This text was written for a talk on leadership, given at Bath Spa Uni, 11 May, 2021.
When I was interviewed for my first academic job – a 0.5 Readership in Creative Writing and New Media – in 2005, I was asked by the Dean of the School where I saw myself in five years’ time. I replied, ‘Doing your job,’ which was my idea of a joke given how far I was from a) understanding how universities work and b) being interested in academic leadership or management of any kind. The Dean was not amused. But I did get the job.
And, for the record, I still have zero interest in becoming a Dean.
So how did I get there, to that Readership? Well, I’ll back track and give you a little personal history.
My first book, a book of short stories called Tiny Lies, came out in 1989 when I was a mere sprite. At the time, I was doing bits and pieces of creative writing teaching, in community centres, and arts centres, and, eventually, prisons, and the publication of the book, and my first novel the year after, saw this type of work – teaching – become a regular source of income for me throughout the 1990s, alongside writing fiction, writing journalism, collaborating with artists from other disciplines on commissions, and writing for film and tv.
I come from a family of Canadian schoolteachers, including my father, my father’s father, and both his siblings, and in the current generations of my extended family there are at least five more teachers, so you might think that teaching creative writing would come naturally to me. However, I am a university drop-out – I lasted a year and a half at McGill in Montreal studying English and Philosophy. And, as you know, most great teachers have been properly trained to teach, including all those members of my family. And so there I was, a mere sprite, helping people figure out how to write by telling them about what I’d learned by writing myself: we could call it ‘experiential teaching’, except I don’t think that’s a real thing, and I didn’t have much experience.
More books and more writing projects led to writer-in-residence stints as well as sessional teaching gigs in universities, including Cambridge, Reading and UEA. Like a lot of fiction writers, I have a passion for learning, and, despite the fact that I’m a drop-out, universities have always been very attractive to me. Writing fiction requires a great deal of subject-based research and in some ways this is the most enjoyable part of the writing process for me, though I conduct my research in a very undisciplined, magpie-ish way, always going for the shiny bits, glinting in the sun. I sustain this passion for my subject with great interest throughout the research and writing phase of creating a novel or work of digital media. The work is published and I continue to talk about my subject with enthusiasm and vigour for as long as I’m invited or asked to do so. Then all that knowledge, all that learning, is rapidly and almost entirely forgotten as I move onto the next thing. I wrote a novel called The Mistress of Nothing, set in Egypt, and for a couple of minutes I was very expert, perhaps the expert, in everything to do with upper class English women and their lady’s maids living in Egypt in 1963. Expert, that is, until I moved onto the next thing – airplane stowaways, followed by logging in British Columbia in the mid-twentieth century, interspersed with ghosts who inhabit technology.
In 2001 a gig teaching creative writing at an online writing school led to a research fellowship at De Montfort University in Leicester, looking at new forms of narrative emerging online which was, at the time, a pretty much brand-new research field. This was a serious piece of luck. I already had a history of collaborating with artists from other disciplines, including dance and music. And this research fellowship led to multiple opportunities to collaborate on creative works for and using emerging technologies. And this, in turn, led to my first academic job, the Readership mentioned earlier.
I’ll admit it again – still no degree. And also, very little understanding of universities, very little understanding of academic research beyond my own practice and my own teaching which was mainly wrapped up in an online Masters in Creative Writing and New Media that I helped develop and run at De Montfort during my time there. But as my awareness of research culture began to grow, helped no doubt by my engagement with the 2008 REF or REA exercise, like Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, I discovered I was naked. Or rather, I discovered how odd it was to be a Reader without a degree. And this, in turn, led to a mammoth dose of Imposter Syndrome. Sure, I’d written many books and become a pioneer in the field of creative writing and digital media, I’d won prizes and accrued esteem. But I didn’t have a degree.
And while I enjoyed teaching and found universities puzzling but intriguing institutions in which to work, I noticed something else was happening. The rise of digital media was decimating one of the key components of my on-going portfolio of ways to make a living as a freelancer – journalism. I was never a proper journalist, I only ever dabbled at the lifestyle and literature fringes of the third estate with my greatest achievements including interviewing Margaret Atwood, and later, David Cronenberg, and being paid by Marie Claire magazine to seek treatment for my then non-existent cellulite. By 2010 rates of pay for freelance journalism had stagnated completely and you were as likely to be paid less than you were in the 1990s for the same number of words, and even more likely to have no luck with ideas you were pitching to editors whose budgets were increasingly squeezed as ad revenue collapsed and more and more content was published online for free. At the same time, writers’ incomes across the board were rapidly diminishing as publishing became increasingly corporate and bookselling went through various shake-ups from the demise of the Net Book Agreement onward.
Okay, I thought, okay: if I’m going to take this university thing seriously, if I’m going to get universities to take me seriously, I’m going to have to get a degree. So I embarked on a PhD by Published Work at De Montfort, which allowed me to write a thesis that compared my work in the digital realm with my work in traditional publishing. And with that under my belt, I was ready to embark on what became, essentially, an entirely new career, a full-time professorship here at Bath Spa. And after five years as Professor of Creative Writing and Digital Media, I took a further transformative step when I was recruited as Professor of Cultural and Creative Industries to run the newly formed strategic research centre, the Centre for Cultural and Creative Industries.
