.

Those friendly but essential informal meetings over a cup of coffee that we used to have (or ‘hub chats’ as some of us call them) have become a whole lot more formal. A chance encounter and a quick catch up has morphed into a complex multistage process, which begins with an email, moves on to a diary check, moves on to another email, and then finally on to a virtual meeting. This partly reflects the significant increase in emails I have been receiving over the last year.

We’ve discovered some new phrases.

The most obvious one is: “you’re on mute”, followed by the slightly more esoteric “is that a legacy hand?”, which refers to a spurious virtual hand that had been raised in either MS Teams or Adobe Connect meetings.

In the last few weeks, some staff tutor colleagues have been sent some very sensible queries by tutors that we ought to be able to answer, but are not equipped to answer, such as “what does my projected FTE contain?” and “what are my additional duties?”

All this confusion led to one thing: anxiety.

At the heart of this was a fundamental issue: I had no understanding of how I might be able to support tutors under the terms of the tutor contract, and everyone was telling me that the new tutor contract was to begin in October.

At the beginning of March, the new tutor contract project team appeared to have finally woken up to the fact that they need to understand what staff tutors and student experience managers actually do. To help to unpack this puzzle, they asked staff tutors from each of the faculties to sign up to an impressive number of workshops. From my perspective, it was almost impossible to participate since I’ve been busy preparing for an April presentation.

Amidst all my day to day activities, the emails to tutors, the online conferences, the induction events, and grade appeals, the new tutor contract occupied my thoughts and worries.

I was anxious since there were questions that I couldn’t answer. I was anxious because I didn’t know what tools and systems I might be using to make things work. I was anxious because I want to do the best possible job I can to help all my tutor and staff tutor colleagues but I didn’t know how to do this.

I started to have trouble sleeping, and I know this wasn’t down to all those Scandinavian crime dramas I’ve been watching on Netflix.

On 22 March, I received an email from the university secretary, Dave Hall, saying that the implementation of the new tutor contract had been paused.

The challenge for us now is to encourage the project team to take stock, and begin to consider how we can all practically realise the contract in a way that is pragmatic, sensible and realistic. Any future implementation plan must also be incremental and inclusive.

The university will be a better place when ALs are on permanent contracts. We need to continue to make the case for sensible tools and processes. From a staff tutor’s perspective, we’ve got a lot of work to do to make that happen.

This article first appeared in Snowball Issue 99, March 2021. Snowball is the newsletter for Open University associate newsletters and is published quarterly.

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Newsletter acticle: bad timing

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Sunday, 19 Feb 2017, 16:14

Just before our Christmas holiday, I went to an AL development event that was held in Gateshead. I had asked my colleague, Karen, whether I could be more involved with AL development activities, since it is something that I really enjoy. She replied immediately: come to Gateshead! I gave her a list of titles of events I had facilitated in the London region, and we settled on a title for a session: ‘Managing student demands’.

The Gateshead event was a particularly poignant one: it was the last AL development event that was going to be run by the Gateshead regional centre. The centre was, of course, closing at the same time as the London centre.

Although the talks had a celebratory tone, celebrating what had been achieved in the region, I also began to realise that I was attending a wake. Every region had its own character, just as every part of the UK is slightly different. One thing, of course, was consistent: the collective commitment to students and to open access higher education.

I really enjoyed delivering the ‘Managing student demands’ session to the ALs: they were a delightfully vocal lot; they had opinions, were willing to share experiences, and were very engaged. I have been looking forward to my facilitator feedback with a combination of excitement and trepidation; I hope I did a good job and they got something from it.

And then there was Christmas and New Year: a quiet time that mostly consisted of being laid up in bed with a stinking cold that never seemed to end. During the days when the university was closed, I occasionally logged into my email just to make sure there were no major crises. I also kept one eye on my tutor group forums, to make sure that all my students were OK.

I’m writing this article a day after the London office closed. To mark this occasion there was an event: a chance to meet with hard working colleagues for one last time. Like the Gateshead event, this ‘celebration’ was also a wake. Our associate director in the London region was given a resounding round of applause in recognition of her 30 years of service; all the staff tutors had contributed to a gift.

One of my fondest memories of working in the London region was being a part of a ‘diversity group’. Every year we both celebrated and embraced difference; we ran challenging events about race, culture, aging and gender. I couldn’t help but notice the timing: our closing event was on the same day that Trump was inaugurated president. This coincidence added to feeling of mild bewilderment that was accompanying all these changes.

There was something else that was nagging me. A day before the London region closed, Peter Horrocks had sent an email announcing “… an important piece of work that VCE and I have recently commissioned to redesign the University and put us in the best possible position to launch the next 50 years of the OU in just two years’ time.” Another sentence spoke about a “high-level plan, setting out how we will implement the changes required over the subsequent 12-24 months.”

From my own personal perspective, this email could not have come at a worse time.

I’m suffering from change fatigue and I’m emotionally wrought after attending two institutional wakes. My colleagues in London have all gone, and I’m unpacking boxes of books and equipment that I have taken home from the Camden office.

Over the last day or so, I’ve been thinking about what motivates me. I have several answers to this: being able to help the associate lecturers that I work with, being able to help and to work with the students that we all tutor and, finally, being able to contribute to the different academic and student support communities that I belong to.

What doesn’t motivate me is a message that tells me everything is going to change over the next two years. I’m no management consultant, but when offices are closing and new communities are being formed to respond to this institutional stress, what we really need is stability.

A version of this post was published in the January 2017 edition of the Open University Associate Lecturer newsletter, Snowball.

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