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Archive for January, 2012

Alone, he takes himself to the country

And there he picks wild words, pressing

Each one, thoughtfully (between the lines)

In the pages of this book until

the words become ideas, which release

a dried aroma calling to mind others

What do these blooms cure, in time? Is time

A cure for an eternity of fates?

Carefully picked, words are what will

Outlive the fate of being alone.

They can say “I had a story to tell”

If you will listen, if you will listen

20120129-191959.jpg

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these words are not mine – oh how I wish I could write like this….

“Religion is self generating, and it comes not just from unhappiness or loneliness – or what was sometimes called alienation – but from a need that we would have – no matter what the material circumstances were – for the… numinous would be one word… the transcendent would be another – the things that we know about without being able to quantify them; music, love, landscape (for a lot of people, I think, at different times of day) – some combinations of all those things, the nocturne. I wouldn’t trust anyone who was tone deaf on these things. But I think the great intellectual and in some ways cultural task is to satisfy hungers of this kind artistically and aesthetically without them becoming pretexts for superstition.”

Christopher Hitchens in full and eloquent flow during an interview in Australia on 2009.

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Following yesterday’s post, in which I laid bare the contents of an e-mail exchange with an organisation that says it provides tutoring support for MBA students as well as bespoke, written from scratch MBA assignments (for a price) I did receive a reply to my (I will freely admit) provocative and critical e-mail.

I wasn’t sure whether I should write another blog post. After all, I would not normally broadcast e-mail content in this way. However, there is no getting away from the fact that at least part of what this company is offering is ethically objectionable and I’m afraid when it comes to violating certain standards and values, I think an interest in upholding those values outweighs the potential embarrassment of someone being a bit annoyed about their e-mail being placed in the public domain.

Had the reply been differently worded, I also probably wouldn’t have bothered. I will let you read what I received, so that you can make your own mind, and then (because I was not encouraged to enter into a dialogue directly by replying) I will place an annotated version with my own position and opinion below that.

This is what Dr Robson sent me yesterday:

“—–Original Message—–
From: support@mbawinner.com [mailto:support@mbawinner.com]
Sent: 23 January 2012 16:27
To: Chris Dalton
Cc: support@mbawinner.com;

Subject: RE: MBA Winner Newsletter

Dear Mr Dalton

My intention is not to start a conversation with you as we share very different views on what we do and what services we offer and why offer them.

You are free to use any adjectives you like as these are an extension of someone’s thinking and well being. On this ground we do not take offense even though we might feel pity for the stance you take.

Thank you for accepting my apologies. The information we use is publically available. Our newsletter is sent out to a number of individuals some of which subscribe for it and some do not but are nevertheless given the opportunity to read something that will make them think of their MBA studies. In any case individuals have the opportunity to read the newsletter or delete the email.

With regards to our website and the information contained in it please note the following issues.

Firstly, the chargeable rates of professional service provides depend on the client’s actual requirements and these can differ considerably.

So even though we might not mention our rates this is in order not to confuse our clients. Once we know what our clients needs and want we can then negotiate the appropriate rate for our service.

Secondly, contrary to your expectations a lot of the work we do is tutoring students, spending time explaining and supporting them.

Our aim is not to compete with universities but to offer a service that allows students to understand and build up their knowledge and confidence.

We understand the debate on plagiarism and I would not like to go into this further and for what is ethical or not because I have seen business schools engaging in highly unethical behaviour and this is highly disguised under their corporate power and structure.

What I can say with confidence, and from our experience however, is that universities remain highly impersonal to students’ needs and personal circumstances. Our aim is to encourage our clients to learn but there are cases where the work we produce for them made the whole difference. I repeat that this is something that you do not have to accept or agree with. However interpretations about why and how such service adds or does not add to a students’ experience should be treated with greater caution.

Thirdly, our website features testimonials and I am not sure how you missed it.

http://www.mbawinner.com/testimonials.html

We do not have a profile of tutors because we do not think that we need one. Do you know many websites where they advertise all the employees working for them?