I tell you all of this to make a single point: you need to follow your own interests, no matter how odd, with however many deviations, and in doing so, you can shape your research trajectory, and make your shortcomings into strengths. My shortcoming was that I was a drop-out; my strength was my creative practice as a writer across print and digital media. And my PhD was a step toward vanquishing Imposter Syndrome, a tool in my journey towards making the most of the opportunities that come with working in a university.
And at Bath Spa I have been given opportunities like the one you’ve had through this leadership programme – training, mentoring, and the chance to collaborate with very smart and interesting people. With everything this university has been through over the past few years and is going through today, the fact remains: our colleagues are very smart, very creative, and very interesting people. This is what makes working for a university rewarding.
So, what follows are my seven tips for research leadership in the creative industries, although I hope that what I offer you today is applicable across many fields.
1. Be Willing to Change:
The uni sent me off on a leadership course not long after I arrived. It took place over five days in a classroom in Bristol. As always, I’ve forgotten most of what I learned, but one thing really stuck with me. A very eminent field ecologist came in to speak to us about her lab – she leads a team that studies the effect of climate change on insects. She told us that she keeps a firm eye on the government’s agenda with regards to research funding, and she adapts and shifts the focus of her research in line with that agenda.
I’ll repeat that: she adapts and shifts the focus of her research in line with government policy.
At the time, I was rather shocked by this. Adapt and change your research focus in line with the idiotic so-called ‘thinking’ of any given government? How could this possibly apply to the arts and humanities? How could anyone with a serious practice-based research agenda do this? How could this possibly apply to me?
But then she said a second interesting thing – she said that the research funding she receives is how she employs her research team, and that if she wants to keep that team in her lab – and keep those people with their children, their dogs, their lives employed – she needs to be able to create convincing research proposals, in line with UKRI research themes and policies. In other words, proposals that will attract funding. Funding that employs people. And the trick to success with research funding is to create a meaningful research agenda that takes your own work forward while at the same time allowing you to adapt and change as you align with and push against external influences and forces you can’t control.
Don’t get me wrong – this is not easy.
2. Listen Out for What’s Coming Next:
I get most of my ideas from talking to and collaborating with other people, including people who take the idea of reading the runes seriously, people who monitor the conversations most relevant to your areas of interest – whether that is the latest research papers, the most cutting-edge creative work or technology, the research councils and their publications, local and national politics, or global challenges. If you are not the kind of person who reads reports and papers relevant to your field, make sure you work with people who do – for me this has been key. Be more meerkat – lift your head up and look around so you can get a sniff of what’s on the horizon.
For me the power of this approach was demonstrated by the fact that in 2017 – the year I took up my current role – the then government published its Industrial Strategy and within that, the sector deal for the creative industries. This deal unleashed a tide of money for research projects that focussed on emerging technologies and the creative industries. I was able to bring Bath Spa into in three of these projects, each larger than the one before, culminating in My World, the £30m UKRI Strength in Places project led by Bristol Uni.
The tide has turned again now – this government isn’t interested in the previous government’s strategy, and the term ‘Industrial Strategy’ has fallen from use, replaced by ‘Plan for Growth’ with an emphasis on engineering and yet more sharp rhetoric denigrating the arts and humanities. The runes are difficult to read once again as we wait for the current government to clarify its aims.
3. Hitch Yourself to Someone Else’s Wagon:
If you have yet to have what you consider to be success in your field or an adjacent field you want to move into, find someone who is more established and come up with a project you can work on together. For me this has been particularly useful when it comes to research funding – I’ve worked with a couple of Principal Investigators who have massive track records on attracting research funding, and I’ve been able to lead for Bath Spa as Co-Investigator on those projects. In turn, I’ve enabled less senior colleagues to hitch themselves to my wagon in the hope that this will boost them and their research.
4. Learn to say no:
This is just common sense. But it can be difficult to do. Balancing teamwork alongside your teaching workload alongside your own research or creative practice is complicated. Especially if, like me, your ingrained, sometimes gender-inflected, instinct is to want to please people. Care less about pleasing other people while at the same time remaining collegiate and open to new things and willing to take on responsibility where it is needed.
And a couple of points for leading a team:
5. Treat People Like Adults:
Do not micromanage. Let people work to their strengths, which means taking the time to learn what those strengths might be. Let people, as far as possible, set their own agendas. Take the business of staff development seriously.
6. Empower People:
Take inclusion and diversity seriously. There is a plethora of diversity training opportunities on offer currently – take them up. Do not make assumptions about people’s experience. Do not assume people think or believe the same things you do. Work with people who are not like you. Work with people in a way that enables them to be promoted or poached up and out of your team.
7. Make jokes:
On that note, I wanted to share Siri Leknes’s Annotated CV. Leknes is Professor of Social and Affective Neuroscience in Norway; she created this annotated CV for a Salon on Rejection and Resilience. Rejection and Resilience – now there’s a theme to get your teeth into.