• Michael Randall

Moving on From Senior Tutor

As we end 2020, I have one final post for the year. This also happens to be the last entry that I’ll be writing as Strathclyde Law School’s Senior Tutor – from January onwards, I am moving into the role of our Year 4 honours coordinator.

I wanted to write a little bit about my experience/time as the School’s Senior Tutor, and reflect on what comes next. It’s difficult put into succinct words, so this will likely have been through a few drafts and edits. However, it has meant a lot to me, and I’m sad to be leaving it behind. At the same time, there’s an intrigue about what comes next, but I would be lying if I said I don’t have any worries about how the change will pan out.

Settling in to Strathclyde and Perceived Pressure

I genuinely love working here. I count myself incredibly lucky, and want to stay as long as Strathclyde will have me. As with any major change though, it hasn’t been plain sailing all the way, and it is only 4.5 years later and taking stock of my time here that I realise how beneficial being Senior Tutor has been.

The biggest challenge has always been internalised pressure. The school could not have done much more to make me feel integrated. However, my perception was that I was a junior academic, untested at running programmes and classes, without a major research output who showed up to interview in clothes that I’d had to borrow from my dad. I didn’t have my PhD then. I’d noticeably put on weight and my confidence was shot to pieces. I thought there must have been other people better suited than I was, Strathclyde had put their faith in me, and I was desperate to repay it. I was also the youngest member of staff at the time.

The trouble is, I’m not the best lecturer in the school. I don’t teach the greatest number of classes or really that many undergraduate students at all. It's awkward naming individual staff members, but in 10 years, our students are more likely to remember Professor Kenneth Norrie from 1st, 2nd and honours year than myself. Nor am I the research child prodigy of the school.

We do work as a team in the school, and each of us has a particular role to play there. But it can be quite an isolating experience at times though - your colleagues aren't in the room with you in a tutorial. They don't see your email correspondence and administrative duties. I'll know, for example, that my colleague, Dr Jing Wang, is the departmental disability services contact, but that doesn't mean I know what the role entails. I know Malcolm Combe is the chair of the Student Affairs Committee, but no one sits with him as he goes through referrals. Morag Crawford is the office manager, and I only see the results of the admin team's efforts, not the full process they go through to get to that stage. No one has ever said to me that I don’t belong here and I'm not contributing, but convincing me that I justify being here and keeping my place on the team is incredibly difficult. Ironically, a lot of my meetings with students are about trying to get them to believe in themselves – I joke about getting t-shirts printed which say “you are a good student”, or recording myself repeating the message over and over. But I am guilty of it myself.

You invariably make mistakes whenever you start a new project, and I have made mistakes at Strathclyde, which historically have knocked my confidence again. You always have plans as to how to structure a class, and then something doesn't quite click, and you can feel you've let the students down, even if they haven't necessarily spotted the mistake. There are some colleagues more aware of this than others, who have been absolute bastions of support (I remember an annual review a couple of years ago where my reviewer essentially said “you do x, y, z – how can you not see that”?), so I do have that network. Some don't though, and that's a particular concern for new arrivals at Strathclyde with online teaching - how do you make those connections? It takes time and building up trust.

My Experience of Pastoral Care and Approach to Student Communications

Anyone talking to me about my academic background will notice that I gloss over my time in Leeds for the PhD. There are a few reasons for this, and it should be said that I’ve always been grateful for the opportunities that I had there – it has opened doors to (what I hope to be) a career that I can look back on in 40 years or so and be proud of. I’ve also made some friends for life. But it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and talking through why can’t be done quickly beyond saying that the PhD is both an academic and a mental exercise, which at its worst is a bit like Stanley Kubrick directing you to do another take in a film until you get it right. It’s relentless.

The main thing is that I should have sought out more support that was freely available to me, and I didn’t. I knew I was struggling, but a lot of that was whether I thought that the support would make a difference. It was always an "I've just got to get to x date", but that date passed, and the matter wasn't resolved. People tried to help me and point me in the right direction, but I was stubborn and wouldn’t listen. I have a lot of regrets about that.

