28 December 2009

On gifts

I know I am a difficult person to buy presents for, generally because there is rarely anything I want. Last year I managed to persuade family members to buy a goat or some other livestock on my behalf, for somewhere in the developing world, but they did not take to the idea again.

Money and tokens are last resorts. They send a message not only that "I give up on thinking what to get for you" but also "you are worth precisely 10, or whatever." At least with an actual object, the message of the financial value is mitigated by the thought, the empathic act of thinking what someone would enjoy receiving.

I rarely get this right, myself. For once I did this year, giving one grown-up son a mini-food-processor. He lives alone buthe is an enthusiastic cook. The next day he turned up extolling its virtues and accompanied by small bowls of dips and relishes all based on chopped raw brussels sprouts combined with a variety of oils, herbs, spices and other vegetables in a variety of exotic and very tasty combinations; he had spent the entire previous evening experimenting.

I received some presents yesterday, including two books from the "Humour" section of the bookshop, which it is unlikely that I shall ever read--the usual curmudgeonly rants about present-day life and culture which can be fun for a few pages if one's own prejudices coincide with those of the author, but which quickly pall. Giving books needs to take into account that they require the investment of time in reading them.

In the bookshop today I looked at the section they had come from, and I realised that practically all of that section, and the cookery books, and the celebrity memoirs at the very least, was taken up by books which are produced in order to be given, rather than read. And walking home I passed a new shop, which advertised its wares as "cards and gifts". Of course anything can be a gift (something else I received yesterday was two cans of kippers--but I do like kippers), but the suitability for "gifting" (and probably re-gifting and re-re-gifting for ever) has taken over from the intrinsic value of the object. Indeed in the case of many objects such as books, it is important that they not be used, and indeed that any packaging not be opened if they are to remain suitable gifts.

This is not new, of course. Bronislaw Malinowski documented the Kula Ring exchange among the inhabitants of the Trobriand Islands in the South Pacific in "Argonauts of the Western Pacific" (1922) (see also here) in which the continual exchange of the same goods serves to structure and maintain social relations between the inhabitants of scattered islands.

Come to think of it, for many of us this pattern may make more sense that to concentrate on the utility of gifts...  It's one of those issues where process is more important than content.

See also Mauss M (1954) The Gift; forms and functions of exchange in archaic societies London; Routledge and Kegan Paul (preview available here)

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12 October 2009

On evaluating the one-off lecture

OK, it happened, and indirect feeedback via a colleague who could not attend but who spoke to people after the event was that it had been well-received, even remarked on as a "proper academic lecture" (not sure whether or not that is a compliment!)

There are of course standard procedures for evaluation, including the usual feedback sheets and the like. Such procedures are unsurprisingly not routine on this course, and it didn't seem appropriate to introduce them--after all, this was from the students' point of view just another session in a regular timetable. It was my decision to get all self-conscious about it.

So just a few remarks on practical aspects, and then a more general thought.
  • time-keeping and pacing is always tricky the first time around; I seem to have got it pretty well right, though.
  • The presentation? You can see it via the link on yesterday's post, but the version there has been annotated and expanded. I don't like too much content on the slides, and I tried to use them as headings to show the students where we were. That was OK with a heading like "fashions and fads", but not really satisfactory when I talked ever so briefly about a particular theorist; I was using slides cannibalised from another lecture including images which may not have been the very best choices. 
  • Delivery? A guy at the back said he couldn't hear me in the first few seconds. I thanked him and talked louder, but I didn't continue to check--which I could have done very easily with the traffic-light cards all the audience had. Specifically everyone had a red, a yellow and a green A5 card, with which they could signal answers to questions, like "If you have never heard of Skinner, show a red card. If you've heard of him but don't know much about his ideas, show yellow. If you know quite a bit about him show green..." It's clickers-lite, but a lot easier to manage spontaneously.
  • As to use of the cards; they were appreciated and commented on afterwards, and they are so easy to use. No downside, if you sort out the logistics of distribution. As ever, it is not merely the technical advantage they confer above a simple show of hands which makes the difference--it is what the very fact of issuing them and using them says about the kind of interaction the lecturer wants within the session. They send a message--"I want you to be able to communicate back to me".
  • And as for that great bug-bear of the lecture, attention-span, that little bit of activity every few minutes seemed to get the students re-engaged. Visual clues suggested they were still with me at the end of the session.
  • The two-minute buzz-group exercise came almost exactly half-way through; frankly it was as much about breaking the session up as it was about content, but some of the ideas were interesting enough to weave into the rest of the session. It also gave me a chance to nip out and buy an extortionately priced bottle of water--why no water-coolers?
More generally, though; did the session achieve its objective of providing an orientation to learning theories so students can engage with them on a fairly deep level? As ever, I think the argument was clearer to me than it was to them, and I perpetrated the sin I have been trying not to commit for years and years (and which I can avoid as a part of regular teaching); I elaborate arguments in the hope of making them clearer, but in practice I am obscuring and burying them in a mass of marginally relevant detail. Once I get into the swing of a lecture I can always think of more stuff to pile in. When it is something I do regularly, I can prune it and filter it so that what gets said is what needs to be said and no more, but I'm still not good at that on a one-off basis.

And is a lecture, at this stage in their programme, the appropriate means of communicating such a message? Probably not, but given the constraints it was a reasonable strategy to choose.

One comment my colleague heard was that I had rubbished some current fads, or even sacred cows. Indeed I had, and I now wonder whether or not I should have done. After all there was a team of about a dozen other colleagues attending, most of whom I don't know, and I may well have stepped clumsily on a few people's toes. I'm pretty sure the students enjoyed it, but that's not the point. Had I had more notice I could and should have circulated some of the proposed content in advance for comment; who knows, perhaps one of those colleagues will have to deliver a session next week advocating learning styles! An interesting and open question about the responsibilities one has to the rest of the team...

Still, I have to admit that I enjoyed myself thoroughly; not something to be aimed for, but a good spin-off if it happens.

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18 July 2009

On being able to speak

I've no idea whether I can make this nuanced point. So--if you go no further, just watch this. It's President Obama's speech to the centenary conference of the NAACP.

It's 37 minutes long, so if you haven't got that much time start at 25 minutes. That is when he both makes his critical substantive points and displays his rhetorical genius which is amplified by his audience...



On that final twelve minutes: who else could say that? (That also goes for the Cairo speech, and the Ghana speech.)

This is not a political point (of course it is a political matter about which I have decided feelings, but that is not the angle from which I am addressing it). It is a variation on the old soap-opera line, "You tell him. He'll take it from you!" Never before has there been an unassailable figure who could make those points to that community. (Obama is not totally unassailable in the eyes of some hard-liners--he is not of slave-stock to put it crudely--so notice how he enlists Michelle in his argument.

I'm fascinated by multiple levels of communication and how they interact. Several years ago I wrote a brief note on this but my investigations ran into the sand.

A few days ago I came across a very indirect but potentially fruitful lead. If your thinking is twisted enough to make similar connections, do get in touch! If note, I hope that at least you have listened to a magnificent speech. (Apart from the sound/video sync, that is. How can state-of-the-art crews and kit get that wrong?)

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