Forty Years On: What I Have Learned (Not!)
Today's my last day as a full-time employee of the University of Warwick. I started in the autumn of 1974, so forty years ago. You might well think: It’s about time, too. That’s enough! I agree, so my departure is completely voluntary.
What did I learn in those forty years? Not much that is worth repeating. Our world is changing continually. As it changes, most lessons of experience fall by the wayside. In 1974 it was another world. The world was local; I never thought of looking for a position in another country. Your first appointment could be a job for life (mine was). My colleagues were not exclusively white but they were all male. Warwick was at the forefront of quantitative economics: this meant every faculty member had a desktop machine that could add, subtract, multiply and divide in a cutting-edge sort of way. An equipment room held a box the size of a banana crate that did means and standard deviations. We banged out our work on typewriters; cut-and-paste meant working with paper, scissors, and glue.
Not many lessons of that era have stood the test of time. In fact, all I seem to have learned is what not to do. Here are some of the mistakes I’ve made or seen that have stayed with me. See if you agree.
Mistake #1. Collective responsibility is good
The professor didn’t show up to the class, the exam questions were off the syllabus, and the grades were random numbers. The students have revolted. What shall we do? Let’s have a committee to investigate, apologize, and take collective responsibility. Oh, and let the guy whose fault it was off the hook. The institution can soak up the damage. Now, you might think that the odd spot of bad teaching is inevitable in a research-led university. I take the opposite view: if you want the university to be research-led, demanding good teaching of everyone is an absolute requirement. Why? It’s simple. One hour of one person’s bad teaching will cost 100 hours of the research time of others; that’s the time everyone else will have to spend tied up in meetings and conflict resolution procedures and inventing new quality assurance rules and monitoring mechanisms to cover up for the bad guy and ensure it will never, ever happen again. Oh, until the next time. Bad teachers are thieves who steal everyone else’s time. It’s their fault, so they’re the ones who should pay – with their jobs if necessary! It’s their fault we are stuck with the teaching quality bureaucrats that make good teachers miserable, hike up the costs of trial-and-error, and hold back innovation. Let's hear it for personal responsibility. You want to complain to me about so-and-so? Their office is down the corridor. Go and shout at them.
Mistake #2. Our commitment to learning is 24/7
Warwick’s learning grid is open to students twenty four hours a day, seven days a week. In the weeks before the summer examinations, the library stays open all night. Students can come in and study any time they want. To facilitate that, librarians and advisers are available and on call around the clock. Inside, I'm silently shouting: “No-o-o … !” Students don’t sleep enough! Already we can’t get them to show up for a 9AM class. To use our scarce building space more efficiently we’d like to lengthen the teaching day at both ends so that classes begin at eight, but that’s out of the question because the same students were in the library reading (or networking) at half past three that morning. They won't get up till midday. We should stop for a minute and reflect on why the rest of the world has a routine called “working hours” and a “working week.” By existing, this routine solves a coordination problem. Everyone must work, relax, and sleep. All of these activities go better in themselves, and are better balanced with each other, if we all work at the same time, have fun at the same time, and turn out the light at the same time! If university is a preparation for the adult world, we should encourage our students in an adult routine. Being open for business 24/7, even for educational business, is just a bad idea.
Mistake #3. The university is a therapeutic community
He’s silent with misery while you explain that he needs to go home. He should be with his family and be looked after for a while. He might need to break his studies. “No,” he whimpers: “I want to carry on. I can work through this. I don’t want my parents to know.” Legally he’s an adult, so he gets to make the decision. You know it’ll be a disaster, but you have to go along. Our students come to us physically fit, but the same does not apply to fitness of the mind. They’re away from family and friends for the first time. In our hothouse community they’re trying to put down roots, put out feelers, and climb all at the same time. They fight for the sunlight of academic, social, and sexual success. They don’t sleep enough. They overcommit to student societies and other competitive sports. They neglect their studies and rely on last-minute revision. They’re haunted by unresolved childhood issues and family conflicts. They’re vulnerable to rejection and failure. But they still want to make it on their own. Mum or dad is the last person they want to bring in. So, when rejection and failure come round, as they do, we try to help them stay in class, supported by counselling and their friends, as though the university can make them better. The truth is that it can’t. The classroom is lonely and competitive. However long postponed, essay deadlines and exams add to their stress. Their friends have their own fears and fragilities. Their tutors must reckon with the needs of all students, not just one. More often than we recognize, the student who is suffering needs to go home to heal. Let them go.
Mistake #4. Let’s take a holistic approach
You’re in a meeting that’s been called to discuss some problem: A solution’s on the table. Everyone’s about to decide in favour. Suddenly an objection appears: “Hold on. We need to take a holistic approach.” What that means is that our little problem touches on much larger things, and before we solve the little problem we need to solve the big ones. So, in that moment the issue is changed from a small problem you can solve into a far bigger one that you can’t. Instead of being solved, the problem must be escalated into higher committees and wider communities where it will be dispersed and lost in a thousand inconclusive conversations. How many times have you seen a useful idea founder in that moment? It may seem strange that an economist should disfavour a holistic approach. After all the idea of a general equilibrium is a basic economic concept. Isn’t a holistic approach the same as seeking a general equilibrium solution? Yes, in a way. But in many practical situations the model of a general equilibrium serves to remind us only that particular solutions may well give rise to further problems. While this is salutary, economists have also learned that sometimes you should settle for second best. Too often, the quest for a holistic approach offers only procrastination and avoidance.
Mistake #5. Collegiality is our goal
The word “collegial” is linked to two other important words: “college” and “colleague.” It implies equality and sharing. When we make decisions in a collegial way, we discuss as equals, sharing reasoned arguments. We negotiate our way to a consensus. That’s fine; we’re academics, which means we are (mostly) reasonable people who hate conflict. We’d all like to work in a collegial atmosphere. But sometimes there is no consensus, and a decision must be made anyway. And someone (inevitably, it’s someone who disagrees with the outcome) responds: “Well. That’s not very collegial!” Their implication is that that should put a stop to it. But collegiality should not be our goal or our criterion. We are not employed to be colleagues; we are employed to be scholars. Our goal should be to do great research and teaching, and we should be judged by the standard of excellence that we achieve, not the standard of our collegiality. I have seen departments that have made collegiality their goal, and forgotten about excellent scholarship. Oddly enough, they have tended to be quite nasty places, because everybody is checking up on each other all the time to see if their behaviour is falling short of a collegial standard, rather than working to improve their own research and teaching. In a department where each one is striving to become a better scholar, everyone cannot help but be great colleagues to each other. But the collegiality will be a by-product of the striving after scholarship. Collegiality cannot be forced and should never be a goal.
I didn’t expect to stay at Warwick all this time, but for some reason I never got away. I have absolutely no regrets; Warwick has been a fantastic place to be. I never got bored with Warwick because every few years something would happen that changed what I did beyond all recognition: for example, computers came along, the Cold War ended, Russia became a normal country … and then not so normal. I also travelled and visited a lot, and then I came back. Anyway, here is one thing I learned that is not a mistake: if you are looking for a place to work or study, Warwick will be a wonderful choice. As for me, I’m not going anywhere so you will continue to see me around. Bye for now.