a continuity is broken

My first job was at the Cambridge Group for the History of Population. The Group’s founder, Peter Laslett (still then an active presence), had the vision that everyone who worked there, including IT support and admin staff, would be doing some research into historical demography. I suspect this was an ideal that was never attained in practice, but there was nevertheless an expectation that if you worked there you would develop an understanding of what the Group’s research was about. I attended seminars and we had (frequently) learned discussions when we assembled over morning coffee and afternoon tea.

Something of this expectation was there when I worked at Manchester University’s computing centre, supporting the use of contemporary Census data. I was encouraged to do a bit of Census research of my own, on the way student populations affected migration statistics, in conjunction with the Census Microdata Unit, and I gave a talk at the Unit’s research seminar about my previous work at the Cambridge Group.

But in the years since then, the ethos of Universities and their IT departments has got more corporate. Every minute of time has to be accounted for and assigned to a project, and one’s value is only evaluated against a set number of attributes on a job description. ‘Academics’ are regarded almost as an alien species by support staff and if I was assigned to do IT development work on an academic project, I was assumed to take no interest in its subject matter. There was a brief flashback to former times just before I left Bristol University, when I worked on what is now the Historical Photographs of China site. I was able to contribute a blog post on a topic relating to some of the photographs, on which I happened to have some expertise.

What I saw at the Cambridge Group was a continuity between academic researchers and academic-related support staff, which has been broken. When I started out, you could find around Cambridge University people in academic-related posts who were not (or no longer) officially doing research, but whose wide interests, high level of general knowledge and ability to make interdisciplinary connexions made them valuable to those who were. They had been in contact with academics enough to have much of their mindset and were productive because they loved what they did. Their names might not have appeared on the spines of academic monographs, but they often featured in the acknowledgements. And yet I fear such people are an endangered species in Universities now. I expect a reader might protest ‘Oh I know of so-and-so who is just like that’, and I’d ask when they were appointed; most likely in the days when the continuity still existed. Its loss can only be to the detriment of University research.

References, people skills and the competence-based interview

This is not really technology-based, more some observations about trends in recruitment procedures (something which I’ve been exposed to a lot of in the last few years).

I’ve been told by people on the other side of the process that some recruiters only take up references for successful candidates, to check that they have not made false claims about themselves, and that this is because references were becoming too hyperbolic in praise of candidates and hence less useful. Along with this is a rise in the ‘competence-based interview’ where the shortlisted candidate is asked to give examples of how they’ve behaved in particular work situations in the past, and to explain how they might behave in a particular hypothetical situation. In my experience this approach is particularly aimed at assessing ‘people skills’. These two trends seem to me to be connected, with the competence-based questions designed to find out about personal qualities which a referee might have drawn attention to, although I’m not sure which trend might have driven the other.

This approach seems to me to miss some important things. Firstly, there are some useful skills which will simply be missed by it. For example, the possibly vital one of remembering a trivial-seeming piece of information and then being able to apply it some time later, e.g. to introduce two people with something significant in common to one another. This is the sort of thing a referee might comment on, but which is impossible to test in a job interview.

Secondly, even a question about the candidate’s experience of dealing with failure is not necessarily going to find their really weak points. What people say they would do and the way they actually behave are two different things. In fact many people are not necessarily aware of major blunders they have made in their job, especially in the area of people skills. If you were asked about managing a team, or dealing with a member of staff whose job title had changed, you’d probably go on about the importance of meetings, and about keeping that member of staff informed of the change. And yet things don’t always happen that way, as I’ve remarked before.

Actually this shows up a problem with references generally: that they are written by one’s superiors. I wonder if a better picture would be given for those applying for management posts if one reference came from someone who had been line-managed by the candidate. The referee would be chosen by someone in the department/group other than the candidate. I think if people knew that this would happen when they applied for another job, people skills all round might improve enormously!

Thoughts of a Neighbourhood Watch co-ordinator (2): crime statistics

We’ve been sent a message recently with some crime statistics. It reads ‘Please find attached a breakdown of the crimes [sic] types and number that occurred in your area in March 2017′ and a spreadsheet is attached.

