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Body Language

Compulsory formal training for university administrators was, in my experience, rare, with new starters largely reliant on their line managers and peers for on-the-job guidance (the quality of which could, of course, be variable, with some first-day experiences akin to an arrival at a recently released crime scene, with the corpse of the previous incumbent being carted away in a body bag).


One exception was when support staff across the institution were summoned to a series of sessions on customer service. The university was trying to get some kind of external accreditation, and completion of the training by all student-facing staff was a requirement.


This would be simple enough to communicate, you would think, except that the person responsible internally for leading the programme refused to use words like ‘compulsory’ and ‘mandatory’ even when they were explicitly applicable.


Instead, mealy-mouthed and vaguely encouraging-sounding communications were circulated and met by widespread apathy and low rates of engagement.


And so, the issue was escalated to managers, who were held responsible for the minimal enthusiasm for the programme, which led to me having the following conversation with the organiser, via telephone:


‘Hello, Ben. I’m just calling around managers to find out why they think people aren’t signing up for the training.’


‘I think it’s because they don’t want to do it and think it’s optional.’


‘Right. So what do you think we can do to encourage people to sign up?’


‘You could actually say that it’s compulsory…’


‘It’s not compulsory. But we’d like to think that most people in the institution would want to sign up and improve their customer service skills.’


‘But they don’t. As evidenced by the necessity for this conversation. They think it’s patronising.’


‘Well, we like to think that they can be encouraged.’


‘I can just go in there right now and talk to my team and tell them that they need to do this training because, however good their skills are now, the institution is going for an external accreditation and we all have to sign up.’


‘I’d really prefer that you didn’t put it like that. It’s not compulsory.’


‘So what happens if people continue not signing up?’


‘We’ll have to have another conversation. And maybe get your manager involved.’


I decided to stick to my own plan.


The training itself was fine, although it was led by a slightly terrifying woman who breezily told a story about trying to get a call centre adviser from the RAC sacked because of poor service she had once received.


Evidently not in the mood to try and win anyone in the room over, her alternative was to simply smash through the session as planned and not get side-tracked by low energy or any flippant responses.


During the introductions we had been invited to state what we hoped to get out of the course. Most mumbled something about refreshing existing skills and sharing good practice (well-rehearsed lines which happened to have a usefully broad application), however one colleague boldly declared that he was French and he frankly did not understand the culture in England of trying to be nice to people who were idiots:


‘I see my colleagues going over and over the same points with students, wasting so much time… If it were up to me, I would just say “f*** off” and get them out of the office. But perhaps I need to understand your culture more.’


Whether telling students to f*** off was part of the French culture or not seemed to be reinforcing a rather old-fashioned stereotype, but he certainly was not particularly interested in engaging in the various exercises throughout the day and emerged only to lob in the occasional disingenuous contribution.


At one point, we were asked to give examples of non-verbal clues that a forthcoming customer conversation may be challenging.


‘Well, perhaps they are… smelly? Some of our students, they really smell very bad.’


Fortunately, our facilitator had little time for such obfuscation.


‘Very good. Let’s say body… body… body… LANGUAGE. Yes, very good. Body language, very important.’


We never did find out how to deal with a student’s body odour, but seeing as it rarely came up, most of us were glad of the trainer’s ability to swiftly change a daft example into something we could actually talk about.


We did get the accreditation, in the end, although to what extent it had a positive effect on the institution, it was unclear. To celebrate, academic staff and students in each department were invited to vote for the person in their administrative teams who had provided them with the best customer service.


Fortunately, any tension that this rather divisive campaign had the potential to unearth soon dissipated in our department when it emerged that a total of one vote had been received, nominating someone who was ineligible.


Training on more serious or important topics often produced the most awkward results, with members of staff who were not used to being told what to do thrown into a room with facilitators who did not know how to cope with people who were not used to being told what to do.


Upon arrival at a session on unconscious bias, I noticed a cluster of around ten gentlemen, all wearing a variety of similar, ill-fitting knitwear and scowls on their faces. During the introductions it became clear that all of these men were academics in the computer science department.


Whether their attendance, en masse, had been mandated by some kind of internal review or was the result of a particularly unsavoury incident was unclear, but they radiated a collective hostility that suggested they were not there by choice.


As preparation we had been sent a short online test to complete and were asked to bring the results. The facilitator had barely had time to ask us for our reflections before the eldest of the computer scientists, whom I vaguely recognised from a display of extreme rudeness in another session a couple of years ago, started deconstructing the test methodology and listing various flaws and criticisms.


Meanwhile, a female academic sitting next to me saw an opportunity to interject.


‘I haven’t got my results with me, but I do remember they showed that I strongly prefer gay and Black people.’


She looked quite pleased with herself.


The problems with the institution in this regard had been laid bare in but a couple of minutes: the seething rage of the crusty old man unable to recognise or accept even the smallest challenge to established power structures, and the complacent ‘right on’ white academic, patting herself on the back for not being a massive bigot.


Although the atmosphere had certainly started to deteriorate, it was eventually recognised that the sooner the facilitator could get through his presentation, the sooner the session would be over, and for a while there was an uneasy truce while we sat through a few PowerPoint slides.


However, towards the end of the session, a relatively uncontroversial point about thinking of unconscious bias in terms of working back from outcomes – in this example, a shortlist of candidates in a recruitment process, checking that list for gender and racial diversity, considering how unconscious bias might have been a factor in some of the choices and rechecking any marginal calls – set Mr Crusty off again.


‘Now THIS… is the PROBLEM… that I HAVE… with all this… this… KIND OF THING!’ he spluttered.


‘You’re telling us who we can and who we can’t recruit, asking us to NOT SELECT the best CANDIDATES for the role! There are CLEAR CRITERIA and candidates HAVE TO MEET THEM!’


I hadn’t seen the job specification for an academic in computer science, but on the basis of the evidence in front of me it looked like being a man with a bad jumper who didn’t like to shave very often must have been essential criteria. He didn’t quite say that it was political correctness gone mad, but he was almost there.


(In a recent idle moment I checked this department’s website, which states something along the lines of, ‘We even have a FEMALE PROFESSOR!’)


To widespread relief, though, the course was soon over and everyone made a hasty escape. Shortly after this session, I heard that the training would no longer be delivered in person and had been replaced by a self-directed course that could be completed online.


(A coincidence, I’m sure).


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This is an edited extract from Our Teaching's Great, The Admin Sucks: Tales From Inside Higher Education by Ben Richards, available to buy now.

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