April 15, 2012, by Matt

A Day in the Life of a Geographer … Andrew Leyshon

Friday 30th March

As Head of School one of the things that I do much more of than ever before is spend time in meetings.  These can be of many kinds, from occasional large University-wide gatherings of senior management which include the Vice Chancellor, Pro-Vice Chancellors, Deans and the like, through monthly School Management Committees or weekly catch-up meetings with the School Manager and my PA, to the many less regular or even impromptu meetings with staff to discuss ideas, check on plans and progress, make suggestions or report back on matters that need attention.  An important piece of advice given to me as I took over as Head of School in August 2011 was to try and avoid spending more than four hours a day in a meeting, on the grounds that every meeting requires preparation and will require a reaction and more work, so any more than four hours in day in a meeting risks producing ‘runaway meeting syndrome’ so that one’s whole working live becomes consumed with meetings.  In conjunction with Sudha Cotterill, who helps to manage my diary, I try to stick to this limit, although it’s not always possible.

In that regard it was a good start today as I began by teaching.  I contribute to a third year undergraduate module on Geographies of Money and Finance, and I was giving the last lecture on Financial Exclusion.  The 9.00 am Friday start is a struggle for some students, and by 8.50 there was just me and one student: I joked that if no-one else turned up this would be exactly the kind of one-to-one teaching experience that students would willingly pay £9,000 per year for, although I have to admit he looked less than thrilled at this prospect.  Gradually, more students arrived, and we got going. I quite like this lecture as it involves drawing attention to the increasingly forensic analysis of space by financial institutions in pricing the riskiness of their customers. This determines whether they wish to do business which them and at what price.  An example is household insurance, and explains why students pay the kinds of insurance premiums they do in Lenton, an inner-city area of Nottingham subject to the process known as ‘studentification’, where houses in an area are bought up by buy to let landlords and rented out en masse to students. I provide a live link to the police web site (http://www.police.uk/overview/?q=Nottingham%20NG7%202RD,%20UK) which gives recent crime figures for postcodes.  Even though most students live in Lenton, they are always surprised by the amount of crime reported in streets that they use every day – although as I point out, given that a large number of reported crimes are for anti-social behaviour, there is at least a chance that some of the people in the room or their friends have contributed to these figures since it includes the kind of drunken behaviour that some students have been known to engage in from time to time.   I also enjoy the reaction when I point out that everyone with a bank account in Britain is ‘behaviourally scored’ at least twice a week, which means that accounts and purchases are regularly analysed to see that people are keeping their accounts on track and that they are being most effectively serviced in terms of the kinds of products being offered to them.  The fact that one’s everyday purchases are a subject of scrutiny by financial institutions comes as a surprise to many students.

This was the last proper lecture before a revision session next term so when the time approached 11.00am I distributed evaluation forms and asked the students to provide feedback on the module.  This is done anonymously, and students place their forms unsigned into an envelope.  When I got back to the office, and just before I handed the forms into the office for processing, I had a quick look at the comments and it was good to see that the majority of the students see the module as challenging but rewarding, due in large part to the considerable efforts put in by my colleagues who co-teach it with me, Shaun French and Sarah Hall.

When I get back to my office I spend an hour or so catching up on e-mail.  I remember when e-mail emerged in the 1990s and was a novel feature of academic life and even marvelling at being able to communicate in real time with a colleague based at the University of Hawaii, despite the 10 hour time difference.  Any feelings of wonder I might have had a bout about e-mail has long since gone and dealing with e-mail traffic consumes a large amount of my time, as it does all my colleagues.  It’s like a machine that has to be constantly attended to.  I spend a lot of time working my way through it, but being HoS there is always a danger of missing really important e-mails that announce meetings or important University policy development so it has to be done carefully.

At 12.30 I break for lunch which today, unusually, is not at my desk.  I’m meeting a colleague who is now in a senior position at neighbouring University who has been having discussions with his counterparts at Nottingham during the morning.  However, deciding on where to eat is made more difficult by the fact that I had a tooth extracted last week and, due to complications, I’ve been instructed to eat soft food only.  We end up in the excellent Chinese restaurant at the top of the Portland Building as it has a number of soup options.  It’s not cheap, but is good quality being a spin-off from a well-known local Chinese operation, and has become a home from home for the many numbers of Chinese students on the University Park campus and beyond. As well as work we chat about our training for a 200km bike ride that we are both tackling in South Wales in the summer.  His training is going much better than mine, although I hope that my experience of having cycled the shorter versions of the route twice before will be enough to get me through.

As soon as I’m back in my office I have another meeting, and the first of this year’s Annual Performance Review meetings.  These meetings are held every year with staff to discuss progress over the past twelve months and plans and ambitions for next period.  They are an opportunity for staff to review their roles and contributions and to give and receive feedback.  The meeting goes well and finishes after about an hour and a half, and we both write up our notes and exchange paperwork.

The rest of the afternoon and early evening is spent working through more e-mails and the lengthy list of ‘Tasks’ accumulated in my Outlook folder.  As term comes to an end I begin to think of the activities that I need to complete before we start again in May.  This includes getting back to Oxford University Press about the book I’m trying to write, making progress on the University’s new Academic and Financial Strategy Framework, which requires each School to set out their plans for the next three years, and preparing for visits to our campuses in Malaysia and China in the middle of April where we are expanding our operations.  Indeed, my next blog will report on my visits to Kuala Lumpur and Ningbo and on the School of Geography’s expansion on the two Asian campuses.

Andrew Leyshon

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