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Category: Business & Communities

Some people talk such guff about education

People talk such guff about education.

In brief, you want an organized map of the field, a reason to want to explore the map, money and time to put into the effort, and someone patient enough to guide you and respond to your reactions.

You also want to break your learning into reasonable chunks.   You need to work little and often to be able to concentrate and to think out how new information connects to what you already know and believe and your activity needs to be a judicious mix of time with your tutor, time working with others and time working alone.

Have I written any thing similar?

 

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Baffled by bankers’ bonuses? Read agency theory

I am writing this post, as is my wont, to record some notes from a paper I read:

Azevado, R.E and Akdere, M.  (2011). Examining Agency Theory in Training and Development: Understanding Self-Interest Behaviors in the Organization.  Human Resources Development Review, Volume No Not Known, 18 pages. If you want a copy, both authors are presently at the University of Minnesota.

I read the paper because agency theory is the theory behind the big bonuses that are provoking so much controversy.

The application of agency theory to Training is new and nothing to do with bonuses.  But I wanted to tidy up my own thinking about agency theory and if you do too, I’d recommend reading Azevado and Akdere’s paper.  They explain the basic precepts of that school of thinking very well.

I don’t like agency theory and I wanted to pinpoint exactly why I think it is misguided.  I’ve boiled my objections down to three essential points:  the distaste agency theorists have for self-interest, their belief in a zero-sum game, and their belief that the world is so static and unchanging that any one person knows best.

Self-interest

Adam Smith said:

“It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we can expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest”.

Some people are sincerely concerned about self-interest, and like the far left, so are agency theorists.

Personally, I am delighted that the self-interest of the butcher, the baker and the brewer leads to a butcher, a bakery and a pub on the high street. I believe in caveat emptor (buyer beware) but I am not panicking that the butcher, the baker and the brewer might from time-to-time charge me 1p too much.

I also don’t panic that today the butcher tries to sell me something that he is trying to ‘move’.  Provided he has taken my self-interest into account and sold me something to fit my needs, we are ‘square’.

I get my needs met now. I get my needs met over the long term because his shop stays open.  And my business does better because he can buy from me!

(Funny that – the last female butcher that I met was my own grandmother.)

Generativity vs zero-sum gains

Agency theorists begin with an assumption that if I pursue my self-interest, then I am not pursuing yours.

Or at least, they believe that inherent in belonging to an organization is the need for the organization to ask me not to pursue my self-interest in some form or another.

It certainly is the case, for example in a soccer game, that I shouldn’t pass the ball to the opposition on purpose, or showing off to my mates in the crowd and not pay attention to the game.

But why should my self-interest be sacrificed as a matter of principle or practice?  If we need to sacrifice anything, let’s compromise and make sacrifices all round.  And wouldn’t it better to put our efforts into making a business environment which is rich enough for us all to pursue our self-interest?

To take a simple example, does it matter if I am miner, metallurgist, engineer, accountant or diamond cutter, provided that all of us work together to mine the diamonds safely and sell them profitably to people who want them?

I’ve found that where people stand on this point is fairly key to their choice of work and choice of organization.  Some people want quick returns. They really don’t believe an organization is more than the sum of its parts.  So be it. We’ll help them go where they need to go.

Those of us who don’t believe that life is zero sum game should stay away from organizations run in terms of agency theory. We will hate them.  And we need to put our money where our mouth is. We have to make our own organizations as good as we want them to be – and successful commercially.

‘Gap’ thinking vs positive management

Agency theory seems tremendously old school to me in the notion that there is a right way to do things and that someone somewhere knows what this right thing is.

Now there are definitely wrong ways to do things.  There have to be things we wouldn’t countenance no matter what.

Expertise is also real. And it takes time, a long time to learn.  Indeed, good organizations arrange themselves so that people can develop expertise and learn from each other.

But the idea that we know the whole answer and we can insist that people do things our way is very unrealistic.  If it was ever possible, it is not possible in today’s world where we rely on networks of experts.  We each bring our own perspective to a problem and we are richer for it.

Returning to agency theory, if no one knows what the best answer is until we have discussed, how do we evaluate whether our agents are pursuing our interests vigorously?

Worse, if we do not allow the room to work out what our interests are, haven’t we built into the organization the very thing that we fear most – that our agents withhold information that is valuable to us?

So in short, these are my three objections to agency theory.

I think self-interest is good, not bad.  We want people to think about their self-interest because we will have a healthier, sounder and more resilient organization (and economy).

I don’t see the world as a zero-sum game. I don’t see the world as a cake to be divided up.  At best I see the world as having no cake until we’ve baked it.  And there are cakes and cakes. Real wizards will make us a cake even when the ingredients for their favourite recipe are not available.

