About this Guest post

In the second guest post following the re-launch of the IWMW blog Chris Gutteridge describes how he learned to stop worrying and love the academy!

Dr Strangepriorities or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love The Academy

As a member of the “professional services” in my university, it’s easy to think the place would run much smoother if it wasn’t for that disruptive element: students and academics.

There’s clearly something wrong with that thinking, but when you work on a narrow bit of the process of a large and complex organisation it’s sometimes hard to see the big picture. Sure, it’s a paycheck, and the motivation to get another paycheck next month, but that’s not enough to make anybody invest any real effort beyond the minimum required.

A university is an organisation with the purpose of discovering and sharing knowledge. Absolutely everything else we do is (should be?) to support this goalI’ve given it a lot of thought and I think I know what a university actually is… A university is an organisation with the purpose of discovering and sharing knowledge. Absolutely everything else we do is (should be?) to support this goal.

Discovering and sharing knowledge: The university does that in lots of different ways, including research, consultancy work, spin out firms, media appearances, writing books, conferences, publishing papers and convincing some of the world’s smartest and highly skilled people to take the time to teach students and train future researchers. We need to make a surplus, because investment is essential as how we do things is always evolving, and infrastructure needs to be refreshed.

The web has changed universities in many ways we couldn’t have predicted, and also not changed them in ways which we had expected. My friend Armando is a lecturer of mathematics and he tells me I will have to pry the chalk out of his cold dead hand. Not all advances are actually an improvement to everyone — to my surprise whiteboards are apparently a a poor substitute for chalk in a complex mathematics lecture. This is easily mistaken for Luddite attitudes, but there are (sometimes) good reasons why sometimes new technology isn’t right in all situations, and if we don’t understand what our academics are trying to do it’s easy to make things worse with the best intentions.

We experiment with new techniques and new tools, but all of them are ultimately there to fulfil our core mission which is to discover and share knowledge (without going broke in the process).

When we hire new people into our support departments (marketing and communications, IT, and so on), it’s easy to skip this big picture when we’re training them. Their experience of academics are through a distorting lens, as people who are both control freaks and too busy to answer a question. Smart, but with very odd priorities compared with the relatively clear business-like priorities we get from our managers. When the goals are set by a chain of managers, it’s hard to see how you’re actually contributing to making the world a smarter better place.

This situation really concerns me. It damages our ability to make the right decisions, and ultimately could cause us to fail our core mission.

In a way the names of our departments are divisive. Communications, Marketing and Information Technology. These are the DNA of the academics… they communicate, promote their ideas, and share data as the core of their job. What we do is support and enable that, and do some parts better and more efficiently than them, to free up their time and gain some economies of scale.

At no point should we mistakenly think we’re in charge of all the Communications, Marketing and Information Technology at the University! We’re just there to save the academics some time so they have more of it to spend on research and teaching. That’s what I try to do. That’s why I’m proud of my job and happy to go the extra mile. I’m not increasing shareholder value, I’m enabling the people who make the world a smarter, better place.

What changes could we make to our induction process, and the day to day life of us support staff, to address this gap between us and academics, and thus keep us all on mission?


Chris GutteridgeChris Gutteridge, Systems, Information and Web Programmer at the University of Southampton has worked on university web systems since 1997. Chris was the lead developer on the open-access repository EPrints 2 and 3.0 and more recently founded data.southampton.ac.uk and data.ac.uk. This month he is not evangelising open data systems because he’s busy building Drupal templates.

IWMW talks and sessions facilitated [6]: [Plenary talk at IWMW 2014] – [Workshop at IWMW 2014] – [Workshop at IWMW 2013] – [Workshop at IWMW 2011] – [Workshop at IWMW 2010] – [Plenary talk at IWMW 2009]

Acknowledgements: Featured image from Wikipedia.