Sunday, 26 December 2010

Turkeys, Hens, Christmas Families and Beware Wise Men Bearing Gifts!

Once upon a time there was a little brown Hen called Jen. On the first day that Jen arrives at the farm she discovers that she is fed at 8am. Being a cautious Hen, Jen doesn’t jump to any conclusions. She makes a series of observations, and records what happens every morning, whether the day is a Monday or a Wednesday, whether there is rain or shine, and so on. Jen finds that whatever the day, or the weather, she is always fed at 8am. And so eventually Jen has collected enough data to infer ‘I am always fed at 8am’. Unfortunately, the day before yesterday was Christmas Eve, and Jen didn’t get fed…

…this is a seasonal tale often told by philosophy lecturers to their new students when discussing predictability and logic. Usually Jen is a turkey and not a Hen. Whether it is Turkeys or Hens, the moral remains the same. It doesn’t matter how much evidence we might accumulate about what has happened in the past, such evidence absolutely cannot provide us with any logical guarantee about the future.

Actually it was Bertrand Russell who is credited with the original telling of this story, and he did use Hens as his example. The contextual anchor of Christmas Eve is my addition to the story. Whilst Russell, a philosopher, mathematician, social critic and Nobel Prize winner, was an important contributor to our understanding of life, the universe and everything, it is his protégé Ludwig Wittgenstein who comes to my mind when thinking about Christmas.

Over Christmas people are often forced to spend longer periods of time together. Perhaps as a consequence of this, more than 1.8m couples in the UK contemplate divorcing their partner during the Christmas period. Relate, the UK's largest provider of relationship support, said the trend to start divorce proceedings in January follows a 50% surge in the number of calls over the festive period. Arguably, many of these problems have their origins in people’s early life experiences – and Wittgenstein was no exception.

Whilst he was undoubtedly a huge influence on philosophical thinking, his personal life and background were tortuous. He was born into one of the wealthiest families in Vienna at the turn of the century, yet he gave away his massive inheritance and first worked as a teacher and gardener. He was homosexual, at a time when homosexuality was not tolerated and three of his brothers committed suicide. Both Wittgenstein and his other surviving brother contemplated suicide too. His Father was a harsh perfectionist who it is said, lacked empathy, and his Mother was said to be anxious and insecure, and unable to stand up to her husband.

In 1908 Wittgenstein came to Manchester to study for his PhD at Victoria University of Manchester, staying at the Grouse Inn, near Glossop during this time. Clearly there was room for him at this particular Inn. What wouidn't be available to him however was any form of support for people struggling to deal with the stresses, strains and troubles of everyday life. Today, the Samaritans provide confidential non-judgemental emotional support, 24 hours a day for people who are experiencing feelings of distress or despair, including those which could lead to suicide. However, the Samaritans are also available to talk to everyone who is worried about something, feels upset or confused, or just wants to talk to someone – they can be contacted on 08457 90 90 90. 

Yesterday many of my family came to celebrate Christmas and we had a great time. Possibly we all ate and drank too much, but there were no disagreements or stress, just good cross-generational fun. It was lovely to see the expression on my eldest granddaughters face as she got her first bike and even the missing Brussel sprouts didn’t dampen spirits. From the early morning walk in the fields covered with snow to the last malt whiskey drunk before bed, it was a wonderful day.

Interestingly, my eldest daughter is called Jennifer, but yesterday she was constantly called Jen, even by me on one occassion! And as for Bertrand Russell’s Jen the Hen, she was probably right when she said, beware the [wise] man who bears gifts, after all, chickens are for Christmas, not for life! Enjoy the holiday, and live every day as if its the first day of the rest of your life.

Sunday, 19 December 2010

360 degrees Later, Blood, Sweat, but No Big Mac or Tears

Trauma, intrigue, small p politics, and the triumph of expectation over experience might be the best way to sum up my experiences last week! The week was a hectic diverse and challenging one.

