Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Extracurricular seminars

This scheme, which we launched as a Department a while back, has been drawing some criticism on the grounds that we are exploiting the postgraduate students, who are working unpaid. I understand that this is part of a wider concern the UCU has about unpaid work in universities, a dispute about which I know nothing, except that in general unpaid work is a bad thing. The problem here is that we don't think this is 'work' in that sense. There's been correspondence about it, but I want to try to explain how we see it at a little more length.

This scheme was my own brainchild, and emerged when I was working as director of postgraduate training, before becoming head of department.

It arose from a separate project of mine, a weekly extracurricular seminar in church history which I ran for undergraduates during the 2011-12 academic year. A small but committed group of UG volunteers took part; I was surprised and pleased by their enthusiasm for doing something above-and-beyond, and I enjoyed the freedom of having academic conversations with UGs outside any of the structures of credit, assessment or modules. This was, I suppose, unpaid work, in that it was not part of my job description or my contracted hours, and was done over and above my other responsibilities. But I and the other eight or so academic staff who took part over the year weren't thinking in those terms. Unpaid work? It wasn't 'work'. After all, sitting in a room talking about our subject with people who are interested in it is fun. And it seemed to be rewarding for all concerned.

I had to stop doing this once I became head of department in 2012-13, from sheer time pressure, but it fed into a problem I had been working at the same time. This is the problem that our postgraduates aren't always able to get the professional training they need. We were then (and still are) having a big push to ensure that PGs were prepared for the wider academic job market as well as writing excellent theses, and clearly teaching experience is a vital part of this. But the formal teaching work we can offer, as paid Teaching Assistants within the undergraduate curriculum, is limited. TAs can't design and deliver their own module or anything close to it. Nor could we allow relatively untrained PGs to take that much responsibility within our undergraduate programme. We needed to give them a chance to secure experience of this kind: but how?

Hence the scheme. PGs who were keen to try their hand at course design could have a chance to design a miniature, extracurricular course: four hours of class time over four weeks. A staff mentor would oversee the process. And brave undergraduate volunteers would be asked to come forward and take part. Crucially, they'd be asked to provide written feedback on the PGs at the end of the process. The PGs would secure valuable experience; the UGs would be stretched in new directions; and everyone would have won.

It's been a success: we ran six of these mini-courses in 2012-13 and have nine on the books for 2013-14. The PGs are queuing up to do them; UG takeup is a minority affair, but there has been some great enthusiasm for it and some very good feedback.

Now nobody could dislike that. The question is, should we be paying the PGs?

Three answers to that. (1) We can't. It's not just that money is tight - money is always tight. But if we were to be handed an extra pot of money and told to use it exclusively to support PG students, we wouldn't use it to pay these seminar leaders. We'd use it to increase the research funding available to our PGs for travel, conferences and other research expenses: that's where our students really feel the pinch.

The reality is that, if these extracurricular seminars could only happen if the leaders were paid, they wouldn't happen. Which would be a loss to all concerned. At one point in this the UCU asked that we cancel a seminar programme about to start the following day, after all the effort that a PG leader had put into designing and preparing it, and after a string of enthusiastic UGs had signed up for it. From where I sit that would have been simply a gross injustice.

(2) We don't need to. To emphasise, this is voluntary and extracurricular. No-one needs to take part. For the PGs, it is a training activity. For everyone concerned, it is about love of subject. I actually think that there is as strong a case for paying the UGs, since they are coming along to assist in a PG training scheme. But the point is: these people (UGs and PGs alike) are students, and they are learning, which is what students normally do at a University. We don't normally pay them to do that. The PGs are not doing 'work' on behalf of the University: they are not replacing any paid work that anyone else would have done. They are enriching the learning community, no doubt, but they do the same when they deliver papers to research seminars. Indeed, they do the same when they meet informally with other students and talk about subjects that interest them. Which is not too far from what they're doing in this case.

(3) And, actually, I think even if we could pay them, the scheme works better on a purely volunteer basis. I say that with some hesitation, because I know many of our PGs are financially very squeezed and I like to funnel money towards them when we can. But I don't think this scheme is the way to do it. To pay these PGs would be to put the courses on a contractual basis, which would instantly change their ethos. Anyone who participates in these courses does so for the joy of it: for sheer love of the subject. No credits, proformas, examinations: simply a community of people learning together. That is the sort of thing that a University ought to be about. There is, at best, something delicate and something beautiful here. We all need to earn a living, and the PGs who do this do so in part so that they will be better placed to do so when they leave. But we also need to remember that we are, or should be, in this first and last because we love what we do.

1 comment:

  1. Dear Prof. Alan,

    thank-you for the clarifications. I wonder if you could clarify further. Did the UCU instigate this without postgraduate support or did a or some postgraduate(s) discuss this with UCU? And would you and your senior colleagues be prepared to donate a small part of your salaries to helping out the payment of postgraduate students if Durham University cannot afford to pay them for four sessions?