Summary – the story below describes the preparation required to provide a high-quality series of lectures to university students and what happens when corporate management takes over university governance. After I was dismissed someone was employed full-time to cover the teaching of cell biology. A year later this person was also dismissed.
As part of my introductory lectures to first year undergraduate students studying in SBCS, I used to discuss what it means to join two words together – using the examples of “cell” and “biology”. Unfortunately, prior to my arrival in this department, the ‘module’ I was teaching had been given the names of “cell dynamics” and “the human cell”, although delivered at the same time and by the same person (but students were assigned to ‘independent’ programmes of study).
When I joined the department, Prof Jeff Duckett was the module(s)’ organiser and became a key mentor to me. I attended Jeff’s lectures in 2007 and 2008. Initially I was asked to give six lectures myself (to an audience of 400 students). How to communicate effectively with so many at a time? What were the appropriate messages to be transmitted? Many days of preparation and improvement on the following year following discussions and peer-observation ensued. Despite the ‘light’ teaching load, marking the final year exam taught me why during the month of May academics could achieve nothing more beyond providing a fair evaluation to students. In 2009, Jeff retired from Queen Mary. He suggested to continue providing some lectures, but the College decided to pass the module to me instead.
I pause to consider the implications of this decision. An academic role is – at least! – tripartite, teaching being an important component. On the one hand, the decision allowed me to grow professionally as an educator, moving from teaching defined subjects (cell organisation, cell division and protein trafficking) to building an introductory course to a broad field of study. I searched (in vain) for a good core textbook and agonised on how to re-organise the lectures. In this sense, there was meaning in asking an experienced professor, willing to continue his contribution, to retire. However, I came to see at least two other views: the argument that I should have been given more time to concentrate in growing my research lab – especially given that my position was hanging on research metrics (my contract was “permanent” and had a retirement date specified – but the meaning of these things in the UK is disingenuous and farcical). The second point is that a balance should be sought for the students to benefit both by the experience of the older generation and by the momentum of the younger academics.
The first year after Jeff’s departure, the module changed only little in structure for two reasons: another lecturer who was also giving six lectures under Jeff remained involved (you don’t ask an overworked colleague to make substantial changes in the material they have organised to teach) and Jeff’s post-doctoral fellow was also happy to cover some of the topics Jeff used to teach. We had three laboratory components teaching microscopy and osmosis, hematometry and tissue organisation, which involved graduate students as demonstrators. There were four lab sessions in a given week and although I couldn’t meet 100 students one-to-one, this was the principal venue to get to know many and put faces to names.
In the next year, 2010, as a result of events I will describe on a different occasion, I almost collapsed during the first of these practicals at the beginning of the semester. I had attended the practical despite a persistent fever and diarrhoea, which eventually lead to a lung embolism. The doctors at the Royal Free Hospital said they were surprised that I was alive – a strange thing to hear. Because there had been no provision for replacement, I had decided to attend even though I was unwell. The chaos caused when I had to be hospitalised for a month is well known to the students of that generation.
Further change occurred in 2011. I was asked by a newly-appointed manager to take up the entire module on my own. This meant I had to prepare a number of new lectures expanding on the physiology of cellular organelles but also covering stem cells and the cellular basis of cancer (the module continued to receive the generous contribution of Dr Silvia Pressel). I had changed Jeff’s “reading week” test into a small essay, which meant assessing 400 pieces of work, allowing for a meaningful connection with the class. Overall, the module received a positive evaluation from the students.
However, I was obliged to give them a warning that they might lose a good number of their lecturers as the new manager and his bosses were so inclined. The students acted en masse to defend SBCS form restruction, but we failed, leading to over 30 academics departing from a faculty of 65.
I was the only one deciding to question the legal basis for this managerial intervention. A School admired for its teaching and respected for its research contributions was operating with a large surplus – returned to the College year after year for its needs elsewhere and eventually used for restructuring purposes. My case is still being considered – it was dismissed by an Employment Tribunal on the first instance, but see also David Bignell’s view for context. Reviewing what has happened to my teaching after I left was of minor if any concern for the Tribunal. After I was dismissed someone was employed full-time to cover the teaching of cell biology.
In October 2012, I was invited to present a seminar in SBCS. This was around the time my replacement was presenting the opening lectures. Being back to London, I was tempted to attend. The new Lecturer had published in neuroscience in the mid-nineties and was working as a private tutor more recently. We were not introduced. A visual encounter in the School’s elevator made me think it would have been inappropriate to attend. The College dismissed my replacement in 2013. I understand this was, in part, driven by student dissatisfaction.
Some of my colleagues have made bitter comments about the contrast between declarations by Queen Mary managers and the consequences of their decisions for student education. If, however, there was any Schadenfreude in these comments, I beg to consider the three to four years of investment and effort I needed to be able to lead the module. To recruit someone who had not been working as an academic and ask them to deliver at the same standard is unreasonable. To dismiss them a year later was legal due to the type of contractual agreement, but as for the morality of this action, you can guess my view.
So what happened with this teaching in 2013? Please let me continue this story in a subsequent post.