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Sunday, 1 November 2020

New Month Old Post: Hi there Duggy!

A student sends an awkward email to an eminent professor

Early in the nineteen-nineties, I came across a strikingly enlightening piece of research that suggested that girls who learn things together, remember much more than boys. It was an experiment in which pairs of eight-year-old children explored an interactive videodisk – the kind of thing that tells an illustrated story in which, if you click on a word or group of words, it reads it out, and if you click on an object or character in a scene then something happens, for example clicking a parked car in a street scene sets off the alarm, or clicking a tray of biscuits in a kitchen makes them sing. It was a new and unusual experience at the time. 

Some weeks later the children were asked to write essays about it on their own. The surprising result was that girls who had been paired with other girls remembered twice as much as boys or girls who had been paired in other combinations.* There were other aspects to the experiment too, making a useful contribution to the idea that educational software can encourage learning through collaboration as well as individually.

I stumbled upon this as a new lecturer in a recently upgraded northern ex-polytechnic, hoping to carve a niche for myself by devising innovative courses about emerging technologies. I asked students each to lead a small, short seminar about a published research paper from a list. One student, let us call him Arshad, chose the paper about the pairs of children and the videodisk. 

Email was relatively new in those days. Some university staff still resisted its use, and those who welcomed it were having to come to terms with the accessibility and informality it brings. We took pains to educate students about the possible pitfalls. It seemed inevitable that things would sometimes go wrong, but it was with disbelief that I read the email Arshad had sent to the author of the research paper.

The author was Professor Dougman Fairwood, an eminent and influential Head of Department in a top Russell-group university, author of numerous books, review articles and research papers across a wide range of topics. He had been awarded many high-value research grants, guided no end of doctoral students to successful completion, served on government advisory committees and was internationally respected in his field. You get the idea. Think of those over-achieving grey academics who only creep into the public eye when they advise or criticise governments in times of crisis. Most are pathological workaholics and take themselves very seriously. They get upset if you don’t address them formally, or fail to treat them with the respect and deference they think they deserve. 

This is the email Arshad sent:

From: sexyarshad@screaming.net
To: d.p.fairwood@-----.ac.uk

Subject: Study questions?
Hi there
Duggy!
Hows it going,, My name is Arshad A-----, Im a student at --- University, Currently I am reviewing one of your publications titled “------------ ---- ----- ----------”. Its realy cool and I would be very gratefull if you or you coauthor Mrs Farwood would be so kind to answer a few questions reagding the study.
1 - Was there any initial asumptons taken into account about the children taking part in the study? (if any, how valid were the asumptons?).
2 - Taking a retrospective look at the study, how well do you think the study was carried out?, do you think anything was overlooked in terms of implemantaion or methodolgy?
3 - Do you think your study has any implicatons or links to other ideas?
4 - How importantly do you think your study is relevent today and more importantly in the future?
Thanks in advance
Keep it up
Arshad A-----.
It was not long before an angry reply was circulated to staff.
Dear Colleagues

The attached is a message received both here and by my co-author, and comes, apparently, from a --- University student. The student does not identify his Department, so I’m sending this complaint to the Heads of Psychology, Education, Computer Science, Engineering, Multimedia and Information Systems, with a copy to the Vice Chancellor.

Your student appears to be writing an assignment on one of our papers, and the questions that we are being asked are just the kinds of questions that a tutor might set. Is it your practice to have your students get the answers to their questions by doing the equivalent of looking at the back of the book? Obviously not, and you might want to take some action to inform the student about your preferred practice.

But the main reason for writing is to complain about the e-mail itself. The interrogational style had ------ and I phoning each other to ask what was going on here. Speaking for myself, I am decidedly cheesed off with this e-mail. Being asked to justify the validity of my own assumptions, or the relevance of my work, is something that I do not expect from a student hoping to pass a term paper. Of course, if you believe that your student is doing exactly the right thing here, then I would be especially grateful to hear from you.

Best regards

Dougman Fairwood.

Professor Dougman P. Fairwood BSc PhD DSc CPsychol FBPsS
Head, Department of -----
University of -----


cc Professor Susan A. Fairwood BEd PhD

I can think of at least five so-called rules of email etiquette Arshad ignored, but even had all been followed correctly, the content was way out of order. Students may well have genuine grounds for writing to staff at other universities, but they should always pass it by their own supervisors first. They certainly should not do it in such a clumsy and tactless way.

I drafted a grovelling apology but never had to send it. It turned out that our Head of Department had already apologised on behalf of the university believing that Arshad had been reading around for his final-year project. No one ever associated his email message with the course I was teaching. That was fortunate because at the very next academic conference I attended, I got into conversation with the friendly chap sitting next to me and asked his name. “I’m Doug Fairwood,” he answered and invited me along for a coffee. We had an interesting chat about interactive videodisks.

I raised the matter of the email with Arshad but he paid little attention, and when his seminar came along it was fairly obvious he had not really read or understood the research paper at all. He still graduated that year with a respectable degree – well, he was a nice enough lad and the university did not like us to fail people. I wonder what he’s doing now.


* One possible reason for the girls’ so much stronger recall is rehearsal, i.e. the more you repeat something the better you will remember it. Girls, being more sociable, seem more likely to have talked about their experiences afterwards between themselves, possibly in play. Strangely, the authors did not consider this in their paper. Professor Fairwood seemed very interested when I suggested it to him. 

25 comments:

  1. When choosing a fictitious name for your student here why did you choose Arshad? Why not Dave or Darren or Paul or John? Arshad hardly seems like an everyday run of the mill name to hit upon.

