Collaborative Overload

I like to see my students quietly getting on with a bit of work. Perhaps looking in a dictionary from time to time. Making a few notes. Looking out of the window. These all strike me as probable signs of productivity.

055_SimeonStylitesAnd signs, too, that I am successfully managing their collaborative overload, a term I am delighted to have learnt from the Harvard Business Review.

Various bits of ‘research’ have determined that the emphasis on collaboration and teamwork in organisations has reached a zone of insanity (I paraphrase) wherein workers are forced against their will to spend the majority of their time interacting with their co-workers. The more you interact, of course, the less you actually do, and, if you are an introvert, the more you suffer.

It is a bad business probably signalling the end times. I speak from experience. Teachers of English as a foreign language are especially prey to the fallacy that students must be engaging with each other in order to be learning a language. We put them in pairs and small groups (we love small groups) and get them chatting and worry if they don’t chat enough. But if I’m honest, all this runs directly counter to my experience of language-learning, where a significant proportion of my time was time spent alone – reading, memorising, processing, writing, even drilling myself on pronunciation. For adults, learning a language, perhaps counter-intuitively, is not a particularly social practice.

Or perhaps I just think so because I have strong (off the scale?) introversive tendencies. Another article I read yesterday suggested that introverted high-school teachers are far more likely to quit the profession than their extroverted colleagues, because, very reasonably, they can’t stand how much they have to actually spend with other people, not so much in class (which, in fairness, they signed up for), but between classes – the emphasis on collaboration and teams outside the classroom is denying them the time they need to recharge.

For a social species, I am forced to conclude, we have a strong line in misanthropy.



Horrific news. Forget the dead whales. Sales of the iPhone, icon of the Spirit of the Age, are flatlining. Which can only mean, logically, that the Spirit of the Age is also in a state of paralysis. We have lost touch with who we are, and, if you believe the advertising, all that we can be (or is that someone else?).

The iPhone was launched in 2007, since when the world has changed. Changed, at any rate to the extent that everyone now has one. It is no longer a cult of the hip and wealthy. It is a universal religion, or, if its advocates are to be believed, a transformation of human possibility on the scale of the invention of moveable type. It is an emblem of the twenty-first century thinking hominid.


As Steve Jobs was fond of pointing out. His favourite anecdote, which he told and retold in interviews and speeches and I suppose keynote addresses (presentations to you and me) regarded a study undertaken at some institution or other into the mechanical efficiency of various animals. A scale was produced, in which humans and other medium-sized mammals came somewhere in the middle, and right out at the top was the condor, most efficient creature on the planet. But then someone had the nous to plug human-on-a-bicycle into the equations, and it turned out that a human on a bicycle was more efficient even that a condor by several orders of magnitude.

Jobs told this story with reference to the information age revolution in general, rather than the iPhone in particular. I do not know that the iPhone has unlocked human potential to quite that degree. Yes, you can now walk and talk at the same time. You can, simultaneously and at the mere swipe of a finger, summon a taxi and read the newspaper and take a photograph of the pavement. All these things are possible. But at some point you still have to pedal the bicycle, as it were. The device is not going to think for you. There has to be something for it to amplify, beyond its own neatness and coolness and silveriness.

After You

I occasionally talk to my students about turn-taking. I remind them, for example, that in Britain you have to let a body off the bus before you muscle on; that the same goes doubly for the Underground; and you should wait patiently at the bar, your limp tenner in your hand, and not holler at the barman (who would ignore you anyway). So, a valuable life lesson.

But they shouldn’t need to be told, not only because they are, in the main, a well-bred lot, but because turn-taking is a fundamental structure of social and linguistic interaction.


Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian – Luca Signorelli

Turn-taking in spoken language is, in neurological terms, high cost; reading what is passing in a social group, harvesting micro-signals as invitations to take a turn or wait a turn, and then signalling to the group that you are done, or not done, is a high-order skill, one which may even lie closer to the origins of language than most language itself. In other words, language might have risen on the back of social turn-taking, and one of its first functions would have been to mediate that turn-taking.

You would expect, then, that all languages would be characterised by similar turn-taking strategies, and that also seems to be true. There are minor differences (for example, in the length of pause between turns), but in general the universals are more striking. We do not talk over each other (unless we are angry and communication has broken down anyway), we respect different conventions depending on relative social rank, and so on.

Some people are better at it than others, however. I occasionally have to bark at my students to shut up and wait their turn while I finish yet another highly educative and illuminating and usually hilarious anecdote, or talk to them at length about cognitive science and other things they really should already know. But these little life skills, I like to think, are among the most valuable things I teach.

Sea Monster

The awe-stricken credulous slaves in the vicinity took it for the bones of one of the fallen angels.


Exciting, and rather sad, times for fans of sea monsters – and who is not a fan of sea monsters? Four sperm whales have beached not all that far from Cambridge, one at Hunstanton on the North Norfolk coast, the others on the far side of the Wash, at Skegness. They probably came from the same pod, and are likely to have died at sea.


Beached Whale near Beverwijk, 1602 – Jan Saenredam

Meanwhile, at Much Farm, again not far from Cambridge, palaeontologists (from, ahem, Oxford) have uncovered the fossilised bones of what might be a new species of plesiosaur. The plesiosaur is approximately 165 million years old, and so far over six hundred pieces have been uncovered. They are still missing the hind flippers, evidently, but the rest of him is pretty much there.

