Out of time

by reestheskin on 13/11/2019

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The following is from Janan Ganesh of the FT. The title of the article was “The agony of returning to work in September”.

A personal ambition is to reach the end of my career without having managed a single person.

It seems to me a very sensible ambition, one which used to be the lot of many academics — usually the better ones. He goes on:

Friends who have been less lucky, who have whole teams under their watch, report a quirk among their younger charges. It is not laziness or obstreperousness or those other millennial slanders. It is an air of disappointment with the reality of working life. They will be among the people described in Bullshit Jobs by the anthropologist David Graeber….

A generation of in-demand graduates came to expect not just these material incentives but a sort of credal alignment with their employer’s “values”. The next recession will retard this trend but it is unlikely to kill it.

At one time the words ‘manager’, ‘management’, or worst of all, ‘line-manager’ were alien to much of medicine or academia. Things still got done, in many ways more efficiently than now. It is just that our theories of action and praxis have been ransacked by Excel spreadsheet models of human motivation and culture. It is the final line from the quote that those controllers of ‘managers’ should be scared of:

The next recession will retard this trend but it is unlikely to kill it.

Bullshit (of the world-class variety)

by reestheskin on 12/11/2019

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Andrew Wathey its chairman [of the UK Standing Committee for Quality Assessment] and vice-chancellor of Northumbria University, said: “The UK delivers world-class education to students from all nations. It is therefore right that the sector commits to ensuring that the value of these world-class qualifications is maintained over time in line with the expectations of the UK Quality Code for Higher Education.”

Universities agree more openness on degree marking guidelines | Financial Times

The language betrays all you need to know: spoken by somebody who clearly has no idea what UK higher education once stood for, or who has any sympathy or understanding of the academic ideal. Will the last person who leaves please turn off the ….

Thought of the day

by reestheskin on 11/11/2019

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That, across human experience, in all places and at all times, only one or two societies have unwound concentrations of income and wealth as great as [those that] plague the US today without losing in war to a foreign foe or succumbing to a domestic revolution.

Interview with Daniel Markovits

THE, 31-10-2019

Medicine is just one technology

by reestheskin on 08/11/2019

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From Wikipedia.

Putt’s Law: “Technology is dominated by two types of people, those who understand what they do not manage and those who manage what they do not understand.”

 

Putt’s Corollary: “Every technical hierarchy, in time, develops a competence inversion.” with incompetence being “flushed out of the lower levels” of a technocratic hierarchy, ensuring that technically competent people remain directly in charge of the actual technology while those without technical competence move into management.

Putt’s Law and the Successful Technocrat – Wikipedia

Windows 95: a fate worse than….

by reestheskin on 07/11/2019

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This is from a recent article in Nature describing how its new custom typeface got its name.

A custom typeface, Harding, has been created for Nature’s new logo and much else: you’re reading it right now [you are not]. Harding is named after the late neurologist Anita Harding. Brilliant and generous, she published in Nature before she died in 1995 at age 42. According to colleagues, she was known for taking questions from the clinic back into the laboratory, and for her wry sense of humour. When she learnt that she had a terminal illness, she apparently joked that at least she wouldn’t have to buy Windows 95.

The design decisions behind Nature’s new look

Just not a business anymore….

by reestheskin on 06/11/2019

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From the Economist

Dean Whiteboard writes…

Going forward, we need three priorities. First, to get costs under control. The soup-to-nuts cost for an MBA at Stanford is $232,000—out of our ballpark. The five-star accommodation, gourmet cuisine and other perks on our campus are way over the top. So are some of our packages, even if we haven’t got quite as carried away as Columbia Business School, which, it was recently revealed, paid over $420,000 a year to a professor teaching three classes a year and $330,000 to untenured junior faculty.

The future of management education – The MBA disrupted

Sensing the future.

by reestheskin on 05/11/2019

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We are not a great power and never will be again. We are a great nation but if we continue to behave like a great power we shall soon cease to be a great nation.

Sir Henry Tizard, 1949.

Quoted in the LRB by Ian Gilmore (reprinted 7-11-2019)

Strangers to ourselves (and student learning).

by reestheskin on 04/11/2019

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The quote below is from a paper in PNAS on how students misjudge their learning and what strategies maximise learning. The findings are not surprising (IMHO) but will, I guess, continue to be overlooked (NSS anybody?). As I mention below, it is the general point that concerns me.

Measuring actual learning versus feeling of learning in response to being actively engaged in the classroom.

