On gluttony

Today, I calculated my body fat ratio. There is a website for it. The result is a factor of your waist, neck and hips circumference in relation to your height. I took out a tape, filled in the blank slots, and was placed in the ‘acceptable’ category.

From there, I fell into an Internet burrow, and discovered a number of facts I didn’t triple check. You burn 350 calories in one hour of exercise. One pound of fat is 3500 calories. Tips to lose weight include, drink more water, eat vegetables, cut sugar, reduce carbs. Sustainable weight loss requires long-term lifestyle adjustment.

When I was growing up, all adult women around me were on rotating diets. Sometimes it was all meat and fish, sometimes it was alternative foods on alternative days, and sometimes it was protein shakes and cold wrapping sessions. Then they put weight back on, and the cycle started again.

We may think of weight loss as a vain pursuit, but I am curious about its odd, contradictory status. Half the magazines currently selling will offer weight loss tips. Meanwhile advertising – and our surrounding urban environment – bombard us with images of desirable food in extreme quantities. Yet one word is absent from the debate between ‘an epidemics of obesity’ and ‘body positive’ movements: gluttony.

Old Medieval Europe identified seven deadly sins, one of which was excessive desire for food, or the pursuit of it as an end in itself. But who would be radical enough now to simply condemn recreational eating? Let us appreciate slim bodies as a token of character strength – only by resisting the pressure of consumerist messages can you maintain one. But let us not develop a transparently moral tone when talking of controlling our appetites. Our economy might collapse.

On conditional and absolute needs

In the comment thread of a presentation on slideshare, I read the following: “Thank you Grainne. It is very interesting, but I need to know where it has been published? Conference, journal, etc? Many thanks.” This message was sent from an English University two years ago, and never received a reply.

Academic institutions impose a number of constraints on scholars. Career progress depends on published research, and the process of peer-assessment includes strict referencing guidelines. These and other requirements certainly constitute a hassle. They slow down the production and dissemination of knowledge. Yet this does not suffice to make them evil. Setting structures to moderate haste may count as a form of wisdom.

More concerning is academics representing these arbitrary constraints as absolute. Not ‘I would like to acknowledge your work, make you part of the conversation, and for that, I need to gather the details required by the process.’ Just – ‘I need to know’.

Yesterday, I was talking with two colleagues about a potential joint project, which involved practical applications. The conversation then lingered on publication opportunities in a peer-reviewed paper – ‘it’s part of what we’re supposed to do’, said a colleague. ‘It’s not part of my KPIs’, I replied. ‘I’m not in a tenure track, nor am I interested in one. I don’t have to do it.’

We live surrounded by many demands, most of them conditional, but presented as absolute and universal. Let’s clarify the difference, always. Articulating a clear if-then may be the first step on our path to freedom.

On strategy

We spend a lot of time looking for ways to reach our goals; but spend remarkably little considering what these goals should be. This applies to people and organisations.

Solving the ‘how’ question is a process most of us have mastered. I want a new phone, which one should I choose? I want to see the latest James Bond, where should I go? I want a partner, how do I get one? But often, even with a brain well-trained to find convenience and a good deal, we procrastinate, ponder options, and never act; or follow a course of action, eventually get what we want, and feel no satisfaction.

Corporate strategy is a sexy domain. It is the black box of executive decision-making: setting direction, asking the big questions. Yet the term and practice blur the distinction between the Big What – why are we together and what is it that we do – and the small what – how do we succeed and what do we do next?

The same applies to personal strategy, we blur these two levels. The Machiavellian quest for power, status, wealth – how do I get to my goal – overlaps with the Socratic, Cartesian, Freudian quest for purpose: what should I want, is it what I want, and do I really want it? And so we believe, because we’re making plans and considering options, that we’re deploying wisdom.

On mess

One of the stories in James Joyce’s Dubliners opens inside a house, with a woman cleaning, and wondering where all the dust comes from. As I look at the brown fluffy stuff on the pales of my fan, I ask myself the same question.

Cleaning trains our patience, and our sense of wonder. No matter what, dirt always returns, It’s a thin layer of grit in the corner of the shower or at the base of the tap; it’s a spot on the kitchen pavement; it’s crumbs on the table.

I find its younger brother, mess, more perplexing somehow. I put things in the right place, yet the minute I turn around, they’re all over my apartment. Papers, books, pens, glasses and cups seem to take a life of their own, and occupy as much space as they possibly can, like bodies organise themselves inside an elevator according to some personal space algorithm, maximising spread.

