Sunday, 31 August 2014

The Art (Deco) of Conversations

Last night I was at a garden party to celebrate someone's 50th birthday. I didn't know her, and apart from my wife and one other person, I didn't know anyone else there either. However, it was great to meet new people and start new conversations. The party was at the end of a week during which I took part in and enjoyed, many wonderfully diverse conversations. Some of these conversations were with people I have never met before and in all likelihood will never meet again. Some were in real life and some were Twitter conversations. Last Thursday evening for example, there was a @wenurse twitter chat on sexual health, a conversation that lasted an hour and was wide ranging and informative. If you missed it, the chat can be found here. Some of those that participated were known to me, but like last night’s party, there were plenty of people who I didn't know.

Twitter is a strange phenomenon, one is able to gain a voice in a way that is very powerful and unique. You can communicate with people who perhaps up to now you wouldn't have been able to get to. You can also gain the attention of those that otherwise wouldn't want to speak with you. Last week, I watched with great amusement, which quickly changed to sheer admiration, as one of my sisters tried to get Virgin Media to respond to them. Having waited in vain for nearly 2 hours for the Virgin centre to contact them through a call back phone call, they launched a twitter onslaught with great effect – 10 minutes later Virgin Media had sorted the problem and made contact. Of course there are many other service providers who can also supply you with wi fi services.

Friday morning saw me at Manchester airport on my way to Dublin for a PhD viva examination. Airports are a great place to have conversations with people you have never met before, and so it was last Friday. I don’t usually do breakfast, unless I am traveling. Then I like a Full English Breakfast (vegetarian). I was seduced into having breakfast by a young waitress who engaged me in conversation at the entrance to one of the Terminal 3 restaurants. I should have known that somewhere professing to do really great pizzas, and pasta, was unlikely to do equally great breakfasts. It was dreadful, and the conversation as I left was considerably shorter and less friendly than when I entered the restaurant.

I flew with Ryanair, and I think it’s possible they train their staff so that all conversations have to include asking you for money. The taxi driver on the other hand was a great conversationalist. He had an opinion on everything from the weather that morning, to the Scottish referendum (he would vote NO), and what did I think about Boris Johnson contesting Nigel Farage in the next general election. I was surprised at this turn of the conversation as I hadn't picked up on this news. It turned out that he was talking about the notion that Boris should contest the by-election in Clacton caused by the Tory MP Douglas Carswell defection to UKIP.

By this time we had reached our destination, the School of Nursing at Trinity College. Trinity College is a fascinating place, steeped in history and well worth a visit if you happen to be there. I was there however, to conduct a PhD viva. As the candidate was a member of the Schools academic staff, I was 1 of 2 external examiners. I like to approach PhD viva's as an opportunity for an academic conversation, a chance for the candidate to present and defend their work, but in a collegiate rather than adversarial manner. I was pleased to find that my co-external examiner was like minded.   

Now the School of Nursing is not located in the wonderful Trinity College buildings and main campus. The School is to be found in the rather splendid if somewhat quirky old Gas Building. This protected Art Deco building was originally constructed in 1818, and remodelled in the Art Deco style in 1934. It is a fantastically well preserved and interesting building. Its neo-Tudor and jazzy Art Deco styles, side by side to each other in one building make it one of the finest of its kind in Ireland. Such is the transient nature of PhD conversations that one can find oneself back in a taxi and on the way to the airport before being able take any photos. This was my experience, so most of the illustrations in today’s blog come from the Schools web site.

Completely coincidently, my middle daughter (Sally) who like my eldest son (Samuel), lives in Hastings the Art Deco capital of New Zealand, is returning to the UK for a brief Art Deco tour next weekend. I have arranged to meet with her. As my parents will be up visiting as well, I am hoping that this time next week there will be 4 generations in the house, all holding a conversation with each other. I'm looking forward to it. As BT once said in their advisements, 'its good to talk'!

Sunday, 24 August 2014

The Death of the Author and why are my days numbered?