I don’t think we know upfront what our self-interest is.  Good organizations are forum where negotiations and bargaining lead to mutually prosperous ventures.

How does any of this help me understand bankers’ bonuses?  Well they are mystery, to be sure.    Agency theory is not standard organization and management theory but to turn away from thinking that captures attention with promises of large rewards, we need not only an alternative but an understanding of the thinking itself.  Do read Azevado and Akdere’s paper.  I found it helpful even though, or possibly because it was about the less emotive topic of Training.

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Coding in schools? Take the splinter from our eye perhaps?

As I wait for FTP to download a website from a server onto my laptop, I thought I would write a bit.

I was up late last night, probably unwisely, as I tried to fix odd errors on my online shop. One error led to another.  I left a message for my US suppliers went to bed and got up in the morning to the usual geek-like rude reply – read this link.

Well my response is

a)      Why wasn’t that pointed out to me earlier

b)      When I put that advice in plain words, your product does not work under the conditions you said it would work. You did warn us by saying “if you use  . . .”.  But the truth is that you should have said “We do not recommend using  . . . If you do use our product with this other product, here are the 5 things you must get right.”

Anyway, I deleted the 2nd product and guess what – their product now misses the 2nd product and has frozen my online shop.  Hence downloading a copy of what is left onto another compute for safekeeping before I fiddle any further.

So why is this important?

  1.  Don’t do your computing when you are tired and don’t try to read Geek-English when you are tired and stressed.  They do their computing and writing when they are tired and stressed and it shows.
  2. There is a big debate going on in UK about teaching coding in schools.  I scoff at this debate. It began with Eric Schmidt of Google, teasing the UK government about teaching word processing in schools (i.e., using Microsoft).  The geeks of UK have fallen for this line and now think we should teach the average teenager how to write the next package. Hmm. .  it will be as a bad as the one that I am using and why anyway should we trade in Microsoft for Google.  For all our frustrations with Office, it is much more stable than any Google product.
  3. But yes, we should all use computers a lot more. I bought some software because I thought my predilection for writing code from scratch was ill-served.  Get working ecommerce software and use it! Bad idea. Bad idea to rely on geeks. Much better to know every corner of your code yourself.

But of course we cannot know everything.  But yes.  Using other people’s code is like signing a document without reading it. We do it – often.  We shouldn’t.  We should streamline our lives to have two boxes:

 # Box 1 : Not very important to me

Things in this box are not important to me.  So I can afford to sign bits of paper or use other people’s code or eat food of unknown origin or sleep with someone who seems to sleep elsewhere too – you get my drift.

If it doesn’t matter, put it in this box.

# Box 2: Very important to me

In this box are the things I care about.  So I should tend to them carefully and learn about them deeply.

As I can’t do everything, I should be very selective about what goes in this box.

I have to be careful about leaving things out too which do impinge upon me or would enrich me enormously.  So what is important must go in and what goes in must be looked after.

What kids should learn at school

That’s what kids should learn at school. To do their work well.  Not to spend time on things they don’t care about.  And not to complain if things they ignored turned out to be important.

Of course, when they are small, they can’t understand this completely or understand enough about anything.  So we grow their world for them slowly, helping them to push back their horizons, bit by bit, as they can absorb more and attend to it with the same care as things already in their world.

To live in narrow world is not grown up. We might even argue that it is to be ‘not of sound mind’.  But to suggest we should code at school.  . . that’s as half-baked as the code I stupidly bought.

Teachers know a bit about helping kids to grow

Kids must go to school and expand slowly from the world they are in to a bigger world. Teachers have some idea of the average pace that kids can work at.   And they know quite a bit about managing an environment where kids can grow steadily in a safe environment.

How can we help schools?

If we think there is something in our world that teachers might like to see, then I think we should invite them in.

Hold bar camps for teachers to have a lovely relaxing weekend in their hols with good food and pizza and geeks with blazing eyes excited by their weekend challenge.

We can accept problems teachers identify with software and work on some improvements.

A splinter out of our own eye?

But it is not kids who need fixing. It is not schools who need fixing.

It is the geeky world of very bad software and very rude help desks. N’est-ce pas? And TG for Google Translate so I could check my spelling.

Getting with the program

Oh, btw, did you see National University of Singapore have built an iPhone app that translates Mandarin speech into spoken English.  . . might make me lazy about learning Mandarin.

Anyway, Stanford watch out.  Asia is hot on your vapour trail.

And where is UK . . . making key apps?  . . . making life better? . . . yes Eric Schmidt is right.  We are a nation of chatterers preferring to use a word processor than to build one.

