What Makes an Engineer

Last June I wrote this in relation to Laurie Penny’s claims she was a nerd:

There was a time when to be a nerd you had to be good at science, technology, engineering, or maths (STEM) to the detriment of everything else. Or at least you had to be more interested in these subjects than most other people were, which made you socially inept as a teenager. Given that I studied maths, physics, and chemisty for A-level, did a Mechanical Engineering degree, and have (sort of) worked as an engineer for most of my career, believe me when I say I know what nerds are.

By claiming to be a nerd, Laurie is implying that she is highly intelligent and is respected in a field which requires a lot of hard work and dedication to enter.

I was reminded of this during a Twitter discussion initiated by yesterday’s post on pretending people with no maths and doing mostly group projects can be called engineers.

There’s a certain solidarity among engineers, and it completely transcends cultures and international boundaries. This obviously applies to other subjects too, but the fundamentals of engineering are universal. If a British, Brazilian, Japanese, and Turkish engineer all end up in the same room they automatically have an enormous amount in common having all sat through 20+ hours per week of the same stuff for three or four years. Without a doubt the courses will differ, but the fundamentals on which they’re based are the same. A Nigerian, Iranian, Australian, and Chinese structural engineer will draw bending moment diagrams and calculate second moments of area in exactly the same way. One of the most under-appreciated and understated bonding mechanisms in teams of engineers is shared suffering through university. It’s a bit like having gone through a war and you later meet some someone who was on the same battlefield.

Yesterday in a very pleasant Twitter discussion I made the point about how much of engineering is actually maths, in particular calculus. A typical lecture mid-way through a first or second year fluid mechanics module would start with something like:

“Take a spherical object of radius d and temperature t suspended in a fluid of temperature T. Heat loss from the object is given by dt/dθ….”

At which point I’d get hopelessly lost, which is why the above example is likely nonsense. Within a few minutes the lecturer would write an equation the length of the board containing all manner of differentials and half the Greek alphabet. If your calculus isn’t up to scratch (and mine wasn’t) you’re going to struggle. The main reason why my old friend Wendy did so well at Mechanical Engineering is because she found calculus as easy as breathing.

Then you had matrices. To this day I don’t know what matrices are for, but when it came to control systems and electrical engineering – both major components in a Mech Eng degree – they are very important. I vaguely knew how to multiply one configuration with the same one, but if they were different? Oh, who the hell knows? As I was contemplating this last night I got a horrifying flashback, similar to the repressed memories trauma victims lock in a vault somewhere, to what are known as complex numbers: square roots of negative numbers, which until then I’d been confident were impossible hence didn’t exist, involving liberal use of the letter i. They were again something to do with control systems, but I couldn’t tell you how I ever passed an exam containing questions on complex numbers. Actually, looking at my academic transcript I got 39% for Control Engineering and 36% for Signal Processing, so in fact I didn’t. Ahem.

My point is, the degree was bloody hard and Manchester University’s Mechanical Engineering course was by no means the hardest out there: some of the foreign Mech Eng courses were absolutely brutal. I have a friend who studied at the prestigious Middle East Technical University in Ankara in a non-STEM field, and she told me what the engineers were subject to there bordered on abuse. But then, places were extremely limited, applications many, and anyone who graduated had a rewarding career to look forward to.

When you’re working with a bunch of engineers there’s an appreciation that everyone in the room has gone through much the same mill, regardless of where they’re from. Surprisingly, they’re not in the habit of looking down on people who haven’t, but that’s probably because the vast majority have. It’s one of the reasons why female engineers are accepted rather well by their male counterparts, because they’ve proved themselves to some degree already. No matter who you’re put to work with, you can at least take comfort in the knowledge that they too sat through lectures on subjects they found utterly bewildering and somehow managed to scrape together enough exam marks to graduate. Looking again at my academic transcript, over 4 years I sat 32 engineering exams and did a project, a directed study, and an industrial placement. I know my colleagues of both sexes did much the same, probably even more (they might even have passed Signal Processing, but I doubt it). Yes it’s hard, that’s the whole point. It’s horrible, but it’s the same for everyone: nobody enjoys it. You just suck it up, and that’s what makes you an engineer.