It’s even worse on my computer. Folders mingle, files double up, and the desktop image (a cloudy picture of the Nanjing Lake) disappears under layers of pdf, excel and word icons. I spent half a day tidying during the break. But mess has not been vanquished, only tamed for a while. The first creepers are already there.

Why have I not been trained in properly dealing with mess? All I can remember is a moral injunction to ‘just keep things tidy’ and a faux-philosophical invitation to ‘just let it be’. Never, I believe, was I simply trained to accept that things clutter as a part of any process, and that regular sorting, filing, reordering, is no more than good hygiene. That it’s not through some personal failure that my things get messy, nor a sign that I should respect mess as a product of nature. That I can calmly tackle it as it grows, and prune it back, like a weed; and celebrate its appearance as a sure sign that I’ve been standing on fertile soil.

 

On blocks

Sometimes, when we work with our minds, whether it’s writing, research or design, we get stuck.

It’s a recognizable feeling, both mental and physical. The back starts to hurt, the jaw clamps, the shoulders and arms tense up. Ideas no longer flow, but sentences or words, to-dos and cliches, echo like earworms inside the brain. We look for distraction, social media, chats, games, or good old food and drink. Walking or stretching should fix it, but most often, it doesn’t. And the pain continues.

In teams, I’ve seen it happen. Tension grows, aggressivity threatens. The solution is always to name the problem, move bodies around, and seek another way of interacting. Drawing often works, or dancing, singing. Let the dynamic change, make space for new collective patterns to emerge.

But alone, I struggle more. The tension is different, it lacks the urgency of potential aggression – carries no more than a dull sense of annoyance towards the world and the self. And so, it lingers.

I wonder today, whether the work of the mind could be compared to that of polishing wood. As we pass the file on our ideas, sometimes we meet a knot, a solid block hiding in the grain, where things don’t flow. This is where we get stuck. If we keep on pushing, we might hurt ourselves, or ruin the whole work.

So what should we do? We could start by acknowledging that knots are a crucial element in the fabric of our minds. And when we meet one, rather than grudge and grumble, celebrate this encounter with a something solid in the fleeting fabric of our thoughts. Gently caress it with our inner hand, feeling its shape, letting it be. And over time, as we learn about our different knots, decide whether we should circle around it, or forcefully cut through.

 

 

Teaching is listening

Has everyone heard of ‘the flipped classroom’? I bumped into the concept a number of times when following an education course on Coursera, and more recently, saw allusions to it in my partner’s reading notes for his Master of Teaching. The ‘flipped classroom’ model proposes that, instead of students listening to a lecturing teacher in class, and collaborating outside on homework, they should listen to recorded video lectures at home – and at their pace – while facilitated classroom time is reserved for collaborative exercises.

When I taught at the Sorbonne, I was not encouraged to develop group activities. However, my basic assumption was consistent with the flipped classroom model. Students have a motivation to learn, and previous skills to build on. My role is not to feed them new knowledge as if it fell into a void, but to rectify their imperfect understanding of some point of grammar, or how language works – as well as continuously sustain their motivation. In other words, my role as educator is not to pour knowledge into student-vessels, but guide spontaneous movements and correct harmful postures. And in order to rectify, I need to understand what’s wrong.

This is by no means an original idea of education. It does entail, however, that the main skills teachers need is not speaking or reading – but observing and listening. This New York Times editorial, expresses it with great eloquence: “With every class we teach, we need to learn who the people in front of us are. We need to know where they are intellectually, who they are as people and what we can do to help them grow. Teaching, even when you have a group of a hundred students on hand, is a matter of dialogue.”

Listening requires a different type of preparation from speech delivery. I couldn’t entirely script a class – and definitely not read my notes as some of my colleagues did – but needed the capacity to rephrase and identify errors. Partly, this comes through experience. Partly, this comes through general intelligence and emotional intelligence. Partly, this comes through relaxation. I would come with three basic points I wanted students to learn, and a general idea for potential conversational pathways. Then I would improvise, systematically taking my cues from students’ interventions.

Teachers certainly should be good speakers, but more importantly, they must be good listeners. Do you agree with this statement? And if so – how can we train as teachers to become better at listening?

