Reflections on an occupational lifetime

Professor Mark R. McDermott looks back on three decades in the School of Psychology, University of East London.

Friday 1 November 2019 was a significant day for me in the School of Psychology at the University of East London (UEL): 30 years earlier to the day, on 1 November 1989, I was appointed as a full-time lecturer in psychology at what was then the Polytechnic of East London (formerly North East London Polytechnic, 'NELP'), later in 1992 to become UEL. Over ensuing days, I found myself reflecting on the step-changes I had witnessed in my work environment as an academic psychologist during those three decades. I thought it might be worth capturing those thoughts here, in the interests of historical record and as a benchmark for those who might do similarly 30 years from now. In particular, I consider the 'digital revolution' and how it has affected work as a psychologist.

The winding road

I had left school after A-levels in the long hot summer of 1976. I remember working 12-hour night shifts in July and August in an industrial sized Mothers Pride bread factory in my home town of Plymouth to earn money to go on holiday and buy a hand-built guitar, which I still have. So, it took me 13 years from leaving school to become a University Lecturer (albeit not a successful guitar player… I did try… still trying). 

It is nigh on impossible to traverse a decade and half of experience without at least a few ups and downs, particularly in those pivotal school-to-work transitional years when identity is being forged in the crucible of formative experience. Most of those early years I spent at Cardiff University – first degree, teacher training, an exchange year abroad and PhD, and then on to Manchester for a couple years of clinical psychology training, before landing in London. 

I thought at the time that perhaps UEL would be my 'first job’ for a few years. Was it something in the air conditioning system that made me stay so long? As one employee suggested once: 'NELP gas?’ He, like me, ended up staying a lot longer than he anticipated. Perhaps there is something alluring in the 'air’ of a university that makes people want to stay. Working as a lecturer at UEL and in the subject of psychology means I have been the recipient of a 'gift that keeps on giving’, to use a phrase oft-delivered by a one-time Vice Chancellor. Helping successive cohorts of young people learn about human behaviour unquestionably is a Good Thing. Research is recurrently fascinating. I think that is why I have endured and stayed so long. It simply has been rewarding in many different ways – I don’t have to look further than Burrhus Frederic Skinner and 'positive reinforcement’ for an explanation.

Short stay or long stay?

Now, as I enter my seventh decade, I am aware that I have in effect spent a lifetime with my first University employer, the University of East London – at the very least, a working life. One of my three teenage sons sometimes berates me for not having the imagination to have had more than one job over the past three decades. This is ironic as I recall in early 1989 being interviewed for a post at another university (which I did not get) in which one of the interviewers, a celebrated Professor of developmental psychology, asked me very pointedly why I had moved around such a lot academically during my 13 years after school. She was referring to my moving from undergrad, to teacher training, then to PhD, a year abroad in the USA, then off to Manchester for clinical training. So, I was damned if I did move and later damned if I didn’t. You can’t win. Still, I say to my son about the last 30 years that in fact while it has been one post, it has involved travelling through many roles and following my nose into all kinds of different lines of scholarly enquiry, which in effect keeps the job fresh and engaging. 

As I reflect on the passage of these years I am struck by the changes I have experienced in the context in which I work. What I find most remarkable is how humankind is capable of reinventing the surrounding world, and thereby reinventing ourselves in an image of our own choosing. I have two things in mind here: one in terms of technological development with respect to computational methods in psychology – the 'digital’ revolution; and the other in respect of the development of the built environment. I’d like here however, to consider one of these, given its ubiquity: the nature and pace of change in the occupational technological environment.

When work was sent to SWURCC

In my final undergraduate year, 1980-81, I carried out some statistical analyses in the Cardiff psychology department using a computer which was in essence a seven foot high, three feet wide box with a horizontal array of 20 on-off switches on its front which you configured differently for various computations. In 1983-84 things had moved on for me, in the first year of a University of Wales PhD scholarship. To carry out a computer-assisted statistical analysis of some data I had to visit the University’s Computing Centre, a separate building on Park Place. In the Centre I would sit at a card production machine, with each line of statistical instruction being 'hole-punched’ into an individual card, about six inches wide by three inches high. To run a t-test for example, I had to punch about 20 cards. When a set of cards for a test had been manufactured, I would take the set to the Centre’s admin desk where an operator would take the cards, 'run’ them, and so submit the 'job’ to SWURCC, the South West University’s Research Computing Centre. SWURCC was located in the city of Bath, which was over 50 miles away. So, the 'job’ would get sent from Cardiff to Bath electronically and then back-again. This would take 24 hours. I would eagerly return to the Computing Centre the following day to pick up the hard copy print out from the alphabetised pigeon holes there, anticipating statistically significant results. Often times however, I’d find that I’d hole-punched one of the cards incorrectly, so the 'job’ had not run and would have to be resubmitted: two days to run one t-test! Oh how slow it was.

Champaign in Illinois

Then in 1984-85 things moved on computationally again for me. I went on a year’s exchange visit as a post-graduate to the psychology department at the University of Illinois, in Urbana-Champaign, Illinois, USA. It was a gargantuan department composed of five separate divisions which were each like a sub-department in their own right. To give you an idea of scale, they had 180 postgraduates by research i.e. doing psychology PhDs. 