This is why I find the proposal I wrote about last week rather offensive: either do the course and sit the exams like everyone else, or f*ck off. There are no shortcuts.

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An Insult to Female Engineers

I’ve mentioned my genius ex-girlfriend several times before:

Back in 1999 I dated a girl who was studying Mechanical Engineering in the year below me. She went by the name of Wendy and came from somewhere near Nottingham, and she was probably the cleverest person I’ve ever met anywhere, one of those extraordinarily gifted people who just turn up out of nowhere. I think she completed her four year course with an average mark across all subjects of around 90%, and won every damned prize going in the engineering school such that even after her second year her name graced most of the plaques in the foyer. I remember her sitting a 2-hour engineering maths exam and walking out at the earliest opportunity, which was 30 minutes. She told me she’d finished after 20 minutes and that included checking.  She got 100%. She was also a Grade 8 at piano and clarinet. Like I say, an absolute genius (although not clever enough to keep clear of me). My point is that exceptionally clever women have been excelling in hard engineering subjects for at least 20 years, it is nothing new.

Here’s another thing about her: she flatly rejected suggestions she was especially clever (Kate Mulvey, take note), insisting she simply worked hard. Which she did, she worked like hell, revising for days before each exam taking every one deadly seriously, which is why she got scores over 90%. If she’d done no revision, skipped lectures, and stayed in bed until 2pm she’d have still coasted through with first class honours, but that’s not who she was. And I don’t think it would have ever occurred to her that she was remarkable because she was a woman; the idea that female engineers were more noteworthy than the males, or there was any difference between us, was simply not on the horizon in my university days, or in the early years of my career. How times have changed:

Britain’s first specialist engineering university will take school-leavers without A-level maths or physics to boost the number of female students.

The first provost of the New Model in Technology and Engineering (NMITE), which is due to open in Hereford in 2020, said that she was determined to increase the number of women taking the subject.

Elena Rodriguez-Falcon, 46, the university’s provost and chief academic officer, said that she would welcome students with three arts A levels. She said that Britain was the only country to insist that engineering students had maths and physics qualifications. School-leavers with strong GCSEs in maths and science and A levels in any subject could apply to NMITE.

Its students will be called “learners” because there will be no lectures, studying or traditional exams and they will not graduate with an honours degree. Nor will they specialise in a particular type of engineering, such as mechanical or electrical. Instead they will work on real projects in groups of five, for nearly a month at a time, and build up a portfolio proving their skills, leaving with a pass or fail in a masters degree.

This isn’t about getting women into engineering; it’s not even about engineering at all. It’s about pretending dim middle-class women are cleverer than they are by having them play-act a serious role. They might as well take them to a petting zoo and a garden centre and call them farmers. I shudder to think what my female engineering colleagues think of this.

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On those African students in the US

I’ve been seeing a lot of tweets like this in the aftermath of Trump’s “shithole” comments:

I have no doubt this is true, but what few seem to be willing to do is examine why that is. Of course, a lot of people scratch the surface and say it’s because the US is getting Africa’s best and brightest, but nobody I’ve seen has gone any deeper than that. So I will.

What I’m about to say will vary from country to country, and even region to region, but it will be broadly true across Africa. As with anything of this nature, exceptions abound: I’m talking in the general sense here. When people talk about America getting Africa’s best and brightest, what they really mean is they’re getting Africans who had the resources and connections to first get educated and then get themselves across to the States. It may be nice to dream of some utopia whereby these lucky few include those born super-bright in a mud hut to a peasant farmer, but it isn’t true. In much of Africa, getting an education requires money and connections. The same applies for getting a certificate at the end of said education, and if you have money and connections you can get this certificate while still remaining spectacularly dim.

So who has money and connections in Africa? Well, first and foremost it’s those who make up the ruling elites and their relatives. You can be sure those who run any given African country have their kids in the best schools money can buy, often overseas, and have the means and wealth to get them into an American college when they’re done with high school. In other words, a portion of those Africans supposedly outperforming locals in American universities will be there thanks to the graft, incompetence, and corruption that have made their country of origin a shithole in the first place. And there is absolutely no guarantee they will be particularly bright, regardless of what pieces of paper they hold.

