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Helpfully unhelpful: The pathology of being too supportive

https://theconversation.com/sublime-design-the-london-underground-map-26240

When I first arrived in London, I needed to find my way across the city to the now former site of the Home Office at St Anne’s Gate.  I didn’t have a clue about how to get there so I asked a member of staff at St Pancras railway station. He helpfully pointed me in the direction of the London Underground.  I was swept along by a torrent of people, all going about their business with a purpose, I however, didn’t have a clue where I was going.  Finding sanctuary in a quiet eddy and desperately looking around I spotted a member of staff across the concourse. Fighting against the current I scrambled to where the member of staff was and implored upon them to rescue me. Thankfully the underground staff had all been briefed, not specifically about me, I should hasten to add, but about how by being super helpful they could increase customer satisfaction, reduce complaints and attract even more customers.  And having explained my dilemma, I was very helpfully led through the ticket barriers, now struggling to hold back the surge, and down the escalator to the platform below. I was told to get on the next train and to get off at St James’ Park. Having arrived at my destination I became confused as to which exit to use and once again found a very helpful staff member who led me part way to the exit, where I spilled out into the sunlight a matter of yards away from my destination.

The following week I once again plunged into the torrent and confident that I knew which underground line to take I allowed myself to be swept along to the barriers and through, and then panic.  Which platform and am I sure that was the right line? Once again, a beacon of hope shone across the dark morass, a member of underground staff. Once again, I was led to the platform in a super helpful way and got on the first train. But this time I didn’t arrive at my destination for some, I have to say, traumatic hours. The problem was the first train was not the train to catch, it was the second that I needed; I will most definitely have to complain about that member of staff being unhelpful.

This pattern of visits to London and assistance rendered by sometimes grumpy but always super helpful members of underground staff continued for some weeks. Often, I would stay in London for a week at a time before returning home outside of the metropolis at the weekend.  During my stays I visited numerous police stations as part of my work and every time I used the underground, I sought out a helpful member of staff to assist me.  Sometimes, if they rather unhelpfully simply pointed me in the right direction, I would set off and then return to them explaining that I didn’t understand their instructions.  Armed with more information I would again purposefully set off and then duly return until the succumbed and rather reluctantly but helpfully led me to the correct platform. 

Then in a fortnight, two things happened. Firstly, the underground staff went on strike and on arriving at the gates of St James’ Park underground station I found the gates closed. There were a couple of members of staff there, but they weren’t very helpful.  ‘What should I’ do I asked, ‘Dunno’, was the reply.  Now that was not very helpful, complaint forthcoming I feel. I didn’t make my appointments that day and the following day had to use taxis to get around.  Much easier to use taxis you might say, yes but not really justifiable in terms of cost, my boss told me when I suggested I would forego using the underground altogether.  After three days the underground opened up again but for some reason there were no staff around to ask for help. I became increasingly anxious and found myself avoiding the underground, using taxis at my own expense, and walking long distances. I was exhausted I can tell you.

https://www.flickr.com/photos/cgpgrey/5050728957/

The next week I ventured into the underground again, I couldn’t avoid it forever.  I found a member of staff and duly asked them, in an almost ritualistic fashion, how to get across London to another underground station near yet another police station.  Instead of pointing me in the right direction, which we all know by now is a rather fruitless, time wasting and unhelpful exercise, or super helpfully taking me to the correct platform, they took me to a rather large underground map on the wall. ‘This is where we are’, the very nice lady said, ‘and this is where you want to be’, she added. She then continued to explain how to use the map, how to follow the signs dotted around the stations, how to look for the signs before entering the platforms so as to work out which platform to be on and how to ensure I get on the correct train. I was nervous following her instructions as I made my way to the platform, but I got to my destination and I made my own way back, with help of the wall map of course.  From that point onwards, I made my way around London on the underground with increased confidence, I wouldn’t say with consummate ease, but confidently. I made mistakes but because I knew how to read the map, I was able to rectify them and if I couldn’t I knew that I could ask. Of course, now that I drive, I use maps, I would probably have been pestering police officers and random members of the public otherwise and we know how the rare the sight of the former are on our streets. Anyway, I don’t think they’ve had the ‘super helpful’ briefing. Lately though I’ve been using my satnav, and sometimes getting into a right pickle. It seems you can’t beat good old-fashioned map reading.