Why I quit class – Trust and teaching institutions

I’ve been to class once in the last month, and I may not return. I don’t think I’m a lazybones, my Mandarin has been growing steadily, and I have made significant progress on all projects I came here with. But classes have been a great disappointment. I’d like to reflect more on the reasons why I decided to no longer attend the course I enrolled in. 

Superficially, my decision was based on a simple premise: attending classes required considerable amounts of energy, but only yielded limited results in areas of low priority for me (specialised vocabulary and advanced character recognition). On a personal level, my teachers were enthusiastic, smart, and encouraging. But the shape of the course and evaluation, rather than serving as a learning accelerator, was a cause of stress and made me passive – impairing the goals I had set myself, whether for cultural understanding, network development, or actual language learning. The contradiction became very manifest after I returned from a trip up North to meet a number of partners in a literary project I’m putting together. And again, after a trip to Shanghai attending a conference on Social Enterprise models. My teachers already knew I was doing a lot outside of class, and I told them I wouldn’t sit exams. Then I stopped attending, and shifted my focus outside.

I have written elsewhere about the lack of personalised goal-setting, how classes lacked proper differentiated learning, and how I ended up in a class too difficult for me, but with a more suited learning speed. These factors played a role in my decision to stop attending university. But the core reason is more fundamental: I developed a radical lack of trust in the system. That lack of trust started through rumours and hearsay, voices warning me that the Chinese education system was teacher-centric, inefficient, dull. I arrived doubtful, and was not proven wrong. After a month, I entirely stopped believing  that Nanjing University and I shared a similar goal – increase my ability to speak, read, write and understand Chinese based on my current level and future needs – but started to believe instead that the system has a goal of its own, and would not hesitate to trample over me for the sake of its internal logic.

From the start, and at a very material level, the university didn’t seem to care much about my well-being, or that of my fellow students. Registration was one of the most painful administrative processes I ever experienced. I queued for a total of 7 hours over two days, not knowing at any point whether I had all the required paperwork, or would need to come back again, and encountering nothing but seemingly rigid bureaucracy. Later, I shifted levels upwards from ‘Gao Xia’ to ‘Wenhua Ban’ because the speed of progress was too slow, but also because one of the classes had no working air-con. Daytime temperatures in Nanjing vary from 35 degrees in early September to 4 degrees or less in December. After two days of heavy sweating in class, temperature control didn’t seem a trivial matter anymore, and I chose the class in a room with air-con. These negative experiences had nothing to do with the curriculum – they shaped my experience nonetheless, and from the onset, made me doubtful about the level of care that students could expect from this institution.

Evaluation, however, was the root of the problem. In both ‘Gao Shang’ and ‘Gao Xia’ classes, teachers announced weekly ‘dictation’ tests on new vocabulary. I didn’t sign in to be failed for lacking skills I never intended to build. Hand-writing disconnected lists of new words is far from my top priority. In our ‘Oral Chinese’ class, a core part of our final exam will require us to write a short essay (by hand), and a vocabulary test. Isn’t the class about spontaneously telling a story, or taking part in a conversation? That’s my goal at least, and a legitimate one I think. If a test is not adequately measuring against learning goals, then how can I trust that it will reveal anything about my success or failure? More importantly, how is it going to tell my teachers – or myself – anything about my future learning needs? And if it doesn’t – should I still attend the classes that prepare for it? Maybe I should have asked for special treatment – but the culture was far from inviting to that option.

Universities are complex institutions, with their own performance management systems and internal feedback loops. Student evaluation occurs within this framework, and is not exclusively based on pedagogy. Beside, students from different backgrounds carry their own expectations, and vocabulary quizz may be what they wish to be tested on. I’m an atypical Mandarin learner: whether the system is radically flawed, or whether it simply doesn’t suit me, I’m not sure. Trust is a personal matter.

Maybe these early weeks I did attend class had a positive effect on me, maybe they simply taught me what I needed to study. In the end, my Mandarin did improve significantly over the five months I spent in China, I learnt a lot about the country, and I’m now collaborating with local student clubs to run translation workshops – not to mention the networks I built and projects I progressed. It has been a superbly valuable stay. Still, I feel that something was wasted. My own time and early enthusiasm; the time and skills of my teachers; and the learning bond I could have made with my fellow students.

I wonder how often learning institutions fail in their mission because students stop trusting them, and whether it’s a problem with no solution – that some individuals will just always be dissatisfied by the system – or whether there are simple (or complex) ways to make the situation better, and develop stronger trust between teachers, students and curriculum designers – and people attending learn better.