You then have the relatives of those who are not directly involved with the running of the country, but nevertheless do very well from the status quo. These will be well-placed “businessmen” who have clawed out some advantage for themselves using bribery, threats, and skulduggery. They too are responsible for their country being a shithole, and their children direct beneficiaries of the practices that have brought it about.

Finally, you’ll have the relatives of people who have earned their money legitimately, or through sheer hard work and a lot of luck have managed to get an education and a ticket to the US without resorting to lying, cheating, bribery, murder, and thuggishness. I know a few like this, and they do exist.

So what’s the split between those three groups? I have no idea, but you can be sure there are representatives of all three from every African country, and it will vary between countries. What I’d like to know is how many of these Africans I’ve seen proudly declaring their “shithole” origins are in the US as a direct or indirect result of relatives who are the root cause of the problems back home? How many African students who have taken to Twitter to denounce Trump have family members in national or local governments which are riddled with corruption, or hold cushy positions in state-owned monopolies which extract extortionate rents from ordinary people? It won’t be all of them by any means, but it will be a lot of them, and it might even be most of them. And as for this:

Nigerian-Americans have a median household income well above US

Nigerians drawn from the wealthiest few percent in Nigeria are wealthier than the average American? Who would have guessed?

The number of African students studying in the US and their relative wealth is not the boast people think it is. It is in fact, in large part, a reflection of the very problems Trump was referring to.

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A Shambolic Study of Unpaid Work

Via Twitter I came across this report which attempts to tell us that women actually do more work than men:

Across all world regions, women spend more time on unpaid care work than men. On average, women spend between three and six hours on unpaid care work per day, while men spend between half an hour and two hours. If we consider the sum of paid and unpaid work, women tend to work more than men – on average, 2.6 extra hours per week across the OECD.

Women spend more time on unpaid care work than men. Okay, but what about other sorts of unpaid work? You know, stuff like mowing lawns, clearing gutters, painting sheds, unblocking drains, changing car batteries, assembling wardrobes, replacing loose slates, bleeding radiators? Or does the report only take into account care work when looking at unpaid work? Indeed it does. All that unpaid work done by men just gets ignored (incidentally, I raised this with the author on Twitter, and got no reply.)

It is therefore not surprising that the factors driving change in female labor supply – whether they are improvements in maternal health, reductions in the number of children, childcare provision, or gains in household technology – all affect unpaid care work. Because time allocation is gendered in this way, female participation in labor markets tends to increase when the time-cost of unpaid care work is reduced, shared equally with men, and/or made more compatible with market work.

So changes in technology, healthcare, and societal expectations have changed in ways that primarily benefit women, and they’ve used the spare time to go off and work. Yet somehow they’re still crushed under the patriarchal yoke.

With this said, an obvious question remains: why do women perform a disproportionate amount of unpaid care work in the first place?

Why do men spend a disproportionate amount of time doing unpaid maintenance work on the family home?

As we discuss below, although time-use should be a choice, evidence shows that social norms play a large part in determining gender roles and consequently, gendered time-use.

Men and women split the household tasks between them, each taking those they’re best at? Who knew?

In 1890, only 24% of US households had running water. In 1900, 98% of households in the US washed their clothes using a scrubboard and water heated on a wood or coal-burning stove. It is not hard to see then why in 1900, the average American household spent 58 hours per week on housework. By 1975, that figure had declined to 18. Progress in labor-saving consumer durables in the household has thus been another factor contributing to the rise in female labor force participation, especially in early-industrialized countries. Of course, this is feasible especially because women – both in 1900 and now – take on a disproportionate amount of unpaid domestic work.

Greenwood et al. (2005) present evidence for this by calibrating a quantitative economic model to show that the consumer goods revolution – which, as we can see in the chart below introduced washing machines, vacuum cleaners, and other time-saving products – can help explain the rise in married female labor force participation in the US.