With regards to the students’ education and professional development all I can say is that there is no monopoly for how the education and development on students happens. I respect the work that you do.

However you must appreciate that business schools often operate as impersonal aggressive profit making machines.

We do not claim to offer the world but the work we do is specific, is well thought and adds value to the students. The feedback we get from our clients is really the best testimony to support this.

I leave the debate here and wish you good luck with your work

Kind Regards

Dr Adam Robson”

And here are my thoughts, inserted as comments in the text:

“—–Original Message—–
From: support@mbawinner.com [mailto:support@mbawinner.com]
Sent: 23 January 2012 16:27
To: Chris Dalton
Cc: support@mbawinner.com;

Subject: RE: MBA Winner Newsletter

Dear Mr Dalton

My intention is not to start a conversation with you as we share very different views on what we do and what services we offer and why offer them. [ Fair enough. We do have different views. My view is that plagiarism is cheating.]

You are free to use any adjectives you like as these are an extension of someone’s thinking and well being. On this ground we do not take offense even though we might feel pity for the stance you take. [ Hold on, is Dr Robson feeling sorry for me? As far as I can tell, my stance is that the payment of another person to write an assignment for you, for you then to submit this work as part of a university degree without acknowledging that someone else wrote it is quite unequivocally not allowed. I’m not sure I’m the one who should feel a little bit ashamed.]

Thank you for accepting my apologies. The information we use is publically available. Our newsletter is sent out to a number of individuals some of which subscribe for it and some do not but are nevertheless given the opportunity to read something that will make them think of their MBA studies. In any case individuals have the opportunity to read the newsletter or delete the email. [ I think Dr Robson is apologising for having, presumably, proactively gone out and lifted my e-mail address from the public domain as a potential client for his company’s services. I don’t feel too bad about this, and he’s right that my e-mail is probably quite easily accessible. However, his company’s newsletter was a thinly veiled advertisement people who might indeed ” think of their MBA studies” to think also about how they might pay MBA Winner for advice and/or assignment writing. I think Dr Robson believes this is a legitimate public service.]

With regards to our website and the information contained in it please note the following issues.

Firstly, the chargeable rates of professional service provides depend on the client’s actual requirements and these can differ considerably.

So even though we might not mention our rates this is in order not to confuse our clients. Once we know what our clients needs and want we can then negotiate the appropriate rate for our service. [ I wonder how much that is.]

Secondly, contrary to your expectations a lot of the work we do is tutoring students, spending time explaining and supporting them. [ If that was all that they did, I guess that would be okay. A bit strange, mind, but okay. The point, of course, is that this is not all they do]

Our aim is not to compete with universities but to offer a service that allows students to understand and build up their knowledge and confidence. [ What?!? A business service that allows students to understand and build up their knowledge and confidence? What a great idea! I wonder what we could give as a name to this kind of service? How about ” Business School”?]

We understand the debate on plagiarism and I would not like to go into this further and for what is ethical or not because I have seen business schools engaging in highly unethical behaviour and this is highly disguised under their corporate power and structure. [ Is there a “debate”? I wonder which part of cheating is ambiguous. I’m sure Dr Robson would indeed not like to go into this further. It is, after all,  pretty thin ice to be standing on and it’s still January.  His rationale for saying that there is no problem in getting somebody to write to your assignment for you seems to be that it is no less ethical then the way that business schools interact and behave with their students. An interesting argument. It would be even more interesting, I suppose, if there were any evidence of this (no examples on his website). It may well be true that universities are institutions that do exercise power in their structure, and actually the debate around what is the best way to evaluate and assess someone’s learning is a genuine interesting area for research, but I cannot understand the logic that, in effect, legitimises the custom authoring of graded coursework.  Personally, I think that the relationship between student and institution (just like the relationship between manager and organisation, and between organisation and customer, and so on…) respresents the two sides of the same coin.]

