“It’s as true for you as it is for me…isn’t it?”

Time changes as one moves through it. A recent post in the applicants’ forum described the movie ‘Jack and Sarah’ as an ‘old classic’. To me it is recent (and mediocre). Einstein was right – time is relative based on your position.

Brief Encounter on the other hand does seem to me to be both old and classic. There has been a buzz about this film since the start of the Short Cuts season, resulting in a decent audience last night. The fact that a lot of people wanted to see such an established, often-televised film on a big screen suggest that it is indeed a ‘classic’.

I enjoyed seeing it again – I’d forgotten how witty a lot of it is, how studded with potent language – like Celia Johnson’s character describing Donald Duck in terms of “his dreadful energy and his blind frustrated rages.”

Jenni Woodward gave a great intro at the start, though I don’t quite agree that the pipe-smoking husband is ultimately just dull. He shows a lot of empathy and emotional maturity – he just finishes his Times crossword before he gets around to showing it.

My strange unearthly beauty

Some people have made kind comments about the picture at the top of this blog. To set the record straight:

I wasn’t levitating.

I was really there, not Photoshopped in later. What wasn’t there was the laptop – I had to hold my hands in typing position above my lap, much to the amusement of the builders just out of shot in our new £14m learning and teaching building opening later this year*

It isn’t a ‘lost Ultravox album cover’.

* Note subtle ‘marketing’ reference embedded in the post.

Serial killers in the SCR!

One of the joys of working at Edge Hill is the small human touches that make it a nice place to work. One example is the little library of popular fiction that has sprung up in the Senior (or is it Staff) Common Room – a semi-hidden shelf of paperbacks that anyone can contribute to or borrow from. I’ve kicked in some of the Lee Child novels I’ve been reading recently and read one of the crime novels while I had flu – all I can remember about it is a feverish vision of someone thinking they were Jack the Ripper’s grandson and doing dreadful things. Scanning the books that have fetched up there, I was struck by how many of them seem to be about serial killers of some kind. I wonder why we have a fascination for these fictional figures? Is it because real-life murder is so banal and sordid that the idea of cunning, hyperintelligent, glamorous, eccentric killers with strange psychological or aesthetic motivations seems preferable?

Marketing among us super-social apes

Recently, I took the train to a meeting in Sheffield. I took work along, part of my justification for not driving (together with my lack of depth vision which would lead me to crash into nearby small objects in the belief that they were far away and large) but finished it all on the way over. Still being on the clock workwise, I decided to buy a work-related book to read on the way back (rather than look at the beautiful scenery.) Sheffield has a branch of Blackwells serving the ‘university quarter’, in which I found Herd: How to change mass behaviour by harnessing our true nature, by Mark Earls. I bought it because of its unexpected title and pretty-coloured cover:

pretty in pink

It kept me occupied for the journey back and at odd times since. It’s an enjoyable but challenging read, partly as its central premise that we are “a ‘We species with the illusion of ‘I'”, a herd animal, a super-social ape, goes against the grain of individualism that is such a a core belief. It’s also challenging in that it slaughters a whole herd of marketing’s sacred cows: AIDA, focus groups, one-to-one marketing all get stunned and dispatched. But it’s not just a hatchet-job and life with a “‘we’ perspective” is more fun than the ‘herd’ label implies. He has some very useful things to say about patterns of influence, belief and being interesting as the core of branding – in the book and on his blog: http://herd.typepad.com/herd_the_hidden_truth_abo/

‘a shimmer in the sails’

Seeing June Tabor in the Rose Theatre was like seeing a goddess manifest in familiar surroundings – Kali in the Terrace Cafe. JT is one of the few artistes for whom I have unreserved, irrational fannish adulation. I remember back in the 80s when she had reputedly retired from music to run a restaurant, speculating with my friend Antony how brilliant it would be to stumble across said restaurant, and just be in her presence

Anyway, last night the venue was quite full so we sat about halfway back. I was glad – didn’t want to be too close, in case the ‘stress of her regard’ melted the very flesh from my bones.

And it was a nice gig. The venue was right, the new songs spellbinding, the audience captivated, Andy Cutting and Mark Emerson provided accompaniment sometimes sparse, sometimes generous. The audience contained both colleagues and friends.
Afterwards got a signed copy of the new CD, ‘Apples’, a title beginning with A like most of her catalogue. (Pehaps her restaurant had a menu entirely consisting of A-themed dishes ? Anything you like, as long as it begins with A – anchovy ice cream and asparagus wine… )

On the human plane of the CD table she was very friendly, and had clearly enjoyed playing at the Rose. Hopefully its reputation as a good venue for audience and performers both will spread.