So basically, women’s lives got one hell of a lot easier thanks to technological improvements. Rather than sitting back and enjoying their free time as any man would have done, they demanded to join men in the labour force. That’s fine, I have no problem with that: why shouldn’t women have careers? What I don’t understand is why they are now complaining about doing more work than men.

Some argue that there is a “natural” distribution of gender roles, with women being better suited to domestic and child-rearing responsibility and men to working outside of the home. Such assertions lack compelling evidence and more importantly, perpetuate a status quo that limits the choices available to both men and women.

Several thousand years of observing how household tasks are divvied up voluntarily between couples doesn’t constitute compelling evidence, I suppose. Or do these people think the man of the house orders his wife to feed the kid while he fixes the hole in the roof against against her will?

Instead, it is known that social norms and culture influence the way we see the world and our role in it. To this end, there is little doubt that the gender roles assigned to men and women are in no small part socially constructed.

Well, yes. Society being the result of humans interacting with each other over centuries or millenia, this is hardly surprising. A study of human behaviour which ignores societal norms and culture is of questionable value.

And while it is possible that socially-assigned gender roles emerged in the distant past, our recent and even current practices show that these roles persist with the help of institutional enforcement.

Presumably the millions of men and women in happy, cooperative partnerships are all under the influence of this “institutional enforcement”.

Social norms and culture are clearly important determinants of female labor force participation. So how can social norms be changed?

So western women, having suddenly found themselves with an abundance of free time, joined the labour force to work alongside men. If we take into account the unpaid care work women do at home, and ignore all the unpaid work men do, women work slightly more than men. Therefore we must change society.

In the context of ‘private’ family life, social norms across the world have long dictated that women should perform unpaid care work – taking care of children and elderly parents, making meals, doing laundry, maintaining family relations – while men engage in market work.

I’m beginning to see where the idiots who dreamed up this homework got their ideas from.

Rather, the hope is that with sustained social change, neither women nor men will be obliged to make decisions about time allocation on the basis of their sex.

Only when we have reshaped society will men and women be able to do the household tasks they want to.

If this is what passes for research at Oxford University these days, they might as well merge with the old poly.

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But he doesn’t look the type!

After reading my post about Lindsay Shepherd, my research assistant (the small one) said something to the effect of:

“Those guys look like complete weirdos! The one on the left looks like the sort of person who appears in your posts on polyamory!”

She is referring to Nathan Rambukkana, Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication Studies at Wilfrid Laurier University:

Let’s take a look at his biography:

My book, Fraught Intimacies: Non/Monogamy in the Public Sphere (UBC Press, 2015) explores the increased mediation of non-monogamies since the early nineties—in every medium from television, to film, to self-help books, to the Internet—and how such convergent mediation opens these discourses up to societal scrutiny, as well as transformation. By exploring the privileged logics that frame our conceptions of intimacy, I explore the political and cultural implications of how we frame non-monogamy broadly in sexual discourse, as well as how the public sphere presences of three major forms of non-monogamy (adultery, polygamy and polyamory) display a complex relationship with “intimate privilege,” an emergent state in which one’s intimacies are read as viable, ethical or even real.

Now there’s a surprise, eh? If the media wants us to buy the line that polyamory is now mainstream, we’re going to have to overlook the fact that most people involved with it are complete weirdos and many of them have serious issues which urgently need addressing.

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Hierarchical Bullies

A story doing the rounds over the last couple of days concerns Lindsay Shepherd, a teaching assistant at Wilfrid Laurier University in Canada. Briefly, Miss Shepherd showed her class a video clip of a televised public debate featuring Jordan Peterson, who is either a Nazi or a fairly normal chap depending on your point of view, in order to demonstrate that there are two sides to every debate. She was then hauled over the coals for several hours and reduced to tears by these two fuckwits:

David Thompson has the story covered and I recommend anyone interested pops over there and reads both the post and the comments. The case has caused outrage, mainly because Miss Shepherd was smart enough to record her bollocking and lay bare the Kafkaesque bullying she received at the hands of her supposed academic superiors. This article from the National Post gives a flavour, as does this one from the same place regarding one of the professor’s pathetic apology.