What I can say with confidence, and from our experience however, is that universities remain highly impersonal to students’ needs and personal circumstances. Our aim is to encourage our clients to learn but there are cases where the work we produce for them made the whole difference. I repeat that this is something that you do not have to accept or agree with. However interpretations about why and how such service adds or does not add to a students’ experience should be treated with greater caution. [” There are cases where the work we produce for them made the whole difference”? Wow. No, I guess this is something that I do not have to accept or agree with. How is this not a ‘ black and white’ argument? Seriously. What kind of integrity a manager have if they had progressed through to university graduation with a Masters degree with this kind of moral compass? What does that say about role of the Business School in society? I could accept that, if a student were affluent enough or (and let’s be generous and say that there may well be some schools which are not as good as some others) desperate enough, paying for some additional subject or study skills tutoring is fine. This seems like the legitimate “front” for the plagiarism aspect.]

Thirdly, our website features testimonials and I am not sure how you missed it. [ Fair point. I did find this later.]

http://www.mbawinner.com/testimonials.html

We do not have a profile of tutors because we do not think that we need one. Do you know many websites where they advertise all the employees working for them? [ Not a fair point. I think they do not put the profiles of the tutors up online because they know that what the tutors are doing is unethical, and if any of them had careers in current academia, those careers would be in jeopardy.]

With regards to the students’ education and professional development all I can say is that there is no monopoly for how the education and development on students happens. I respect the work that you do. [ Sorry, but I don’t believe a word of that.]

However you must appreciate that business schools often operate as impersonal aggressive profit-making machines.

We do not claim to offer the world but the work we do is specific, is well thought and adds value to the students. The feedback we get from our clients is really the best testimony to support this.

I leave the debate here and wish you good luck with your work

Kind Regards

Dr Adam Robson”

I’d be interested to hear what other people think about this. Am I crazy? Anyway, I will leave “the debate” here.

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This morning in my inbox there was an unsolicited email from a company called “MBAWinner.com”, with the subject line ‘MBA Winner newsletter’. It turned out that the pdf attachment was not a newsletter at all, but a glossy brochure for a company which offers (for an hourly fee) MBA tutor advice and/or “custom” writing of assignments for MBAs.

While it might be one thing for a student to pay another person to tutor them (it’s a free country), as you can imagine I am very opposed to getting others to write your assignment for you – because it’s plagiarism.

I thought them stupid for sending this to a faculty member, and I wrote back telling them so. The reply I got surprised me as I think I hurt their feelings. So I spent a little longer looking at their website (www.mbawinner.com), which did not result in me revising my opinion.

Here are the emails as they came:

“—-original Message—–
From: support@mbawinner.com [mailto:support@mbawinner.com]
Sent: 22 January 2012 15:16
To: Chris Dalton
Subject: MBA Winner Newsletter

Dear Chris

Please find our latest MBA Winner newsletter attached here Kind Regards Peter

MBA Winner

Expertise Shapes Your Future

———————-

www.mbawinner.com

Tel: 0800 756 6411

196 High Road

Wood Green

London

N22 8HH

——————————————————————————–

IF YOU ARE NOT THE INTENDED RECIPIENT OF THIS EMAIL, ANY REVIEW, USE, DISCLOSURE OR DISTRIBUTION BY YOU OF ITS CONTENTS IS PROHIBITED” (since I am the intended recipient, I reckon I’m ok disclosing this here…).

“—–Original Message—–
From: Chris Dalton
Sent: 23 January 2012 11:17
To: ‘support@mbawinner.com’
Subject: RE: MBA Winner Newsletter

Hello,

This appears to be an advertisement (not a newsletter) for an assignment writing service? I find it hard to believe that you would be stupid enough to send this to a tutor in a top UK Business School, but you have, so I should probably let you know that this would go against everything we teach and everything we expect from our MBA students. But I think you already know this.

I would, however, like to ask how you included my email in your list.

Chris Dalton”

So what I got back was:

“—–Original Message—–

From: support@mbawinner.com [mailto:support@mbawinner.com]

Sent: 23 January 2012 14:22

To: Chris Dalton

Cc: support@mbawinner.com;

Subject: RE: MBA Winner Newsletter

Dear Mr Dalton

First of all I would like to apologise for you receiving this newsletter.

