Late yesterday afternoon I received a communique from Dr Mossy Kelly, Director of Student Experience for the School of Mathematics & Physical Sciences. As a School Representative I was invited to attend a meeting of the Student Experience Enhancement Review team. It was a very short notice arrangement, but thankfully my only lecture of the day finished just as the meeting was due to commence. Joined by a first year course representative and several of the senior faculty, I was tasked with pouring over the National Student Survey results for the previous academic year.
Far away from my usual classrooms, the panel assembled in the Nidd building at the edge of the business school. Several attendants were delayed by the difficulty of navigating their way through unfamiliar corridors. Rather poetically this would become a major topic of the discussion.
Looking through our survey results, we found that our mathematics courses were almost entirely red on academic support, organisation & management, and student voice, while the learning resources section came up mostly green. We deduced that both of these features could be down to the fundamentally generic nature of mathematics as an academic discipline – one cannot easily make it visually interesting in a brochure. Whereas physics could be represented by it’s lasers and pulleys; chemistry by its test tubes and fume cupboards; biology by its petri dishes and gerbils; computer science by its, well, computers; mathematics consists almost entirely of standard lectures in standard rooms. There are no special objects or equipment that would be required solely for mathematics and not other subjects. This factor works to our advantage in terms of resource evaluation; so long as the university’s library and information technology systems are sufficiently-endowed (and Hull is far from quiet in proclaiming its fulfilment of these criteria), the students will report that their needs are satisfied, without the departmental staff being required to make any further effort.
The downside of our flexibility, however, is that we become a school of nomads. While the other subjects can confine themselves to their dedicated environments we are free to be unceremoniously scattered across all and any spare spaces, so that we are without a secure territory to call our home. A potential result of this is a loss of departmental identity within the faculty. There is no obvious place to go to find one’s teachers to lobby for changes or to request help with assignments. It is not inconceivable that this could lead to a lack of engagement between faculty and students, which might in turn cause the support networks to be weaker than in other disciplines. It would be interesting to compare the survey results for other subjects to determine how much of a difference the presence or absence of a distinct departmental headquarters can make to the effectiveness of the organisation.
No further engagements in this capacity appear immediately on one’s horizon, but communications from administrators foretell some sort of forum being held before Christmas. Perhaps the badges will have arrived by that point!
We’re in unanimous agreement!
A newcomer to the institution, I approached my first student-staff forum with some trepidation. Armed with nothing but the pre-written agenda printed off the intranet, I arrived several minutes early at an empty meeting room with multiple small desks pushed together to approximate a long conference table.
When the time came some others arrived, but not as many as I had expected. It became apparent that our forum comprised no course representatives from the second or third years, owing to a bizarre timetabling decision which delayed their training until next week. Some of the staff representatives were unable to abandon their classes, which further thinned our ranks.
Those of us who had made it to the meeting sailed swiftly through the planned agenda. We were supposed to review the action register and end-of-year report from our predecessor forum, but it seems they neglected to produce one. Our attempt to study the National Student Survey results were also stalled by the absence of the staff-member with the relevant files.
Rapidly we reached the stage of choosing our objectives for the first semester. Unsurprisingly our key aim was the recruitment of more course representatives to give a voice to the higher years. We also talked about programme experience and how students felt about their courses so far. Anecdotes were recounted regarding past exam papers and revision materials, with staff stressing the importance of learning the material itself rather than simply the test system.
With our unexpectedly small discussion concluded, we opted to adjourn until December. One can only pray that we draw a greater company next time.
I may have gotten here a little bit early.
Barely a day after being introduced to one another for the first time, the school representatives for the Faculty of Science & Engineering regrouped for a second training session. Each of us will be the chairman of a staff-student forum, in which course representatives and members of the faculty will discuss issues with their respective courses, possible changes to teaching methods, feedback and general improvements to be made. We in turn will relay the outcomes of these meetings to higher representatives and organisations to be processed and acted upon. Crucially we also needed to give correspondence on staff-student relations for statistical purposes, including the National Student Survey.
At this session we were asked to explain how we would deal with potential problems in our fora, such as lack of contribution on an item, overlong conversation without progress and attendees airing personal grievances. It was generally agreed that we would have to develop tactical methods of telling certain forum members to shut up.
On the way out I inquired as to when we would receive the badges and “other items denoting the position” as hinted by the union website. It transpired that they might their delivery had been delayed a few weeks to reduce transport fees.
Last week was election season at the University of Hull, with various representative positions going up for grabs as the new academic year gets underway. Though a few hundred votes were cast it was not unusual for a candidate – such as myself – to be co-opted unopposed.
On Friday I received a message from Hull University Union congratulating me on becoming the School Representative for Mathematics. This afternoon I attended a training session in student central where I met my new colleagues and was briefed on what the job would entail.
First we were addressed by the Vice-Chancellor, Professor Susan Lea. She told us she would be happy to talk with anyone encountered her, provided she wasn’t rushing to a meeting.
After having our official portraits taken, we split off into faculty groups to discuss our priorities for the year. Steven Storey, the Faculty Representative for Science & Engineering, told us about the work involved in lobbying teachers, managing student expectations and getting reforms delivered to schedule. We were also given copies of the National Student Survey to review and discuss areas of improvement for our schools. There seemed to be a general consensus that our success as representatives depended on how regularly we could get students to check their e-mails.
With the original meeting completed, we were led downstairs to talk with some of the senior staff. It appears that I arrived during a long transitional phase at the University, as most of my new colleagues remembered the system being rather different last year, as well as a different system of names and abbreviations. Some said my status as a newcomer might be an advantage in that it saved me from having to learn everything twice.
Tomorrow I return to student central for “Chair Training”. Hopefully that will be more important than it sounds.
…and hopefully I’ll get to the buffet earlier.