50 Years of Ed Res

An informal and largely random set of glances over the shoulder by Colin Rogers.

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Depending on your own age, any reference to a 50th anniversary is likely to bring about the response “How could they be that old and still function?” or “Where did that go?”. Place me firmly in the second category.

As we meet to mark the occasion I will be into the second year of my retirement (Where did that go?) having spent 1 month short of 40 years as a member of the Department (Where … you get the idea).

I arrived for the first time in Lancaster at some point in the summer of 1976 for my interview. It was my third interview for a lectureship in 6 days and proved to be third time lucky. As friends have heard me moan many times, the first impression on alighting from the train (run by good old British Rail of course) was how chilly and damp it felt. 1976 was the gloriously hot summer that I had experienced in London. Living near Mitcham Common (yes, academics on an early career fixed-term contract could afford to buy a house in London – albeit a small terraced in need of TLC version) I regularly had travelled through the Common and watched firefighters (although there were all known as firemen then) putting out bush fires. Lancaster was still a verdant green, but the locals were nevertheless curious as to whether it was as hot as this down south. As previously said, I really ought to have turned straight around back to the warm and sunny south. However, the prospect of a salary and the intellectual excitement offered by Ed Res overcame the temptations of the dolce vita.

So, Dear Reader, I basically married the Department and have endured the infamous Lancaster climate ever since.

Curiously, the intellectual heat around the Department at the point of my arrival had nothing to do with my nearly completed PhD but rather more with a certain “Teaching Styles and Pupil Progress” published in the April of that same year by Neville Bennett. Neville was at that point a lecturer in the Department, set to become HoD, Professor and all sorts prior to leaving for Exeter where he duly finished up as Senior Deputy Vice Chancellor.

I’ll come back to the book in a moment. A couple of observations first. Neville’s move and elevation to a position of glory, well senior management anyway, was just one of the many such moves made by people who had part of their career at Lancaster. Ed Res alumni (the ex-staff version) have taken up senior roles in Universities around the country and indeed around the world. You will find them, or their records, from East Anglia to Sydney. I am not even going to start a list, as I will certainly offend by omission, but such a list would be impressive.

The second, rather more random observation, reminds me of primary school. Not as researched by Neville Bennet, but as lived by me. I attended a “three-decker” (google it) London County Council (and that too) primary school.  The three-decker primary school building design had few redeeming educational features, which explains why mine is now a shopping centre, but it did have two big playgrounds. One was for infants and junior girls, and the other for junior boys (yes, really). A rite of passage therefore was the move from one to the other as you (assuming you were male) moved into the junior school years. I had seen the boys in the boys’ playground as being huge, especially those old enough to use the section of the boys’ playground marked out as a football pitch, and could never quite work out why my cohort, having reached the nirvana of the football pitch, were just ordinarily sized kids.

My thoughts of Lancaster Ed Res are perhaps influenced by the same processes, but the group of staff present as I arrived do still remain for me as the giants of the Department. I suspect that many of the current staff will be quite unfamiliar with either the names or the works of those early young Turks. For all the controversy around “Teaching Styles” (and of course its subsequent re-analysis with Murray Aitken that not only changed the interpretation of the data but set in train vitally important developments in statistical techniques) it will have little meaning for relatively newly appointed staff.

And neither should it. Teaching Styles was firmly located in the educational processes of the primary school, and, with some important exceptions, that is out-with the foci of attention of much of the current Ed Res profile. The Department has, in many ways, come full circle. Founded by the now sadly deceased Professor Ross 50 years ago as a research centre intended to explore the innovations in Higher Education being attempted at Lancaster University, much of that initial focus on Higher Education and innovations (especially the technological) has again come to the fore, with great success.

Running as a name through a stick of rock though is the Department’s concern with social justice. This has been demonstrated particularly in research concerned with a whole variety of aspects of gender and the impact of gender roles and stereotypes upon social practices, most especially, of course, those involved in education.  It is good to see a growing concern within the Department with corresponding effects of ethnicity, sexuality, disability and (hurrah) social class.

