I am in the London Underground onboard a train on my way to a conference on ‘New Approaches to Higher Education’ organised by the Institution of Engineering and Technology and the Engineering Professors’ Council. The lady opposite has her eyes closed but she is not asleep because she opens them periodically as we come into stations to check whether it’s her stop. I wonder if she is trying to reproduce John Hull’s experience of the depth of sounds as a blind person [see my post entitled ‘Rain brings out the contours in everything‘ on February 22, 2017]. For the second time in recent weeks, I close my eyes and try it for myself. It is surprising how in a crowded train, I can’t hear anyone, just the noise made by the train. It’s like a wobble board that’s joined by a whole percussion section of an orchestra when we go around a bend or over points. The first time I closed my eyes was at a concert at the Philharmonic Hall in Liverpool. My view of the orchestra was obstructed by the person in front of me so, rather than stare at the back of their head, I closed my eyes and allowed the music to dominate my mind. Switching off the stream of images seemed to release more of my brain cells to register the depth and richness of Bach’s Harpsichord Concerto No. 5. I was classified as tone deaf at school when I was kicked out of the choir and I learned no musical instruments, so the additional texture and dimensionality in the music was a revelation to me.
Back to the London Underground – many of my fellow passengers were plugged into their phones or tablets via their ears and eyes. I wondered if any were following the MOOC on Understanding Super Structures that we launched recently. Unlikely I know, but it’s a bit different, because it is mainly audio clips and not videos. We’re trying to tap into some of the time many people spend with earbuds plugged into their ears but also make the MOOC more accessible in countries where internet access is mainly via mobile phones. My recent experiences of listening with my eyes closed, make me realize that perhaps we should ask people to close their eyes when listening to our audio clips so that they can fully appreciate them. If they are sitting on the train then that’s fine but not recommended if you are walking across campus or in town!
I used to suffer from tsundoku but now I am almost cured… Tsundoku is a Japanese word meaning ‘the constant act of buying books but never reading them’. I still find it hard to walk into a good bookshop and leave without buying a small pile of books. I did it early this month in the Camden Lock Books and left with ‘The New Leaders‘ by Daniel Goleman, ‘What we talk about when we talk about love‘ by Raymond Carver and ‘The Fires of Autumn‘ by Irène Némirowsky. I will probably read all of these three books over the coming months so it was not really an act of tsundoku. But, it’s perhaps only because there are so few really good bookshops left that I don’t buy more in a year than I can read. Although this is not quite true in my professional life, because I have started buying books on-line and the pile of unread books in my office is growing; so I am not completely cured of tsundoku. Actually, all researchers are probably suffering from it because we collect piles of research papers that we never read – in part because we can’t keep up with the 2.5 million papers published every year. And, it’s growing by about 5% per annum, according to Sarah Boon; perhaps, because there are more than 28,000 scholarly journals publishing peer-reviewed research. Of course, that’s what happens if you measure research productivity in terms of papers published – it’s a form of Goodhart’s law [see my post entitled ‘Goodhart’s Law‘ on August 6th, 2014].
As a student, in the run up to exams, I used to enjoy going out walking in the hills on my own. This approach to exam preparation probably surprised my fellow students. While other walkers that I came across probably thought I was mad because, in an age before mobile phones, they would see me talking to myself; because, as I walked, I was reciting material that I needed to learn for the next exam. This technique worked for me but I have hesitated to recommend such behaviour to my students. Now, I’ve discovered that psychologists have found that cognitive performance is improved in young adults while walking at a comfortable, relaxed speed. This is probably connected to the neurogenesis that I wrote about in my post entitled ‘Gone walking’ on April 19th, 2017.
So, as the examination season is underway in many universities, I thought I should pass on my rather eccentric approach to exam revision. No doubt, I’ll discover that I wasn’t so eccentric after all but none of us dared share such an unconventional approach to exam preparation.
Leadership is like shepherding – selfless and most of the time you have to stand back and watch. You show them where to forage [provide the vision], you take care of their health and welfare, you protect them against predators [threats] and you worry about them. But, when all of that’s done, you watch from a distance and feel proud of them.
While we were walking in the Lake District [see my post ‘Gone Walking’ on April 19th, 2017] I read ‘The Shepherd’s Life’ by James Rebank. Rebank describes how his flock is hefted to the land. ‘Heft’ is a word used in Northern England and Scotland, and means to become accustomed and attached to an area of pasture. In our modern society people tend to become accustomed and attached to cities. A few weeks earlier Nilanjana Roy, writing in the FT Weekend on April 8/9, wrote about the growing belief that national identity is an outdated and insufficient concept, whereas cities reflect the common identities of their inhabitants and have been home to peoples of diverse origin and belief for centuries. Many of us who travel frequently have a map in our heads of cities in which we feel comfortable, happy to return, accustomed or ‘hefted’. Roy calls it ‘a map of belonging’ – the cities that your spirit chimes with the most. Mine would probably include Liverpool, Ottawa, Santa Fe and Taipei [see my posts entitled ‘Out and about‘ and ‘Crash in Taipei: an engineer’s travelogue‘ on December 7th, 2016 and November 19th, 2o14 respectively]. To which cities do you feel ‘hefted’?