In this report, we identify an inherent student bias against active learning that can limit its effectiveness and may hinder the wide adoption of these methods. Compared with students in traditional lectures, students in active classes perceived that they learned less, while in reality they learned more. Students rated the quality of instruction in passive lectures more highly, and they expressed a preference to have “all of their physics classes taught this way,” even though their scores on independent tests of learning were lower than those in actively taught classrooms. These findings are consistent with the observations that novices in a subject are poor judges of their own competence (27⇓–29), and the cognitive fluency of lectures can be misleading (30, 31). Our findings also suggest that novice students may not accurately assess the changes in their own learning that follow from their experience in a class.

Measuring actual learning versus feeling of learning in response to being actively engaged in the classroom | PNAS

The authors go on:

These results also suggest that student evaluations of teaching should be used with caution as they rely on students’ perceptions of learning and could inadvertently favor inferior passive teaching methods over research-based active pedagogical approaches….

As I say above, it is the general rather than the particular that concerns me. Experience and feeling are often poor guides to action. We are, after all, creatures that represent biology’s attempt to see whether contemplation can triumph over reflex. There remains a fundamental asymmetry between expert and novice, and if there isn’t, there is little worth learning (or indeed worth paying for).

  • The title is from Timothy Wilson’s book, Strangers to Ourselves, a good place to start on this topic. However, this whole topic is of much more importance than just how we teach students. Lessons for medicine too.

The art of the insoluble

by reestheskin on 30/10/2019

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The following is from an advert for a clinical academic in a surgical specialty, one with significant on call responsibilities. (It is not from Edinburgh).

‘you will be able to define, develop, and establish a high quality patient-centred research programme’

‘in addition to the above, you will be expected to raise substantial research income and deliver excellent research outputs’

Leaving aside the debasement of language, I simply cannot believe such jobs are viable long term. Many years ago, I was looked after by a surgical academic. A few years later he/she moved to another centre, and I was puzzled as to why he/she had made this career move. I queried a NHS surgeon in the same hospital about this career path. “Bad outcomes”, was the response. She/He needed a clean start somewhere else…

Traditional non-clinical academic careers include research, teaching and administration. Increasingly it is recognised that it is rarely possible to all three well. For clinical academics the situation is worse, as 50% of your time is supposed to be devoted to providing patient care. Over time the NHS workload has become more onerous in that consultants enjoy less support from junior doctors and NHS hospitals have become much less efficient.

All sorts of legitimate questions can be asked about the relation between expertise and how much of your time is devoted to that particular role. For craft specialities — and I would include dermatology, pathology, radiology in this category — there may be ways to stay competent. Subspecialisation is one approach (my choice) but even this may be inadequate. In many areas of medicine I simply do not believe it is possible to maintain acceptable clinical skills and be active in meaningful research.

Sam Shuster always drilled in to me that there were only two reasons academics should see patients: to teach on them, and to foster their research. Academics are not there to provide ‘service’. Some juniors recognise this issue but are reticent about speaking openly about it. But chase the footfall, or lack of it, into clinical academic careers.

Depersonalisation and deprofessionalisation

by reestheskin on 28/10/2019

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I am generally nervous about doctors or academics working for the government. Not that I think the roles are unnecessary, far from it. But what worries me is when instead of resigning from their academic role, they end up working for more than one master. So, I tire of the use of university titles when the principle employer does not subscribe to the academic ideal. I think if you have been at Stanford and you go to Washington it should be as a regular civil service post. I think the Americans get it right.

But the retiring CMO, Dame Sally Davies, in an interview in the RCP in-house journal ‘Commentary’ speaks some truths (Commentary | October 2019, p10).

I hear non-stop stories from unhappy juniors. In my day, we (consultants) made up the rotas for the juniors, but now administrators do it without understanding all of the issues. I’m told you can’t go back to the ‘firm’ structure because there are so many doctors in the system, but whenever I meet a roomful of young doctors I ask: ‘Does your consultant know your name?’ It’s rare that a hand goes up. We have depersonalised the relationships between doctors and that can’t help the workings of the medial team, or with the patients.

Your mileage may vary, but when I was a junior doctor it was us — not the consultants — who came up with the rotas. But the point she makes is important, and everybody knows this (already). At one time junior doctors didn’t work for the NHS, rather they worked within the NHS for other doctors, for good and bad. I find it hard to imagine that the current system can deliver genuine apprenticeship learning. Training and service may often have resembled a bickering couple, but there was a broader professional context that was shared. I am not certain that this is the case anymore. Whenever people keep pushing words such as ‘reflection’ or ‘professionalism’, you know — pace Orwell — that the opposite is going on. Politics is a dominant-negative mutation.