How was it for you?

I’ve been writing this blog for a while now, and have maintained reasonable regularity. So what have I learned? I said at the outset that this was a writing experiment, ‘to see if it’s possible to write a blog that:
– conforms to the requirements of the genre
– is entertaining enough for me to want to write and some people to want to read
– is personal enough to be authentic whilst being work-related enough to justify doing on the Edge Hill site
– doesn’t make me sound like a corporate shill, pretend Californian teenager or simple babbling loon.’

Some of these objectives are easier then others. I found the serious post on ‘students as customers’ interesting – it feels wrong to have too much banter in the comments, even when I know the commenters. Maybe a blog isn’t ideal for a work-related debate. My personal style may be an obstacle to serious intent: the non-sequiturs, in-jokes, overstatement for comic/poetic effect, overlong lists and trailling ellipsis…
What with this and my occasional interjections on the UCAS applicant site, I’ve been online at a lot of odd times. I actually dreamed about blogging recently… Continue reading

“a smudge of human interest”

Last night saw the first in Edge Hill’s series of Inaugural Lectures: Professor Robert Sheppard exploring ‘Poetics as Conjecture and Provocation’. It was a magnificent performance (and to think earlier in the day we were discussing whether Robert might need a microphone.) I never know what to expect from the inaugural lecture as a genre of performance – celebration of a point reached in a career, space to range across areas of expertise, a certain license to indulge? In a way this one encompassed all three – unravelling and reweaving the genre as it went long – and with actual poems too.

I’ve just learned Robert is from Southwick, directly across the East/West border (in Sussex) from where I was raised (Portslade.) That explains everything… I’ll be on the lookout for those telltale matter/anti-matter differences between us from now on.

Are students customers?

Different groups of people use language in different ways, and sometimes words with positive meanings in one subculture become negative in another. In a university context, terms like ‘customer’, ‘customer satisfaction’ and ‘customer service’ are an example of this phenomenon. In some circles, the case is made that students should be treated like customers, in fact given better service – that we should pay more attention to their satisfaction. Others feel that calling students customers is inappropriate – for instance because to do so devalues the student role by reducing it to a quasi-commercial one, or overemphasises students’ right to have their wants satisfied, undermining the responsibilities involved in studying. Often there the debate ends – we shrug our shoulders and let it lie. It sometimes feels like a tug of war, with some people saying ‘Look, we need to think of students as customers’ and others saying ‘How dare you, of course we mustn’t.’

There are a number of factors which suggest that the customer concept is relevant to the student experience, at least as a useful analogy. Students make choices of course and university, pay a price (fees, entry grades), express satisfaction through both formal systems (national and institutional Student Satisfaction Surveys) and informal channels (word of mouth, individual online communications and ranking sites such as whatuni.com.) All very customer-like behaviour. This set of customer-like factors has at least two implications: students and their families perceive can themselves as customers (especially when they are unhappy), and the success or otherwise of the customer-like relationships has a direct impact on universities (e.g. through student numbers, retention and reputation.)

My own standpoint is one of comfort with ‘customer’ terminology. In my world (as a marketer working to fulfil social rather than commercial objectives), a customer can be a fully human, complex being – a subject not an object – not a devalued commodity. At the same time, customers can have responsibilities as well as rights – for instance, were I to attend a gym I would understand that the responsibility to get fit lay with me, but I would still act as a customer, looking for the gym that offered me the best service in enabling me to achieve better fitness.

But that’s just me. I empathise with views that not all relationships can or should be expressed in customer terms, and with the reaction against anything that smacks of the worst end of consumer society. I also see the point that if students themselves focus too much on their customer role, they may have their eye off the ball in terms of their crucial academic engagement with the university.

And even I (marketer and habitual suit-wearer) don’t see my relationship with every organisation I transact with as one of customer/supplier: religious and medical institutions are exceptions in my case, even though I make choices, receive (or participate in) services and pay money in both these examples. (Reflecting on why this might be – perhaps my culture and upbringing lead me to view these institutions as higher status; perhaps as they deal with my core physical and spiritual being they feel as if they should be on another plane. And perhaps academia belongs in this bracket.)

Thinking about universities in particular, I would like to suggest the following:

A. Students are customers when they use some of the services that support the academic experience. These services require different levels of responsibility from their student customers – buying a meal is pretty straightforward (e.g. pay the money and take your tray back); Learning Resources and Accommodation require higher levels of commitment (e.g return books on time; behave in Halls according to a code of conduct). Most of these services involve access to community resources rather than simple purchase of commodities. Acknowledging this complexity, we nevertheless need to offer the best possible service to student customers as part of the process of attracting and retaining students (i.e. successfully making learning happen and enabling the university to flourish.)

