Which do you think is easier? Gestating and giving birth to an 8lb boy, or arranging for a student coffee area to be revamped? I gotta tell you, both made me sick, both were more painful than you would imagine, both were messy, one took 4 months longer while the other resulted in something infinitely cuter.
I bring you my first pictures of what has always been known as the crush area due to some pretentious theatre allusion. Normal people would call it the student coffee area. Behold! It is properly lit. It no longer looks like an 80s airport lounge. You could argue it now looks like an early 21st centre airport lounge, but maybe we can still fix that.
Leaving aside my in-poor-taste comparison with the beautiful experiences that people tell you pregnancy and birth are, let me explain what it took to get to this point. It started with a workshop I went to for computer science recruitment where one of the speakers Ed Quincey mentioned they got their students to go round the physical building of their CS department and take photos of the manky bits. I wrote post back in March 2009 about the findings from our own version of doing this (http://judyrobertson.typepad.com/judy_robertson/2009/03/somebody-buy-me-some-goldfish.html).
So when we finally got some money which could be spent on refurbishing the department, I decided to be involved and ended up leading the project from the CS dept end. This involved user centred design work with the students and other users of the building from cleaners to engineers.(see spec at http://judyrobertson.typepad.com/files/crushbrief.pdf). It meant spending Wednesday afternoons standing around in the crush area talking to students about how things could be better. It meant endless meetings and budget wrangles with Estates. It meant soothing egos. Massaging them. Pedicuring them! Sheesh! It meant meeting furniture and carpet people to talk through mood boards and designs and find out our plans couldn't work because of accessibility constraints. It meant listening to people's concerns and complaints and endless conservative pessimism.
And then we got some money which could be spent on refurbishing other areas of the building so I had to do another whole round of consultation which started with me skulking around in the boys' toilets with an architect and ended with an air conditioned computer lab. It basically took any spare moment I had between September and March when I finally staggered off on maternity leave.
It could break your heart, this type of project in a university. It starts with a vision, with imagination, with creativity. And then one by one your favourite ideas fall to budget constraints, to beurocracy, to institutional inertia and to the blinkered banality of university policy. And all the while the users ask you in disappointment or mockery: what happened to the sky lights? Where are the bright colours we wanted? Why are there fewer seats than before? And you feel like Frodo being pulled into the dead marshes with the ghostly pallor of your dead ideas all around you, screaming "the budget!" and no one, not even Gollum can save you.
It is almost finished apart from the large display screens, a few bits of furniture, some wall decals and the goat lady (Yes, goat lady). The students will be back in a few weeks and we shall see what they make of it. Will they spot that the carpet tiles are arranged in patterns from Conway's Life? Will they recognise that the furniture layout meets their requests for group working space? That the colourful furniture was the best we could do to brighten the place given the Estate departepment's strange dislike of coloured paint? Who knows. In a way, I am glad I will still be off and will miss the returning students' reactions.
Was it worth it, I ask myself? I wish I could say so. It cost me two semesters worth of time I could have spent on publishing. I don't think it will benefit my career. I think if I hadn't done it, life in the department would have rubbed along as it always did before in its ordinary shabby way. I wish I could say the students had been my allies, that they had entered into the spirit of it. But, apart from a few loyal souls, they didn't. They don't care. They think they are entitled to perfection by virtue of the fees they pay and resent (in some cases) having to contribute their energy to make the place better. I wish it had given me enthusiasm for such projects. But for now, all it has left me with is a profound sense of cynicism and an understanding of why other people have stopped trying to make things bette