What every (good) fly half knows

by reestheskin on 24/10/2019

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“If I can predict what you are going to think of pretty much any problem, it is likely that you will be wrong on stuff. [speaking of certain other economists]….they are very predictable

Lunch with the FT: Esther Duflo | Financial Times

When capitalisms collide

by reestheskin on 22/10/2019

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The future of capitalism is out of the hands of those who spend their time thinking about it.

Not too dissimilar to medicine, either: discuss…..

When capitalisms collide

A time for everything

by reestheskin on 22/10/2019

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Terrific interview with Sydney Brenner about the second greatest scientific revolution of the 20th century.

I think it’s really hard to communicate that because I lived through the entire period from its very beginning, and it took on different forms as matters progressed. So it was, of course, wonderful. That’s what I tell students. The way to succeed is to get born at the right time and in the right place. If you can do that then you are bound to succeed. You have to be receptive and have some talent as well…

To have seen the development of a subject, which was looked upon with disdain by the establishment from the very start, actually become the basis of our whole approach to biology today. That is something that was worth living for.

This goes for more than science and stretches out into far more mundane aspects of life. Is there any alternative?

Kings Review

That was then

by reestheskin on 22/10/2019

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The world has problems, as the old saying puts it, but universities have departments.

Well not any more, I would add.

The Puzzle of Economic Progress by Diane Coyle – Project Syndicate

Invention: good and bad

by reestheskin on 21/10/2019

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The history of innovation is littered with examples of new technologies causing unintended harm. As cultural theorist Paul Virilio said, “When you invent the ship, you also invent the shipwreck.”

Of Reliability and validity

by reestheskin on 16/10/2019

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One of the mantras of psychometrics 101 is that you cannot have validity without reliability. People expel this phrase, like others equilibrate after eating curry and nan-breads with too much gassy beer. In truth, the Platonic obsession with reliability diminishes validity. The world of science and much professional practice, remains messy, and vague until it is ‘done’. The search space for those diamonds of sense and order remains infinite.

Many years in the making, DSM-5 appeared in 2013, to a chorus of criticism; Harrington summarises this crisply (Gary Greenberg’s 2013 Book of Woe gives a painful blow-by-blow account). Harrington suggests that the proliferating symptom categories ceased to carry conviction; in the USA, the leadership of the US National Institutes of Health pivoted away from the DSM approach—“100% reliability 0% validity”, as Harrington writes—stating they would only fund projects with clearly defined biological hypotheses. The big players in the pharmaceutical industry folded their tents and withdrew from the field, turning to more tractable targets, notably cancer. For some mental health problems, psychological therapies, such as cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT), are becoming more popular, sometimes in combination with pharmacotherapy; as Harrington points out, even as far back as the 1970s, trials had shown that CBT outperformed imipramine as a treatment for depression.

Biological psychiatry’s decline and fall | Anne Harrington, Mind Fixers: Psychiatry’s Troubled Search for the Biology of Mental Illness, W W Norton (2019), p. 384, US$ 27·95, ISBN: 9780393071221 – ScienceDirect

Big Tobacco, war and politics

by reestheskin on 11/10/2019

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Tobacco killed an estimated 100 million people in the twentieth century. Without radical action, it is projected to kill around one billion in the twenty-first.

Big Tobacco, war and politics

Monday morning blues

by reestheskin on 07/10/2019

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“Change? Change? Aren’t things bad enough as they are?”

Response (attributed to Robert Gascoyne-Cecil, 3rd Marquess of Salisbury)

Innovation theatre: because you are worth it.

by reestheskin on 03/10/2019

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I used to use the phrase — with apologies to Freud — ‘eppendorf envy’ to describe the bias in much medical innovation whereby useful advance pretended it owed its magic to ‘basic’ science. Doctors wore white coats in order to sprinkle the laboratory magic on as a veneer. But I like this cognate term also: innovation theatre.

To be fair to the banks, they weren’t the first institutions to recognise the PR value of what Rich Turrin has dubbed innovation theatre. Many institutions before them had cottoned on to the fact that it was a way to score easy points with the public and investors. Think of high impact campaigns featuring “the science bit” for L’Oréal’s Elvive shampoo or Tefal appliance ads: “We have the technology because we have the brains”.

The financial sector has seen enough innovation theatre | Financial Times. The orignal reference is here.

