Withdrawal symptoms

Ok, this is not a Christmassy posting, but … Pressure can get to you. You begin to wonder how to cope with the never-ending commitments. You think you can manage, and are somewhat desperately clutching at straws, hoping to find an easy way out of the maelstrom. But finally you come face to face with the impossibility of meeting everything.

That’s in brief the story of the previous working week (number 51 by the calendar). The commitments involved coping with ongoing messages, updating results springing from the student ‘comments’ (we’re not allowed to call them complaints any more), then dealing with what the technical expert for the electronic environment called a ‘major disaster’ (someone had wiped out all the papers that the students had just submitted on one programme – fortunately I had already filed all papers, and after some hours’ work everything could be restored with nothing missing), then marking the student papers, editing and formatting the chapters for a book to be published next year, and somehow revising an article I had submitted to a journal. And what about the Christmas cards? What about the social life? A couple of Christmas festivities during the week too.

Christmas market in Barcelona

Christmas market in Barcelona

Something had to give. Many will recognize the problem of staring at a page and not managing to make the changes you know you have to make. Yes, search the relevant literature again. What’s the theoretical perspective underlying the article? A more challenging question than it sounds. I thought, I don’t have a theoretical perspective, or at least not a clear one. Yes, but you have a theoretical model underlying your propositions? Yes, I suppose so. Then make it clear. This is just the sort of comment I might add to an advanced student’s work: your underlying reasoning needs elaboration, I can’t follow what you’re on about it. Where is this coming from? And then, when I’m confronted with exactly the same myself, I freeze – the paper gets annotated (or the screen), bits move around, things get added and deleted, but the end result is no clearer. It’s like one of those many-thousand-piece jigsaws where nothing seems to fit together. You need to go away from it, come back with a fresh mind. But the deadline is looming. Sleepless nights of concern.

Confronted by the blank page

Confronted by the blank page

Finally, I confront the inevitable. There’s no way I can manage within the time with all the other work pressures. Cut the Gordian knot. Well, not really. But just withdraw, and hope to resubmit at a later date.

But then the withdrawal symptoms arise: what will the editor think? How could I let people down! We’ve got the space reserved in the coming issue. Now we have a major problem. Yes, I’ve reduced my ‘challenges’ by one, but given a problem to someone else. Vague memories come back of that management consultant back in the 1990s who came around with a toy monkey and placed it people’s backs – he was hoping to make a point. The fluffy toy was probably too cute. Or that first chapter of the time management book – it taught me a lot in 20 pages, especially that most of what we do is probably unnecessary, but realizing just how much I was doing ‘wrong’ (according to the time management expert) put me off reading any more. So I pass my ‘monkey’ to someone else (the editor), getting rid of an unnecessary task. But the anxiety is still there.

More Christmas Market in Barcelona

More Christmas Market in Barcelona

And of course it’s good for a teacher to experience exactly what many of the students are going through. But there’s a difference. If I don’t submit, I gain a bit a time, and lower my stress levels. If they don’t submit, they fail. It can definitely be a more uncomfortable Christmas present for a student.

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Lluis Domènech i Montaner, architect

Work during week 50 was relatively uneventful, or at least nothing of note that makes this record. Another ordinary week, more or less: meetings, processing results, but it ended with a short visit to Barcelona to work on a book with my co-editor, Mary Louise. The book stems from the ICLHE Conference last April. Mary Louise has chosen a magnificent venue for our meeting, the Casa Fuster, a hotel, an architectural gem from the Catalan architect, Lluis Domènech I Montaner.

I had first come across his work in the 1990s when I attended conferences at Canet de Mar, one of those rare coastal towns that had not taken the tourist route. It had almost no hotels, no beach cafes, nothing to attract the hordes of northern sunlovers: the locals had kept it for themselves. And I gather it has more or less remained so.

Casa Domènech i Montaner at Canet de Mar

Casa Domènech i Montaner at Canet de Mar

Canet de Mar is where Domènech i Montaner lived and worked for many years: his mother came from the town. His office Casa Domènech i Montaner is now a museum, and the town has more than a score of buildings he designed, some very functional, but some quite ornate in modernist style. Back in the 1990s I went up to the castle Castell de Santa Florentina, which Domènech i Montaner had redesigned for his uncle the owner. Unfortunately, it was closed – no visitors allowed, although I think that policy has changed now. The building is classed as ‘pre-modernista’ even though he was working on it during his Modernist heyday.
Castell de Santa Florentina at Canet de Mar

Castell de Santa Florentina at Canet de Mar

Casa Fuster in Barcelona

Casa Fuster in Barcelona

When Eva and I stayed in Canet in the mid-1990s, we were most impressed with Domènech i Montaner’s architectural wonders that we devoted our second trip to Barcelona to visit his buildings there, to add to Gaudi’s that we’d ‘done’ on our previous visit. Unfortunately the pictures we took then seem to have temporarily vanished. The Casa Fuster was reported to have been the most expensive building in Barcelona when it was constructed in 1911. Noticeable in many of his buildings are the cylindrical corner towers, often only one it seems.