I have never come face-to-face with a plesiosaur, but a whale, even a beached whale, is quite a sight. I saw one when I was child, on a beach in Ireland. I remember only that it was colossal, and that it stank. Inevitably, it drew a crowd. Albrecht Dürer is said to have died following a trip to the coast of the Netherlands to see a whale. It had decomposed by the time he got there, and the artist caught a cold, which turned nasty and took him off. But I understand his motivation. A dead whale is a wonder.

So if you make it as far as Skegness or Hunstanton, wrap up warm. But if you cannot, there is a picture of a beached whale, previously mentioned on this blog, here in Cambridge at the Fitzwilliam Museum. Alternatively, the Museum of Zoology, with its famous Finback whale skeleton, will be re-opening at some point this year.

Theme Tune

How do you kick off a lesson? Saunter in, say good morning, do a bit of talk about the weather, start fiddling with the computer? Do you insist your students stand up when you come in (perhaps trailing an academic gown?). Are you there waiting when your students arrive, in ones and twos, your folders and papers and books and pens aligned neatly in front of you, a silent rebuke?

I’ve tried all of those (except the academic gown and the tidy pens), but I think what I really need is a theme tune. I would like to make my entry like an all-in wrestler shimmying up to the ring to boos and cheers and the cacaphonic Eye of the Tiger, or The Heat is On, or, perhaps more my style, It’s Only a Paper Moon.

In a language school of my own, I would have a different tune for each teacher, in the manner of Wagner, or Bod:

Or perhaps each lesson would have its own theme, like a T.V. show. On television, the theme tune is there to set a mood, gather a certain sort of attention, set the programme off from its drabber surroundings, news and weather, ads,. I still find little so galvanising as the opening to Soul Limbo, for many years the sound of test match  cricket on T.V. (now transferred to radio). Perhaps that would be my choice. Soul Limbo (perhaps because the fourth test is starting today).

So, theme tunes. I don’t know if it has been tried. It would certainly wake the students up. It would grab the energy levels and shake them around. It would play to the average teacher’s natural bent for showboating. And, now that I think of it, it would be a good way to end the lesson too. Not with a bang, but a cheesy tune. Bring Me Sunshine, perhaps.


I was talking to someone I know who lives in Moscow yesterday evening, and she told me that in one day they had had twenty-five centimetres of snow.

Unsurprisingly, it had thrown the city into a certain amount of chaos. This pleased me, not because I am happy to know that Muscovites are struggling into work, but because I was under the impression that, alongside the Canadians, the Norwegians and the Swedes, the Russians must be the best prepared nation on earth when it comes to snow. But no. They also know snow-chaos.

My friend told me that it is not because of lack of preparation. They have great armadas of heavy snowploughs and teams with long shovels and so on. It is just the quantity. They are not surprised by the snow, as we are. They can see it coming, and are prepared. They are just overwhelmed when it arrives.


Language learning, in that respect at least, is like a Russian winter for some students. They brace themselves for its impact, and when it comes, they are overwhelmed anyway. Learning a language is, unavoidably, a question of storing a great many often very similar-looking items, and then making their recall automatic; it is a question of memorising fine structure and understanding,  instinctively or otherwise, how it can be manipulated. Your interlocutor, like the weather, can come at you with any sort of insanely bristling linguistic armament at any moment.

And yet, in Moscow today, I imagine, people are already moving more freely. The snows may have put everyone on the back foot for a time, but the snow will eventually thin, become manageable; those armies of spades and brooms will have steadily cleared paths. So too the blizzard of language will in time slow, and clear; and there will be a thinkable path through it all.

Either that, or it will be a full-scale retreat from Moscow. Analogies have their limitations.


600px-Libraries_in_the_Medieval_and_Renaissance_Periods_Figure_5Publishing group Penguin Random House has announced that it will no longer require job applicants to have a university degree. This brings it into line with Ernst and Young, who apparently no longer take degrees or other academic qualifications into account when assessing job candidates.

According to human resources director at Penguin, Neil Morrison, there is no demonstrable correlation between degree result and subsequent job performance. People who are good at getting degrees, the argument seems to go, are specialised in getting degrees; but not necessarily good for much else – and, in anecdotal support of Mr. Morrison’s position, I can certainly think of some individuals who unfitted themselves for life while simultaneously fitting themselves out for degree success by, as it were, skipping the easy lessons.

Penguin’s new position, however, is at odds with the drift of the universities themselves, which are more and more touting degrees as job preparation. A recent government green paper on university reform, which suggested among other things that universities be rated  on the basis of the quality of their teaching as well as their research, noted in passing that quality of teaching is very hard to assess without extensive (and very expensive) observation, but that one metric might be graduate employment rates. If you don’t have a graduate-level job (whatever that is) after leaving university, you can reasonably be said to have wasted your money and your time.


Well it wasn’t like that in my day. In my day, university was supposed to protect you from the job market, like a foxhole in a battlefield: you went over the top and dived straight in, and kept your head down for as long as you could, and hoped it would all somehow blow over.

So if Penguin Random House and Ernst and Young are a sign of the way the wind is blowing, eager workers might one day by-pass degrees altogether, and allow universities to reassert their natural function, as the hydrostatic brain-sinks of society.