The Grand MPS School Away(half)day

Very late posting a blog today because I’ve been busy all day, preparing for and then hosting an “Awayday” in the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences (MPS) at the University of Sussex. Actually, it was only half a day, and it didn’t really going that far away either, but I hope we won’t be prosecuted under the Trades Description Act..

This event is something I started thinking about just as soon as I arrived in Sussex in February this year, and we’ve been preparing for it actively for quite a long time. The background to it is that the School has expanded dramatically over the last few years, especially in the Department of Physics & Astronomy. The Department of Mathematics has grown too, but at a more modest rate. Here, for example, is the annual intake of undergraduate students for our two departments over the last few years:


To cope with this growth in student numbers our complement of academic staff has increased by about 50%, from around 40 just a year ago to a present number of 60. We have also increased our research income considerably over the same period. I hasten to add that none of this is my doing – it’s all down to the hard work of staff who were doing their stuff brilliantly long before I arrived.

Of course it’s great to be Head of a School that is doing so well, but I am very conscious that we need to ensure we continue to provide a good experience for students during this period of growth and also to make sure that has we get bigger, all staff and students feel that they still have a voice in how the School is run. To that end we set up an event in which most members of the staff were invited – academics, administrative and technical support included – as well as our student reps. Kelly McBride, President of the Students Union, also came along. In all, over eighty people attended; there would have been more had we not scheduled it during the local schools’ half-term, which was the only available slot.

The event, held in the spacious Conference Centre in Bramber House, was mainly focussed on teaching and a large part of it involved staff forming groups to discuss various themes: lectures, small group teaching, assessment, feedback, and so on. Before that there were presentations from myself (giving some background, including information about the School’s budget and how our finances work as well as how we measure up in the dreaded League Tables), from our School Administrator talking about issues relating to our admirable office staff, and our Technical Services Supervisor giving a perspective on the challenges facing our technical support staff. Each group comprised a cross-section of the School and each was given a theme to discuss. We then reconvened en masse to share the results of each discussion.

I was a bit nervous beforehand as to how it would all work, especially as there has never been an event of this sort in MPS. I was more nervous before this event than I have been about anything for ages, actually. I wondered how engaged staff would feel and whether the event would turn out to be as inclusive as I’d intended, i.e. whether everyone would feel able to contribute on equal terms. In the end I think it worked out pretty well. In fact we ran over by about an hour, primarily because the discussion was so extensive.

It’s not for me to say whether the day was a success or not, but although there were some things that didn’t work so well overall I was quite satisfied. In particular I was impressed with the number of good practical suggestions that came forward in the final session. We’re going to be working hard to synthesize these comments into a form we can work into our plans for the future.

Most of the comments I heard from people who participated in this event after it finished were positive too. If anyone present happens to read this blog I’d be interested to hear their views through the comments.

Without anticpating the feedback too much, I’m pretty sure that, with a few tweaks (mainly to focus things a bit better with fewer “themes” for discussion), this will become a regular fixture in the MPS calendar. As we get used to such events we’ll probably get even more out of them. I also hope that other Schools of the University of Sussex might find this event a useful model for similar activities they could hold themselves.

I’d like to end with a public “thank you” to everyone who took part and made it so enjoyable and stimulating, to Oonagh and Steve for their input, to Catering and Conference Services for all their help (and yummy food) and above all to the inestimable Miss Lemon for the huge amount of work she put in to the preparations (especially the monopoly theme for the groups, which was inspired..).

Now, however, I am completely knackered and will be going home to have a glass bottle of wine to recover. Busy day tomorrow too. Toodle-pip!

7 Responses to “The Grand MPS School Away(half)day”

  1. Bryn Jones Says:

    Did postdocs attend the away day?

    I thought not.

    • telescoper Says:

      We couldn’t include absolutely everyone because of the space constraint and because the theme was teaching admin matters rather than research, so they might not feel it was so interesting for them, we did not on this occasion include PDRAs and PHD students. In future events we’ll probably focus differently and try to include research staff and students.

    • Bryn Jones Says:

      Not including postdocs in events reinforces hierarchies within university departments. Those hierarchies are real and cause very great problems, often not noticed at all by permanent academics.

      I did attend an away day as a postdoc in the University of Bristol. That was held in the Music Department, although I did tell some PhD students that we’d gone to Weston-super-mare and had had ice cream on the prom. The postgrads believed me.

      • telescoper Says:

        Why do you think it reinforces hierarchies? We wouldn’t invite undergraduate student reps to a research awayday. Would that reinforce a hierarchy?

        Virtually all academic staff have been postdocs at some stage too…and remember wanting to get on with their research with as few distractions as possible.

      • Bryn Jones Says:

        Any artificial separation of categories of staff creates or exacerbates hierarchies.

        No, undergraduate representatives would not be invited to a research away day, were such a thing organised, and that would be right. However, a general department away day will discuss matters that involve postdocs. An away day that concentrates on teaching will still impact on what postdocs do, because postdocs in some departments more than carry their weight in teaching, even if their contribution to lecturing is limited.

        There may be circumstances in which postdocs are significantly disadvantaged by departmental policy or practice. Giving them opportunities to point out these deficencies might significantly improve their research productivity. Locking postdocs in their offices or labs may not always maximise their research achievements.

      • telescoper Says:

        You have a point, but I think you’re exaggerating a lot – postdocs are certainly not “locked in their offices”!

      • Bryn Jones Says:

        Hold on. I’m the person who had three research-council funded PDRA positions, and sometimes faced considerable frustration due to hierarchies and lack of freedom to take actions I felt were essential.

        I’m writing from experience.

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