The University has been running a Leadership Programme for its senior leadership team. One of the activities that have occurred recently was the completion of something called a 360 degree review. Essentially, this was a task that involved asking our managers, peers and those that know us, to make a judgment on what they considered to be our strengths and weaknesses when it comes to leadership. I had asked 16 colleagues to become involved in providing this information on how they saw my leadership style, behaviour and approach. The result of their assessment was given to me this week. It was an interesting mixture of views, but taken as a whole, can only be described as being highly authentic! On reflection I see my colleagues responses as being somewhat of a mandate to continue the processes of change and transformation that will get us to where we need to be as a School in 2017.

One of the best parts of the week for me was the day spent with a great bunch of young people who had agreed to give us their time to talk about their experiences of being in care, receiving care or as a care giver. These were powerful stories to hear. The stories were confidently presented but the emotionality of the telling of their experiences touched all in the room. It was almost painful to hear how so many of these young people, carer’s and cared for, had been let down by the system set up to provide for their health and well being.

So it was with no little discomfort that I realized the following day that we had provided lunch for the young people without thinking about their wants and needs. The Brie and sundried tomato sandwiches might have alright for us, but I had the sense the young people would have preferred a Big Mac. The Big Mac is a burger sold by McDonalds, (the fast food chain, not MacDonald’s the hotel chain). In fact the Big Mac is one of the best selling burgers of all time - over 47 billion have been sold, with some 550 million sold every year, which is a lot of cows.

Interestingly, I did have a delightful meal this week where the starter was Black Pudding. Now as regular readers will know, I am a vegetarian, so what was I doing eating a dish that is fundamentally a blood based food? Indeed, when I was 15 years old I bought into the urban myth about students who used their own blood to make a substantial and sustainable food that was called black pudding. My black pudding however, was made of soya, coloured with beetroot juice, and was delicious.

Blood has also featured in other ways this week. I had a conversation with our VC during which I found out the University has in its archives, a wealth of material belonging to Bob Dylan. Bob Dylan holds the number two spot in the Rolling Stone 500 best albums ever chart – he was second to the Beatles who had 11 of their albums in the chart – Bob Dylan had 10. Occupying three of the slots in the top 20, it is the album Blood on the Tracks (16th) released in 1975, that will forever be one of my favourite Bod Dylan albums. Unlike his earlier work, which was based upon the politcal and protest, these songs were unusually autobiographical in nature and tell the poetic tale of Dylan and his (unknown) lover.

Of course back in 1975, in common with all my friends I could see all the plots and subplots represented in each of the tracks. But perhaps like, Levi-Strauss, who in 1966, used the analogy of the artist who produces an object created on canvas, which does not exist as such, and yet is open to all kinds of interpretation, I was simply discovering new possibilities or understandings about what the songs might mean.

However, there was no doubt about the unacceptable organisational unpleasantness I witnessed this week. Frustratingly, there was not a lot I could do to help except be there for those concerned, and to say whilst there might be blood and sweat spilt, seize the moment and going forward its unlikely there will be any tears!

Finally, a new record was set yesterday morning for the time spent clearing my drive of snow. Some 10 inches of snow had fallen overnight on Friday/Saturday morning. Where the snow had drifted in the wind, it was much deeper. It took five hours to clear the drive. I started at 7am, and by 9am there were six of us working on clearing the snow. We finished at 12 noon. Plenty of blood and sweat – (and if truth were told), tears were spilt as having cleared the drive, by 12.10 the snow returned and laid down another 1 inch. Only seven days left till Christmas!

Sunday, 12 December 2010

A Long and Winding Road Taken and One Still to Travel

Last week was characterised by performance, a brief encounter with a youthful experience and the challenge of intellectual debate. Monday was a day full of meetings, some of which were difficult and had outcomes that some would not have wanted to hear.

The day ended with an open meeting at which, colleagues and external partners could attend to hear some wonderful examples of research and innovation from across the University being presented. Despite the cold, it was -6 outside, there were over 60 people in attendance. The only down side to the event (at least for me) was the showing, yet again, of the University Research DVD – I still find it slightly disconcerting to see a 15 foot high projection of myself describing the research we do.  

