Diplomacy is sometimes a barrier to progress in universities – Times Higher Education (THE)

Posted: October 9, 2021 at 7:35 am

George Bernard Shaw has a great quote that my father used to include at the bottom of every email to me when I started my undergraduate degree: The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable man persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man. It was my fathers way of telling me university was going to be a big change, and it would sometimes require me to adapt if I was to thrive.

Adaptation is something Ive tried to continue doing since becoming an academic. Admittedly, my stubborn streak has at times made me the unreasonable man (my father clearly knew me well!), but I think Ive adapted fairly well. Ive picked up new concepts,learned new skills in digital education, and designed new ways of teaching and assessment that encourage student engagement and improve performance. Its been incredibly rewarding to see the positiveeffects theyve had.

But it is one thing to implement changes in your own pedagogy. It is quite another to change how your colleagues and your university work. Diplomacy is both a necessary currency and a frustrating hindrance.

Without a diplomatic approach to any idea, project or problem that needs something from someone, feelings will be hurt and nothing will get done. The diplomatic approach, however, is often so delicate, so light-touch that the message doesnt get through andstillnothing gets done or it gets done so slowly that by the time the initiative is implemented, the particular year of students who could have benefitted are long gone. And Im left wondering whether we failed those students in terms of what their educational experience and employability prospectscouldhave been.

Administrative or bureaucratic processes are one classic go-to for rationalisingwhysolutions to ongoing problems are never implemented. But is a more likely culprit the fact that we are afraid of saying to colleagues: Just get on and do it? If we continue to precede this isnt working with now, I know we all do some fantastic things, will we ever acquire the impetus to address an issue evidenced as a real concern in a timely manner? The complacency of everything is fine the way it is will continue to hold us back from seeing that, actually, it isnt and that adaptation is in order.

Take assessment. Quite rightly, one cannot look at the effectiveness and suitability of an assessment format until it has been used for several academic years and the data and feedback from students and staff can speak for itself. But once it becomes clear that the current cohort of students is not finding assessment challenging or engaging or conducive to their learning, it makes sense to adapt that assessment to meet the needs of the next cohort even if it involves questioning the opinion and the historic hard work of someone else.

However, even taking the direct approach of declaring (assuming you have sufficient formal authority to do so) thatthis is what we are going todo results just as often in a tools-down response from those who feel steamrollered or slighted.

Arent we all adults, though? Cant we handle a little directness without taking it personally? Should we not recognise that it is our responsibility to do the best we can for our students, and that this might involve adapting to this ever-changing world? And should we not have the strength to express that therearethings that need doing, fixing or changing? That the thing Frank is supposed to lead on actually needs doing now and is not a mere suggestion that can be kicked into the long grass if you dont like the look of it?

Being the person to say all that definitely isnt comfortable. Heck, Im acutely aware of my shortcomings regarding tact (you may have noticed). My passion for wanting to make things the best they can be and to make a difference for my studentswhile theyre still my studentsoften gets me into hot water. And I amtryingto do a bit more playing nice or keeping quiet in the hope that things will eventually improve; Im not going to being able to progress professionally otherwise especially in this digital age, in which perceived tone in communications is a constant worry.

Yet sometimes it feels as if Im adapting to suit a sector locked in a previous iteration of itself, in which fitting in was more important than striving to evolve and improve. Diplomacy and tact remain valuable tools, and in many cases they are appropriate. But if their overuse holds us back from adapting to a changing world, in an era of mass higher education, then they cant be the only tools in our managerial toolboxes.

Those who deflect or put off change should reflect on Bernard Shaws quote, too. If their pride and inertia prevents them embracing innovations that would improve students experience or performance, are they really being more reasonable than those who demand change? And if they are, isnt the dramatist right about whose approach is the most valuable?

Chris Moore is senior lecturer in anatomy at theUniversity of the West of England.

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Diplomacy is sometimes a barrier to progress in universities - Times Higher Education (THE)

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