Palau de la Música Catalana

Palau de la Música Catalana

The Palau de la Música Catalana, which was built in 1905-1908, is Domènech i Montaner’s masterpiece. It must be one of the most magnificent concert halls in the world. Everywhere you look, even the tiniest detail, you are in for an ocular journey of delightful discovery. When Eva and I visited nearly 20 years ago, it was closed: since then, innovative architectural additions have opened up the façade, enclosing it in a spectacular glass window screen.
Palau de la Música Catalana - skylight

Palau de la Música Catalana – skylight

It was a delight to hear extracts of Handel’s Messiah by the Orquestra Simfònica de Vallès and the Cor Lieder Càmera, with Ximena Agurto, soprano, and Xavier Mendoza, baritone, with children from eight local primary schools. The logistics of shepherding the children were superbly managed. It did not matter that every now and then a parent’s other tinier offspring in the audience burst into howls of tears. Quite a difference from an otherwise routine week at the university.

Palau de la Música Catalana

Palau de la Música Catalana

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Last tutorial

A couple of weeks after having a last lecture at the School of Business and Economics I now had my last tutorial with a group of business students. A decidedly low-key affair, the students were only interested in making sure they performed well on their business writing assignment. All questions were about that, especially about how to determine the content, whether it was appropriate to treat it this way or that, whether this economic model fitted their topic: questions I shouldn’t really have to handle, but could. The students hadn’t received much content feedback, so I was their only source. And so the tutorial ended. That was it. The students left promptly, hurrying away to continue their electronic socialization, while I picked up my things and switched off the computer in the room.

“That’s it,” I thought. No need to do this again. I thought I’d chat about it to colleagues, but there was no-one around drinking coffee. So I left, saying goodbye to Ina at reception. “I’m sure I’ll be back in the building. No doubt there’ll be meetings. It’s really only au revoir.”

Perhaps the low-key nature was appropriate. I realized it was not just the last tutorial at the SBE, but it was my last one of 2013. An early end this year. Indeed it was a pretty low week overall, at least on the education side – in this blog I’ve decided to skip the exciting things of the week.

There’s still plenty to do: collating and checking participation results, marking papers, resits, and so on. It’s strange to reflect on the whole cycle for what is a very short course. Planning meetings in September, tinkering or revising with the materials and getting everything on learning platform during October, running and teaching the course in November and December, marking papers in December and January, results in January, consultation meeting and appeals in February, resit meetings during March, resit marking in April, outcomes and appeals during May, then closure. The course can go to sleep for three months. Six weeks of course actually involves nine months of work. Ok, not always very intensive, but it’s ticking away.

estivating

estivating

When you multiply this across several other courses, you end up with a very intricate patchwork year with things always starting up and closing down. I’m already working on the next courses that start up in January and February, and these could again be for the last time. I might not even get to finish them. And perhaps that’s a good sign: these courses don’t end with me, they simply hibernate or estivate for a while, till someone kicks them back into life again. Or they mutate. The last tutorial isn’t a last one really: it will simply mutate, it will keep ticking over ever more slowly.

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Routine feedback

In a routine week I observed several other teachers. Observation can be a stressful process for the observed and the observer. It changes the dynamics in a classroom, whatever the parties try to do. Yet, the observation process seems to provide more insight into the observer than the observed. I picked up several little techniques I could usefully employ, even in these last few months. I wonder why people get tense about being observed: indeed your best critical observers are probably your students – just a pity they don’t often give you feedback.

Gombik observing

Gombik observing

Feedback is necessary for learning, but it can get overwhelming. I stay in a bed-and-breakfast: next day I get an email asking me how I enjoyed it. I book a concert: “how did you enjoy the booking service, sir?” “How did you enjoy the theatre?” “We would appreciate your opinion on our servicing of your car, on your purchase of our vegetables, on our buses.” ‘They’ can ask my opinion about everything. And long questionnaires? “Just five minutes of your time”, while I am still filling in the questionnaire some half-hour later. Then I get a reminder: “You haven’t completed the questionnaire yet, sir.” But what if I don’t have an opinion?

