Let’s be more challenging of the of conventions in education

Why is anonymity important when a lecturer marks a student’s work so as to ensure ‘objectivity’?  Where I work all students have a six-figure number and it is this that appears on their work rather than their name. Before I go on I know it is important to mark fairly and that marking involves a degree of objectivity. But I think this is worth a closer look. I work in a small University where we know the students well and their work well so perhaps this question is a bit more acute for me. Forget the marks for a moment the important work is in the feedback, carefully crafted comments aimed at helping the individual student to improve. Now to give good feedback it could be argued that it is important to know the person. After all you don’t coach someone to the anonymous grill of the confessional box – it is a frank conversation where knowing the individual is key to finding the important factors for development that they can take forward. Over the years the importance of anonymity seems to have gone unquestioned without considering its downside – an unchallenged social orthodoxy. Or as GH Mead (Mead, 1934), the pragmatist American philosopher of the early 20th century, would call it a ‘cult value’. This seems to be one of many orthodoxies that not only go unchallenged, but are rarely noticed. From my experience most of what we learn comes to mistakes, serendipity and conversation rather than design, objectivity and measurement; features of what passes as education in recent times.  Let’s be a bit more challenging, of the orthodoxies in education, including anonymity, and there are plenty more, for example the idea of ‘learning outcomes’, how assessment skews what should be learnt, how we overly value the intellect etc.  I’m not saying they have no worth, but we need to be more careful as to how they affect our practice as educators, for good and bad.

Mead, G. H. (1934). Mind, Self, & Society. Chicago: Chicago University Press.

Ordinariness of failure and why this is so important

Blog 3This week I had a great conversation with Toby Lindsay. Toby is looking to do a PhD and we were discussing his various options. The subject of Toby’s interest is: why do enterprises fail, using his own vivid experience as a source of the research. Businesses fail every day, it is an ordinary event and one that carries much hurt. However airport bookshops are littered with the stuff of success, heroic stories often ending up with a few insights neatly packaged for the newbie entrepreneur.  Actually, more can be learned from mistakes, particularly when explored in detail as to how people made decisions in the shifting context that they had to cope with. There is very little about entrepreneurial failure, even less that takes the experience seriously from an individual’s view with all the confusion of hurt, sensemaking and recovery that goes on. Failure offers the learning for future success which is why these ordinary and upsetting events are so important. Thanks Toby for allowing me to share our conversation.

In defence of I (and the Polo mint)

poloOnce in a while I encourage my management students to write in the first person (ie with plenty of ‘I’ and ‘me’). They often react as if I have asked them to commit some dreadful academic crime – for not being objective. Coming from a scientific background I do have some sympathy with the search of objectivity and disguising our own involvement, but not entirely. When we write about experience, for example our role in a project, in not speaking of the ‘I’ is akin to a Polo mint – with a gaping hole just at the most interesting part. I want to know that they have recognised their own learning and to speak of their creative unsettlement as they got to grips with something new. That they now know and understand their process of learning in a reflexive way that will be helpful to them in the future. But it cannot be all ‘me’ and ‘I’, that would be a crime as serious as a mindless search for objectivity. I am interested in how they build bridges between their experiences and how others see the issue, for example, in the academic or professional literature; and it is from this that something interesting and relevant can develop that we can all learn from.

The challenge of writing mindfully

coverRecently Pete Burden and I wrote a book – Leading Mindfully.  Our aim was to point to the importance of actively noticing what we do in organisations; not just as individuals, but together.  And in doing so to improve how we all make decisions.  It is a book about conversation, of being reflexive and taking action – not as a solitary endeavor, but as a social process we are all engaged in.

So there was a dilemma – how should we write it?  Tradition would say that it should be written in prose; blocks of text whereby we laid out our argument as a bricklayer might build a wall.  However, this has a number of implications that we felt uncomfortable with.  Building such a structure implies that we are experts, and therefore, you are to be ‘taught’.  However, both positions are false – you have your own experience and understanding of the subject and our views are still emerging.

It is for this reason we wrote the book as a dialogue, trying to be as true to life as the conversations we had.  There are of course benefits and drawbacks in taking a different approach.

In the conversation there are now three of us – you as the reader, Pete and me.  You will notice areas that you both agree and disagree with.  And you will notice something similar in the conversations I have with Pete.  All three of us come from different backgrounds and experiences.  In this process we make sense of new ideas and our experiences in relation to what we might imagine doing in the future.  In fact, this is an argument we make in the book – as we lead mindfully with others.

But this has some drawbacks.  From your perspective laying out a clear argument can be easier to engage with, it takes less work to agree or disagree with a point made.  Instead, we are interested in questions of ‘how’ and ‘why’, questions that cannot easily be resolved in a binary way.  All of this said, presenting our ideas as a dialogue has a truth about it that we are looking to pay attention to in organisational life.  And in this sense our way of writing was as important as the ideas themselves.

If you are interested in the book you can find it here.

Ethnography is great (and why it won’t catch on)

Eth blogTime is short in research and business.  Important questions still get asked, but we seek snapshot answers – questionnaire surveys, focus groups, polls which have little to do with the texture or complexity of everyday life.  I’m not going to define ethnography other than to briefly say that it is the study of a group or culture by spending time with them, being part of the social melee, facing their dilemmas; an endeavour taking months or years.  For something a little more considered have a look at Bryman and Bell (2003).

I’m going to discuss three examples focusing on black working class culture in the US.  On the one hand this is a world away from my personal experience, but on the other speaks to my interest in social justice.  And it is ethnography that gives me a real sense of the problems and opportunities rather than the simplistic accounts I’ve been used to.