But it was this tweet which caught my attention, referring to those interrogating Shepherd:

It would be tempting to convince ourselves that such behaviour exists only in the clown-quarter that is western academia, but what Freek Groeneveld describes is widespread throughout many modern organisations, including corporations.

Firstly there is the relying on authority. I don’t know how many times I’ve been sat in front of someone who has dared speak to me in a certain way solely because he or she sat above me in the company hierarchy. Had the roles been reversed, they’d never have uttered a squeak; had the situation arisen outside of a work environment, they’d have been lucky to avoid getting a slap. In the brief periods I’ve been a manager I learned that if you are relying solely on your authority then you’re already in trouble. By all means use your position to make a decision, but if you rely on it to prevail in an argument it’s a sign you’ve already lost. If you rely on it to manage your people effectively, then you really shouldn’t be in the post. Nobody who has earned the respect of their subordinates should be relying on their position in the managerial hierarchy (technical hierarchy is somewhat different); that should be almost incidental if you’re managing people properly.

Secondly, there’s the “we all agreed” line. Too often I have heard the words “it was discussed” in relation to a subject that was briefly mentioned in passing, rapidly glossed over, or delivered in a monologue by a manager to a subordinate. It’s a deliberate ploy to lay the foundations for the next step in a process without the necessary bother of having to make a proper case, secure agreement, or listen to dissent.

The mistake Miss Shepherd made was to cooperate with what was obviously a kangaroo court. I can see why she did, but she’d have been better off understanding that the people she was dealing with were not acting in good faith. They were not seeking an explanation, they did not want to give her an opportunity to salvage her reputation, the whole process was set up so they could exercise their power over someone in a compromised position. The whole charade was a demonstration of their power, authority, and egos – and this is true for so much of what passes for management in modern organisations.

I know this is easy to say, but she ought to have flipped the script on them. You’ve seen how frustrating little shitlord kids are, the sort you see on police reality TV shows having been caught shoplifting. When questioned they interrupt, deliberately misunderstand the question, respond to a question with one of their own, ignore their interlocutors for periods, etc. and generally show utter, complete contempt towards the people in front of them. Miss Shepherd should have opted for a form of this. e.g. by laughing in the guy’s face when he uses some stupid term like “positionality” and say “What? What the hell does that mean? Did you just invent it?” She should have shaken her head confused and asked the guy to repeat himself, and then start looking out the window when he’s halfway through doing so. There are a million passive-aggressive tricks she could have pulled to signal her contempt for the whole process and the people conducting it.

The reason she didn’t do this is because, like thousands of Soviets who were hauled before similar tribunals, they believed they’d done nothing wrong and thought cooperating would make them leave her alone. She would have worried that if she didn’t cooperate they’d punish her, possibly by firing her. We all have bills to pay, and we all need a job. This is why so many people allow themselves to get bullied by those above them in the hierarchy: they think by cooperating with unreasonable people they’ll get treated less harshly. Nothing could be further from the truth.

I suspect she was finished from the moment they hauled her in, and the only way to save herself was by fighting back – hard. She – and anyone else in a similar position – needs to understand that the worst that can happen is you lose your job: you’re not going to get shot or sent to a Siberian camp, so grow some fucking balls. Secondly, she ought to have flipped the script in the way I described until one of them loses their cool and says something which could get them fired. Or something close to it. Then she needed to walk out and pen a letter to the head of the university describing her version of the meeting, shorn of all context and scattered liberally with terms that lawyers like to use in divorce hearings. In other words, assume the role of bully for herself and go on the warpath. It might not work, and she might get fired anyway, but it might also make them back the hell off, or at least get them on the defensive and having to explain their actions. And it’s better than grovelling in front of a star-chamber.

This is how anyone should deal with a bully in any organisation. Note that I mentioned her letter should be shorn of context. This is important. A mistake a lot of people make is to write thousands of words when lodging a complaint or defending themselves, whereas the whole idea is to give the other person the biggest headache possible. I remember once being asked to sign a document I didn’t want to. I thought about writing an explanation why, but in the end I simply wrote:

“I have no intention of signing this document.”

and left it at that. Let them come back to you to find out why you won’t sign it. If you’re going to be treated like shit, don’t make it easy for them. Simply resort to one sentence replies and make them run around trying to work out what you’re thinking. Here’s another I’ve used, in its entirety:

“Your email appears to contravene the corporate ethics policy.”