We should build the companies and businesses that take on NUS and IIT – Kids will work that out fast enough and set that as their new horizon.  Something for kids to look forward to  . . . they don’t need to aspire to aping US entrepreneurs for 20 years ago or 40 years ago.

And if you don’t know what NUS or IIT stands for, of course Stanford’s former post-grad students can solve the puzzle for you.

So ends my self-entertainment – but my FTP download is still not done.  Is it stuck in a loop?  Dearie me. Do I have to understand it’s code too?  Well don’t be taken in by geeks.  The first thing I learned as a CS student is that code is arbitrary.  The problem is usually the comma you didn’t know was supposed to be there.  Now to search Google for ‘looping FTP’. Logic will not fix this. Nor common sense. Someone has seen it before – or not.

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10 questions to get ready for moving past the financial crisis

In my rough-and-ready barometer of where we are in dealing with the financial crisis, I note that #occupylsx has got people talking.  That’s great. Instead of mumbling into our beer, we are talking.  That’s a far cry from doing, of course.

Using the denial, anger, bargaining, depression, adjustment cycle, I reckon we are up to bargaining. We still believe we are going to make this go away.

When we do get around to adjusting and getting on with life, we are going to need to be well informed about what we can do and whom we can do it with.  If you intend to be around when we get round to sorting things out, these questions might help disentangle the issues.

What do you feel, and what do others feel about these issues?

#1 Are people in the UK angry?

#2 Are all people in the UK angry to the same degree?  And if not, who is more or less angry and what has led us to that opinion that our levels of anger differ?

#3 Is everyone who is angry, angry about the same things?  And with the same people?

#4 Who is angry with you and how do you feel that some people are angry with you?

#5 Who many people in the UK are of working age? How many people in the UK work in banks and the financial services?  How many people do you know who work in these industries?

#6 How much money does our government need each year to run the schools, the hospitals, the roads, the police, the fire service, the army, the navy, the airforce?

#7 How much money do the banks and financial services kick-in to the cost of running our government?

#8 What are the various things we could “do” to the banks?  Which three seem to be the most popular?

#9  When we “do” these things to the banks, what jobs will be created and which will be lost?  Who will be the winners and losers?

#10 When we “do” these things to the banks, what will be the amount they kick-in to the cost of running the government?  Will that be more or less and if it is less, how can we make up the shortfall?

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See the financial crisis as a chess game with 4 pieces

Since the Northern Rock crash, when was it, 2007? I’ve been using the Kubler Ross Grief Cycle to track where we are in dealing with the financial crisis.

Kubler Ross Grief Cycle and the Financial Crisis

  • Denial took a looooong time. We got Lehman’s  in 2008.  I think people have got it now.  We know we are trouble.
  • Anger started kicking in when? At first we were vaguely angry with Lehmans. Then we muttered when our own incomes were affected.  And possibly we took our anger on targets as various as local corner shop and politicians.
  • Bargaining is next . . . if I do this, then . . . then the problem is going to go away.  A well-educated experienced American knowledge entrepreneur over here in UK looking for backing put the mind-set well.  “Promises were made”.  “The middle-class were promised . . .”  That is what bargaining means. We think we can still make the problem go away and with very little effort at that.
  • Depression should follow in this rough order of psychological states.  We might have thought that Western countries have been depressed for a long time with most people “sleep walking” through life, nursing a hangover and waiting for early retirement.   So I am not looking forward to seeing what that looks like in a more severe form.  At the rate we are going, next year maybe?
  • Adjustment  . .  and eventually we get sick of being depressed so we get out of bed one morning and decide to get on with it.

Being positive in the face of the worst financial crisis

Being an impatient soul, I’ve kept an eye out for simple models that can help people Act, Do, & Get On With It.

On Al Jazeera today, there is a blog by Mohamed A. El-Erian is CEO and co-CIO of PIMCO, and author of When Markets Collide.

El-Erian finishes his article reassuring us that we

need not be paralysed by uncertainty and anxiety. Instead, we can use this simple framework to monitor developments, learn from them, and adapt. Yes, there will still be volatility, unusual strains, and historically odd outcomes. But, remember, a global paradigm shift implies a significant change in opportunities, and not just risks.

A framework for understanding how the financial crisis will unfold

So what is the framework?  El-Erian suggests that each country, or large community, will decide for itself what it will do about four things.  Each community will make a move. Then we will watch  how it goes (and what everyone else does).  And then we will make another move.

We don’t know the outcome of our collective actions in advance but we can think of this as a game of chess with four pieces each (instead of 6) and many many players (not just 2).