When I wanted to run my t-test in Illinois, fortunately there were no cards to punch; the job did not have to go to Chicago from central Illinois over-night. No, I could sit in a room in the psychology building where the equivalent of the SWURCC mainframe computer was located, enter my electronic instructions by keyboard into a terminal and almost instantly watch the over-sized tractor printer next to the mainframe churn out the result on continuous paper. If I’d made a mistake in a line of computational syntax, I could correct it instantly and re-run the test immediately. This hugely speeded up my learning of the associated Statistical Package for the Social Sciences (SPSS) and about inferential statistics generally, as did the fact that I was sitting there with other post-graduate students who I could ask for help and from whom I could and did learn.

The desk-top revolution

In my second term at Illinois (the winter term of 1985), after a trip home during the Christmas break, I returned to discover another technological step-change had occurred. In the basement of one of the buildings on campus had been installed five rows of six IBM Personal Computers, each row being connected to a small tractor printer in the middle. On each IBM PC was located the almost revolutionary new software 'SPSS-PC’. No cards. No mainframe. Each PC had become in effect a 'mainframe’ computer. 

Again, my competence on SPSS grew quickly on this new gizmo. But it wasn’t the drop-down menu, user-friendly version of SPSS for Windows that you know and love today. No, rather it was back in the day when you had to manufacture three separate electronic SPSS-PC files: a data file; a definition file (in which you specified what columns were occupied by each variable); and a command file (articulating which particular statistical test you wanted to run). Running the command file grabbed the definition file which in turn grabbed the data file, and hey presto the tractor printer would start producing the output. So, in the space of two years I had moved from hole-punched cards and mainframes to personal computer based computational methods, a huge and rapid technological shift.

Proliferating PCs  

I returned to Cardiff in May of 1985. Neil Frude (a fellow member of the Plymouth diaspora) was the then head of the psychology department. I mentioned to him that I thought we should invest in some IBM PCs so we could run SPSS without having to go through the Computer Centre. He bought five for the School and installed them in a room on the fifth floor of the Park Place Tower Block. They were used heavily. Throughout 1985-86 I’d occasionally see Neil hurrying back to his office clutching a manuscript under his arm. One time, while we both were waiting for the elevator on the ground floor of the Tower Block, I asked him what he was working on. Very mysteriously and with a grin he told me I’d have to wait and see. In 1987 he published the first ever guide to SPSS-PC (A Guide to SPSS/PC+, London, Macmillan). In the acknowledgements he mentions my and other’s input to the book, mine being minor in reality. I like to think though my experience in the USA led to a mini-computational revolution in the Cardiff psychology department. Doubtless it would have happened anyway, with or without me.

The point of all this is that how we worked changed so rapidly as technological development occurred under our proverbial feet. In the 1980s, even word processing was in its infancy, something we take for granted nowadays. To put that into historical context, in 1987 when I moved to Manchester to embark on clinical psychology training, the 'bank of mum and dad’ thankfully funded my first 'word processor’, an Amstrad PC (courtesy of its manufacturer, Lord Alan Sugar) which ran the word processing programme Locoscript. When I first used Locoscript it was very basic (no pun intended); you couldn’t enter a command to get to the end of a text file; you had to scroll through page after page to get to the end. However, subsequent versions of the programme did do this. I wrote my clinical psychology masters thesis on the Amstrad. But WORD became dominant and Locoscript bit the dust. Despite this, I still have the Amstrad and may one day donate it to a PC museum! 

I'm not talking about an age ago here – a little over three decades – yet the occupational world was a lot simpler from a digital perspective, and you might even say 'primitive’ by comparison. In the mid-1980’s facsimile machines had only just begun to appear and the Sony Walkman tape player was still an 'a la mode’ piece of audio kit (…I still have mine). It hasn’t taken long for that time and that technology to feel like ancient history, given the proliferation of web-based visual, audio and written communications, social media platforms, with podcasts and playlists via the likes of Spotify and Soundcloud dominating and democratising delivery of pictures, words and music. In the space of 30 years, our pedagogic practice has gone from chalk and talk, to overhead projections of acetate transparencies and to the dominance of PowerPoint delivery and Panopto recordings, with the internet making such lecture capture accessible from almost anywhere at any time. 

A first computerised literature search

To illustrate further just how far we have come, let me give you another example of technological change. In 1982 when I started out on my PhD endeavours I used to spend a lot of time in the library searching through hardcopy journals and the international listings of abstracts. This is how you found papers of relevance to your subject area, with the help of the Inter-Library Loan (ILL) service. I had heard, though, that it was possible to do what was called a 'computerised literature search’. 

In 1982 this meant the following: identifying key search terms from a handbook provided; sending these off by airmail with a payment of $25 to a west-coast University in the USA which appeared to be the only higher education institution that had this facility at that time; and then waiting two or three weeks for an A4-sized airmail envelope to appear in your mailbox with a listing on paper of relevant abstracts. Your listing was like gold dust. It would have taken forever to have found these summaries manually. And $25 in 1982 was quite a lot of money – a significant one-off investment. 