And you know that each bit of response is going to be minutely analysed by some computer program somewhere (and probably the NSA). Some computers know exactly what you purchase, where you travel, what you eat, and with the RFID on the containers, what you throw away. So purchases–waste = consumption.

There seems to be an obsession with feedback and analysis, even at the expense of getting a task done. Maybe I’m just old-school: I would prefer effort to be devoted to core tasks. And different people can achieve the same result in different ways. There are after all myriad ways to skin a cat (a somewhat unpleasant proverb for someone with cats!). I suppose the obsession comes from singular ‘crises’ or ‘catastrophes’ at some point in the past, so everyone has to change: rules and regulations are brought in to prevent the problem occurring again. But ‘next time’ a different issue arises. Feedback seems to promote attention to small, perhaps relatively insignificant detail, and may come at the expense of the whole. No-one gives attention to the whole: we just go away and grumble and criticize in mutual silence. Until it all breaks down. Again.

Michael Collins

Michael Collins

The week was not all routine. There was a delightful concert with the Philharmonie Zuid-Nederland in Kerkrade, with clarinettist Michael Collins playing Mozart’s clarinet concerto. Really enjoyable. True to form, next morning there was the email asking for my opinion on the theatre.

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Last lecture

The message came out of the blue. “I hear that next week you’re giving your last lecture at the School of Business and Economics.” I hadn’t thought about it. But it was to be expected: in my final working year, there would be a series of ‘last times’. However well you’re prepared for it, it still comes as a shock – another nail in the coffin of a career.

School of Business & Economics

School of Business & Economics

“We’d like to take a few pictures.” OK, no problem, but bear in mind that I have little time. I’ll be arriving straight from other teaching. I didn’t count on the inconvenience of busting my trouser zip minutes beforehand. Rapid discovery of safety pins and cautious movement during the lecture saved embarrassment.

But then I didn’t count on a thank-you speech of gratitude from Jeannette Hommes on behalf of the SBE. She referred back to my first footfall in the building in 1984 when I stepped into the unknown to ‘try’ to teach the economics staff how to write economics papers in English. I had absolutely no idea about the disparate range of economics disciplines in those days, and they all wrote in quite different ways: econometricians, labour economists, macro-economists, quantitative economists, economists from marketing or organizational theory, and so on. But this was not like herding cats (an expression that coincidentally seems to date from about the same time): it was more like trying to discover the commonalities among all the Olympic events. It was most pleasing to see a veteran of that first course in the lecture hall, Dirk Tempelaar.

Geert Hofstede

Geert Hofstede

The SBE under its various names has played a key role in my Maastricht career: notably, the exciting development of a multilingual, multicultural programme in international management under Geert Hofstede, which started in 1987. Although initially designed to function in two or three languages (Dutch, English, and German or French), it quickly mutated to just English as the participants from other cultures did not share adequate competence in the other languages. The multicultural focus remained, and still is a core principle in the learning at the School. More importantly, from my point of view, it pioneered the successful construction of a new programme entirely in a different language from the standard language of instruction, of the administration, and of the environment. It established a model that served as a template not just for other programmes in the university, but also for universities elsewhere.

Don't Look Back (1967)

Don’t Look Back (1967)

But this is the past. The last lecture may have signalled a moment to look back. But it also gives a signal of endness. It’s gone, finished, completed, past. There will be more ‘lasts’ during this year. But things move on. It’s time for others. It’s their future. And within a short while no-one will remember, and few will care. That’s life. So it’s time to don’t look back – except do so in the classic documentary of Bob Dylan’s tour of England in 1965. If you look carefully, you might be lucky to spot me in the audience.

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Customizing differences

“Why should a university have a language policy?” the university president asked. He wanted a one-sentence answer. I guess I gave an answer of sorts. I had been invited this week to give a talk in Tilburg University on my own university’s implementation of its language policy. The occasion was a celebration of the 40th anniversary of Tilburg University Language Centre – indeed forty years is quite a feat worthy of celebration.

Tilburg University Language Centre 40th anniversary

Tilburg University Language Centre 40th anniversary

A university doesn’t necessarily need a language policy if it has other means for regulating language quality and which language or languages can be used in which circumstances. A university may subsume all language communication issues under other policies, such as internationalization, human resources, examination regulations, and so on. Yet, it can be useful to combine all the language aspects in a coherent programme; it makes it easier for everyone to know what is required, and where they stand.