The four pieces at each community’s disposal

Deleveraging

We have overspent and “borrowed from the future”.  Whatever we cannot pay to the future, the future must write-off as a bad debt.  That’s the stark situation that we are in.

In a large community, we are going to divide up the bad debt between us.  The question is who should pay more and who should pay less.

Countries squabble at home about the formula for dividing up the debt, and the formula is important, but this squabble goes under a separate heading below.

First, the country as a whole must deleverage.  If we don’t take responsibility for our overspending (sins of the fathers visited on the sons etc), then our creditors will take charge of our assets.  This is called getting a bailout from the IMF.  If you have ever seen this in play, you don’t want to go there. Believe me.

Economic growth

OK, we got into debt because we were partying and spending more than we earn.  How are we going to earn more?

Sometimes the problem is structural. It is hard for me to get off my proverbial backside because I am locked into a system.  So what is locking down the energy in a country?  That is the question we ask.

Sadly sometimes, lack of growth is not economic. It is psychological. A tweet went the rounds this morning:  nothing will happen while we hope to become members of the billionaire club.  When the easy life is the focus, we ain’t going to be growing.  If our goal is early retirement – enough said?

So let’s hear from the economists. And while they have their arguments, the rest of us can focus relentlessly on what can be done and work with people who want to work.  And I mean focus relentlessly.  It is so easy to get distracted.

Social justice

Now the biggie.  Social justice has declined in the west. And there we were selling democracy to whoever would buy. So the Occupy movement use as their catch phrase: we are the 99%.

The real issue is still economic.  In my naïve economic take, the issue is how do we accumulate capital and what do we use it for?

When a government makes good free schooling available for a child from year 5 to year 16, we are investing our savings in that child.  And we expect a return. When they are older, not only will they join in sophisticated businesses that already exist, they will invent new businesses and keep the show on the road when we are old and are slowing down.  Education is just capital accumulation one person at a time.

Much of the problem in the west is that money has gone into partying at all levels.   Money accumulates were it isn’t doing the work of capital – by which I mean taking from the present to invest in the future.  We’ve been doing it backwards.  Leaving money doing very little while we borrow from the future to pay for today’s party.

The talk  is presently of who gets what. That is still partying.  We must put our shared capital where it can make a difference.  Education and health are no brainers.  We also have to look at all our assumptions about where we invest and why.  Simply, if you underpay a parent,  you are stripping them of capital. So don’t talk in the next breath talk about investing in early childhood education. You are frankly talking nonsense. Why not create the problem in the first place?  Personally, I’d look at all the laws that help keep workers insufficiently paid.  The simple test is could you run a household on the same income.  Could you?  If not you are running down the capital base of the country.

But the problem seems to be large and the real key seems to be to start to move forward somewhere.  The #occupy movement is people beginning to unravel the mess.  As El-Erain says, watch them. And don’t feel powerless. Make your choices.  Where ever Occupy ends, it is part of this piece on the board: Social Justice.

Leadership

The fourth piece that we have to play with is leadership.  We complain endlessly about our politicians. El-Erain doesn’t say much in his blog. Maybe he talks about them more in his book.

Personally, is suspect that our leaders are not the piece. It is our attitude to leaders that is the piece.  I believe our leaders reflect us. Maybe when people become more accustomed to being politically active, then we will get better leaders.  OK. You tell me.

So if you are impatient waiting for people to move through the grief cycle, try seeing the world as chequer board with 4 pieces and many many players.  Track the apparent confusion and perhaps we can see what is happening, what is going to happen and what we can help make happen.

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What is it like to study at uni and work with a famous Professor?

There are all sorts of jobs in this world that I call invisible jobs. You can walk along the High Street and not see them.  And indeed, sometimes you can see some a  job but not see what people do in the job.  When I come across good interviews or descriptions of hidden work, I grab them.

A few days ago, I came across this interview of Jennifer Widom, the head of computer science at Stanford  . .  to use British parlance. In American, Professor Widom is chair of the computer science department at  Stanford.

This interview is valuable in many respects.

  • The Professor is candid, without being forthright, about her career and her work-life balance.
  • She speaks with evident respect and affection for everyone around her, including students.
  • She describes the tacit knowledge (the how-to) of being a successful professor.
  • She is clear about the difference between a career in a university and a career in industry.
  • She nonetheless understands the connection between the two and how value moves from universities into industry and the working life of a nation.

I have written recently about the essence of university life. If you are thinking of going to universty, you should read this article.  You will be going to learn from people like this, because they are like this.  Professor Widom’s description will help you understand what studying at a university is like and why you want active researchers as your teacher.

It’s an easy to read interview and valuable for people trying to write up what is a mostly invisible job.  Above all, we read the story of a Professor who is warm, generous and down to earth.