I never said how or why: let them figure out what you could possibly mean. Give them a sleepless night or two. Get the headache on their desk, and off yours.

I wish more people stood up to bullies, and to Lindsay Shepherd’s credit she gave it a damned good shot; by recording the meeting and making it go viral, she’s probably going to have the last laugh. But the way to stop this thing from happening in the first place is for people to grow a pair and not cooperate. If people could stand up and shout down Stalin’s show-trials, we ought to be able to stand up to wankers like those at Wilfrid Laurier University at the risk of getting a bad report.

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When Feminists Set Homework

The following picture was posted on Twitter yesterday by a British dad who said his kid’s school had handed it out as homework:

This surprised me a little because the narrative last week was that men were all-powerful sex-predators who use their patriarchal powers to force women into submission, which is why The Handmaid’s Tale documentary was so popular. But if denigrating and undermining men using any means to hand is the goal, the first casualty will be consistency.

To begin with, I should point out that I have come across men who’ve been utterly feckless, loafing around and going to parties while their women do all the chores as well as take care of him and the children. But they didn’t look much like the chap in the picture. None of them wore a v-neck sweater, for example. In fact, the men who look like the chap in the picture generally spend their days working their arses off to provide a home and secure future for their wives and kids.

But don’t you just love it? The husband is a shambling man-child while the wife is an all-powerful superwoman who does things like unblocks sinks and builds sheds on top of her womanly chores. Because yeah, every woman is just like that. Does anyone know of any woman who’s built a shed on her own? Or unblocked a sink when there was a man around who could have done it? Shortly after I left university I sort of moved myself into a house of five girls, four of whom hated me on sight. I won them ’round in short order by stopping the doors squeaking, bleeding the radiators so the place warmed up, and taking off the sink-trap to remove a lump of rotting hair the size of a golf ball with an ear bud through its centre. One of them was so impressed she even reads my blog almost twenty years later (*waves*).

Also, I have a close friend who was recently widowed, leaving her to raise a couple of kids alone. Among the long list of things she misses about her late husband is the moral support: when told of a problem he would make cool-headed, pragmatic suggestions which cut through the emotional nonsense surrounding it, allowing her to see the issue more clearly and in a different light. This had a valuable calming effect, which she badly misses. She’s mentioned missing this aspect of their relationship more times than she has anything to do with fixing stuff or carrying heavy items about. Do you think this ludicrous cartoon captures this contribution to a woman’s well-being which men so often provide?

Whoever came up with it obviously doesn’t know much about men or relationship dynamics, and it is fun to speculate on the relationship status of the women (for it was surely women) who are responsible. Do they belong to:

Group 1: Young women who complain incessantly that men don’t want a relationship, they just want an easy shag off Tinder. All of them will have Tinder accounts, and all will have provided said easy shag more than once in the past six months.

Group 2: Bitter older women who look forward to reading the cat-buying guides with each new issue of Modern Spinster magazine?

Group 3: Middle-aged women who were busy shagging shitlords in their twenties when they should have been securing themselves a decent partner, and chose to settle with some bumbling omega male nobody else wanted to avoid joining the women in Group 2 (look at the body-language of the woman in the picture). The divorce papers will be served on him once she’s in possession of her anniversary diamonds, and the Group 2 sisterhood will welcome her with open arms and one of these.

Whatever the case, you can be damned sure the brainchild behind this was not a woman enjoying a functioning relationship with a man she loves and respects. I’m not too worried about this because rather than driving a wedge between men and women as they hope, I think these deranged feminists are only succeeding in driving a wedge between them and ordinary, sane men and women. The comments beneath the original tweet are encouraging, suggesting men are wise to the game being played:

The best way to deal with this is to mock it mercilessly. Feminists like a fight, but they don’t like being laughed at. If I had a kid who was handed homework like this, I’d complete the assignment myself being sure to include sentences like “Mummy is brilliant, she does everything, including bringing Daddy a beer when he calls out for one”.