Medical education in an age of austerity

by reestheskin on 23/09/2019

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There is a collection of articles on health care in the FT today. This caught my mind:

At the same time, there has been a growing “pull” from the UK and other richer nations for doctors and nurses from Africa, as their own health systems have struggled to train and retain sufficient local healthcare workers while demand from ageing populations continues to rise.

I am aware of the issue but keep being pulled back to the claims about how expensive it is to train doctors (in the UK or other similar countries). Yes, I know the oft wheeled out figures, but I am suspicious of them.

Fast and slow

by reestheskin on 18/09/2019

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Chambers Street is closed for the filming of Fast and Furious 9, or so my regular barista at Bobby’s tells me. I was only was there a minute or two before it was shutting up shop time for this scene anyway. But even on this hurried snap you can see all the infrastructure necessary for a second or two of film — or an unused reel.

Last week, on a beach, I read The Pigeon Tunnel, reminisces by John let Carré,  one of my favorite authors. One of the themes is the solitary nature of much of his creation: the silent scribbling outwith this world, looking in. Another is the complexity and interconnectness of film making.

Which all makes my wonder about teaching, learning and education. Where do we belong?

Job of an academic

by reestheskin on 06/09/2019

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Whatever the context(s) of these events, the words are right.

The job of a scientist is to look for the truth, and the job of a teacher is to help people to empower themselves. I failed to do my job on both counts.

It is however not just the job of scientists.

I am writing to apologize to Jeffrey Epstein’s victims

All that glitters in silicon

San Francisco conducted its biennial point-in-time homelessness survey. The numbers are up sharply. Two observations: first, most people are from SF, not (contrary to myth) from elsewhere; and second, there are more people sleeping on the street in San Francisco (population: 870k) than in the whole of the UK (population: 66m). Link

Benedict’s Newsletter: No. 296

Wellbeing

by reestheskin on 29/08/2019

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 Size matters

Pace my earlier post, The Economist writes about the increase in student numbers at many UK universities (and falls at others).

There is lots of variation, but in general elite institutions have been the biggest growers. Some, including Oxford and Cambridge, have chosen not to expand. But most prestigious universities have sucked up students, grateful for their fees, which subsidise research. The intake of British students at members of the Russell Group of older, research-focused universities has grown by 16% since restrictions were lifted. Some have ballooned. Bristol’s intake has shot up by 62%, Exeter’s by 61% and Newcastle’s by 43%.

Increases in intake do not automatically mean a worsening of what is on offer, but the difference between Oxbridge and the Russell group shout out at you: some are more equal than others.

The winners and losers of England’s great university free-for-all – Searching for students

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Education is an experience understood in tranquillity

Nice few words about Charles Handy in the Economist who has been recovering from a stroke. He has had to relearn walking, talking and swallowing.

As far as Mr Handy was concerned, the point of his hospital stay was to allow him to recover as fully as possible. That meant he needed to be up and about. In the view of the nurses, that was a potential problem; he might fall and hurt himself. Their priority was to keep him safe. In practice, that required him to stay in bed and keep out of trouble.

He mused on some themes all too familiar, namely how the organisational obsession with efficiency often results in organisations not being effective.

The purpose of education is to prepare children for later life, but all too often the focus is on getting the children to pass exams.

He saves some special words for Human Remains Resources:

As it is, there is a temptation to try to turn people into things by calling them “human resources”. Call someone a resource, and it is a small step to assuming that they can be treated like a thing, subject to being controlled and, ultimately, dispensed with when surplus to requirements.

(The most egregious example of the above is how NHS management refer to preregistration doctors as ‘ward resources’ rather than doctors who are apprenticed to other doctors.)

Sadly his knowledge of the type of modern corporation we call ‘universities’ is out of date.

Indeed, Mr Handy argues that most organisations whose principal assets are skilled people, such as universities or law firms, tend not to use the term “manager”. Those in charge of them are called deans, directors or partners. Their real job is best described as leadership rather than management. And one of the primary functions of leadership is setting the right purpose for an organisation.

If only.

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“I have wasted a lot of time living”

John Gray on Michael Oakeshott

He would have found the industrial-style intellectual labour that has entrenched itself in much of academic life over the past twenty-odd years impossible to take seriously. He wrote for himself and anyone else who might be interested; it is unlikely that anyone working in a university today could find the freedom or leisure that are needed to produce a volume such as this. Writing in 1967, Oakeshott laments, ‘I have wasted a lot of time living.’ Perhaps so, but as this absorbing selection demonstrates, he still managed to fit in a great deal of thinking.