B. The core academic relationship (the nexus of learning/teaching/research, however this is defined) is not one of customer/supplier. It’s something else entirely.

So that’s nice and simple, students are customers of the support services but beyond that the c-word doesn’t apply. Support services have customers, academic departments have students.

But… hang on a sec…there are aspects of the academic relationship which are services, which can be delivered well or badly, which a university is judged by. Timely return of work would be one example – often a feature of student satisfaction surveys. That’s an academic process that is perceived as a service. And needs to be managed as one. So it isn’t as simple as all that after all…

Let’s look at a more sophisticated model that acknowledges the tensions. I suggest there are three things we need to focus on, and that we (collectively) need to focus on all three:

  1. The student – in the core academic relationship, with all its rigour, challenge and focus on individual effort
  2. The student customer – meeting their needs in the best way possible, to enable them to fulfil their student role fully and successfully
  3. Synergy – ensuring 2 does not conflict with 1.

I’m no suggesting students better described as customers, or customers more than students. I’m saying there is a student relationship and a customer relationship existing concurrently, and that both relationships need to be managed well to deliver the core learning aims and the associated satisfactions that comprise the whole student experience. Within this, strong articulation of the unique nature of the student role (including aspects of community membership, responsibility, mutual accountability) should be integrated with our offering and delivering exceptional service.

(Other customer relationships could be overlaid onto this model, e.g with sponsors, employers, professional bodies, funders seeking workforce development outcomes.)

So that’s my £0.02 worth on the subject.

Any thoughts? It would be nice to have some responses posted here, partly to see how useful the blogging medium can be for debating issues like this…

NB: Comments may be edited to leave a concise, on-topic discussion.  

Please be polite – no cussing, actual or implied…

Academy on the click

I wrote my thesis (on American writer Charles Bukowski) on a manual typewriter, getting through reams of paper and pints of Tippex in the process. Little did I know I would spend a significant part of the rest of my life typing, on all kinds of devices and in all kinds of situations. I’m not alone in this; everyone seems to be texting, emailling, writing documents and typing URLs – the world (at least the academic and professional bit of it) has become a vast scriptorium (the room in a monastery where monks would labour over illuminated manuscripts.) Except rather than crafting our text as a thing of beauty and meaning, we tend to write with the speedy desperation of someone falling off a cliff. And the words of the vast collaborative novel we are writing are already erasing themselves.
When I first started doing occasional guest lecturing, the tendency for students to be texting and surfing while I was talking disconcerted me somewhat. I felt a bit irrelevant, like a radio left playing in a corner while someone does the ironing or makes a phone call. However I gather that multitasking makes students ‘feel more productive and less stressed’and many believe it makes them more efficient, though there may be pitfalls. It’s something they’re simply good at and has become normal.

However multitasking isn’t confined to the student world. I have noticed at recent meetings several people around the table using Blackberries, PDAs etc – it seems OK (in modern organisational etiquette) to sit there absorbed, motionless apart from rhythmic finger movements, transported elsewhere, praying an electronic rosary to a data god rather than focussing on the agenda or eating the biscuits. And even those who can abstain during the meeting itself rush to deploy phones/PDAs/laptops during breaks – what used to be a cigarette break is now used to exchange packets of data over the ether, with the same furtive haste and addicts’ camaraderie as was seen during the Nicotine Era (now largely passed.)

So I guess the students are just practising.

“a forum for men to debate, plot, boast, or simply to party”

A symposium was originally a kind of drinking party with optional discussion. The 4th Symposium to be run by the Edge Hill Centre for Learning and Teaching Research certainly had a lot of discussion, and there was tea and coffee, but really it was a symposium in the modern sense. (No drinks were served by nude young men or offered as libations to the gods, at least not in the sessions I was able to get to.)

As a tourist (being a ‘marketing’ person), I was impressed by the energy and commitment to improving practice within the learning and teaching community at the university. Topics covered included
pedagogic approaches to the ‘big lecture’, the effect on MA students of a new support model during induction into postgraduate study, learner histories of dyslexic and dyspraxic postgraduates, and methods of supporting undergraduate dissertation study.

My own offering, exploring potential links between marketing, learning and teaching, seemed to go well (I wasn’t driven from the community with pitchforks and burning torches) and I hope to be developing a proper research question soon, probably focussed on the concept of ‘value exchange’ between HE markets and institutions. For me the CLTR symposium was an invaluable opportunity to share and develop ideas with colleagues.