This is the question I am asked most frequently these days.
Having been in a new job for over a month it’s inevitable that people should want to know. The answer has to be ‘yes’, because to fail to settle in would be, at best, unfortunate. At worst it would be a failure of effort.
On the other hand, to claim to have settled in after only a few short weeks feels unrealistic, a bit arrogant maybe. So I experience a real tension between the claim to be settled and the awareness that every day not only brings more learning, but also reveals much more that needs to be learnt, understood, worked out.
The job into which I feel I can reasonably say I am as settled as can be expected, is Dean of King’s College, Cambridge. On my side in the settling in process is that I was here before as Chaplain, twenty years ago. So perhaps a better question is ‘What’s it like to come back?’ with the supplementary, ‘Have things changed much?’ And I have often been asked these too.
The truth, I suspect, is that I have changed rather more than the College. Human beings are good at developing, learning, growing, and adjusting, and a lot can happen to a person over two decades. I am the same person fundamentally, but different too. I notice that the background noise in the hall is much louder than it was, and that people seem to mumble more. The undergraduates, graduates and junior fellows are all unaccountably young and astonishingly confident, bright and quick. People I looked up to in their vigorous fifties are now in their even more sagacious seventies as Life Fellows. And some familiar faces are now present only as photographs on the wall.
One change is that the College seems to me a friendlier place. Again maybe that’s just me being a little more relaxed, but I do think there’s objective difference too, a sense that it is good to be a community. So the welcome has been very positive, a sense that on the whole people are saying, ‘Oh good! You are the new Dean’. It wasn’t quite like that when I started as Chaplain. The interview question, ‘How will you cope with hostility?’ was apposite.
The College is certainly much more international now. Of course it’s an ivory tower, but it’s a much more diverse and global community than I remember. And also rather more scientific. I seem to have lunch with a scientist several days every week. And not just ‘a’ scientist but a really good one – ‘leading’, ‘pioneering’, or ‘distinguished’ are words I hear quite often. It makes me wish I had watched more science documentaries over the years.
And then there are mathematicians. You simply don’t meet them very much in everyday life as a Church of England priest. But you do here. And these people, and this is true for the vast majority of all the hundred and thirty Fellows, are not only very good at thinking, but they will think hard, fast and critically about anything. And that includes what comes out of my mouth. That’s completely wonderful, but also rather unusual. And unimaginably stimulating. In fact this is one thing I had forgotten – just how intellectually inspiring and stimulating place this is.
So here is a pleasing irony: to settle in to this place is to relax into an environment that is relentlessly stimulating – that is, unsettling.
Which is not to say that there are no frustrations, points of stress or disillusionments. It does, however, mean that there are many times when I find myself aware of the dullness of my own thought, or my lack of intellectual energy or background knowledge. This is a place where a five-minute chat over coffee can leave you with a long reading list, and where, when you think to take the conversation in an unexpected direction, you find that the person you are speaking to knows far more about the road you have just suggested you walk up than you.
There is more to the job than talking with people, of course. I will write another blog about settling into Chapel, but spare you the detail of the administrative work behind the scenes. But there is one thing to mention. Perhaps the major difference between the ‘then’ of twenty years ago, and the ‘now’ of today is the internet. One corollary is that people can be so much better informed at a distance. For instance, if you read the whole of the College website, you will probably know more about the place than me.
And then there is email. I can safely say that I have never struggled so much to keep on top of emails as I do now, and that is with the help of a PA to handle those sent to firstname.lastname@example.org asking for many things, including tickets to the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols.
This has had quite an impact on my use of Twitter. ‘No time to tweet’ would have made an alternative title for this blog!
I hope to rectify that now that I have learnt how to dictate tweets using my new phone – and f you follow me as @deankingscambs you will be able to judge for yourself how I am settling in.