There has long been a debate about which methodological approach to research best secures the truth. This complex debate has often been reduced to questions over whether quantitative or qualitative approaches produce the most reliable, generalizable and useful contributions to knowledge. Personally I am more comfortable with qualitative approaches; my PhD drew on ‘hunt and peck’ ethnographic thinking and these days I would describe myself as a bricoleur. Bricolage is a multifaceted approach to the research process. Mixed methods are used in both data collection and analysis, in order to bring about a richer understanding of human beings and the complexities of their lived experiences.  

In these times of information overload, interpretation of what we are being told becomes an increasingly important aspect of decision making. As a sometimes producer of information, I learnt a long time ago that when I write something and it gets published, I the author die. Whatever I have written, whatever I have intended to be read, ceases to exist as soon as the reader makes their own interpretation of my words. It doesn't stop me from writing however; there is something very addictive about trying to find a way of sharing ones ideas with others. It can be challenging too.

Often information (research based or otherwise) is delivered through the use of numbers and/or numbers and a descriptive term. So for example, hotels are often given a number – 2 stars, 3 or 5 stars by industry reviewers As users of hotels, we all tend to associate (interpret) the number of stars a hotel has with a personal understanding (or at least a perception) of what these given appellations might mean; perhaps variations in price, quality, location, service and so on. This can be very different from what the reviewer might have intended to mean when deciding on how many stars a hotel deserves.

My favourite restaurant of the moment, Albert’s (as in Albert’s Shed and so on) received a 1 star food hygiene rating last week. This is the lowest rating possible and seemed inexplicable to me. Over the years I have often eaten at all 3 restaurants and have never had anything to make a complaint about, and as regular readers of this blog will know, I can be a harsh critic of restaurants and hotels. The decision to award this low rating was down to problems in the paper work – an important issue of course, but it was not something that impacted upon my experience or satisfaction as a customer.

Dealing with the meaning of numbers was the story of my world last week. More precisely it was my having to deal with the consequences of the meaning of the numbers that others chose to hold that was the story. As regular readers of this post will perhaps recall, last week I mentioned that as a School we had some mixed results from the National Student Survey in terms of student satisfaction. Read one way, some of the numbers told a pretty depressing story.

For example, there were some programmes apparently languishing in the 4th quartile, not a great place to be in comparison to others. However, the gap between those in the 1st quartile and those in the 4th was often only a few % points. Adding in some contextual information, and read another way, these same programmes will be seen to have actually made huge improvements in the level of student satisfaction achieved. 

Interestingly the other numbers game in town last week was clearing. Unlike some parts of the University, most of our programmes didn't need to be in this year’s clearing in order to reach our student number targets. The high level of applications and the educational achievements of the students applying tell their own story in terms of how we are doing as a School in comparison to other Universities with a similar range of programmes. Colleagues are not complacent however. We will keep working at improving the student experience and raising the levels of our student’s satisfaction - and if we don't succeed, our days really will be numbered! 

Sunday, 17 August 2014

A Curates Egg of a week and Getting Hitched (without a hitch) in Hornby

I could describe last week as being like the proverbial ‘curates egg’. This term has its origins in the humorous and satirical magazine Punch. In 1895 they featured a cartoon depicting a curate eating breakfast in the house of his Bishop. The Bishop notes that the curate has got a bad egg, the curate desperate not to offend his employer says ‘Oh no, I assure you parts of it are excellent!’. Of course a self-contained egg cannot be both partially spoiled and partially unspoiled. The curate’s obsequiousness in not being able to agree with his employer’s acknowledgement that he has been served a bad egg makes the curate look totally absurd. Well I experienced a great deal of obsequiousness and absurdity last week, and it wasn't all down to the Healthier Together consultation either!

The Schools National Student Survey results were published and whilst there were some tremendous improvements and high levels of overall satisfaction from students in many programmes, there were some disappointing results as well. There is some work to do to try and understand why this might be the case with students studying different programmes but all of whom are studying in the same School.

There were some great moments however. I was able to appoint two colleagues into new Associate Head roles, one of which I described in my notification to the School as the Associate Head Academic Enchantment – rather than Enhancement – which gave everyone in the School and beyond (twitter is wonderful isn't it!?!) the chance to poke fun at me over working at the Salford version of Hogwarts! These two new roles in the School are aimed at improving the learning experience for our students. Hopefully, these colleagues will provide the leadership necessary to continue to grow our reputation as a School whose programmes are facilitated in creative and innovative ways.