I note the following:

a) There is no indication of what ‘your area’ is. Is it the whole of the place we live in? The part on our side of the river? Our local beat? Any smaller unit than that would make us quite a hotspot.

b) We were sent a similar breakdown of crimes a few months ago, but have had nothing since then until now, so it is impossible to get a picture of whether crime is going up or down, is seasonal, is changing in nature, or any other kind of longitudinal analysis.

c) The crimes are arranged alphabetically by type of crime using detailed categories, so that (for example) burglaries appear under both ‘Burglary….’ and ‘Other….’, not grouped together which makes it hard to get an overall picture.

d) I’m relieved to see that there have been no instances of murder or manslaughter and several other major crimes are absent. But has there really been no arson? Cars get set on fire quite often in the locality – should this be classified in a way that makes it clear fire was involved? And I don’t understand all the types of crime, for example ‘Engage in Controlling/Coercive Behaviour in an Intimate Family Relationship’. I’d have thought this was quite common, but not usually a matter for the police; presumably there is a line that has to be crossed before it is. Similarly with ‘Sending letters etc with intent to cause distress or anxiety (Mal Comms)’ which seems to be one of the commoner crimes round here.

For these reasons I won’t be circulating the spreadsheet round my NW email list.

Thoughts of a Neighbourhood Watch co-ordinator (1): the email list

For the last few months we’ve been organisers of the Neighbourhood Watch in our street. This mostly means sending out email messages every few days to an email list of residents in the street. The contents are mostly police alerts about crime (actual or tips on prevention) but so as not to be too downbeat I include other local information such as the progress of a nearby housing development and websites which can be used for local matters such as Nextdoor or FixMyStreet.

Every so often I distribute letters to the households which are not yet on the list, which update about recent crime and encourage them to join the list, assuring them the their email address won’t be made known to anyone else. There are quite a number of these absentees, and it’s hard to see the reason for this. Not all the ‘missing households’ are short-term residents (who, sadly, are the ones most in need of crime warnings as they are more likely to be targets); I’m still waiting to hear from a local Parliamentary candidate (!) and from another household which readily signed up to Nextdoor.

In many cases it’s just inertia. People say ‘Got your letter – will try to remember to send you my email address’. And sometimes the replies to our letters have indeed been delayed. Beyond that there may be an (incorrect) feeling that NW is a way of spying on other people in the street. And a general reluctance to give your email address away. Perhaps a fear of spam, or of phishing or hacking attempts coming via email. This is ironic, as one of the topics the email list sends helpful information about is how to beware of electronic crime.

why some people aren’t moving to Nextdoor

I was an occasional user of Streetlife, a website which functioned as a local bulletin board. It’s been taken over by the American site Nextdoor, which aims to serve a similar purpose. I have signed up for Nextdoor, along with several of my neighbours. Nextdoor seems to avoid one of the problems I had with Streetlife – in practice it wasn’t very local. I got fed up of reading about lost cats on the other side of Bath! I can configure Nextdoor to keep it focused on my own area. [I also wish the ‘Inbox’ was more accurately entitled ‘Messages’ or similar, as it contains outbound messages too.]

But I know that people are concerned that Nextdoor reveals people’s addresses to people they may not know. When you sign up, your full address is displayed to those in your neighbourhood. It is possible to configure your settings so that just your street is displayed, although some people don’t stay long enough, or aren’t bright enough, to find that out. Even then, if you are the only person in your street on Nextdoor, your address can be identified using the map where households who have joined the site are highlighted. Identity theft is a persistent worry – with good reason. I think Nextdoor is based on an American model of homogeneous neighbourhoods within which people trust one another. Many places in Britain are not like that. Here in Bath, social housing is scattered around the city, often because it was built on the sites of World War II bombing. One local neighbourhood (in the Nextdoor sense) includes both some of the most exclusive streets in Bath (or so their inhabitants would like to think!) and areas notorious for drug dealing, where the police have recently raided and shut down dens. In fact one of these drug dens was in a dilapidated Georgian house located right among expensive period properties occupied by the well-to-do.

