Asking for permission or asking for forgiveness: academics and holidays

This is the pool in which I swam every day for a week; with permission and forgiveness :)

This is the pool in which I swam every day for a week; with permission and forgiveness 🙂

For me, the summer holiday is truly over: we came back after three weeks away and although I had to do some personal stuff (mainly related to a lot of administration) I feel rested, renewed and ready for what may come. Conferences, invited workshop papers, seminars – bring it on.

Probably best, is that for the first time for a long while I am looking forward to the new academic year; it is not happening to me, I am looking forward to it with hope and enthusiasm.

What is different?

Well, some may say that it is because I finally got what I wanted: from August 1st I am Professor of Science and Innovation Dynamics and Policy at The University of Manchester. These people would be wrong: yes it feels good to win a marginal organisational battle (this is what getting a professorship without moving and/or at least threatening to leave feels like in British universities) but not great enough to overcome the stresses of the changing organisational routines that happen every September. Yes, our students coming back after the summer upsets seriously the organisational routines of universities.

No. It is the fact that I did manage, for the first time in probably a decade or even longer, not to do any academic/university work during my holidays. Yep, you heard me right: none at all. I am emphasising this because working through weekends, public holidays and breaks has become a matter of boastful complaint – you know the kind where people pretend they are complaining but really they are boasting how hard working they are – amongst British academics. A perception that you can’t get ahead without working thirteen hour days, seven days a week, fifty two weeks a year.

Working hard has become a glorified virtue; I agree with the author of Working Smart, Michael LeBoeuf – working hard usually only gets you tired, grumpy and ill. Any success, including success in academia, is about working smart; even more so because working at a university, whether you do research or teaching, is an inherently creative endeavour and creativity favours the rested, calm and focused mind.

But this post is not simply about me finally managing to have a total break (OK, I did check couple of MSc dissertations but this is hardly anything isn’t it); it is about an organisational development that I do find somewhat puzzling. Hence, I decided to share it with my colleagues and readers of this blog so we may find an answer together.

What happened?

Just before going away for the summer, sometime around late July, an e-mail message from one of our administrators landed in my inbox. Nothing unusual so far – many e-mail messages with varying degrees of usefulness end up in my inbox. This message, though, was interesting because it informed me that from now on I’ll have to inform my ‘line manager’ if I am away on holiday.

This immediately, raised three questions: a) who is my ‘line manager’?; and b) how did this come about; and c) why is it necessary?

Who is my line manager?

Forgive me, I may be a remnant of the past but I am not convinced that I have a ‘line manager’. Of course, there are colleagues who have undertaken to run the department for the next couple of years but I do believe that they are the first to reject the notion of them being ‘line managers’.

Being a compliant, neo-liberal employee of the university, I did ask; and it turned out that I – and every other colleague of mine – have to inform our colleagues before we go on holiday.

How did this come about?

Now, don’t misunderstand me; there is a lot to be said about colleagues knowing that you are away – but this used to happen and still happens anyway; it is a simple matter of good behaviour in universities to tell people that you’ll be away. In fact, until very recently, academics covered for each other if one needs to be away taking each other’s teaching, for example. But formally inform the Head of Department?

This is rather strange. Academics are usually not expected to be around the office very much when they are not teaching; or at least, it has always been their choice. It was accepted that academic work – both research and teaching preparation – are largely solitary activities demanding high level of concentration. Academics were trusted to do their job outside the office – as a mathematician friend of mine asked when told to fill in time sheets

‘How do I note the time when I dream mathematics?’

How do I distinguish between being on holiday and working? I will inform my ‘line manager’ that I am resting but what happens if I have an idea and start calling an international team to prepare a proposal? Or a student contacts me with an urgent question?

Apart from that, my contract still says that I have the right to reasonable holiday when I last looked (and this was relatively recently).

I believe that such, and similar, university policies signify two things:

  • There appears to be a general withdrawal of trust that academics, given the chance, will do their jobs properly. Administrators and academic leaders seem to have forgotten that universities thrive on academic self-exploitation  – successful academics generally work much longer hours than their contracts stipulate albeit in non-traditional forms. Many discoveries come in dreams!
  • HR executives who don’t understand the nature of academe and the ways in which human resource matters are different in universities; many of these were recruited from industry in a drive to ‘professionalise’ the universities. They assumed that ‘management’ is really a transferable skill and didn’t bother too much with the finer differences between the way in which academics work and the way in which the other professions employed by the university operate.

Why is it necessary?

Well, it is probably rather obvious I don’t believe that this is necessary. It seems to me that it creates another, and entirely un-necessary layer, of formality and bureaucracy. It is even worse: this kind of useless rule is either ignored or intentionally sabotaged.

Annoying highly intelligent people is always a mistake; universities, going out of their way to annoy their main asset is an error of major proportions!

Do you think I am over-reacting or misunderstanding something?

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