Thursday, October 28, 2010

The Tao of referencing

I get concerned that we don't teach students enough about the reasons why referencing is necessary, apart from the fact that we din in their ear about plagiarism all the time. I also get concerned about the fact that we teach students rules of referencing that are not strictly logical, but we still get finicky about the students doing them "just so". I think we're in danger of teaching students to obey rules without thinking about the reason for the rules existing. I think our students deserve better than that; we should always be teaching them to look behind things, and to understand the reason for things - to be active in their learning. So here is my view of why we reference, with a note at the end about the game we play.

I think there are four reasons for referencing.

First and foremost is courtesy. You are a member of an academic community. If you use the work of a fellow member of that community, you owe it to them, and to yourself, to say thank you. As a member of this community you should take pride in observing the practice of courtesy.

Second is to enable your reader (me, in this case) to find the material you have used. I may wish to find out more about it. I may wish to check that the way you have used it is what the author intended.

Third, in assignments, it enables me, your tutor, to teach you better, because I can identify more clearly what is your own work and where you have used somebody else's. That means that I get to know your thought processes more accurately, and I can tailor my feedback better to your work. That means you learn more effectively.

Fourthly, and in my opinion least, it's to avoid any issues about plagiarism. Plagiarism is not an issue for most students. It's a big issue for universities because of the rotten few, and because universities are rightly concerned about protecting the quality of the qualifications they offer.

So that's why, as a student, you should reference your assignments. And be proud of doing so.

There is an unfortunate element of game playing to a degree, which is to do with getting the formatting of referencing precisely right, because there are markers who will condemn you to the outer reaches of hell if you get them wrong, even though it makes no difference to your reader's understanding. For instance, the general idea is that when you use somebody's work you put a brief reference to it in the text, and then a full reference in your list at the end of the assignment. In the Harvard system the text reference is supposed to take the form of (name, date)n e.g. (Smith, 2010). Then the end note reads Smith, J (2010) How To Keep Everyone Happy With Your Referencing, Unimportant Press: Nowheresville.

Now if you only refer to one Smith, it's obvious which end reference it applies to. but you still have to put the date. I know this from my own bitter experience (as a student on an OU course):

Tutor: "You must put the date in all text references."
Me: "But if I only have one text by Mr X, it doesn't need the date because it's obvious which reference it refers to."
Tutor: "But if you don't put the date, how do I know which one it refers to."
Me:  (goes and finds a nice comfy wall to bang my head against)

It happens. Sometimes you just have to play the game. Get over it. To know how it's "supposed" to be done in the OU, read the guide at (It's a Word document for download.)

 Now go back to the beginning and remind yourself what the real reasons for referencing are.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Stress management

I was asked for some resources about stress management in the workplace, and I had to think for a while about how best to present them. I could just give a list of links and leave the reader to it. But I don't think that would be fair for a variety of reasons.

Stress management is quite a difficult area for getting the balance right. On the one hand, everybody has some stress in their lives, and it's fatally easy to start concentrating on stress instead of concentrating on the job. On the other hand, it's also fatally easy to ignore somebody's complaints, or somebody's depressed demeanour because everybody has stress in their lives, etc, etc.

There has been some interesting work done on counselling in organisations like emergency services. When a crisis happens, it has become standard practice in many places for counselling to be offered to those, like police officers and paramedics, who dealt with it. Evidence shows that many people are better off without counselling. Counselling after a traumatic event can make them relive events that their mind is healthily working at forgetting. On the other hand, many people need, or at least can benefit from counselling after such an event. So it's right that employers should offer it. But, when somebody says, “No, I don't want counselling”, the trick is to know when to accept that, and when to press them to change their minds.

It's also tricky because stress can be good for you. Every performer and athlete knows that a certain amount of stress before an event can help to get the best out of you. Each person has their own level at which helpful stress turns into unhelpful stress, so the key lesson here is to know yourself. Observe when you feel good and when you feel bad. Get used to it, and you will predict it better and be able to react better to your circumstances.

Another factor is that reactions to stress are usually intensely physical. Often your best strategy when stressed is to go for a walk. It gets you out of the situation, and it deals with the chemicals that your reaction to stress has produced in your body. You will get to know for yourself whether, for best effect, your walk need to be a long or a short one, a hard, pumping, sweaty walk, or a gentle stroll – everybody's different.

For some more detailed ideas about what to do, go to:
"Stress Management: How to Reduce, prevent, and Cope with Stress".

If you Google “stress management”, you will find lots of alternatives. This is one of the best I've found.

There is also: “A Useful Approach to Stress Management”, which goes in to how to manage stress within a working team. It's a slightly odd resource because the pages look as if they're supposed to be passworded. If you can't get into it, it will be because they've finally figured that out. While it's there, use it – there are a lot of good pages there.

Friday, October 15, 2010

The same but different

A few weeks ago I spent three days freezing in a hotel in Bangkok. (They had air conditioning, and they used it.) As a result of that experience, I was invited to South Africa to teach at the University of Cape Town. UCT runs several courses in the field of Healthcare Technology Management (hereafter “HTM”), and the purpose of my going there was to introduce my company's software, PLAMAHS, to the students, and to do some teaching of generic management skills.

It was the first time I had taught outside the UK, apart from doing conference presentations, so a little bit nerve wracking. I've done the multicultural bit in the UK many times, but never faced a class entirely from other countries. Just before I went, I came across an article about cross cultural teaching, quite up to date, which said that us westerners have to adapt our teaching style because all this interactive stuff doesn't go down well with African students. If the teacher tries to draw learning out of them, they won't accept that they are getting value for money. I won't cite the article because I thought it was a load of rubbish at the time, and my sample of 13 students proved me right. though I did have a back up plan prepared in case I wasn't.

My host was Mladen Poluta, director of the HTM programme at UCT. This is me with him at the Rhodes Memorial.

And this is Mladen with his wife Jean, and they are probably the two best tour guides that Cape Town has to offer. They are so proud of their town, and they love to show it off.

I didn't go with theories to teach, though there are plenty of those. it was more of a practical session, how to do managing. I had my own rubric, forged through years of experience, my own and other people's:

- managers know things
- managers create information
- managers shepherd
- managers solve problems
- managers lead
- managers focus
- managers plan

I also had a little list of what managers don't do, or, more precisely, don't take:

- things for granted
- no for an answer (but see Attila the Hun)
- people in vain
- adversity lying down

The reference to Attila the Hun is to "Leadership Secrets of Attila the Hun" by Wess Roberts. It's about 20 years old now, and it was a great success at the time. Fashions come and fashions go. There's always a new book, a new package, but the basics of good management don't change.There are just different, more modern, perhaps more zesty ways of putting it. In this case, one of the leadership secrets of Attila the Hun is "Don't fight battles you can't win". As one of my students instantly pointed out, "Sometimes you have to". Yes, sometimes you can't take something and you have to resist even if resistance is futile. But the point I was making is that you never go into a situation like that without having had a good look, weighed up the options,  and taken a deliberate decision.

So we did a series of discussions and exercises on each of the areas in my rubric. 

Next exercise. 

And the next one. 

Getting into it now. 

At one point each group had to choose a presenter without using words. This caused some hilarity. 

PLAMAHS slotted nicely into the part about creating information. We talked about the relationship between data and information, and how information is shaped by the requirements of the user. I then linked that on the second day to the focussing and planning areas, using Key Performance Indicators as a framework. 

Towards the end they got an exercise in interpreting data from a report, which stretched their brains just enough.

There was just time for a trip round some of the Cape with my indefatigable guides, Mladen and Jean, on the way to the airport.

And a final stunning view.