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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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On the role of unions

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Friday, 2 Dec 2022, 11:54

I don’t like going on strike. I find it really unsettling. It has upset my rhythm of work, and I worry about the impact that my withdrawal of labour has had on my colleagues. I also worry about the impact that it has had on my students too, but I’ve done my best to give everyone extensions and to keep them thoroughly informed about what has been going on.

It has been a weird strike. For most of it I’ve been out of action with an unfortunate dose of the flu. Rather than visiting friends who work at Goldsmiths University (the closest university to where I live), I’m been dosing myself up with paracetamol and reading trashy novels. My choice of words is deliberate: joining a picket line in another institution may go against trade union legislation. My choice of words is also appropriate: I do have some friends who work at Goldsmiths, and it’s always a pleasure to catch up with them.

I first joined the union, UCU, two years after starting work as a staff tutor, after having spent nearly three years as a postdoc researcher on an EU project, and around ten years as an AL. Before then, I worked as a contract researcher at the University of Brighton (which is also where my Goldsmiths friend used to work). With all this work history behind me, you could say that I’ve taken my time to make a decision about joining.

During my second year, it began to dawn on me that staff tutors could, accidentally and very easily, get themselves into a whole heap of trouble very quickly. I realised that we were very much in the middle of everything: tutors, our students, module teams, and other staff such as student support team members and curriculum managers. We work within a confluence of relationships. It wasn’t long before I found myself in an interesting situation: different people from different groups were angry for different reasons. It turned out I could help to address some of the issues, but not all of them.

Being caught in the middle of everything made me realise that effective support from senior management is absolutely essential for us staff tutors. The support that I’ve been given over the years has been fabulous; senior colleagues have always been thoughtful and fair minded. They have listened when they needed to, and have offered help and guidance when necessary. Things have worked out well because my colleagues have been great.

When placed in a challenging situation, I once asked the question: what would have happened if they hadn’t been so great? Realising that I’m in the middle of so many different relationships, and realising that I could inadvertently get myself into trouble, I finally saw a very clear and distinct reason to join the union. I realised that there might come a time where I might need a bit of help, and it was better to be proactive and to seek membership rather than to panic if something bad happened.

Since becoming a member, I’ve gone to a number of UCU events. I’ve been to one of their management and leadership training days, I’ve been to an OU-hosted event about decolonising the curriculum, and most recently to a short conference about education and climate change. All these events have been interesting, thought provoking and worthy. When I have a moment, I intend to write a short blog about the conference.

As I write this column, I have approaching 600 emails in my inbox. I’m not happy about this. I’m not sure where to start. I feel anxious, and worried that I might miss something really important.

Going on strike is more than annoying. I don’t want to let people down. I want to get on with doing my job to the best of my abilities. I want to support my colleagues and my students. I also want to support UCU negotiators, support the fight for better terms and conditions for academics who are just starting out in their career, and support the fight for gender and BAME pay equality. These are all good things to be fighting for.

This article was written for the March edition of Snowball, the newsletter for associate lecturers at the OU

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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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