So I think Nextdoor might do better to give people the option of displaying publicly only what their neighbourhood is, not their street, and/or not appearing highlighted on the map. These options should be offered clearly to people when they sign up.
——
The above is an edited version of a comment I put to Streetlife/Nextdoor. They defended the practice of displaying people’s names and streets as follows: ‘[Nextdoor] found that when everyone uses their real names and addresses, people are likely to feel more accountable, and conversation is more constructive and neighbourly. Neighbours are also more likely to feel confident to connect in the real world, rather than just online – and that’s what Nextdoor is all about.’

I haven’t noticed much constructive, neighbourly conversation on Nextdoor yet, but then there’s been no conversation of any kind in my neighbourhood. I suspect the cosy, chatty connections they project are just not going to happen round here. Not just between the social extremes in some neighbourhoods – and as I explained above they really are extreme – but even between similar nearby households in an area where snobbishness and isolationism are rife. Only yesterday I was in conversation with someone in my street, who broke it off abruptly when she found out I lived in the other half of the street from her – the half that is excluded from the residents’ association originally named after the whole street. When attitudes like that begin to change, I’ll start believing that Nextdoor is doing some good.

DCDC16, Salford

I went to this conference, sponsored by the National Archives and Research Libraries UK, in Salford. It was very well attended and even when I’d eliminated talks that were not very relevant to me there was no shortage of interest.

Rather than pick up on individual talks, I’ll mention some trends. Digitisation is being taken up in all parts of the heritage sector, and Cathedrals, for example, are now finding out what it can do for their archives. Engagement with the public is a more important side to the work than in purely University-based research. I sense that there is often a gap in understanding between the experts in the material and those who are doing the technical work of making it available in digital form: a gap I’d be well placed to fill if I could find the right place!

It was good to see some people I used to work with as clients and also to find out that BOPCRIS is still flourishing and much used. A nice touch was a board where you could ask for help or advertise your skills. And, unlike the Digital Humanities Congress, a delegate list!

Managerialism and people skills

I recently went for an interview at an institution where I used to work. In recent years, a much more ‘managerial’ approach has overtaken some parts of this organisation, compared with others in its sector. In an recruitment context, this can mean questions tend to focus on the ‘big picture’ rather than the practicalities of the job. A couple of years ago I was asked in an interview there about such topics as the difference computerisation had made to the entire sector; the job actually involved hacking cascading style-sheets for three months, part-time.

When I started working there the culture was very different. Individuality and a certain amount of eccentricity flourished, and we had the same freedom about taking days of leave and working hours that academics enjoy. Towards the end of my time, micro-management started creeping in, with the elevation of the timesheet as the unit of productivity: ‘you spent a day and a half on this project last year; the client is only paying for four hours!’ At least we weren’t encouraged to use a stopwatch, as happened at another workplace I’ve had.

There was a downside to this more tolerant culture; a casualness about dealing with staff which (almost always inadvertently) could cause hurt and result in loss of morale, as well as direct damage to the workings of the department. For example, my own job title changed at least three times, without my ever being notified of the changes. Information about salaries wasn’t kept confidential. And for a year and a half I wasn’t even invited to meetings of my own team!

Is there a way to avoid this, without going down the route of a corporate managerial style which can seem impersonal? Surely the answer lies in ‘people skills’. From some of the interviews I’ve had recently, you would think that the only such skill which was valuable was that of being manipulative. I realise that my own people skills are pretty patchy, and true excellence in this area is rare. But it’s surely obvious, for example, that people don’t pretend to be upset, and that if they are upset it could poison working relationships for years to come. Nor is it being self-centred for a staff member to expect to be treated the same way as others in the same situation. When I look back on the things that went wrong in my case (and I did sometimes try to raise them), they would have been so simple to set right.

These are lessons of quite general applicability (I could write a similar article about running choirs, for example). I think perhaps the answer lies in valuing empathy rather more highly. Even a line manager or administrator who thinks of the organisation rather than of individuals ought to realise that unhappy, demoralised staff will affect the productivity of the whole. Are questions ever asked at interviews to find out whether candidates know this?

Digital Humanities Congress 2016, University of Sheffield, 8-10 September

I attended the first of these congresses back in 2012. I returned because I wanted to stay in touch with what is going on in Digital Humanities and in the hope of making some useful contacts.