Conversely though, I loved my time during my LLB at Cardiff University. The pressures are different from a PhD, but a large part of that is thanks to having a stellar personal tutor, Professor Jo Hunt. I haven’t really spoken to her much since I graduated and moved on, but I would argue that she is the single biggest academic influence who has put me where I am today. I don’t know if she realises just how much of a difference she’s made to me. Always supportive and encouraging, she was the person who discussed the option of completing an LLM. When I was on the LLM, she set and marked the assignment which sparked the idea for the PhD project. She looked over applications, provided references, and put up with my quirks and worries in that process too. Above all else, she was always kind.

Her approach has always stayed with me. My enjoyment of Cardiff vs Leeds can be summed up in how well I used the support available to me, which has informed my approach to speaking to students. I genuinely enjoy speaking to students. It is difficult in a classroom setting at times, because you don’t really get to know a class of 40+ students individually over 11 weeks, because the in class discussions are on core content.

Therefore, it is our Personal Development Adviser (horrible name, I know) system and in honours dissertation supervision meetings where you can be a little bit more free. In July, my first PDA students allocated to me 4 years ago graduated from honours, and to see them come into meetings, mature and succeed is an absolute privilege. I also see a dissertation student’s final work – all the research and commitment on the page. It’s a little bit like the film Boyhood or One Day (although with a happier ending) where I get to see snap shots of a student’s life by speaking to them in half hour segments. It’s easier to notice the change then when compared to the people students actually spend most of their time with (friends and family).

The Senior Tutor Role Itself

About 2-3 years ago, I was approached by the then Head of School, Alastair Hudson. He wanted to appoint a Senior Tutor to coordinate pastoral care. He also, I think, saw some of the pressures I was going to be facing as I finished PhD corrections, and wanted to give me the option of an alternative route. I was initially sceptical about taking on the role – still a junior academic telling staff how they should do anything was a novelty. I also thought (wrongly) that I would be judged for taking this route, and not building on my research. But I felt beaten down mentally, and wanted to enjoy myself at work again. And if anyone criticised that decision, f*** ‘em.

There have been speed bumps along the road. There hasn't been a blueprint to follow. Staff have varying ways as to how they think the PDA programme should run, and how to communicate with students – some will be more proactive, others more reactive when addressing student concerns. Students also need to buy in to the support available, so you need to try and find a way of communicating with students to build that trust. It is incredibly difficult to win over the hearts and minds of the nation, so to speak.

I have my own allocation of PDA students, but any students where there is a really serious concern, or a complex case, tend to come to speak to me. And I’ve been faced with meetings going in where, honestly, I had no idea what to say. You listen, and try to be positive, and encourage students not to make the same mistakes I did in Leeds. But there’s a challenge to work out what specific advice the student needs.

The circumstances are never the student’s fault – something has happened and they need to get back to feeling more like themselves again. I’ve had meetings about all kinds of matters. And from this, you get better and more experienced. And step by step, I can feel the confidence returning. I’m still not the best teacher in the school. I’m nowhere near the best researcher. But I’m pretty near the top of the rankings when it comes to speaking to students, and that’s my contribution to the team.

In saying this though, the role is not about me. It’s about students taking strides to help themselves. I don’t make the difference – the student does. The student has to put the work in. They approach the professional support services, and it is these services who give students the tools to manage what they are experiencing. We integrate as part of the network of support, but success relies on a number of other factors, too.

A Positive Case Study

I also get sobering reminders of how lucky I am. The nature of the role, though, is students only really speak to you at their worst. It can be difficult to tell if the setup has made a difference – you often assume so, only by nature of a student falling off your radar.

I can’t go into detailed individual case studies really, but a meeting happened recently which stood out. I’ve been hosting virtual sessions on Zoom this semester, which are open to all students, but they have to be booked in advance. One name was very familiar to me – a student who came to my attention on a very serious matter, and things just kept happening to them. I don’t know if they had run over a load of black cats, or walked underneath a whole bunch of ladders, but it has been at the stage in the past where I’ve even gone as far as speaking to one of their parents to provide some reassurance. So I was fearing the worst.

