This post about the Joint Degree Project, by Chris Perkins, is a continuation of Jackie’s train of thought on best practice from late last year, so if you haven’t read that, please do…!
Over the past few months, the team in the Joint Degrees Project have met with lots of people across the college, as you would expect from a project that looks at joint degrees. Through these meetings, I have been struck with something both banal and pretty profound to do with systems, people and communication. Namely, the method by which we communicate shapes the nature of that communication. And the nature of that communication shapes the perceptions of the people taking part and the relationships that follow.
Of course, ethnographers of institutions and sociologists of an ethnomethodological bent have been saying this for years. For instance, they have shown how something as simple as the structure of a request form can impact financial institutions in huge and unanticipated ways. And then you have McLuhan’s famous dictum ‘the medium is the message’, or as I understand it: the technology by which communication happens shapes to a large degree the content of that communication. So, well done Chris for pointing out the blinking obvious…
But it’s one thing to read about something and nod with a wry smile, and quite another to experience properly first hand. Also, knowing something is true doesn’t mean we will act accordingly. It is a cold hard fact that eating an entire black forest gateaux trifle (with a delightful cream filled choux pastry garnish) in one feverish three minute sitting will lead to feeling of sickness, dizziness and self-loathing. Didn’t stop me over Christmas though.
What does this have to do with joint-degrees, I hear you ask.
The first point is that we must recognise that the methods by which we conduct administrative tasks matter far beyond their local application. The way a Board of Studies New Course form is structured, for example, shapes perceptions of what is valued by our institution in terms of teaching. The way students are signed up to courses in EUCLID impacts feelings of agency, worth, and value for students, professional service staff, and academics alike. With joint degrees, the outcomes are magnified, and animosities can develop. With as many sets of forms as there are Schools (or even departments!) we live in a mishmash of conflicting messages about what we do, why, and why it is important.
The second point is about our medium of communication for joint degrees: email. How does email shape the message? I would argue that it does a range of deleterious things to our communication: (1) email can be ambiguous; (2) email can be unintentionally rude; (3) email can be intentionally rude in a way that a driver in traffic feels happy to use words in the car that they would never use in front of their parents; (4) email can induce email-chain-pile in; (5) email can be lost, ignored, deleted; (6) emails induce complacency and buck-passing in the form of ‘well, I did send an email…’. And finally, (7) email makes picking up the phone and having a conversation seem weirdly intrusive.
No wonder joint degrees are such a source of frustration!
But back to the project. As I said, I have been talking to lots of people about joint degrees and I was always braced for a ‘robust’ (read: skin-peeling) experience. What I found, however, is that after a few of the demons caused by the twin evils of wonky forms and email had been exorcised, the conversation was always constructive, fun, and productive. Rather than the stop-start of email, or the frustrations of poor formatting, questions could be raised and worked through, evidence could be evaluated and problems solved. Human beings doing human things with each other to solve human problems.
So, we are left with two important questions, which do not get asked enough. What sort of relationships do we want in our University, and how can our systems and methods of communication support those relationships?
Forms and email won’t go away. But I do have a couple of suggestions. First we should not shy away from standardising some of our processes across the our College, so we can all get used to a shared vocabulary and rhythm of the academic year. Second, we should create opportunities for meaningful discussions that are tied to those processes and that rhythm. In terms of joint degrees, this means Joint Degree Directors in each School, who meet at least twice a year to chat through any problems, hopes and/or dreams before (for example) a programme submission deadline.