Tuesday started with yet more meetings and then I had the chance to present a report on the outcomes of the recent REF Impact Pilots to the Units of Assessment Advisors. I think the sheer amount of work required to get us prepared came as a surprise to many of the participants. It was however, a very productive meeting and raised a number of issues that we will have to come back to. At lunch time, I had my last Editorial meeting with my Nurse Education in Practice colleagues. After four years of involvement on the editorial board, I am leaving the Board. I will retain an International Advisor role, so will still be able to influence the direction of what is one of the best international nurse education journals. Thanks Karen for the opportunity.

The day ended with the latest in the Professorial College presentations. This sessions talk was given by Sharon Rushton on Place, Text and Memory. Sharon made a superb bid for having this work recognised as the 7th University wide theme. The fact that she mentioned our School in her presentation was very generous and perhaps reflects where the relationship between our respective Schools has got to. I think a great future of productive collaboration is assured.

Wednesday started with a meeting with the Schools Students Union Sabbatical Officer Caroline – always a pleasure, this meeting was particular good – Caroline has such a refreshingly grounded view of the world – we did however talk about the march planned for that afternoon in opposition to the proposed increase in annual students fees. Unlike the demonstrations in London, the march in Manchester was trouble free.

Our celebration of five years of service user and carer involvement in the work of the School followed. It was great, a real family celebration, and thanks to  Martin (VC) and Neil (NHS North  West) for coming and supporting our work.

Senate followed, and the VC mentioned the celebration in his verbal report. It was some welcome recognition of the work many colleagues have put into developing these relationships over such a long period of time. I spent the remaining few hours with my mentor and by 22.30 on Wednesday I had clocked up 40 hours work (and that was just the time spent being at the University).

Thursday was spent catching up on my writing, and despite the email interference, it was still possible to get some work done. A draft of a paper with Mikko et al revised and sent off, a 3rd draft paper with Sue and Joanne, revised and prepared, ready to send off to the publishers, which looked at the ethics of mental health nursing, and a quick look at a draft paper with colleagues from Ireland, Richard and Liam.
Friday was our School Development day. The first hour was School Congress. We decided that on this occasion we adopt a Pecha Kucha approach to allowing people to get their points across. Pecha Kucha (Japanese for chit chat) is a form of communication that allows people 20 power point slides, which get shown for no more than 20 seconds each (a total presentation of 6 minutes 20 seconds) and which uses images as the preferred way of communicating. We had six tremendous presentations, (although we might need to work on the timing). The ‘serious’ part of the day was looking at the impact of the recent changes to Equality Legislation on the activities of the School. Many thanks to Lis who led on our examination of the issues involved and presented a very understandable analysis of the main changes to the law.

However, in the afternoon, as we started to look at the issues in detail, and  the discussion unfolded, it seemed to me that some of thinking that may have so often held us back as a profession  is still there, despite much rhetoric to the contrary.  The catalyst for our discussion were the changes we need to make in moving away from being a recruiting School to a selecting School. We anticpate having some 6000 applications this year and that is after raising the entry requirements. In the ensuing conversations it was still possible to hear the somewhat romantic notion of a nurse as an Angel being defended. This notion was was presented in terms of widening particpaton, and arguements that for some people, not having good academic qualifications wouldn't prevent them from being a good nurse.  The latter is possibly true, but such  notions are the demons that plague our profession. Who can forget Gordon Brown, the former UK Prime Minister addressing the RCN shortly after the death of his daughter by thanking the nursing profession for the help they received as a family:

‘So we feel like parents who have been in the presence of angels dressed in nurses' uniforms, performing the most amazing works of mercy and care, and I will never forget seeing in real time every minute of the day that idea of service and selflessness. I am here with Sarah to say not just thank you from our family, but thank you from millions upon millions of families’.

I had to leave the School Development Day early than I had anticipated – and I have since heard the discussion was very good - but later on as I reflected on what I heard, I was reminded of the story of Eva O, (of metallic death rock and punk music fame) who in the middle of her career, and as a result of her somewhat complicated relationship difficulties, wanted to write a dark concept album about angels. During this time, Eva began searching the literature on this subject. Her album was initially entitled Angels Fall for a Demon's Kiss. At first she read only the literature that approached the subject from a new age point of view and finding this one dimensional view limiting, Eva decided to look for more traditional sources and incredibly read Billy Graham’s book entitled Angels. After reading the book, Eva rewrote the album, subsequently entitling it Demons Fall for an Angel's Kiss a somewhat subtle but important shift in perception.