I was spoilt for choice with the talks and found myself switching between strands (as did others) and was particularly sorry to miss the session on early printed books which sounded fascinating. Some talks touched on areas where I have worked in the past, such as Emilie Pyan and Susan Leavy on the Ryan Report on children’s homes in Ireland, which recalled Hidden Lives Revealed. Nicola Wilson described the Modernist Archives Publishing Project which made use of Special Collections in Reading University Library, incorporating Linked Data, in a way similar to our proposals (which never got beyond the seedcorn stage) for Bristol’s and Cardiff’s. On a slightly more recreational note, I greatly enjoyed hearing about the ‘Transforming Musicology’ project, especially an experiment to measure subjects’ physiological reaction to Wagner’s Ring Cycle.

The conference opened with a thought-provoking talk by Marilyn Deegan on her work with preserving genocide trial transcripts in Rwanda and cultural heritage in Sudan, and the various issues which surfaced as local people were trained to do this. She had exported her expertise to Africa, and I wondered if we had something to learn in the other direction about re-use and lack of waste. (Thinking of Bristol’s ‘Greening your events’ tutorial which I once worked on – sadly no longer online.) These days we take the need for data preservation for granted (or I hope we do), but this is not necessarily so worldwide.

There were some recurring topics: I was pleased to see that Linked Data was mentioned several times, and the issue of sensitive content and how to deal with it came up frequently.

I participated in some of the discussions after the talks; these were particularly important as sometimes the speakers left the conference soon afterwards. From the point of view of making contacts, some institutions which I know to be very active in DH were barely or not at all represented, which was a pity. I think the only reference to Classics that I caught was a mention of the Pelagios gazetteer.

As a developer seeking work in the area of digital humanities, I would have been interested to see more details of the technologies used in these various projects – maybe just a quick summary slide at the end of the presentation? Of course I can always go to their websites and probe around to find this information. A more regrettable omission was the usual list of delegates, so that I had to look closely at name badges to find out exactly who was there, and also other people did not know about me.

I’m glad I went, though, and hope to have some interesting leads to follow up. I’d be interested to hear from others who were there too.

how long ago can your experience be?

A year or so back I was interviewed for a very short-term job which I didn’t get. The interview was most peculiar – I was asked several questions that appeared to have little to do with the job, and wasn’t asked about a number of things I’d expected to be questioned on, including at least one question it was essential for the interviewing panel to know the answer to.

Furthermore, at least one of the interviewers appeared not to have read my CV. At one point they addressed me in a bet-she-hasn’t-done-this manner, asking me whether I had any experience of X: X being a kind of work that is demanding and requires intelligence, energy, time management and people skills, although the job I was being interviewed for did not involve X on the scale I was being asked about. In fact, for several years I’d had a job doing X – it would have been hard to find a job that involved more of X than this one – and had been demonstrably good at it. As I explained this the interviewer’s face fell, and then brightened again when they asked me how long ago this had been and I had to admit it had been quite a few years previously. They showed no further interest in this part of my experience.

But should this have mattered? X did not involve a large amount of technical knowledge which would have gone out of date. It was not my fault that my subsequent work did not happen to use all of these particular skills; there was not much call for X in my place of work, part-time work and maternity leave limited my opportunities to do it, and I was using opportunities to develop other skills. But I haven’t unlearnt my people or time management skills and my mind is still sharp! What was the point of asking the question if they weren’t interested in the answer?

I consoled myself by reflecting that I’d wrong-footed the interviewer by saying an emphatic YES to a question to which they expected an embarrassed NO. But I’d rather have got the job, short-term though it was.

#baffledblogger

An idiom which has spread all round social media is to add a string of words jammed together, prefaced by a hashtag, at the end of an utterance. It often expresses the author’s attitude to what they’ve just described, e.g #baffledblogger

This must have started on Twitter, where the character limit means that extreme concision is necessary. Prefacing the string of words with # means it can potentially be taken up by others as a tag, although the vast majority remain hapax legomena or little used; the longer they are the more likely they are to be unique. I can find three instances of #baffledblogger on Twitter, all apparently independent of one another.

The idiom has spread to other media such as Facebook, where there is no need for concision. Let me now explain why I don’t use it. I’m quite capable of expressing myself, feelings, attitudes and all, within the character limit and retaining spaces between words. Nor have I pretensions to starting viral hashtags, so I only use tags for plausible search terms, or ones which are well established in use.