Any university worthy of the name is involved heavily in teaching and research with people and institutions from anywhere else in the world – potentially at least. Many universities have found that if they wish to attract talented people, they have to engage with them in a common language: many have adopted English for at least some of activities. That poses questions about what happens to other languages, not least the language of the host country (a critical question if the country has only recently made its own language the language of the academy). One and the same faculty may offer programmes through different languages: some form of regulation may be desirable. These are some of the issues a language policy can address.

Sand-timer

Sand-timer

I liked the metaphor a colleague gave me (thanks, Anneke!): language is the sand-timer, it makes everything else flow smoothly. But ill-used, it can be the grain of sand that causes the machine to stop. It was pleasing to hear the metaphor repeated by other participants.

It would have been nice to be able to talk the implementation of Maastricht’s language policy. However, it is early days: implementation by and large doesn’t start till next year. But I am pleased with one aspect. It is not one-size-fits-all. Quite the opposite in fact. The obscure principle of subsidiarity applies: devolve responsibility to the lowest appropriate level. A university is a heterogeneous body of hundreds of overlapping academic and non-academic communities. To expect them all to adhere to identical practice is whistling in the wind. Language policy implementation needs to be customized.

Aram Khachaturian

Aram Khachaturian

Differences of a different kind appeared in a wonderful performance this week of Aram Khachaturian’s Trio for clarinet, violin and piano in g minor. An ear-opening delight of cross-rhythms that depart and come together again, with the instruments seemingly alternating conflict and harmony. The end result is stunning.

Maybe our language policy will have equally stunning results.

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Return to Essex

Essex University in the late afternoon

Essex University in the late afternoon

I left Essex for good in 1967, having only passed through frequently but briefly (usually on the M25 and M11) in the subsequent years. It’s where I was ‘schooled’, leaving memories that are not always fond. In all these years I had never visited the University of Essex. Now I did.

IntlUni working groups

IntlUni working groups

Last week I was there for an IntlUni meeting – an awkward abbreviation, somewhat infelicitous, at least in the way I pronounce it – a 27-member partnership of European universities looking into the diversity of their multilingual, multicultural academic ‘space’. The partnership is aiming to determine common ‘modalities’, as we have currently called them, that is roughly different models of multilingual/multicultural practices in European universities, and to identify common characteristics in the opportunities and challenges they face. There is explicitly no attempt to create a hierarchy or say that one ‘modality’ leads to another. No one-modality-fits-all. In between the six-monthly meetings the partners have tasks to do in their home environments. The outcome should be a series of recommendations for effective multilingual/multicultural practice in the different ‘modalities’.
Wivenhoe House

Wivenhoe House

At a time when politicians seem to be running away from ‘multiculturalism’, it is instructive to be part of a sensible and sensitive approach to the opportunities. Our universities are often a lot more multilingual than they are given credit for – we simply do not use the talents that are there. There is moreover far greater scope for stimulating understanding of other cultures (and one’s own).

No, this is not meant to be a project meeting report. Just my working week.

James Dodds. Wreck (detail).

James Dodds. Wreck (detail).

Essex University is an interesting place, a campus university set in an expansive parkland with beautiful trees and a couple of large lakes, plenty of waterfowl. Most of the university buildings are functional and closely linked through a series of ‘piazzas’ (my gloss on them) fringed by student shops and cafés. It actually looked quite good in the pouring rain with hundreds of students around. Rather bleaker early on the Saturday morning, also in the rain, when I left.

The campus has a 4-star hotel school in the impressive Wivenhoe House. The service was kind and considerate; even the new trainee on her very first day handled us pretty well. The rooms are quite luxurious, and some are named after well-known hotel chains (presumably they are the sponsors).

Wivenhoe

Wivenhoe

Somewhat oddly we noticed the total lack of art work on the walls. It was a bit too sterile for a hotel. In my room there were, however, four black-and-white photographs of old stars of the stage and screen, notably Marlene Dietrich and Olivia de Havilland – I didn’t recognize the other two. The hotel school is probably seeking more sponsors. Perhaps the Wivenhoe Artists Colony could donate some?
Wivenhoe Park by John Constable (National Gallery of Art, Washington DC)

Wivenhoe Park by John Constable (National Gallery of Art, Washington DC)

James Dodds, for example, has some beautiful paintings of Essex boats and others, only a couple of miles away. Need for a sponsor. Or host an exhibition of local Essex artists? I guess the National Gallery of Art in Washington would be unlikely to donate its John Constable painting of Wivenhoe Park.

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