trying to open the box

 

Looking at how academic institutions deal with applications by students – and with lecturers who support their endeavour – when it comes to applications there seems to be little hope: one meets ignorance, lack of respect and unqualified ways of handling procedures – I referred to this issue earlier.. I suppose part of the problem is also that we usually accept such misbehavior and move on, allowing ‘them’ to move on their way. Hopeless …

“HOPE is what makes us strong. It is why we are here. It is what we fight with when all else is lost.”
– Pandora’s last words

With this attitude I wrote the letter/mail to some completely ignorant universities: if asking for a reference that supports students to follow their path of curiosity, has any meaning, there are some institutions that themselves delve in complete lack of meaning.

 

Dear colleague, I am writing to you after overcoming some hesitation and also after reflecting if there is any point in it.

Still, for the sake of students and due to my commitment to academia and academic standards I feel obliged to follow up on the way your university is dealing with applications. If there is any claim on hour side to be an academic institution of reputable rank and with an international standing, at least revisiting the following is highly advisable – to say the least.
Lecturers today are encouraged to move, and some actually manage to be engaged by different universities and research institutes – for my part I can humbly state that I had been in the lucky situation of being involved in teaching and research in different countries, linked to various institutions, amongst them those with high international standing. However, this also means that e-mail addresses change. Apparently, so I had been informed, your institution requires students to submit contact details of lectures whom they nominate for their recommendation, valid at the time of teaching. In other words, I had been teaching students who asked me for a reference after I left the respective university – and still the students are asked to provide contact details from an outdated position. In this light, what is really outdated is the requirement you set. It shows that your institution does not reflect standards of todays academia, and instead follows somewhat ‘provincial’, ‘parochial’ ideas. – I may add, that historically at least in Europe, the mobility of academics had been the norm, the settled, academic the exception – settled in terms of space usually also meant settled in thinking, lacking openness to exchange and innovation.
Now, moving on to the next point: In several cases it is [was] possible for me to keep the e-mail address from an earlier position. One option to deal with this is to check different mail accounts. Sometimes it is possible to forward mails; and another option is to set an automatic reply, informing and asking the sender to use a different e-mail-address. I had to chose with one of the accounts the latter option. So, the request for a reference, sent by our university to the one ‘official’ mail address, was answered by such automatic reply, providing an alternative address. Although the mail from your institution was not sent by a completely automated system and replies had been received, the responsible department or person did not consider to react in an appropriate way. On the contrary, later a reminder was sent to the same, inactive, address. This behaviour from your institution shows in my opinion cum gram salis the same attitude as that mentioned previously. It is highly disrespectful, ignoring the serious interests of students and showing no collegiality to academics. It is even topped by the fact that I once set a mail to the relevant department of your institution, using the ‘dormant address’. The rely I received gave apt evidence of the fact that the mail I sent was not properly read.
I may then add: the standardised ‘questionnaires’, used to ask to assess students, are substandard. In general I think it is questionable to use multiple choice questions and similar for such assessment – it is about young personalities and not machines or fat-stock. Still, if such approach is used, the design requires a bit more reflection. If a student of mine, would submit such questionnaire which I had been asked to complete, as part of exams, that student would end, on a generous day, with a very low grade.
Again, the way your institution is currently handling – at least – this part of the application process is simply appalling and lacks any respect towards students and those lecturers who are in a position to support their curiosity about learning. This part of their learning experience provided by you is apt to undermine such curiosity, and teach that studies you offer may not deliver what they promise.
Sincerely disappointed
Peter Herrmann

 

Prof. Dr. Peter Herrmann
Max Planck Institute for Social Law and Social Policy/
Max-Planck-Institut für Sozialrecht und Sozialpolitik
[section social law]
– Research Fellow –
….
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__________
University of Eastern Finland (UEF)
Department of Social Sciences
PL 1627
70211 Kuopio
FINLAND
—-Corvinus University
Institute of World Economy
Faculty of Social Sciences and International Relations
Fővám tér 8
1093 Budapest
HUNGARY
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Active Member of the European Academy of Science and Arts
Annunci

Why can’t we do what we like to do?