What’s the point of this nonsensical tale? Well the clue is in the title. As educators we need to consider the purpose of what we are doing and how this will add value to students’ learning and knowledge.  We can give students the answers to the essay questions, how to structure a particular essay, what arguments to include, what books and journal articles to read.  We can supply them with reading lists that contain links to the books and journal articles, we can coach them to such an extent that their journey is in fact our journey, just as my journey to the underground platform was the staff member’s journey. We can repeat this many times over so that students are capable of completing that essay, but like me on my journey through the underground, they will need the same coaching for every piece of assessment and whilst they may complete each journey as I did, they have learnt very little and become increasingly disempowered and crippled by our helpfulness and their increasing reliance on it. Our jobs as educators is not to provide answers but to equip students with the tools to find the answers themselves. That process requires a willingness to learn, to discover and to take risks. Super helpfulness should not be an organisational strategy to ensure each part of the journey is easily manoeuvred and completed, it should be about ensuring that people can complete any journey independently and confidently.  Sometimes by appearing to be super helpful we are simply being very unhelpful and disempowering people at the same time.

Things I used to could do without a phone. #BlackenAsiaWithLove

A Spoken Word poem for young people everywhere, esp Youth in Asia, who may never know WE LIVED before smartphones…and live to tell about it.

Walk.

Walk down the street.

Find my way.

Go someplace.

Go someplace I had previously been.

Go someplace I had previously not been.

Meet.

Meet friends.

Meet friends at a specific time and place.

Meet new people.

Meet new people without suspicion.

Strike up a conversation with a stranger.

Make myself known to a previously unknown person.

Now, everything and everyone unknown is literally described as ‘weird’.

Eat.

Eat in a restaurant by myself.

Pay attention to the waiter.

Wait for my order to arrive.

Sit.

Sit alone.

Sit with others.

Listen.

Listen to the sound of silence.

Listen to music.

Listen to a whole album.

Listen to the cityscape.

Overhear others’ conversations in public.

Watch kids play.

Shop.

Drive.

Share.

Share pictures.

Take pictures.

Develop pictures.

Frame pictures.

See the same picture in the same spot.

Read.

Read a book.

Read a long article.

Read liner notes.

Pee.

I used to be able to stand at a urinal and focus on what I was doing,

Not feeling bored,

Not feeling the need to respond to anything that urgently.

Nothing could be so urgent that I could not, as the Brits say, ‘take a wee’.

Wait.

Wait at a traffic light.

Wait for a friend at a pre-determined place and time.

Wait for my turn.

Wait for a meal I ordered to arrive.

Wait in an office for my appointment.

Wait in line.

Wait for anything!

I used to appreciate the downtime of waiting.

Now waiting fuels FOMO.

I used to enjoy people watching…

Now I just watch people on their phones.

It’s genuine anxiety.

Walk.

Walk from point A to B.

I used to could walk between two known points without having to mark the moment with a post.

Now I can’t walk down the hall,

Or through the house or even to the toilet without checking my phone.

I avoid eye contact with strangers.

Anyone I don’t already know is strange.

I used to could muscle through this awkwardness.

Talk.

Have a conversation.

A friend and I recently lamented about how you used to could have a conversation and

Even figure out a specific thing that you couldn’t immediately recall…

Just by talking.

I also appreciate the examples we discussed.

Say you wanted to mention a world leader but couldn’t immediately remember their name. What would you do before?

Rattle off the few facts you could recall and in so doing you’d jog your memory.

Who was the 43rd US president?

If you didn’t immediately recall his name,

You might have recalled that the current one is often called “45” since

Many folks avoid calling his name.

You know Obama was before him, therefore he must’ve been number “44.”

You know Obama inherited a crap economy and several unjust wars,

Including the cultural war against Islam. And

That this was even one of the coded racial slurs used against him: “A Muslim.”

Putting these facts together,

You’d quickly arrive at Dubya! And

His whole warmongering cabinet. And

Condi Rice. And

General Powell’s botched PowerPoint presentation at the UN. And

Big dick Cheney, Halliburton and that fool shooting his friend while hunting.

That whole process might have taken a full minute,

But so would pulling up 43’s name on the Google.

This way, however, you haven’t lost the flow of conversation nor the productive energy produced between two people when they talk.

(It’s called ‘limbic resonance’, BTW).

Yeah, I used to be able to recall things…

Many more things about the world without my mobile phone.

Wonder.

Allow my mind to wander.