Without doubt the best part of last week was travelling to the tiny quintessential English village of Hornby in Lancashire yesterday. Hornby is situated very close to where the River Wenning and the River Lune come together. In the centre of the village is the beautiful church (St Margaret’s). I was there to celebrate my youngest son Joseph marriage to Louise. It was a great day. The sun shone, the company was noisy but in a good way, the food and drink were excellent and people talked, laughed, danced and had fun. It was also a family day. All of my 5 children were together in the same place for the first time in many years. It was a perfect end to a troubled and troublesome week. Many congratulations Joe and Louise, here's wishing you both much happiness and joy in your new life together.  

Sunday, 10 August 2014

Being Off-line, Being by the Sea, and Learning to Deal with Disruptive Thoughts

I have been, more or less, off line all last week. I did Tweet the occasional tweet (last Monday during the candle commemoration of WW1, and a retweet of the Guardian newspapers superb critique of the shambolic Healthier Together consultation) but for the rest of the time I've been off line completely. I have been up in the House in Scotland enjoying a week’s annual leave in-between the busyness of Graduation and Registration. I even chose to leave my mobile phone switched off, not a hard decision to do given the screen shows the number of emails received and needing attention on my return to work tomorrow. My brother and his family also spent some of last week up here. He lives in London and chose to spend much of his time here staying connected to the 'outside world'.

It’s perhaps not surprising really, whilst 22 million households in Britain have their own internet connection, those living in London use the internet more often than anywhere else. Interestingly, according to the Office for National Statistics the area where the highest proportion of adults who have never used the internet live is Dumfries and Galloway, the location of the House in Scotland.

The house sits on the edge of a very small coastal village. This means at weekends, (when I spend most time here) I get to benefit from seeing the forests, hills and fields, the sea and the estuary, but avoid having to see the holiday makers who flock each weekend during the summer to stroll along the sea front, eat at one of the two pubs, or set off on a day’s hillwalking. Of course the village benefits from the holiday makers coming, and during the week it’s much quieter. So as I was staying up for a week I wanted to make the most of this quietness and spend some time contemplating and recharging my emotional battery's and improving my mental well-being.

For me, turning off the phone and disconnecting the computer and iPad was akin to what ethnomethodologists call a disruption (or deliberate violation) of the prevailing social order. Ethnomethodological research offers the notion that society behaves as if there were no other way to do so. Generally, we all go along with what is expected of us and the existence of any underlying norms only becomes apparent when they are disrupted. Harold Garfinkel first described the concept of ethnomethodology in 1954 and gave his students some wonderful ‘disruptive’ exercises to try out at home.

However, for me it was a different kind of exercise I indulged in. My favourite daily walk is between my village and the next one around the bay. It’s a short circular walk just over 5km long and for me it’s the pathway to my place of mindfulness, a place of calm and equilibrium. For Cello it’s a chance to chase after deer (no he has never ever come close to catching them), having fun with other dogs, and generally give free reign to his non-stop exhibition of sheer exuberance.

I find Mindfulness Mediation helps me during those times where thoughts, worries, and feelings lead to distress and anxiety and the inability to focus on the present, sleep or enjoy life. The primary focus for mindfulness mediation is on ones breathing. What I find helps is to bring to mind an image, in my case it’s the view of the seashore. I can see the sea, the horizon, the island in the distance, feel the heat of the sun on my face, feel the solid ground under my feet and smell the salt in the sea breeze. I have sat on a bench on many, many occasions observing all these sights and sounds with all my senses, and in doing so, have also learnt to focus on my breathing.

So when I am faced with trying to sleep and have thoughts a plenty racing around my mind, it is this image that I bring to mind and concentrate on my breathing until I can let those intrusive thoughts go without becoming involved in worrying about them. Having other good memories helps. For example, yesterday evening I spent a pleasant few hours with my No 1 favourite artist Upru Sellar and her husband Dawson at their house and studio. We talked about what life had presented us in terms of opportunities and challenges, some of which, it has to be said, were more challenges than opportunities, we talked about Finland, Scotland and the world we had all experienced. It was a relaxing and life affirming few hours.