Why can’t we do what we like to do?
– this was the question a Chinese student asked me when I visited the country the last time and walked across the Campus before going to the conference. It had been one of these somewhat strange encounters: a student seeing a Westener, taking the opportunity to proudly exercise a bit of English. I am never sure what to think about it – it reminds me of what can be read in Bakewell’s ‘Existentialist café’:
Not being black, not being gay, not being in Switzerland, there is still sometimes ‘something special’ about being white and hetero and in China [similar applies in other countries, including the occasional introduction as ‘Herrmann the German’ after having lived there nearly twenty years, and an introduction that actually was meant to be very kind] – sure, there is some ambiguity about it, depending on the ‘other person’ [the one who looks, stares or dares to talk …], the own mood and …, ah, so many things, including a possible nice smile or a somewhat rebukingly-fearing look.Is all this what some people man when they are talking about ‘social skills’?
**********
A sentence in Marten Blix book on Digitalization, Immigration and the Welfare State [Edward Elgar, 2017] made me thinking about this in a wider context. On page 84 we can read:
Whether automation will hit an insuperable obstacle when it comes to to tackling tacit skills remains to be seen. Rather than being brick wall beyond which automation cannot venture, tacit knowledge might be reshaped or subject to circumvention and redefinition.
The highlighted part is as remarkable as easily overlooked: Skills, by [my??] definition have the tendency to be as set of rules, more or less easy to learn and also simple to algorithm-ise – the simplicity consists basically in something we may call ‘cutting off the edges, making the wedges’.
**********
Life and living is not just a technical rule – though in the context of digitisation and IT-development technical rules surely play a more pronounced, more visible role. Underlying is a social rule: the arrogance of a class that aims on shaping a world according to its own image …. Doesn’t this remind the person, well versed in the bible of Genesis 26 ff.? There we read:
 Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; and let them rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the cattle and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. God blessed them; and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” Then God said, “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the surface of all the earth, and every tree which has fruit yielding seed; it shall be food for you; and to every beast of the earth and to every bird of the sky and to every thing that moves on the earth which has life, I have given every green plant for food”; and it was so. God saw all that He had made, and behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.
Those in the dark, remain invisible, are expelled, allowing the untouchables to be amongst themselves:
This egalitarian style can clash with the Valley’s reality of extreme income polarization. ‘Many tech companies solved this problem by having the lowest-paid workers not actually be employees. They’re contracted out’, Schmidt explained. ‘We can treat them differently, because we don’t really hire them. The person who’s cleaning the bathroom is not exactly the same sort of person.’
(Freeland, Chrystia, 2012: Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else; New York: The Penguin Press)
Are we really talking about New Princedoms and refeudalisation?
**********
Coming back then to Anhui [and Changsha … – and even some international airports or some ‘melting pots’ of apparently complete and absolute indifference], perhaps one should think also more about the need of social knowledge as something that entails sovereign mastering of technical rules going hand in hand with empathy when encountering the other: fully understanding the other person [the one who looks or stares or dares to talk …], the own mood and …, ah, so many things, not least the respect of oneself as part of the situation: also with his/her own rights, defined by the interaction ….
And coming back to the question of the student:
why can’t we do what we like to do?
I suppose the answer is simple: because we are teaching and learning too many skills, and too little real knowledge. We are, even after the supposed enlightenment, and perhaps increasingly again ruled by gods, not by ourselves. And we do not even need a question as the answer is always the same, not allowing any critique anyway. And not even allowing a question … – boxing people ….

… boxing humans …

Well, moving in the academic realm is too often about boxing humans – yes, both sides going together: putting people into boxes and brutally beating them up. The following a letter I sent to relevant newspapers as comment on what is going on, how students [and lecturers] are mal-treated, disrespectful encounters when students are following their curiosity. It makes me increasingly sad, and I feel deeply ashamed …

******

Dear colleagues,

adding to the various discussions on ranking and formalistic approaches to studying, admission to universities and performance of third-level teaching and research, one point is easily overlooked – the following example is perhaps extreme, though not necessarily completely exceptional.