The example are:

  • Sudhir Venkatesh’s Gang Leaders for a Day – a rogue socialist crosses the line (Venkatesh, 2008)
  • Loic Wacquant’s Body and Soul – notebooks of an apprentice boxer (Wacquant, 2004)
  • Alice Goffman’s On the Run – fugitive life in an American city (Goffman, 2014)

In all three cases the researcher spends years in the communities.  They get to know people well, they are friends with some, cautious of others, they have misunderstandings and periods of connection.  In other words the whole spectrum of being a person in a community with others, drawing attention to how events unfold over time, their consequences and further consequences.

What is noticed?  Take Sudhir Venkatesh.  Here we get to develop an understanding of how drug gangs work.  But not in a polarized sense that encourages us to stand back and say ‘these people are evil, how could they ..’.  Instead we understand how people fall into that life, how gang members become gang members, how they interact with the community of which they are part, the subtle nature by which they both support and punish.  And so on.  With Alice Goffman we understand how people become enmeshed in the criminal system from which they hardly ever escape.  In both cases we develop a nuanced appreciation of context, predicament and fate, whilst appreciating people still have choice and responsibility.  In many respects we can understand people as victims of circumstance.  And in doing so we can be more challenging of those circumstances.  With Loic Wacquant it is different.  Here he is becoming a boxer and in doing so develops an understanding of the constraining and enabling factors that keep boxers and others on the right side of the law.  But as with Venkatesh and Goffman, these are subtle and easy to disturb, the loss of a key member of a community can have far reaching consequences.  In all three cases we hear of people making reasonable choices in the context of which they find themselves.  Well, reasonable choices mainly, but in contexts that are hard to image without that being explained in graphic, dramatic and often visceral ways. It demonstrates the deeply interconnected worlds that we are part of, how our pasts are connected to our futures in ways that are hard to imagine.

And what of the researchers? They all have one thing in common.  They are all undergoing a process of creative unsettlement.  Loic is becoming a boxer, Venkatesh a gang member and Alice similarly a part of a new community.  But all three are both developing as researchers too.  The creative unsettlement is a highly reflexive process.  The foundations for identity, the assumptions and the un-noticed routines of everyday life, are there to notice and we sense how risky this is.

But what of this rich knowledge?  Just as the policymaker, politician or strategist has little time for asking questions, they similarly have no time for rich, challenging and difficult answers.  Ethnography means one has to shed the hope for neat answers to neat questions.  It requires an assertive humility to feel comfortable that answers are only partial at best and not universal; the assertiveness in both being okay with this and for standing up to those who offer promises of certainty.

Bryman, B., & Bell, E. (2003). Business Reearch Methods. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Goffman, A. (2014). On the Run – Fugitive Life in an American City. Chicago: Chicago University University.

Venkatesh, S. (2008). Gang Leaders for a Day: A Rouge Sociologist Crosses the Line. London: Allen Lane.

Wacquant, L. (2004). Body and Soul – notebooks of an apprentice boxer. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Let’s be enthusiastic in our writing (and someone might read it)

HanifanDuring the course of my research on trust I came to read an academic paper on social capital that was nearing a hundred years old (Hanifan, 1916).  It was by the educationalist Lyra Hanifan who became interested in how people learn for the benefit of themselves and others.  It struck me how well written it was, albeit with a few terms we would now seem dated.  The quality of the paper was markedly different from many of today’s papers I have to trawl through.  What was different, here are a few thoughts:

  • It was written by someone who was interested in the subject and was eager to communicate his enthusiasm. I could imagine Hanifan thinking to himself that what he had to say would be of interest to many people and he wrote with those people in mind.
  • He probably did not feel as constrained as we are today to make a tightly formed argument that would address a focused academic point that had been rumbling on for years.
  • The life had not been mangled out by one re-work after another following reviewers’ comments.

I am not calling for a ‘return’ to a non-existent golden age, but we can be more thoughtful of the habits we have all fallen into.  By habits I do not just mean us authors, but the conventions we have all adopted in deciding what ‘good’ is and its usefulness.  Perhaps if we did we might become a little more relevant.  In other words to address some of the concerns that Michael Billig pointed to in his book How to Write Badly and Succeed in Social Sciences (Billig, 2013).

Billig M (2013) How to write badly: How to succeed in social sciences. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Hanifan L (1916) The Rural School Community Centre. American Academy of Political and Social Science, 67(May), 130–138.

Leadership and conversation – being assertively humble

Leadership isn’t a science.  There is little by way of hard fact and formulae.  It seems odd then that the tone of much of the leadership literature is deterministic, implying that this or that is the right way forward.

Experience has taught me that it is messy; success, failure, puzzlement are all ingredients in the leadership soup.  So why doesn’t the way we talk about leadership reflect this?  Perhaps it just won’t sell.  Perhaps people who buy such books are looking for reassurance when faced dilemmas that are scary for them and those around them.  This may be partially true, but it is not the whole storey.  For me there is something about being assertively humble in facing the future.  This means paying close attention to the interplay between a person and those around them, of being reflective and thougthful as we all inch forward into the future.  And not pretending to have the answers.

It also raises the question of how we should write and talk about leadership.  In our book, Leading Mindfully, Pete Burden and I engage in a conversation; one that took place over several months.   We don’t offer solutions but we try to make sense of leadership dilemmas that we see around us and have experienced as well as how others have thought about such issues too.  Conversation seems a more authentic way to talk about the success, failure, puzzlement of leadership.  In doing so we hope to make connections that the reader can identify with that might be useful to their practice, not as a promise, but as a humble offering to make sense of the challenges ahead.