These concerns have been demonstrated also in the Department’s own practices. One of the reasons, doubtless, for my long sojourn has been the Department’s very strong sense of collegiality and its willingness to oppose moves by others, including Lancaster University itself, when thought necessary. This has extended to groups meeting in kitchens at night to re-run departmental budgets to determine whether or not cuts to significant services should be accepted – we didn’t accept them. What undercover meetings took place during my time as Head of Department I naturally know not (my colleagues would have been good at maintaining the covert nature of such operations I’m sure).

These concerns have most recently found their expression in one of the Department’s new range of on-line Doctoral Programmes. These developments coincided with my gradually moving out of mainstream Department activity as an Associate Dean and then a retired person (and Yes, there is a difference). This relationship was correlational not causal which reminds me of the many times I have tried to teach that concept to various groups of students.

The Department has run a variety of programmes, at Undergraduate, Masters and PhD level. These have had their moments of glory and the Department has always been willing to move to end them when that moment has passed. Highlights for me include the MA programme (I had one brilliant cohort including several members who used that programme to launch new and successful careers in academia). A special version of that programme was taught in Wigan back in the days when LEAs had the resources to do such things. My module finished with a canal trip where, as I had to drive back to Lancaster, I finished as the only sober member of the crew – with the possible exception of the pilot or captain or whatever they call them in Wigan.

I recall PhD students sailing through or struggling through but generally getting there in the end. And I recall many undergraduate cohorts changing from those diffident creatures addressing me as “Sir” in their first seminar to confident and well qualified young adults striding off to do great stuff. Through its programmes the Department has had a massive impact on a whole range of professions.

Our own practices have changed. The modernisation of the Department (and as usual the use of the M-word disguises the fact that there were losses – half the size of your office for a start) required a number of room changes and clear-outs. A large office over the years enables the collection of a lot of stuff, far more than a small office can hold, and again far more than you want to take home when the end arrives.

Going through all that stuff indicated how technology has changed what we do, and who does it. At the bottom of filing drawers were lecture handouts typed up by a Department secretary. Yes, somewhat luxurious, but you had to have the notes ready at least a week prior to the lecture and you couldn’t make any last-minute changes. Now those “secretaries” run the Department and academics do their own handouts just–in-time. Many never get handed out of course as there is no physical student present to receive them. The on-line equivalents will often get posted at unseemly times of the day.

Who remembers offprint request cards? Did you want a copy of a journal article you had read - while sitting on the library of course? Well, fill in the details on the card, post it (by airmail if needed) and wait. You would possibly get sent a copy in due course, by which time you had no doubt totally forgotten why you had ever wanted the thing in the first place. Online journal access, and increasingly book access, means possibly never having to go into the library and you could print out your own copy at the press of a key. As my key pressing skills far outweighed my filing and retrieval skills I found several such copies of identical articles come my final sort out.

These changes have generally simplified life but they have led to changes of other sorts. The lack of a need to be physically present to interact with students, journals, books and, increasingly perhaps, colleagues, changes the day to day practices of the Department hugely. Empty offices are far more common than they were and the well-attended mid-morning tea break long ago disappeared. Perhaps due to ever increasing time pressures but perhaps due to the lack of attraction in a virtual cuppa. However, I suspect retiring colleagues of the future will find their equivalents of little thankyou notes in the bottom of their drawer and will continue to think that they might have occasionally made a real difference to someone, somewhere. I hope so.

Ed Res looks and feels very different from the place I entered in 1976. Folk have come and gone. Some have passed on from more than just the Department, some expectedly, some not. All are greatly missed.

I still recall, having been shown around and introduced to one and all by my mentor, Geoff Brown, one of those giants of the playground, sitting down in my large and largely empty office and thinking “What do I do now?”. That question was rarely if ever asked again. It was rapidly replaced by “Which of my many overdue tasks has to wait?”.

Fundamentally though the place remains the same. A unique place for an academic to work in the discipline of Education. As pointed out by Oxford’s John Furlong, Lancaster’s Ed Res is the only Department of Education never to have engaged in Initial Teacher Education. That perhaps underlies its creativity – if you are not doing the obvious things you have to make up the less obvious stuff all by yourself.

It won’t however explain its strong sense of community and collegiality. Those characteristics have served the old place well over the past 50 years. They will, I hope, continue to do so for the next 50.

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