Entertain myself with my own thoughts.

Think.

Think new things.

Think differently just by thinking through a topic.

I used to know things.

Know answers that weren’t presented to me as search results.

I used to trust my own knowledge.

I used to be able to be present, enjoying my own company,

Appreciating the wisdom that comes with the mental downtime.

Never the fear of missing out,

Allowing myself time to reflect.

It is in reflection that wisdom is born.

Now, most of us just spend our time simply doing:

Surfing, scrolling, liking, dissing, posting, sharing and the like.

Even on a wondrous occasion, many of us would rather be on our phones.

Not just sharing the wonderful occasion –

Watching an insanely beautiful landscape through our tiny screens,

Phubbing the people we’re actually with,

Reducing a wondrous experience to a well-crafted selfie

But just making sure we’re not missing out on something rather mundane happening back home.

I used to could be in the world.

Now, I’m just in cyberspace.

I used to be wiser.

A Love Letter: in praise of poetry

Avoid loud and aggressive persons,

they are vexations to the spirit.

If you compare yourself with others,

you may become vain and bitter;

for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.

Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans


(Max Ehrmann, 1927)

Last week marked International Poetry Day (21 March 2019, to be precise) and it seems only right to consider this form of narrative in more detail. When I was younger (so much younger than today)[i] poetry left me rather cold. Why read short, seemingly impenetrable bursts of language when you could read whole books? To me, it seemed as if poetry was simply lyrics that no-one had got around to putting music to.[ii] Looking back, this may have been the folly of youth, alternatively, I simply was unable at that time to see the value, the beauty of poetry, both written and spoken.

Poetry isn’t meant to be consumed whole, like fast food to be gobbled in between anything and everything else, fuel to get you through the day. Neither is it like googling facts, just enough to enable you to know what you need to know at that instant. Instead, it’s meant to be savoured, to stay with you; like many good things in life, it takes time to ponder and digest. In turn, it takes on its own distinct and entirely personal meaning. It offers the opportunity for all of us, individually, to reflect, ruminate and interpret, at our own pace, according to our own place in time and space. The extract which opens this entry comes from Desiderata which carries particular resonance for me and my academic journey. It may or may not do the same for you, but it’s worth having a look at the entirety of the text, just in case.

An obvious criminological place to start to explore poetry, was always a favourite. Long before I discovered criminology, I discovered the work of Oscar Wilde (1854-1900). Starting with his novels, it wasn’t long before I stumbled upon his Ballad of Reading Gaol. With its haunting refrain; ‘each man kills the thing he loves’ it is difficult not to captured by its innate melody, as well as the story of the murderous soldier. After studying criminology and spending time in prison (albeit not serving a sentence), the verses take on a different dimension. It is difficult not to be moved by his description of the horror of the prison, even more so, given his practical experience of surviving in this hostile and unforgiving environment:


With sudden shock the prison-clock

  Smote on the shivering air,

And from all the gaol rose up a wail

  Of impotent despair,

Like the sound that frightened marshes hear

From a leper in his lair


(Oscar Wilde, 1898)

On the surface, poets like the Greek, civil servant C. P. Cavafy (1863-1933) have nothing to say about my life, yet his words make my heart ache. Cavafy’s tale of a mystical and mythical journey to Ithaka which seems to me to represent my educational journey in ways that I am only just beginning to appreciate. Replace the mythical Ithaka, with my all too real experience of doctoral study and you get the picture.

Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you’re destined for.
But don’t hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you’re old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you’ve gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich


(C. P Cavafy, 1910/1911)

Furthermore, The Satrapy appears to represent ambition, desire and above all, the necessity of educating oneself in order to become something more. To truly realise your humanity and not just your mere existence, is a constant struggle. Cavafy’s words offer encouragement and a recognition that individual struggle is a necessity for independence of thought.

Your soul seeks other things, weeps for other things;
the praise of the public and the Sophists,
the hard-won and inestimable Well Done;
the Agora, the Theater, and the Laurels


(C. P. Cavafy, 1911)

Poets like Maya Angelou celebrate gender and race (among many other aspects), identifying intersectionality and the struggles fought and won, and the struggles still ongoing. Despite historical and contemporaneous injustice, to be able to shout from the rooftops Still I Rise in answer to the questions she poses, is truly inspirational:

Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops,
Weakened by my soulful cries?


