A day in the life of the Head of Politics and International Relations …

By Mark Aspinwall

23 February 2011

6.00. Out of bed. Have banana and a massive tea and start working. I’m rewriting an article on how Mexican politics has changed since NAFTA. It’s extracted from more than five years of research. An earlier version was rejected by the journal World Politics, and this new version is very different. I had some great help from colleagues in the department, who gave me ideas on how to reshape it. I’m optimistic, but standards to get into the top journals are very exacting.

8.00. Take a break and have breakfast with Leticia, who’s up now too. While she gets ready for the day I switch gears and grade applicants for PhD financial aid. I’m amazed at the range of interests among them and the variety of life experiences they’ve had. I also compose the ‘day-list’ – a post-it note with all the things I need to do that day. Together with my diary, it’s the daily bible. Old technology perhaps, but it works. If it’s not on that list, the chances of remembering it plummet. It all began five years ago when I forgot to deliver 200 exam scripts to Pleasance Sports Hall. Oops.

9.00. Drop Leticia at the Morningside Oxfam, where she volunteers on Wednesday mornings, and head for the office.

10.00. First of more than seven hours of almost back-to-back meetings. Professor Mick Moran is visiting for the day from the University of Manchester. Mick was on the 2008 RAE panel, which means that he was one of about 15 academics responsible for assessing the research of every politics department in the country. PIR made big improvements in 2008, which we want to continue in the next round (2013-14). The outcome will have reputational and financial repercussions and it’s really important for us (hence all my agonizing over the Mexico research). He gives me and two colleagues the benefit of his insights. There’s some great news for us – we’ve learned that Charlie Jeffery will be on the next panel (called the REF this time), and he’s with us in the meeting. Someone has brought biscuits and I eat too many of them.

11.45. I try to make a scheduled call to a student but am interrupted by a colleague who wants to talk about his role next year. This is a really important conversation, and very sensitive.

12.00. Next meeting. A part-time peripatetic lecturer is interested in becoming an Honorary Fellow in the department. I know him well. He’s very solid. He has a PhD and has taught in several UK universities – his speciality is the Middle East, and Egypt in particular. We’re expanding our Middle East offerings, with two new taught MSc degrees, and a new lecturer coming on board (Dr Ewan Stein). But there are College rules on what Honorary Fellows need to do – essentially to provide some kind of pro-bono service. So the Middle East specialist would do some voluntary dissertation supervision and possibly some teaching in an area of growing interest. No brainer for me.

12.30. I finally get through to the student, who’s doing joint honours with Modern Languages. She’s on a year abroad and working rather than studying, which means that she needs to write two essays of 4000 words each. She wants to do the first on women in politics. I think to myself, she started her first year in a lecture theatre of over 300 students. Now she’s talking to a lecturer one-on-one. Ratios change. If she becomes a PhD student she’ll have meetings with two lecturers sometimes.

We talk about how to frame a research question. I ask her to think of essay questions in earlier courses, and search for some kind of puzzle or unexpected outcome. For example, why do women not have more power (or why are social outcomes still unequal) despite legislation and other good-faith efforts to address the imbalance? We talk about independent research and the need to stay focussed. It’s a challenge for her because she works all day too, and needs to do her research and writing in the evenings and on weekends. I know how she feels. We decide to talk again in a few days.

12.50. I have a few minutes to eat lunch. Eating six biscuits in the morning has left me less hungry than usual at this time of day. Must exercise more self-restraint. I reflect that the phone call will be my only interaction with students during the entire day. 

1.00. Department research seminar. Mick Moran gives a paper on business power post-2007. He contrasts the aftermath of the financial collapse to the 1979-2007 period, which he calls ‘the great complacency.’ Great title, I think to myself. He’s done exhaustive historical research on policy changes and decisions in the wake of the collapse. It’s a real case study in how to carry out research. But the bottom line is a little depressing – not much has changed. Business stills wields tremendous power. 

2.00. Back to the office to prepare for a meeting at 2.15. I scan the papers, make a coffee and have a seventh biscuit. Lucky seven.

2.15. School Management Committee meeting. This threatens to stretch all afternoon, but the agenda is full of important things. Student satisfaction and a new website on best practice in feedback and assessment. Several people in the School (including my colleagues) have devoted a lot of time to working on this issue. Postgraduate programmes. Financial aid for PhD students. Administrative reform, including how to rethink the DoS system. Preparations for the REF, which is how I began this string of meetings. There are one or two moments of ill-humour, but by and large things go smoothly. Everyone wants the best for the School. Disagreements over how to get there are ironed out in a few minutes.

I have my (occasional) daydream in which we’ve made all the admin reforms we need to make, and we achieve a kind of utopian equilibrium where everything works perfectly, and we can return to teaching and research. It’s utopian because teaching and research are what we want to do, and what fulfils our mission. But the reality is different. There are constant re-evaluations of processes and procedures, new ideas about how to govern organizations, changing demands from those who regulate us, new generations of students with new interests. All of it must be accommodated. I estimate that managing the department I’ve headed for the past seven months takes at least two-thirds of my time. In the rest I teach, do research and run a European Commission project called MERCURY, along with several colleagues. I eye the biscuits provided for the meeting but decide I’ve had enough.

5.15. Meeting over. Head for the gym.

6.30. Back in the office. A day of meetings has left my email inbox in an alarming state. I start to chew through them, waiting for Leticia to pick me up. 

8.00. Dinner over, I make a phone call to a colleague we’ve just hired from the University of Kansas named Julie Kaarbo. She’s going to be a great addition – she works on political psychology, foreign policy analysis, and how Cabinets make foreign policy decisions.

9.00. Transfixed by the news from Libya. 

10.00. Watch a programme on the history of the Rolling Stones. The email inbox is gnawing away at me and I work it down to six or so as I watch. I thought I knew everything about them, since they were my favourite band until I was about 30, but I learn that Keith Richards was a choirboy who sang at Westminster Abbey in front of the Queen. How ironic. I wonder how the Stones would react if someone forced them to participate in a periodic ‘Music Excellence Framework’ similar to what we do on research, in which all British bands were assessed according to their output, impact, and environment.

Speaking of environment, it occurs to me that instead of ‘sex and drugs and rock-and-roll’, the best way to describe their lives would be ‘divorce and jail and rock-and-roll.’

Keith has aged incredibly. Incredibly badly, I mean. Wait a minute. I grab the remote and switch back to the news. Colonel Gaddafi is ranting away to his supporters. Back to the Stones. Keith is giving the finger to the paparazzi. Is it me, or have they been imitating each other?

11.30. Lights out but can’t sleep. I think to myself, maybe I should write a ‘day in the life’ blog.