I worked for two years as professor of economics at Bangor College China, Changsha [BCC] before taking up my current position as research fellow at the Max-Planck Institute for Social Law and Social Policy in Munich, Germany. Still, one persisting bond to the previous job is concerned with writing references for some students. Some universities where students applied, accepted only references, requiring my mail-address from the previous job – but shouldn’t universities at this time and age accept that scholars are moving, following ambitions and calls in other positions? This means: they should also accept that mail addresses change, and one may even prefer to use a non-institutional address. Anyway, I mentioned the BCC-mail address – however, sending a mail to that address is answered by an auto-reply referring the sender to another address. This is the first point where the institution that was seeking the reference – the Graduate School, The Chinese University of Hong Kong – failed. They ignored the auto-reply and I did not know about the request they sent. Finally I was made aware of it [by the bright applying student], checked the dormant mail box and continued to the website for the submission of the reference. A form opened [after going through a more or less cumbersome procedure], asking for replies to multiple choice questions. I still think students are not made up of multiple choice elements, instead: they are real beings, humans with a multifaceted personality that cannot be squeezed into such forms – even when considering data-processing as an at-times appropriate tool. So, instead of ticking the boxes I preferred skipping them, attaching a recommendation letter instead. However, the system did not allow me to submit the letter unless I would first answer the multiple-choice questions which would feed into a one-dimensional profile. I complained, sent the letter as a mail attachment – and did not receive a reply by the said office of the Hong Kong University. At some stage, I agreed – honestly disgusted by the lack of qualification and respect towards students – ticked the boxes and attached the letter [again cumbersome, as one had to enter a code which was not clearly legible, not allowing to distinguish 0 and O]. I sent another letter of complaint to the Graduate School, The Chinese University of Hong Kong – which was again answered to the BCC address, and again they failed to resend the mail to the e-mail address mentioned in the auto-reply.

If these are the standards of entering higher education, one should not be surprised that at the other end, i.e. at the time of finishing studies, many people have difficulties. They feel their creativity being limited by the requirements of publishing, acquiring funding and the competition along lines of subordination under expectations instead of striving for innovation [see Maximilain Sippenauer: Doktor Bologna; Sueddeutsche Zeitung, 20.10.2017: 11]

Still, it is a bit surprising that all this is well known and still not much is changing. Surprising … ? Perhaps it is not really surprising if we consider that the income of top-administration posts increase while the income of lecturers does not follow accordingly [see for instance the article titled: Times Higher Education pay survey 2016 in The Times Higher Education; https://www.timeshighereducation.com/features/times-higher-education-pay-survey-2016%5D.

It seems that there is a long way towards ‘supporting the brightest by open systems’, overcoming the dominant administrative policy of ‘wedge the narrowest by furthering their smart submission’.

Sincerely

Peter Herrmann

Intelligence intellectuals and other people

I was rather interested in my fellow-prisoners, who seemed to me in no way morally inferior to the rest of the population, though they were on the whole slightly below the usual level of intelligence , as was shown by the their having been caught.

(Russels: Autobiography: 256)

I had supposed that intellectuals frequently loved truth, but I found here again that not ten per cent of them prefer truth to popularity

(Russels: Autobiography: 240)

Of course, after having read today an article in the German Die Zeit, I am wondering if only the latter is true, and the first should read today: Intellectuals and the rest of the population tend increasingly to lock themselves up in virtual worlds of numeric and algorithmic truth:

Nun, die leise peinliche Antwort lautet, dass ein System scheinbar raffinierter Anreize die Gefühlswelt der Wissenschaften neu codiert hat. An die Stelle des Zorns über die Verhältnisse in der Welt und an die Stelle des interpretativen Abenteuers mit offenem Ausgang ist die Sorge getreten, ob man genug Drittmittel eingeworben und ausreichend Aufsätze in internationalen Zeitschriften publiziert hat. Die Höhe der eigenen Drittmittel und für eine breitere Öffentlichkeit zumeist nahezu unzugängliche Fachaufsätze gelten im Wettlauf um Evaluationspokale inzwischen als der zentrale Ausweis von Kompetenz.

Indeed, as I read recently:

Un mondo dove non serve farsi domande, cercare risposte, pensare, provare a fare bene e costruire.

Thus, they are easily losing increasingly the ground under their feet