In a crowded and busy world it is easy to see how we can convince ourselves that taking the easy path to change is the right course of action, even if this means not changing.  There is still a long way to go in developing our profession, and I believe we need to constantly find ways of addressing the issues that hold back this development - but at times this can be a hard and wearying task. At the end of a busy week, I briefly experienced that sense of weariness. As I was just about to leave for the weekend, I stood for a moment in quiet contemplation in my darkened office, and wondered if I (and my demons) were in danger of falling for an Angels kiss. However, as I sit and write this blog, the new week beckons. Like last week, it will be full of many opportunities to take things forward and perhaps in so doing, will enable some of those demons to be banished!

Sunday, 5 December 2010

Making the Familiar Strange and the Art of Noisy Futures

I have become a mean, lean, snow clearing machine. For four days last week I had to get up early and clear the drive in order we could get the cars out. It was hard work, especially at 5am in the morning, with a full day’s work still to come. Yesterday the snow was replaced by rain which has frozen overnight making it treacherous underfoot this morning. However, the snow and cold weather gave rise to some fantastic photos capturing the big freeze. I liked this one from the front page of Thursday’s Times newspaper.

This week I stayed overnight in the V+A for a two day College Executive Retreat.  Now many regular readers of this blog will know that the V+A is not my favourite hotel in the world - somehow, the V+A never really presses my buttons. This time the experience was different, for once the ambiance of the hotel faded into the background. I was taken up by the conversations and for me the two days were a kind of Unconditional Positive Regard meets Uncomplicated Transactional Relationships. If this description of the two days sounds a little hard, cold and unappetizing, in real life this was not the case.

We were there to consider, as a College what our future might look like. Some aspects of our future were known, (for example reductions in commissions, the need to grow our research base and so on) whereas at other times we appeared to be missing important bits of information, so our discussions were self limiting. I found myself living out the theoretical constructs I so often write, speak and publish about. I was at the edges of knowledge, and knowing in that place of not knowing. I haven’t been there for a while and it was both an exciting place and also slightly frightening.

As a School, the world we have inhabited for so long has changed, and there is much we now don’t know. Albert Einstein said that the ‘most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious’ – and the only certain thing about our future is the degree of uncertainty we face, but where we go is entirely up to us as individuals and collectively as a School and College. Some may see the future as being filled with problems; I see it as being filled with challenges and opportunities.

It is clear to me, that as a School, alongside the great work that is going on developing the best new nursing degree programme possible for September 2011, we need to think about our futures in other directions. We have some good, very attractive and relevant programmes in our portfolio. So for example, whilst we might not be unable to provide these to overseas students as currently approved, there are  opportunities to think about how these programmes could be facilitated using new and different approaches.

Doing this won’t be easy. During the two days of conversations and interactions, I was reminded of the work of Luigi Russolo. He was the world’s first noise artist. In 1913 he wrote, L'Arte dei Rumori, translated as the Art of Noises. This work explored how the changes made possible by the industrial revolution had given rise to the opportunity to move away from the confines of traditional music to something more complex, something new yet still familiar.

Russolo designed and constructed a number of noise-generating devices and assembled a noise orchestra to perform with them. However, in his early days these performances were met with outcry and even violence from critics and audiences alike. Others saw his work as seminal and influential. One of my favorite groups of the early eighties took his work as the name for their group. The Art of Noise was an avant-garde electronic group who mastered the use of digital sampling, an approach which eventually gave rise to the hugely important dance music scene.

Sampling is the act of taking a portion, or sample of one sound recording (often very familiar and well known lyric or piece of music) and reusing it over and over again, but in slightly different ways to the original in order to create new music. This approach is exactly what we need to do with our programmes, not only in the School, but across the College. But like Russolo, I think this might be a more difficult task to achieve than describe.