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Why be bothered with a university education?

The distinction between university education and other post-school education can be hard to grasp. Many emotional arguments are advanced. “We only need a handful of people who speak Latin” is one argument, for example, that came up in my Twitter stream.  Often, our argument expresses no more than the emotions we are experiencing as the world shifts about and what we do or have done seems more or less highly valued.

In an earlier post, I tried to list three features of university life which make university education worthwhile though hard to understand from the outside, and hard to get used to when you first arrive as a first year fresh from high school.

I am doing a uni course right now coming from the other direction.  I have a lot of hands-on experience in a field and I wanted to work backwards – so to speak – and formalize my knowledge.  I find the course fairly frustrating because I cannot always relate what I am hearing to a practical situation and some of  the practical exercises are simply better done with a combination of a crib sheet and some trial and error.

So I have to ask myself : why am I still there?  Why haven’t I transferred to a polytechnic type college which would be better organized (from the students’ point of view) , and where the lecturing would frankly be more coherent and the exercises better thought out?

So I’ve had to write down my thoughts (to get them out of my head) and they may be useful to you.

#1 Professors tell the story of abstractions and the failure of abstraction

The job of a professor is to look out on the world and to describe what is common across a whole set of similar situations.

When they do a good job, we can use their generalization like a formula.  I can convert Celcius to Farenheit, for example.

Or, in the case of my course, I can understand how to set up some tables and store them in a database in the most efficient way possible.

The difficulty comes when the generalization or abstraction

a)       Is already known in real life (there have been people making almanacs and look-up tables for generations)

b)       And it turns out the generalization solves some problems but not all (or creates a few side-effects).

The professors then go back to the ‘drawing board’ and try to solve the problem with their own abstraction that they just created with their solution!

This drives students crazy, particularly the more practically minded.  They don’t really want to know this long story of

  • Make this formula
  • Oh. Oooops!
  • Well make this formula.  It is better.
  • Oh. Ooops!

This is particularly annoying to students when they have the spoiler and know the current state of best practice (and are perhaps of slightly impatient temperament).

But. this is what professors know about it and after all, there is not much point in asking them about things they don’t know about!

So the question becomes – shall I keep asking them, or shall I ask someone else?

# 2 Professors prepare you to manage the interface of new knowledge and reality

Well, let’s fast forward a bit to 10 or 20 years’ time when knowledge has advanced.  Of course, you can just go on another course.  And you probably will  go on another course to find out the new way of doing things.

But let’s imagine you are pretty important now and it is your job to decide whether to spend money on this new knowledge, spend money and time on the courses, and to decide whether or not to changing work practice to use the new ideas.

Of course you can find out the new method in a course.  Of course, you can hire consultants to give you the best guess of whether your competitors will use the new knowledge and how much better than you they will be when they put it into play.

There is another question you must ask and answer even if you answer it partly by gut-feel.  You must anticipate what the professors have not answered.  What will be their Oh. Ooops!  Your judgement of the Oh. Ooops! tells you the hidden costs.  The company that judges those correctly is the company that wins.

Everyone will pick up the new knowledge.  That’s out there. Everyone and his dog will take the course and read the book.  What we will compete on is the sense of the side-effects. That thalidomide will be a disaster.  That going to war will increase attacks on us.  To take to well known examples.

The professors won’t be articulate about the side-effects of their new solution. Not because they are irresponsible but because their heads are fully taken up figuring it out.

It is the leaders in charge of the interface between new knowledge and the real world who must take a reasonable view of the risks.  Just as in the banks, it is the Directors who are responsible for using technology that had unexpected side-effects.

When you are the Director, you want a good sense of the unknown unknowns and you develop that sense by listening to Professors. They tell you story of how we found the general idea and then went Oh. Ooops!.  The story can be irritating because it is mainly the story of cleaning up their own mess and sometimes the whole story is nothing more than Oh. Oops!  that ends with “Let’s give this up and start on another story”.

But as future leaders students, practise listening to experts at the edge of knowledge, relating the solutions to real world problems, and getting a good sense of the Oh. Ooops! that is about to come next!

#3 Uni education can feel complicated and annoying

That’s uni education.  Don’t expect it to be a movie that charms you and tickles you ego.  It is irritating.

But rather be irritated there than create a medical disaster, a ship that sinks or a financial system that collapses when you were in charge and jumped into things naively.

See you in class!

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9 things to think about when you choose a university

Uni fees in UK have gone up – a lot

Next year, domestic student fees for undergraduates at UK universities will be £9 000 pounds per year.  Some universities, though not many, will charge less and the fee is the same whether you do an expensive subject like Chemistry or a cheap subject like English or take a subject with with low staff-student ratios like Drama or one where students don’t know or need to meet a member of staff like Management and sign up in their hundreds.