This was sent to you by accident and  you should not have received it. So apologies.

As for your comment about being stupid you might want to be more considered in your formal as well informal communication and correspondence.

Kind Regards

Dr Adam Robson”

Here’s my reply:

“—–Original Message—–
From: Chris Dalton
Sent: 23 January 2012 15:05
To: ‘support@mbawinner.com’
Subject: RE: MBA Winner Newsletter

Dear Dr Robson,

Thanks for the prompt reply. I am glad that the original unsolicited email was in error, though you do not answer my question how my name got on to your list. I am assuming that your target audience are current or future MBA students who are looking for someone to write their assignments for them, so it must indeed be a bit embarrassing to have sent it to “the other side”, as it were.

I am a bit concerned that I have been harsh in describing your sending me this as stupid (actually, it’s not clear who sent me the first email since it is signed somewhat enigmatically only by ‘Peter’). Perhaps I was being unfair. So I decided to check out the web site. I must say that your site is clear, uncluttered in its layout and contains a great number of reassuringly neutral stock photographs. However, after having had a closer look at the business,  I think I will defend my use of the s-word, and for the following reasons:

1. Your home page outlines what your company does. One line of business is advising students on how they might do better in their assignments, how they can become unstuck and how what sorts of things they might do to get better grades. There is an undisclosed hourly fee for this ‘Professional Consultation’. It’s hard to argue with this, of course, as anyone is free to offer advice. In fact, we already offer a very similar service as this to our students, only we call it tutoring and it’s included in the fees. Since the tutors may also be the markers, there’s a strong likelihood that the advice given will be succinct, germane and impactful.

2. The other area of your business, and since one suspects this may actually be the bit MBA students can’t get from the tutors in their schools my sneaking feeling is that this is your bread and butter, is ‘Custom Writing Service’.

I quote your home page here, because it’s quite brazen:

” Our custom writing service is aimed at students who simply require an expert to undertake their work and guarantee to produce first grade results. There is no plagiarism involved and all assignments are research based. This service is targeted at MBA students who for unforeseen reasons or circumstances have been unable to produce the required academic work.”

I don’t know how paying someone to undertake the writing of your coursework, assignment or dissertation does not constitute plagiarism since the student must surely be passing off the work of one of your staff as their own. I think that does count as plagiarism. If what you mean when you say “there is no plagiarism involved” is that your tutors are not themselves cutting and pasting the words or (heaven forbid) getting someone else to write their work for them, then I think you may be missing the point.

3.  There are no testimonials on your site. Nor are there any tutor profiles. Neither fact creates a sense of being educationally bona fide. You do publish your office location and invite people to visit, if they wish, and this is admirable. I did have a look on Google Maps (Wood Green is a nice area, actually), and wonder whether I should ask for you in the Dry Cleaners on the ground floor, or the accommodation agency upstairs?

A good MBA is never about the grades, it’s about the learning. That learning may not be easy, and an MBA’s life balance may be difficult, especially when they are studying part-time, but that’s part of the process. The value of working through this oneself, without resorting to cheating, is what we would argue is the main benefit of the study – not

You will forgive me for not pulling any punches here. What ghost writing MBA assignments does is demean and devalue the point of calling it education. I know you won’t agree – after all, your web site says the following, “Our service is aimed at making a difference to your personal development by fulfilling your course requirements.” But Personal Development is professionally very close to my heart, so I do think the use of the word stupid is, in this case, defendable.

That is all,

Chris Dalton”

For the sake of completeness, I should mention that I did find some testimonials on the website (sorry). Clearly, the tutoring side of the business is what it is, but I suspect the school where ‘Peter A Jones, Leeds’ did his MBA may want to check his work… Also, I did not ask MBA Winner whether it would be OK to blog this but, you know what? I  did my MBA all by myself and I’m proud that it wasn’t easy, and that I learnt as much through my own errors as through the rewards of good grades, so I don’t care. Grrr.