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    1. It would not have been unusual in that institution. Certainly not as unusual as Dougman.

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  2. I think Fairwood's reaction to the email was way over the top and he must have been up his own arse to complain to Arshad's superiors about it. He should have been able to handle Arshad with a suitable short response directing him to further reading in my opinion and left it at that.

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    1. Doesn't it reinforce what you already think about prima donna academics? I agree it would have been better to respond briefly to the student asking for clarification of his confused email, rather than to waste so much of his "valuable" time over it.

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  3. Interesting that the eminent professor overlooked an obvious reason for the greater success of the girls in the study. His angry and defensive reaction to the email, illiterate and brash as it was, suggests his awareness of the flaws!

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    1. Perhaps he was blinded by masses of key-stroke and context analysis data, and perhaps it's not obvious until someone thinks of it. It was another of my students who pointed it out to me. Also, he would then have been used to the students of his own elite institution rather than those of the ex-polytechnics which he probably thought should not have been granted university status at all.

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  4. Girls pairing with girls, remember twice as much as boys, pairing in other combinations ...
    If this post was a book, Tasker, I would purchase it. It is as fascinating as Piaget whose ideas I know from only two books.

    Last night I purchased Nick Chater's *The Mind is Flat - The Illusion of Mental Depth and the Improvised Mind* Penguin 2019. Chater is Professor of Behavioural Science at Warwick Business School.
    Your post is just as absorbing. I shall read it again tonight.

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    1. Chater is another professor with phenomenal output. The application of learning theory to learning technology advanced a long way in the 1990s when support for Piagetian play and exploration became more feasible (as opposed to the earlier Skinnerian programmed learning paradigm).

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    2. Thanks for the background: I am beholden.
      Stimulating comments too.
      I will be forwarding this post to people who don't know your blog.
      Professor Chater I will follow.

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  5. I once set an Industrial design project to design the exterior casing for a brand new and extremely powerful Russian Nuclear weapon. About 75% came up with very trendy sleek designs, and just 25% refused to take part. Not really much to do with your piece, but it reminded me of my project.

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    1. One has to bear in mind that, at least in the UK, many of those who went to university from the 1990s onwards would not have passed for grammar school in the 1960s. That is not to say they should not have the opportunity.

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  6. I couldn't help laughing when I read that email.
    It wasn't 1st April by any chance?

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    1. The incident amused me enough to keep it. The thing I find funniest is when the student refers to the co-author Mrs. "Farwood" - actually the guy's wife and a professor in her own right.

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  7. Why did the academics respond with such vitriol and snobbishness to Arshad's enquiry? Perhaps he came from a family with little or no history of higher education. Perhaps he was a second generation immigrant. Whatever his circumstances the response should have been more generous and less precious in my exceedingly humble opinion.

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    1. Absolutely. I think Fairwood was annoyed to receive such an email from someone he considered at face value to have lower ability than the students in his own university, and who he probably thought unsuited to H.E. The questions asked in the email were a garbled version of some of the things I had said the students might like to think about, and it was wrong to ask the profs to do this for him when a careful reading of the paper gave plenty to go on. The profs were right not to do this for him but Rachel's comment 2 sums it up. These very high flying academics can be charming when you meet them but total bastards to work with.

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    2. The mark of a man or a woman who is well-educated and truly civilised is to deal with other people like equals. Fairwood should have been re-named Unfairwood. I would have happily slapped him with a wet haddock and he could have then written an academic paper on humiliation.

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    3. Ha! There was a study that tried to identify the qualities and personality traits of high-achieving academics and the only thing they all had in common was an unassailable sense of their own infalibity. Ever since childhood they have been constantly praised for how clever they are. Well educated - undoubtedly although often narrowly, civilised - only the very best.

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  8. People are far too quick to rank others in their importance...and some rank people for no other reason than to feel superior.

    Those who believe themselves to be superior annoy those of us who are.

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    1. Spot on. Fairwood considered himself too important to handle this with equanimity. But don't get too carried away with being able to see that.

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  9. I remember being of an older generation, attempting to learn a technology that came into common use and was intuitive only for the generation first using it. That does not excuse Fairwood, but explains his background when he sat down to make his response via a letter possibly dictated to a secretary, or self typed on an early word processing program. As for the student, roaring into his assignment by asking for the answers, I doubt he ever changed. It surely takes all kinds. Some get on with lives devoid of a shred of kindness.

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    1. He was not the strongest student and probably better at computer programming than understanding the implications of the software he was programming, which was what the course was all about. It's a problem that continues to this day in some of the terrible web sites etc. we have to use.

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  10. I just found the email funny and the high handed response arrogant but noted that Piaget came into the frame. One of the authors would probably have been Sylvia Opper my ex sister-in-law. And it reminded me of all those books I read at teacher trainer college, did they really educate me? ;)

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    1. The entire incident amused me, which is why I kept it. In fact, the antics of students like Arshad were a never ending source of amusement and fascination. You had to do your best to try to encourage them to see beyond their assumptions but this chap seemed something of a lost cause. No, the authors did not include Sylvia Opper. I'm not telling who they actually were, much as I'd like to.

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  11. In defence of Fairwood - someone has to! In the early 90s things weren't so relaxed and informal, especially as emails were a new issue.

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    1. That's fair comment. I mention about people learning to come to terms with the accessibility and the informality. Also, anyone who had gained a top position by then would have risen up through a hierarchy in which professors were very learned and seen almost as gods, unlike now when some get made professors just for their administrative roles.

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