What desirable outcome feminists hope to achieve with stuff like this is anyone’s guess.

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Do British teachers work 70-hour weeks?

This sounds like bollocks to me, even though I’ve heard similar claims:

I knew a guy who worked mergers and acquisition in an investment bank where he was doing 80 hours per week regularly, occasionally pushing towards 90. He’d find himself going to the office bathroom at 2am and, sat on the toilet, wondering what the hell he was doing there. He said 80 hour weeks are a killer, and unless you’re pretty focused on the money and your career you’ll burn out pretty fast. He didn’t last long, and chose to do something else.

I normally work 40 hours per week, I know plenty of people who work 50 and occasionally some who work 60. I’ve known guys work 70 or 80 hours per week in bursts, when a deadline is looming or during an offshore hook-up campaign, shutdown, or similar. Do I believe British teachers – who are heavily unionised state-employees – are working 70 hour-weeks as standard? No, I don’t. I don’t even believe they are working 70 hours per week in any given week.

Let’s assume this chap’s wife works from home on Saturday and pulls a 10-hour shift from 8am to 6pm. Unlikely, but let’s be charitable here. That leaves her with five 10-hour days during the week. Standard British school hours are on average 9am to 4pm – 7 hours – so let’s assume she gets to work at 8am and leaves at 6pm. That gives her three hours each day for lessons preparations and marking, plus whatever admin needs doing. Three hours per day, every day, is a lot of time – plus the 10 hours each Saturday.

You often hear complaints about teachers having to come up with lesson plans, but this sounds mainly like a first-year problem and, unless I’m badly missing something, they can be carried over to the next year taking into account only the modifications. One thing I’ve noticed about people who work long hours in the office is their administration and organisational skills are usually poor. The reason they take ages to do stuff is because they can’t recognise repeatable tasks and generate templates, and spend half their time reinventing the wheel or searching for information they’ve already found two or three times previously. Do teachers get hired for their admin skills? Probably not. If any teacher is working 70 hours per week out of which only half is spent teaching, I suspect their administration skills are too poor for the profession.

But hey, maybe I’m wrong? Maybe British teachers really are forced to work hours more familiar to day-rate contractors and investment bankers? If true, then it’s the schools’ management who are incompetent: any normal organisation would not require ordinary employees to work 70-hour weeks as standard, they’d get in extra bodies.

But this doesn’t pass the smell-test. I suspect the claims are exaggerated, and those doing the complaining lack the necessary skills to effectively manage what is probably a fairly ordinary admin workload (dealing with kids in the class is another issue entirely). If things were as bad as this, teachers would not be staunchly defending the state-education model nor the unions who insist it must be maintained. Sorry, but it’s bullshit and I expect this guy knows it.

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Getting a Degree

Perry de Havilland, he of Samizdata and hippo worship, makes the following comment under my recent post on Oxbridge:

Frankly I think most people have no good reason to go to any university, unless they are in a STEM field, let alone go Oxbridge.

I’d probably agree with that. There is definitely an argument that the study of subjects with no commercial value, e.g. ancient Greek, archaeology, philosophy, etc. is worth doing simply for the betterment of humanity. I believe it is worth having scholars poring over the Dead Sea scrolls to try to figure out what they tell us about the world back then, just for the sake of knowing. I’d even go so far as to say such activities could be state-funded: hell, when you look at the utter shite we spend money on, genuine expanding human knowledge via genuine research looks at lot easier to stomach even if you’re against state-funding in principle.

However, these activities should be reserved for the absolute brightest people among us, those freak geniuses whose brainpower is needed to push the boundaries of knowledge and discovery further back, and who will stick to their task regardless of the sacrifices it asks of them (such as not having a life).

The problem comes when some idiot decides that anyone and everyone should be allowed to study subjects with no commercial value (or, indeed, any value) at taxpayer expense. The problem is equally bad if people are actively pressured to study garbage at their own expense, rather than doing something more useful. That’s how we end up with 25 year olds with degrees in Media Writing unable to find a job of any kind whatsoever. As Bloke on M4 says in response to Perry:

There’s a great video on YouTube of filmmakers like Terry Gilliam, Werner Herzog and John Carpenter telling people to just make films, not to go to film school.

