In previous posts I've started to sketch out some of the issues with workload allocation models (WAMs) and why I think they’re generally problematic. Here, I want to sketch out some of the issues I think programme leaders (PLs) face in relation to workload. In reflecting on the issues below, I’m not suggesting they are unique to PLs, but I do want to argue that they are intensified for those fulfilling the PL role.
Over the past year I’ve been on the edge of some really fascinating discussions about time and the academy, particularly as a result of the Accelerated Academy series. There has been a lot of discussion about the reality of temporal acceleration, does it really exist? Is it always a negative? Are there better ways of understanding the temporal processes and complexities of HE? Up until recently, I think I would have accepted the accelerated narrative. In my last job, I was responsible for a number of roles, and life certainly felt accelerated! However, on reflection I have begun to redefine my own experiences as ones of intensification (attempting to mark a 5,000 word assignment in 45 minutes rather than an hour for example) and extensification (when I still took an hour because I didn’t want to let the quality of my feedback/forward to slip but still had a series of other, new activities to finish, I just worked for longer). This way of understanding the complexity of my work felt as if it offered better explanatory power to my situation. However, whilst I think this is still true, reflecting on past experience and my current return to PL, I think I need to add two other work/temporal issues, those of ‘shadow-work)’, and ‘temporal (in)coherence’.
WAMs are generally characterized by three identified forms of activity: research, teaching and administration. As a PL it is normally the case that you are given extra time in the WAM for the greater administrative burden which the role brings. However, what is not budgeted for is the often enhanced pastoral role which comes with PL. I want to emphasise that this is an issue for all academics who have a tutoring role, but PLs are particularly impacted as they often pick up such issues when they escalate, and they do so from across a whole cohort. I know from experience that such pastoral work can involve tens, or even hundreds, of extra hours across an academic year, none of which are accounted for in a WAM. Not only are they not accounted for, but they often involve difficult, draining, and stressful work whilst operating through a strong ethic of care for the student(s) which makes other activities, such as research, less pressing and relatively less important. But this can lead, in some circumstances, to a feeling of not doing anything well. And yet, because such work is not officially recognised, the pressures elsewhere remain. This is why I think of this fundamentally important work as ‘shadow-work', it is not recognised by the very organisation which simultaneously relies on it whilst ignoring it. Why is it not a feature of WAMs for all staff, but especially PLs? My only explanation is that it can’t be easily turned into an accountancy format- it would have to be included as a contingency, and WAMs assume 100% efficiency in how time is labelled and utilised. Perhaps WAMs require a degree of recognition of complexity and humanity in this area?
The second area of interest to me is the notion of ‘temporal (in)coherence’. For the past year I have not been involved in PL, and you soon forget the way in which your time is impacted. You suddenly have uninterrupted periods to read, to write, to prepare teaching sessions. E-mails still land in your in-box, but in fewer numbers and often with fewer red exclamation marks. It becomes possible to structure in 30 minutes here and there during the day to ring-fence replies. This leads to a context, where even if work generally requires a level of intensive activity, it feels coherent. However, having returned to PL, I’m already experiencing the reactive incoherence of the role.
Administration becomes the core of your working day. Form filling, getting ready for the next meeting, the next set of applications, e-mails from a range of people requiring (often) immediate replies, questions and queries from students. I list these not as a call of ‘woe be me' as much of the work is interesting. But it begins to lead to incoherent ‘busyness'. What starts as a day with a real chance if doing something substantial dissolves into reacting to issues and e-mails. And what is most stressful is that this can lead to very low productivity due to the fragmented nature of the activities themselves. Hence, the temporal incoherence of the role can lead to stress as often the fragmented tasks lead to a feeling of achieving little, whilst staring wistfully at the research, reading or teaching development you could have been doing. Not only this, but a not insubstantial percentage of the fragmented work you are doing will be dealing with problems and complaints. What makes temporal incoherence doubly difficult is that individuals do have the time allocated on WAMs, but what is not included is the knock-on impact fragmentation brings to the other activities which suffer.
PLs are the often-ignored ‘engine-rooms’ of HEIs and FE colleges. Without the long hours they put in programmes would begin to falter, students wouldn’t get the same degree of support, and the work of senior leaders would be much harder. But to understand the work of PLs, and to fairly reflect the pressures they face and the nature of work they do, WAMs need to get a lot closer to the reality facing the academics affected, but they are not even anywhere close at the moment.