On top of the £9000, students also have to pay for books, computers, stationery, accommodation, food, clothing, heating, clubs and extra activities and not least transport to get to uni and to move from where they live to lecture rooms and clubs and so on.  It’s not cheap going to uni in the UK. It costs a lot more than many people earn per year.

Many people say they cannot afford to go. As I understand it, this is not true.  They might not be afford to do A levels, but if they get good A levels and are accepted into a university, they can get a student loan which they start to pay back after their earning are well above a minimum wage job which they will get if they don’t go to uni or find a rarer-than-hen’s-teeth apprenticeship.

Look at what is being sold before you look at the price tag

Having taught in universities on three continents for three decades, there are universities and universities; and students find it hard to tell them apart.  There are the well known ones to be sure – the Harvard’s, the Oxford’s. There are those well known to students because their friends have gone there and they anticipate the party scene with relish.  Students pick their university by word-of-mouth.  That’s what we all do when quality is hard to assess from the outside.

But why should fees change our attitude?  Practically, nothing much has changed. Yes students will have to pay back their loans but 60K or whatever is not a lot for a life time’s investment. They will spend that much getting married and unmarried  in their time.  It is the price of a new kitchen if the shops on my high street are correct.

I thought it would be useful to write down three deep misunderstandings about universities.  If you are serious about going ,and equally miffed at the price, then think about these three points and see if they help you choose the university that you want to go to.

As an accountant once wisely said to me, never look at the price ticket until you know what is for sale.  What do you get from going to a university?

#1 University lecturers and professors spend more than half their time on research

A university teaches something quite different from school or a training course at work.  The teachers in a university are “research active”.  What that means is that they are in the business of making knowledge. That is a highly competitive business and they are only deemed to have made knowledge if there is ringing applause world-wide and gasps of “wish I had thought of that”!

It follows that lecturers and professors watch world knowledge, and the way it changes, like proverbial hawks. They are aware of the history of knowledge in their field and they are watching developments, hoping to pounce and work out the key bits to achieve glory in their subject area.

When you listen to them talk, you hear people who see and think about your subject as something that changes.  And from listening to them, you learn not what is great today, but what is changing all the time.

It is true that you want to know what is great today, but what is great today will probably not be great even by the time you graduate.  It certainly won’t be great for the 50 years of your working life. So learning about the way your subject morphs and develops is what is valuable.

Lesson 1a:  Make sure you will be taught by people who are active in your subject matter.  Turn down universities who use juniors or part-timers to teach you.  Check and ruthlessly discard those that do.  The teachers will not have the appreciation of change which is what you have come to learn.

Lesson 1b: Stop expecting someone to lead you by the hand.  The lecturers’ job is to watch the world and to show you the world through their eyes. If the lecturers are playing coach and tutor to you, they are not doing their jobs and you will have nothing to learn from them. Do the work to catch up.  Every student is in the same position. It is the very reason why you came to uni.  To catch up with people who see world-knowledge as something on the march.

Lesson 1c: Choose a uni partly for the other students. Do the other students care about knowing about where the subject is going over the next 50 years and where it came from over the last 500 years.  If not, move on. You will depend on the buzz of other students to catch up with the lecturers and if the other students don’t care, you will find it very difficult to master the steep learning curve.  Look at what students talk about on the chat boards.  If they don’t care, move on. 60K is a lot of money to pay for 3 years of bad parties.

#2 Universities are strict about referencing and plagiarism

The second thing you will notice when you get to university is that lecturers bang on about referencing your essays.  And referencing is a pain to learn. It is bitty and fiddly and lecturers fail you outright when you get it wrong. What is all that about?

I said under the previous point that lecturers are not telling you about a subject, they are telling you about how a subject changes.  So they are telling you about where an idea came from and who is talking about it.  They think geographically with layers of history.  Watch them read and you’ll seem them see a reference and then flick to the back to see the details of the publication.

In their minds they are thinking, hmm Harvard 1921  . . . who else was at Harvard then, what else did this person write, who over here in Europe would not have known because communications across the Atlantic were still slow then.  When they read, they are mapping the changing of the idea so they can pounce and put in the missing step or the next step in the evolution of ideas.

And they are teaching you to do the same.  Why? Because you have 50 years in the game and you want to be on top for 50 years, not on top for 1 and increasingly behind for the next 49.

Provenance, provenance, provenance.  That’s what it is all about.