I’d say that if you want to be a programmer, the best way to learn is install Visual Studio Community, Unity 3D, get a Pluralsight subscription ($30/month) and build a game or an app. Make something you want to make. Something you can try and fail at. Fill in gaps with Google, clubs, forums etc. The only reason to get a degree is to get your foot in the door.

The danger with this approach, although it is sensible, is that large organisations are obsessed with credentials – they’d rather employ someone in HR with no experience and a psychology degree than someone who’s managed people for 20 years but has no formal qualifications.

I’ve written before about how I think bright, young men will begin to shun big organisations and set up on their own, working in 2-5 person outfits, feeding off the bigger players. We might find they start avoiding university, too.

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Not every genius aspires to Oxbridge

Once again Oxford and Cambridge universities are being raked over the coals for not being inclusive enough, this time by race-baiting MP David Lammy.

One of the things which annoys me about these articles, and the fake outrage that underpins them, is the casual assumption that the pinnacle of everyone’s dreams is to go to Oxford or Cambridge. The idea that some extremely bright and talented people might not want to go to either isn’t entertained. As someone commented at Mr Worstall’s:

That’s the thing though isn’t it – people wanting to get in to a different university by choice. Where friends are going, where they liked on a visit, where a particular course is being run, where particular lecturers are based, where particular employers are based. Or simply not far from part of the family.

Back in December I wrote a post about my alma mater, Manchester, and mentioned a fellow engineering student:

She went by the name of Wendy and came from somewhere near Nottingham, and she was probably the cleverest person I’ve ever met anywhere, one of those extraordinarily gifted people who just turn up out of nowhere.  I think she completed her four year course with an average mark across all subjects of around 90%, and won every damned prize going in the engineering school such that even after her second year her name graced most of the plaques in the foyer.  I remember her sitting a 2-hour engineering maths exam and walking out at the earliest opportunity, which was 30 minutes.  She told me she’d finished after 20 minutes and that included checking.  She got 100%.  She was also a Grade 8 at piano and clarinet.

She was one of those freaks who could have waltzed into Oxford or Cambridge. Indeed, she even went to the open day at Cambridge so it’s not like she wasn’t aware of her options. But she came away not liking what she saw. She grew up in a rough town, raised by her mother (a nurse) after her father disowned her at birth. Posh she wasn’t, and she found the atmosphere at Cambridge not much to her liking. She was particularly unimpressed when someone started rabbiting on about house activities and how they could be restricted for poor behaviour (or something), and decided she’d rather study somewhere she could fit in better. That’s not to say she was critical of Cambridge, she just realised she’d be a lot happier in Manchester (where she slotted straight in). I don’t know how typical her case was, but she represented someone from a poor background who could have gone to Cambridge but simply chose not to. The idea that everyone should aspire to go to Oxford or Cambridge, and those who don’t make it are somehow missing out, is absolute bollocks.

I should add, there is no chip on my shoulder about Oxford or Cambridge either. Consider this nested comment, again from Mr Worstall’s:

“Oxbridge is hard. Really fucking hard. After a soft half-term to allow students with various A-levels to catch up, the pace of acceleration is breathtaking, and they never ever pause to allow students to catch up. You have to do it all on your own.”

A soft half-term? Are you joking? In weeks 1 and 2 we did the whole of A-level further maths! Something like 4 or 8 lectures and 2 tutorials to catch up 2 years for those who’d not done it! It was a rude awakening, I can tell you. Your feet didn’t touch the ground for 9 weeks upon arrival (the 8 week terms thing is a bit of a myth – there’s 0th and 9th weeks too, and if you’re unlucky, 10th week.).

I’d have lasted for about an hour in an environment like that. I found the maths at Manchester hard, and scraped my degree with a 2:1 thanks to a very strong industrial placement in my final year (being practical and goal-driven counts for a lot in a small company).

So yeah, Oxford and Cambridge are definitely for the brightest among us, but that doesn’t mean the brightest automatically aspire to either.

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