(Maya Angelou, 1978)

Likewise, Hollie McNish utilises her anger and frustration to powerful effect, targeting racism with the linguistic gymnastics and logic of Mathematics , demonstrating that immigration is one of the greatest things to happen in the UK. To really get the full force, you should watch the video!

Cos sometimes one that comes makes two
And sometimes one can add three more
And sometimes two times two is much much more
Than four
And most times immigrants bring more
Than minuses


(Hollie McNish, 2013).

To conclude, you have nothing to lose by immersing yourself in a bit of poetry, but everything to gain. The poets and poems above are just some of my favourites (what about Akala, Cooper Clarke, McGough, Plath, Tempest, Zephaniah, the list goes on) they may not be yours, but it doesn’t matter. Don’t rush it, read a little something and read it again. Let the words and imagery play around in your head. If it sings to you, try to remember the name and the poet, and you can return again and again. If it doesn’t sing to you, don’t lose hope, choose another poet and give their work a chance to inveigle its way into your life. I promise you, it will be worth it

Selected Bibliography

Angelou, Maya, (1978/1999), And Still I Rise, (8th ed.), (London: Virago Press)

Cavafy, C. P., (2010), Collected Poems, tr. from the Greek by Daniel Mendelsohn, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf)

Lennon, John and McCartney, Paul, (1965) Help!, [CD], Recorded by The Beatles in Help!. Parlophone, [s.l.], Apple

Wilde, Oscar, (1898), The Ballad of Reading Gaol by C. 3. 3., (London: Leonard Smithers)

[i] Lennon and McCartney, (1965).

[ii] Not always the case, as can be seen by the Arctic Monkey’s (2013) musical rendering of John Cooper Clarke’s I Wanna Be Yours


How to stay motivated in a de-motivating environment

Motivation

I’m afraid to say that this week’s entry lacks both criminological insight and positivity but in the absence of a more engaging and topical issue to debate I offer a reflective piece on staying motivated in a de-motivating environment.

Working in academia can be challenging, it’s certainly not a place to work if you have no passion for learning and engaging in healthy debate but of late I’ve found myself asking why I bother. We all know people who hate their jobs, who live for that Friday night escape and the freedom that a weekend affords and I’m thankful for the fact that I don’t feel that way…or I haven’t until recently. I’ve never hated Monday’s, possibly because academia doesn’t work on a 9 – 5, Monday to Friday basis but still, what I do has not felt like a chore until now. This term, as classroom engagement and attendance has dropped so too has my motivation and with each new pressure, training course, despondent student, stressed colleague and pointless meeting I’ve found myself wondering why I continue to hit my head against a brick wall. The future currently facing me and my colleagues is not one full of hope and prosperity but rather increased classroom time, even less hours in a day, increased pressure from those who have no understanding of what we actually do, more paperwork, more blame when things don’t work and even less time with those we love. This isn’t what any of us signed up for and it certainly isn’t enhancing our careers. So, what are my options and how do I stay motivated in this de-motivating environment?

I suppose the first thing to consider is whether or not I want to stay in this environment, I could simply walk away and do something else but deep down I know that my passion lies in this type of work so this isn’t a feasible option. I could change university but is the grass really greener on the other side? We are all acutely aware of the difficulties facing the sector and there is no shortage of stories in the news about campus closures and staff redundancies, not to mention the increasingly competitive nature of the job that demands more and more of us as researchers and income generators, so maybe the challenges we face pale in comparison to our colleagues’ experiences elsewhere. In eliminating these options I’m forced to look inward for organisational support mechanisms which take the form of courses such as ‘SMART working’, ‘Personal Effectiveness’ and ‘thriving in a changing environment’. However, while these options appear on the surface to be supportive they focus on us changing as individuals without any recognition of institutional pressures that we have no control over, such as staffing or resources. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not against self-help approaches but in reality, it doesn’t matter how SMART or effective I am as a worker, there are only so many hours in a day and only so much I, or my colleagues can do without the very real danger of burnout. As such I’m left with only one, rather sad option and that is to embrace my selfish side and withdraw from anything which is not a contractual necessity. In practice this means the students will no longer get the above and beyond support they have come to expect, the university will no longer get my enthusiasm for helping to shape future policy and practice, and my colleagues will lose an active member of the team. In theory, I shouldn’t care about the impact that this might have on others, but in reality it pains me to think that this might be the only way to survive in the de-motivating environment.

 

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