But you learn something more from this aspect of uni education that is not a prominent part of school or workplace training.  When you track who thought of what, you understand that ideas develop because of the self-interest of the people involved. People at Harvard in 1921 would think up different things from people at Oxford in 1921 because they are surrounded by different people and face different issues.

From watching the provenance of ideas, we begin to appreciate diversity.  We begin to understand the value of other people’s ideas.   Their specific circumstances are different from ours and lead to different thought processes.  The mark of the a university-trained man or woman is that their ears prick up when they realise someone comes from a different walk-of-life because they know that person is likely to think quite differently from us and their thoughts could be very valuable.

Lesson 2a:  Spend your first year learning the reference system, though it is a pain, and get it right. It is the essential mechanic for building the geographical and historical map of change that you need to consistently be on top form for 50 years.

Lesson 2b: Start to appreciate how the circumstances of a person contribute to their thinking (and how your circumstances contribute to your thinking)

Lesson 2c:  Go to a uni where the students differ a lot from each other. It is difficult when you first arrive because you don’t know how to get along socially. But you’ll learn and appreciating the value of differences will give you the grounding to become a world-class negotiator and keep you on top of your game for 50 years.

#3 University is hard

Yes, university is hard, meaning – it is very difficult to know if you are doing well or not.  You can’t just ‘knock off the homework’. You can put 20 hours into something and find you are off the point.  The feedback doesn’t always make sense.  That’s what hard is.  The task isn’t hard when you know how to do it; it’s bloody hard when you don’t and you can’t figure out what  ou are supposed to do or what matters.

Well, that is also part of the design of university education.  When we know how to do a piece of work, we can delegate it to someone who can’t untangle problems – a high school graduate in other words, or a computer, or an outsourcing company in outer space.

It is jobs where the goals aren’t even clear, let alone the steps, that require well trained minds.  All good universities give you work that seems to have several layers of confusion and your job is to work out the layers and turn the confused mess into something orderly.

If you have been listening to how ideas change and where they come from, then you are more than half-way there because you start placing bits and pieces on your mental map and you can work out the story and see where it is going.

But there is another skill that you learn and that is keeping your temper.  When things are hard, our blood pressure goes up and thinking goes down. To think straight, you have to get on top of your temper to think straight. And you will learn to get good at not reacting badly to the feeling of being confused.

You will also stop blaming people. At first, your thought is ‘bad teacher – teacher confused me.’  Soon you will realise you should be saying ‘thank you teacher, you got me there, I had to think a bit.’

Above all, a university man or woman can untangle the mess of all the different ideas that a crowd of people put on the table.  And because you are calmly gathering all these emotionally charged ideas and sorting them out, even if you aren’t the smartest and most knowledgeable player in the room, you are welcome in the room for not just 50 years but probably your remaining 70.

A university should challenge you emotionally; if not, your money and most importantly your valuable three years of young adulthood are being wasted.

Lesson 3a:  Expect instructions to be confused and untangle them calmly.

Lesson3b:  React to your own indignation by realising your alarm is a signal that you haven’t finished the task.

Lesson3c:  Look at student chat boards. Avoid universities where they are full of whining and complaining.  Uni isn’t a cutprice airline.   Find a university where students solve problems and take pride in their emotional aplomb.

 Look at what is being sold before you look at the price tag

I hope these points help you think through why you might want to go to university and how to choose one that is worth 60K and more importantly, worth 3 of the most valuable years of your life. Choose well, and then get on the steepest learning curve you will ever face.  You will be glad; but if you don’t want any of these things, then by all means go to the nearest and cheapest.   Or consider whether you want to go to uni at all.  You can get information you need off the internet and sometimes you can bypass uni and go straight to a Masters.  Some people have to do it that way round because for one reason or another, they can’t go to uni when they are young.

But if you are going, remember to think like that accountant. Work out exactly what is for sale before you worry if the price tag is right.

This is what a good university (or good university department) provides.

  • A sense of how the world has changed and is changing and will continue changing for the next 50 years of your working life
  • A sense of how the circumstances in which people live affect their thinking and how their perspectives enrich yours
  • An ability to sort out confusion, including lots of emotionally-charged arguments, without getting upset yourself or blaming others.

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Denial, anger, depression, bargaining, adjustment: put the banking crisis behind us

Ladies and gentlemen, where are we are the path of psychological recovery after learning, not only that our country is not only flat broke, but that our prosperity in the last ten years was a house built on sand?

Denial?

Anger?

Depression?

Bargaining?

Adjustment?

Denial about the banking crisis is over

I believe we are out of denial.  Do you agree?  Not everyone understands the extent of our financial woes, or the rate that they are getting worse, but we have grasped that when we wake up in the morning, the problem will still be with us.

Anger about the banking crisis . . . still with us?