When tomorrow I sit at my desk once again, and get re-connected to a different strand of reality, this past week of contemplation and relaxation will be a powerful ally as once more I start to tackle the tyranny of the emails, and the incessant organisational and managerial demands that come with being Head of School to the largest and most diverse School in the University. I am also fortunate to work with a fantastic team of colleagues who are always there to support each and everyone of us, whatever it might be the world throws at us.

Sunday, 3 August 2014

The Twittering Classes, Unhealthy use of Public Money and One (or two) Last Glasses of Wine

Twitter and tweeting featured for me in many ways last week. I am a late adopter in Twitter terms, meaning I came to the party later than most, and up to now I remain fascinated by this social media platform. Others have moved on to use other social media. This micro-blogging service (each tweet must be no more than 140 characters long) provides the opportunity for lively debate on any subject and with both your friends and family and people you might not be able to normally communicate with, the Prime Minister or the latest soap star.

Many organisations now recognise the value of Twitter in enhancing their customer service, resolving complaints at an earlier stage, and of course advertising their services. Twitter went public last November, and despite only having some 200m users (compared to 1bn people who were logging onto Faceboook), its valuation at that time was £14bn. Its value was based upon the notion that more and more people would buy into the Twitter idea.

Getting others to buy into an idea might well have been in the minds of the Healthier Together team, who, its reported, have spent nearly £4m of public money trying to get the people of Greater Manchester to buy in the idea that health services in the conurbation need to change. Although it has been claimed that there is wide spread support from doctors for the changes being proposed, judging by the cries of outrage and despair from GPs, hospitals, local MPs and watchdogs such a Healthwatch this seems very much in doubt.

Just as Twitter has struggled to deliver its social media potential and gain more users in the numbers it expected, so it seems, this might be the case with Healthier Together. They are currently in the midst of a fairly shambolic public consultation. For example, they are reporting on average only 45 people attending their public meetings. There are 2.7m people living in Greater Manchester. Perhaps this lack lustre response has something to do with people’s suspicions over what it will mean for them. Last week newspaper and social media reports carried the Healthier Together claim that no hospital of A+E Department would close, yet this commitment appears to be left out of the consultation documents.

As the NHS is in the final year of a 4 year challenge to save £20bn, with estimates from NHS England that a further £30bn worth of savings are required by 2020-21, people might be forgiven for thinking that Healthier Together’s long term plans include the closure 1 or 2 hospitals in the Greater Manchester area.

It’s a complicated set of issues. Transforming health care services both hospital based, and out of hospital care, does not lend itself to easy solutions. For example it’s estimated that 20% of hospital beds are currently taken up with end of life care. Of the 500,000 people who die in the UK each year 60% die in hospital. 40% of these people do not have a curable condition and most will have been ill for 6 years before they die.

60% of those that die in hospital would prefer to die at home. Providing integrated health and social care that is community based in order to effectively meet these needs will take resources. However its argued that many new developments could be funded through savings achieved by freeing up hospital beds. For example in 2010 DEMOS (the policy and politics think tank) estimated that end of life care cost the NHS £20bn a year. Setting up a national ‘hospice at home’ scheme capable of supporting 90,000 peoples care at the end of their life would cost £150m. 

I was interested to learn last week (via Twitter) of a new approach in France, to improve the end of life care for the nearly 280,000 people who die in hospital there each year. From next month, patients with a terminal illness at the Clermont-Ferrand University Hospital will be able to enjoy a drink with their friends and family at a wine bar to be opened in the hospitals Palliative Care Centre. Whatever you think about drinking alcohol, and there are challenges for health care professionals in taking this approach, I thought it sounded like a good idea. 

However, not everyone gets the chance to say goodbye. The BBC News service (another Twitter alert) published a very dignified article and image of the 298 victims of the Malaysian aircraft flight MH17 who clearly didn't have the chance to say goodbye to thier loved ones. It was a story that was made all the more poignant for me as last week I also learnt of the death of my former wife, friend and gardening mentor. We had separated and divorced over 20 years ago, and had not maintained contact. Despite Twitter, email, Facebook and old fashioned snail mail, it was the executor of her will who finally got to tell me she had died in March of this year. Rest in peace Inez, I am sure you will have already got your garden sorted in heaven.