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Shorting the truth.

by reestheskin on 21/08/2019

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Awhile back I was sat in a cafe close to the university campus. I couldn’t help but listen in on the conversation of a few students who were discussing various aspect of university life, and their own involvement in student politics. I couldn’t warm to them: they were boorish and reminded me of a certain Prime Minister. But I did find myself in agreement on one point: many UK universities are too big and if you are really serious about undergraduate education, you need smaller institutions than is the norm in the Russell group. You can have large institutions and teach well — the Open University is the classic example historically — but Russell group universities are not designed for the same purpose.

A few months back there was an interview in the Guardian with Michael Arthur, the Vice Chancellor of University College, London (UCL). In it he said some extraordinary things. Not extraordinary in the sense that you have might not have heard them before, or that they were difficult to grasp. Just extraordinary in their banality of purpose.

UCL like many universities in the UK has and will continue to rapidly expand undergraduate student numbers. The interviewer asked him whether or not UCL was not already too big. Arthur replied:

“We want to be a global player,” says Arthur. “Round the world, you’re seeing universities of 90,000, 100,000 students. If you have critical mass, you can create outstanding cross-disciplinary research on things like climate change. You can do research that makes a difference.” He mentions a treatment recently developed at UCL that makes HIV, the virus that causes Aids, untransmittable. If UCL didn’t increase student numbers, thus maximising fee revenue, such research would have to be cut back. “To me,” Arthur says, “that is unthinkable.”

The tropes are familiar to those who have given up serious thinking and have short attention spans: ‘global player’, ‘critical mass’, ‘cross disciplinary’, ‘make a difference’, and so on. Then there is the ‘maximising fee revenue’ so that research is not cut back — “that is unthinkable”

Within the sector it is widely recognised that universities lose money on research. In the US in the Ivy League, endowments buffer research and in some institutions, teaching. In the UK, endowments outwith Oxbridge are modest, and student fees fund much research. As research volume and intensity increases, the need for cross subsidy becomes ever greater. This is of course not just within subjects, but across the university and faculties.

That universities lose money on research is a real problem. For instance, in medicine much research is funded by charities who do not pay the full costs of that research. Governments pretend they fill this gap, but I doubt that is now the case. Gaps in research funding are therefore being made up out of the funds that are allocated to educate doctors, or students in other subjects. And anybody who has been around UK universities for a while knows that a lot of the research — especially in medicine — would have at one time being classed as the D of R&D. This sort of work is not what universities are about: it is just that the numbers are so large that they flatter the ‘research figures’ for the REF (research excellence framework).

Pace the students in the cafe, few can mount any argument that once you have grown beyond several thousand students that the student experience and student learning worsen. Phrases such as ‘research-led teaching’ and ‘exposure to cutting edge research’ are common, but the reality is that there is little evidence to support them in the modern university. They are intended as fig leaves to mask some deeper stirrings. Arthur states that it ‘would be unthinkable’ to cut back on research. He may believe that, but I doubt if his self-righteousness is shared by the majority of students who spend much of their lives paying off student debts.

A few years ago, whilst on a flight to Amsterdam, I chatted with a physicist from a Dutch university. We talked about teaching and research. He was keen on the idea of situating institutions that resembled US liberal arts colleges (as in small colleges) within bigger and more devolved institutions. I doubt that would be practical in the UK — the temptation for the centre to steal the funds is something VCs (Vice Chancellors not Venture Capitalists, that is) would not be able to resist. The late Roger Needham, a distinguished Professor of Computing at Cambridge, and former head of Microsoft Research in Cambridge, pointed out that most IP generated by universities was trivial and that the most important IP we produced were educated and smart students. He was perhaps talking about PhDs and within certain domains of knowledge, but I will push beyond that. Educating students matters.

And contrary to what Arthur thinks many of the world’s best universities have far fewer students than UCL even before its recent metastatic spread.

A Study in the History of Civilisation

A remarkable book by a remarkable man. But what ambition!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Send in the clown

But what lies ahead for Johnson in those uncharted waters? His best joke was not meant to be one. In November 2016 he claimed that “Brexit means Brexit and we are going to make a titanic success of it.” In this weirdly akratic moment of British history, most of those who support Johnson actually know very well that Brexit is the Titanic and that his evasive actions will be of no avail. But if the ship is going down anyway, why not have some fun with Boris on the upper deck? There is a fatalistic end-of-days pleasure in the idea of Boris doing his Churchill impressions while the iceberg looms ever closer. When things are too serious to be contemplated in sobriety, send in the clown.

The Ham of Fate | by Fintan O’Toole | The New York Review of Books

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