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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Through exploring the psychopathology of Capgras syndrome, in which a patient mistakes a loved one for an imposter, The Echo Maker offers a sustained meditation on the ways in which we project our own problems onto other people. As a reflection on the mysteries of consciousness, the novel offers some interesting if not especially new insights into the fuzzy boundaries between scientific and literary interpretations of the mind. Read more

Postgraduate Diary: UK Grad School

Saturday, July 29, 2006

I usually go into any workshop labelled “Networking” or “Transferable Skills” or similar with a great deal of cynicism. In numerous negative experiences, I have found such events often involve a person nominated (against his or her wishes) as a “Professional Development Co-Ordinator” standing in front of some powerpoint presentation and reading, parrot fashion, slides developed by a consultant with little connection to academia. And so when I was told that I had to attend a UK Local Grad School whose title was “Communication Skills + More” I was a little resentful, particularly as it was a residential school taking a chunky four days out of my research.

From the start, it didn't look good. The course was structured so that we stayed in specific teams throughout the week, each team being led by a tutor. Looking at the biographical profiles of these was like browsing a graduate careers fair: senior managers of Barclay's Bank, IT professionals at Proctor & Gamble, the Wildlife Officer representing the voluntary sector. The whiff of a recruitment drive was heavy in the air. I was one of those who graduated determined to avoid being whipped into what we labelled (not unaptly) "corporate whoreage." One reason for this is that the language that circulates in the business arena terrifies me with its moral meanings carefully occluded by technical terms: goal-centric development (i.e. putting profit over ethics), streamlining (i.e. job cuts), networking (i.e. never socialising without a martini in one hand and a C.V. in the other).

The Grad School initiative came about because of the Joint Skills Statement made by the UK funding councils, which noted that PhDs and their associated project management experiences are not promoted enough to industry and commerce. So it is that a business approach has crept its way even into the ivory towers of the universities. Happily on my way to becoming a dishevelled arts professor, however, all too often I sit in the sessions supposed to develop my "transferable skills" with the streams of jargon and new initiatives brushing past my ears, hot from the board rooms of corporate America. It was refreshing, then, that for the first time at the Grad School, the people delivering such concepts admitted that the ideas theorised here had no direct applicability to myself or to my studies; it was only through self-reflexively thinking about how they might point towards better ways of working that they might have an impact.

For example, introducing the Belbin test (which evaluates what role you most often play in a team), the presenter first showed a slide of four multicoloured shapes, and asked us to choose intuitively which we preferred. Those who chose the lighting bolt were apparently dynamic and creative, the triangles career driven at all costs, the circles (myself included) were hedonists. But then it was revealed that all these were rubbish; though presented in the same way as many personality tests, there was no empirical basis for the results. The message was clear: personality tests might have some significance, but they are neither the whole answer, nor do they necessarily provide any more information than can be gained intuitively known by those with a sensitivity to personality, whether theirs or others. With this admission having been made, I was able to see beyond the terminology and respect the professionalism of the tutors involved. These were not people who had swallowed wholesale the heavily theorised ideals of "team building" etc. Rather, they had real-world experience of the applicability and, crucially, the flaws of management exercises. They inspired by example, and not by the book.

Not that I was aware for much of the time that I was engaged specifically in team working and managerial skills. This was because the "tasks" came with healthily sugared spoonfuls of enjoyment, since they took the form of role plays and realistic (though idiosyncratic) scenarios. So rather than being told how to rise up the academic career ladder, we were asked to act out an imaginary job appeals panel. From the grumpy and time-pressed head of department, to the research co-ordinator who didn't give a monkeys about the appellant's teaching credentials, this was a fairly recognisable situation. Academics are always being encouraged to commercialise and seek funding for their research, but rather than simply looking at slideshows, our teams were instructed to develop a business plan and give presentations as if delivering a sales pitch in the BBC program "Dragon's Den." We rounded off the course by putting our new teamworking skills to the test, as we acted out a scenario (based on a real event) in which a sewage leak was putting residents in danger. Playing the GMB union, we had to think and work on our feet, quickly liaising with the companies and residents and environment agencies played by the other teams (and bypassing the manipulative media as much as possible!) in order to ensure the safety and financial position of our workers at the sewage plant.

I went into the Grad School hoping that I would either have a great deal of fun, even if I learnt nothing, or that I would learn lots of new practical skills I could bring to my work, even if they were not presented in the most stimulating way. In the event, I got the best balance of both: four days of laughs and enjoyment with some fantastic people, some useful advice on careers in academia, and more holistic ideas about how I see myself and my own research. Take this as a recommendation that if you receive an email invitation to a Grad School in your inbox this time next year, hit the reply button right away.

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Posted by Alistair at 4:54 pm


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