Up-date- this story continued for a part two

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Evening light over the Thames at Greenlands

Light and dark

Winter morning at Greenlands

Sometimes this place just knocks you out…

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Another set of thoughts prompted by a chapter in “A Sacred Unity” by Bateson, this time it’s “Men Are Grass: Metaphor and the World of Mental Process”, which is the transcript of a talk he gave (or broadcast, since he was too frail to attend in person) at an event in 1980, the year of his death.

The talk revolved around two themes (one general, the other specific) that were occupying him at the time: the direction of his life and work, and the limits of mechanical and material forms of language in explaining biological process.

Notes

1. The language of description is a language of materialism. It is incredibly difficult to ditch this, though in order to understand the processes that explain Reflection, we may have to. Or try, at least, for inevitably we may fail.

2. Ideas are not “things”.  They have zero mass, zero energy, zero dimensions. There are no “things” inside ideas, only ideas of things. Bateson writes “This lands you in a world which is totally strange. I find myself running screaming from its contemplation, and essentially running back to a world of materialism, which seems to be what everyone else does, limited only by their amount of discipline.” (p. 237)

3. The retreat to the world of a language of “things” creates a division that is, in one sense, not a real one. The split between “mind” and “matter” is a good example. So when we describe Reflection as a mental process we have to careful because the langauge of science (even social science) will want us to draw explanations of cause and effect that assume linearity.

4.  The “Barbara” syllogism

Men Die / Socrates is a man. / Socrates will die.

requires that there be such a “thing” as the invention of the concept of a subject (e.g. Socrates) in order for the logic of the proposition to mean anything. These were not invented until about 100,00 years ago, says Bateson, and though it may look like the only way of making sense, this logic cannot be the logic of the vast period of natural history and biological process. In the Socrates syllogism,  it’s equality membership of a class or set that is crucial. To many, the alternative equality, that of predicates which the Grass syllogism (Grass Dies / Men die. / Men are grass. ) uses is simply wrong and very much to be avoided in explaining anything except, perhaps, poetry, art, humour, games, fantasy, dreams and (controversially) mental conditions such as schizophrenia. For Bateson, this was, partly, we all have such a problem, as it cuts us off from a greater understanding of the mystery of natural process in living things.

5. According to Bateson that process got along just fine, messages were understood, and our best shot at understanding this is by the metaphor summed up in the Grass syllogism. We are quite used to the “idea” of metaphor as expressed consciously and linguistically, but for humans the questions may be “can metaphor also be unconscious or subconscious?” In fact, is this how metaphor operates, and if it is then what is the consequence for us in practice (or in research)?

Metaphor becomes the “organizing glue of this world of mental process” (p 241).

Reference:

Bateson, G. (1991) “Men are Grass: Metaphor and the World of Mental Process”, in “A Sacred Unity: further steps to an ecology of mind.” A Cornelia and Michael Bessie Book, pp 235 -242

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I wanted use this blog posting to draw out some lessons from one of Gregory Bateson’s essays. This may not interest anyone reading this. On the other hand, if you’re curious why anyone would want to try to make sense of Bateson’s work  (I have my own PhD related reasons), you may find this helps foster your own thoughts.

The essay in question is in “A Sacred Unity: further steps to an Ecology of Mind“, a second anthology of his various (and incredible) range of writing over many years, which was published in 1991. In the section of the book titled ‘Form and Pattern in Anthropology’ is the essay “Naven: Epilogue 1958”.

Naven was a book Bateson originally published, as a cultural anthropologist, in 1936 and which was based on his  earlier field work in New Guinea. On one level, Naven (the title names a complex ceremony of tribal bonding) constituted the results of an observational study of aspects of the kinship system of the Iatmul tribe, symmetrical and complementary schismogenesis of roles and behaviours among particular family roles. The 1936 publication included an Epilogue, a sort of reflection on his findings. The 1958 edition contained a further Epilogue which critiques and re-evaluates the earlier work and places the two kinds of schismogenesis in one balancing system (and this thought was undoubtedly influnced by the interest at that time in cybernetics and systems theory), but more importantly it is an essay into the limitations of methods of inquiry and of explanation.