The meeting was, however, the absolute polar opposite. We spoke for well over an hour – the gist of the conversation was “I just wanted to tell you everything is going fantastically well”. It was a complete 180-degree turnaround from the student who, when I first spoke to them, was incredibly timid and didn’t really want to make eye contact. I’m utterly delighted for them. It has shown me, as I come to the end of my tenure, that students in the direst of circumstances can succeed. It’s that that makes you realise that you may have helped make a difference for one person as part of a network of support, and that has made the Senior Tutor role entirely worth it.

Thoughts on What Happens Next

There’s a cliché in sports that no one owns a jersey. You borrow it for a period of time, and pass it on, in the hope that when you do, the standing of the jersey is better than when you first wore it. There wasn’t a Senior Tutor before me, and so in that regard, I can’t have done any worse. Equally though, I'm about to take over someone else's jersey, and hope that when I move on from that (whenever it may be) it is in a better position again.

I’ll be sad to move on. I wanted to do more – we’re a lot better than we were at student support, but we’re nowhere near where we could (and I would argue should) be. Equally though, it is easy to sound like a broken record to both students and staff, and it may be the case that I’ve taken the role as far as I can. I’m comfortable in the role, but that also means being stagnant and not making progress. Passing it over to someone else will, I hope, give some fresh impetus to see us improve.

At the same time, I’ll face a new challenge in honours. The outgoing honours coordinator, my office mate, Dr Lorna Gillies, has put in an absolute power of work to reorganise and restructure the way that runs. I don’t want to be the person that comes in and undoes all of that. I’ll have support from our superb administrator Rebecca Norman, and I’m looking forward to working with her. Equally though, I’m not Lorna – if I try to be, I’ll fail. I’ll make mistakes again, but I’ll try and limit them and learn from them. I’ll apologise when it is my fault. And I’ll hopefully be standing alongside students at their graduation ceremonies grinning far too much, and pestering families to ask if I can get into a photo on their special day. There were students in July who graduated with trying circumstances, and I nearly cried when I knew. It’ll be a different pay off, but different doesn’t always mean bad.

The more difficult struggle will be trying to support the incoming Senior Tutor, Dr Michael Foran, but without falling into being a backseat driver. It’s a fine balancing act between being a point of reference and dictating the specifics as to how something should be done. When we first appointed Michael, I hyperbolically joked it was a bit like Toy Story when Andy gets bored of Woody, because he has a shiny new Buzz Lightyear toy. But Woody and Buzz are different, and each has their own strengths.

In the discussions we’ve had so far, for example, other Michael has actually undertaken more training than I ever have in advising students. He teaches students in years 1 and 2 of the LLB, so is a familiar face. He’s also younger, can grow a beard, and has far better fashion sense than yours truly. And I’m hoping that he does bring some changes in which advance/improve how the PDA system runs, which I wouldn’t be able to do if I continued in the role. I also hope he enjoys the role even a fraction as much as I have (which sounds odd when I’ve just explained that I speak to students with serious personal circumstances).

As a final reflection then, have I fully got my confidence back? I don’t think so, but it’s difficult to say. I’m not the same person that I was in 2012. I’m definitely getting there. I feel part of the furniture at Strathclyde now. The Senior Tutor role has given me an identity and really allowed me to get back to a place where, if I’m not fully confident, I’m at the very least comfortable. The trepidation I have about moving into the honours role is more internalised pressure, and I think is tied in to having to move on from something which has given me a real purpose over the last couple of years. I am in a better position to face those challenges though than I was when I took on Senior Tutor. And change doesn’t have to be bad - Taylor Swift changed genre to introspective indie folk this year and my goodness, it’s some of the best work of her career.

Thank you. Stay safe, have a good Christmas, enjoy some time off, and we’ll see you next year.


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