Much of the citizenry is still very angry about the financial crisis.  We are still looking for someone to blame and somebody to hurt back in return for the hurt we have suffered?

Am I right so far?

Depression . . . the politicians are depressed about the crisis?

Politicians, to a man and woman, seem depressed about the crisis.  They are busy having meetings and telephone conference calls.  But by-and-large, they are being busy.  Of course, they are busy. They are ‘shaking the tree’ or in the parlance of a domestic household, looking down the sofa for small change to pay the rent.  That doesn’t put anyone in a good mood.  But their gloom is the result of more than penny-pinching and cash flow management.

Do you think they are acting with a positive sense of the future or just getting-by?

Bargaining  . . . what does bargaining look like?

What does bargaining look like anyway?  I don’t really know.

In other countries and other crises, I have seen people protest a country’s position ‘between a rock and a hard place’ by going on ‘fasts’ (not, hunger strikes, ‘fasts’ or ‘pacts with God’).  The country didn’t move forward very much but the fasters did get very slim and they learned to get up early in the morning.  I can say that for their methods.  Whether their lives improved in other ways, I doubt.  Unsurprisingly, they did very little work.  Their electronic diaries were pristine with the exception of their prayer schedules.

The secular equivalent of keeping one’s head down can be just as dangerous, by-the-way.   It normally involves being very busy doing-the-boss’-bidding while he or she sits out of harm’s way- a bit as Carne Ross described in talk at LSE this week on life as British diplomat.

Does satire play the role of bargaining?  Does laughing about ‘their idiocy’ without taking action not perform the same function of reducing emotional concerns without moving forward?  Resignation rather than adjustment which is really a form of bargaining?  If I laugh, then it will be alright?

Is writing this post a form of bargaining?  I guess it is.  I am being an observer of ‘them’.

Adjustment . . . is it possible?  Can we just adjust and get on with it?

If I don’t really understand bargaining (as much because we think this stage of recovery is a delaying tactic rather than useful), I do know what adjustment is going to mean.

Adjustment is accepting that we were all part of the mess and are all part of the mess.

Adjustment rests on a foundation of “who we are”.  Who are we loyal to?  Who is ‘me and mine’?  Until we really feel solidarity with each other and are willingly to form a new social compact based on that solidarity, then we aren’t going anywhere fast.  We will ‘lurching from church to school’.  I’ve no idea where the expression came from but it conveys the idea.

Our solutions will be in direct proportion to our solidarity.  While we hate each other, our solutions will be correspondingly mean and inadequate.

Getting to adjustment in a country that is in trouble

Getting to ‘adjustment’ when a country is severe trouble is a tough one.  The psychological key is our own good temper, or whatever kernel of good temper that we can find.

When we identify what we believe is good in Britain, when we can point to what is, rather than to what we want to be (usually through someone else’s efforts); until we believe the something is sufficiently good that we are willing to get out of bed to work on it, whether or not anyone else is working on it, we – I mean you, I mean me – are not going anywhere very fast.

The questions, to me, are three fold:

  • What is, right now, is so good that it fills me with awe?
  • What is, right now, that I can bounce out of bed to look after and nurture?
  • What am I willing to do right now, whether or not you support me or not, but which can include you if you want to be included?

Keeping my good temper intact

So here I am writing a post ‘about’ Britain – and in a way about what is wrong with Britain. Here I am apparently procrastinating and avoiding doing some work which has shards of pleasure and the sharp edges of tedium.

Am I being a hypocrite?  Or am I saying that I like to process the news and know what I think and feel?  Am I saying that I like to read between the lines and see the big events that might be affecting us all (the government is looking for small change down the sofa)?  Am I saying that I like to use the heuristics I have gathered over the years to think economically?  Am I saying that I think people like Carne Ross (apostate diplomat) are right?  Change in UK will not start in Whitehall. It will start at street-level with small matters, with whatever we care about executed, not an angry, contested manner (even when that is concealed under do-goodery), but in a respectful, collaborative manner that demonstrates democracy in the minute detail?  Am I saying that I like Web2.0 (blogs etc) because they minimally give me a neat place to store my thoughts and writings and a place where others can read them if they choose?

And having cleared my mind, I can get back to work, because work is like hoovering the carpet – it’s not much fun but the results are pleasant.

And for every moment I spend doing work that matters, I might be building a foundation for future solidarity.  And from there we might find solutions to build a Britain fit for the next 50 years.

So here ends my thoughts on where we are psychologically in making sense of the financial crisis using the well known heuristic of the grief cycle – denial/not us,anger/blame, depression/loss of direction, bargaining/magical thinking, action/affection.  The kernel of your good temper is Britain’s future.

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