These are the things I take from the 1958 Epilogue (bearing in mind that these ideas continued to be developed for a further thirty years or so):

1. “All science is an attempt to cover with explanatory devices”, a game to see how rigorously the scientist can stretch explanation to cover “the vast darkness” of the subject at hand.

2. Aside from the subject under scrutiny, science is also about learning about the process of knowing. In other words, it is about explaining epistemology, or how we know.

3. Explanation is about the fitting together of data.

4. In Bateson’s epistemology, the fitting together of data is subject to logical levels of abstraction. Raw data are always one level removed from the “world as it is”, and the re-arrangement by the researcher of that data in order to make sense of it is on a level of abstraction higher  than the data itself. If the data is the picture of the world, then research is rather like trying to put together the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Further, the self-reflexive discussion of the procedures of knowing used by the researcher (that which justifies why the activity of putting together a jigsaw has any meaning at all) is itself on another level of abstraction again.

5. The labels that scientists give to explanations are just that, labels, and should not be confused with the things those labels describe. The terms used in the conclusions drawn by the researcher refer to the way that the ‘jigsaw puzzle’ has been arranged, not to what’s in the picture. 

6. In social science, explanation (theory) is recursive. Failure to discriminate between these various levels is thus cause for confusion and error.

7. Ideas are not things and words such as “learning” and “teaching” are not in themselves explanations for anything. (This may be why so many companies find it impossible to measure the effectiveness of HR training?)

8.  If we do not resist the temptation to reify them, then a lot of the theories, models, frameworks, classifications and typologies that are used in learning are simply “heuristic fallacies” when it comes to explanation.  This is a valid criticism of, for example, anyone using the Myers-Briggs Type-Indicator as an explanatory principle for behaviour or personality. This would be to confuse the device for description with the thing it describes, though the tendency to do this is very strong.

9. The study of learning and of change is actually the study of explanation not of things but of relationship between things. If learning and change are formally analogous in more areas than just social science, the value of studying what “knowing” means becomes much important for managers, since we may end up being able to explain much more.

10. We tend to think of learning as having a purpose. The idea whether change is directional and that the end of a process is its purpose (and also an explanation of the process that preceded it) is one that has occupied philosophical thought for millennia. But the explanation of the process in a system always lies outside that system (to paraphrase Einstein, we cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them). 

11. In social research the reason why this is hard to demonstrate is the capacity that human individuals have to conceptualise the system that they are an intrinsic part of. This conceptualisation (or double hermeneutic?), while also making humans prone to error in logical typing, means humans agents can consciously make changes in the variables within a system in order to retain permanence and stability. At a higher logical level, however, there is learning going on about the (observed) parameters which are the boundaries of that system.

12. A categorisation of that set of behaviours and utterances (communication) that we class as “Reflection” is not an explanation of what reflection is.  “Reflection” is of a higher logical type than, say, “experience”, “ambiguity” or “dialogue” (or any one of a myriad of behaviours and utterances). As long as we know this, we will not become confused (or, not so easily) and we will not fall into the trap of “the fallacy of misplaced concreteness” in our mapping of data.

13. What you describe, what you see, as a researcher is defined by the choices you make, and by rigour in coding at higher levels as well as lower ones. Alternative descriptions are possible where they are of the same logical type. Human learning, in this sense, might be just as interchangeably, defensibly and unsatisfactorily described by Kolb’s learning cycle as by Jung’s archetypes. The fact of context in human learning, however, is necessarily more than the individual, and cannot be explained by individualistic and atomistic theories.

14. Research into human learning often focuses on examining storied selves. This is fine, and constitutes a description of the self. But care is needed to avoid assuming, first, that these stories ‘exist’ outside their telling and, second, that simply  in their telling there will be a change of the order which we may label “Reflection” (i.e. learning, of the sort which changes the parameters of the self).

***********************

Reference:

Bateson, G. (1958) Naven, a Survey of the Problems Suggested by a Composite Picture of the Culture of a New Guinea Tribe Drawn from Three Points of View. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

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