Compare this with what it is like now. You can almost do the same search for relevant journal articles from the computer that is your mobile phone – instantaneously, from anywhere, at any time, on any subject, without having to be overly careful about key terms. What’s more you can even download those papers if they are open source, to that small computer that lies in the palm of your hand. We have access to so much information now, with such ease. We are in a super-powerful position in terms of being able to reach the disparate parts of the knowledge economy whenever we want. All this has happened in the space of three or four decades, in my occupational lifetime, with this month seeing me upgrading the software on my work desk-top computer to Windows 10 and 'quantum computing’ on the event horizon. 

The innovation of online data collection

My last biographic tale of relatively meteoric technological change that has shifted academic practice dramatically is in relation to the development of online research methods. Back in 1988 when at the University of Manchester conducting research for my clinical psychology dissertation, I was in the habit of working in a computer lab that was open in the evenings in the medical building. I got talking with a research student there who was a regular night owl, preferring the quiet of when relatively few people were around. He was a dab-hand at computer programming, I discovered. So, I got to talking with him about the possibility of writing a programme that could in effect be useable by non-programmers and which would allow them to upload any questionnaire of which they had a Word copy for completion via a computer terminal, thereby obliterating the necessity for paper-and-pencil administration of such. I was about to embark on a questionnaire study of patients attending a cardiothoracic unit, so I thought this would be a novel and time-efficient way of collecting data, given my research team was composed of N=1 i.e. me. He and I kicked the idea around for a few months; I think a rudimentary programme got written; but alas it was never fully completed as our careers went off in different directions.

A little over ten years later, in 1999 ,SurveyMonkey appeared, the kind of platform I had dreamt of as a post-grad in Manchester. A few years later in 2002 the online questionnaire delivery platform Qualtrics was launched, now widely adopted in UK higher education. That same year the participant pool management platform Sona Systems came into being and since has been widely adopted across universities in the UK. We mostly only regret things we don’t do rather than did do: if only I had followed through with that computer postgrad and set up my own online platform – as well as academics, he and I could have been successful company CEOs by now! Ah well, no matter.  

Since departmental adoption of these online resources over the last ten years, they have revolutionised my work as a researcher specialising in the development of multidimensional questionnaire measures. Gone are the days of sending off hard copy of such to university reprographics and trying to distribute them face-to-face. These digital developments have enabled significant changes in the way in which I and others can collaborate, particularly with final year undergraduates on their third-year projects and colleagues abroad. The use of online platforms have led to substantive increases in respondent numbers and correspondingly study power which in turn has meant that we have been more successful in getting such collaborative work published (see, for example, Levasseur, McDermott & Lafreniere, 2015; Stone, McDermott, Abdi, Cornwell, Matyas, Reed & Watt, 2019; and, Swannell & McDermott, 2015). From a position of envisioning such change in the late 1980’s to seeing it delivered a decade or so later, to a little further on fully adopting those innovations, it has taken a relatively short period of historical time in which to dispense with what now seem like archaic working practices.

What next?   

All this begs the question as to where we will be in another 30 years – by the middle of the 21st century? One thing I will be glad to lose is the very keyboard I am tapping on. The days of the QWERTY keyboard I think are numbered, with free voice recognition apps such as SpeechNotes becoming widely available. For sure technological innovation will keep powering development of our computational methods and of change in how we live and work in a world we are constantly recreating. Hopefully such change can be used to more effectively address the pressing existential concerns of our time, such as environmental sustainability, pandemic illness and ethno-political conflict. That remains to be seen. Alas, 2020 has not got off to an auspicious start.

My 30 years at UEL seems to have flown by. Indeed, it is said 'time flies’. But perhaps only in retrospect. The work environment has undergone repeated change and reconstruction at regular intervals, with some periods being longer, more rapid or more challenging than others. At a personal level the most significant fact of those three decades has been that I started as a single 31-year-old and now am part of a family of five in which three adolescent sons 'bless and blast us in equal measure’, as one relative succinctly put it. Life does have a habit of happening while you are making other plans. For the most part though, I believe I have usually made best use of opportunities, so do not have a sense that any of it has been time wasted. Perhaps I could have been more academically and creatively productive, but there is still time yet!  Carpe diem.

References

Levasseur, O., McDermott, M. R., & Lafreniere, K. (2015). The Multidimensional Mortality Awareness Measure and Model (MMAMM): Development and validation of a new self-report questionnaire and psychological framework. Omega: Journal of Death and Dying, 70(3) 317–341. doi:10.1177/0030222815569440

Stone, A., McDermott, M.R., Abdi, A., Cornwell, B., Matyas, Z., Reed, R. & Watt, R. (2018). Development and validation of the multi-dimensional questionnaire of scientifically unsubstantiated beliefs. Personality & Individual Differences, 128, 146-156. doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2018.02.024 

Swannell, E. J., & McDermott, M. R. (2015). Measuring and predicting mental health literacy for depression. International Journal of Mental Health Promotion, 17(5), 293–311. doi:10.1080/14623730.2015.1089010

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