Friday 27 October 2023

On the provisionality - and knowability - of truth...

This morning as I approached the summit of Heughscar Hill in the mist and pre-dawn semi-darkness, I noticed a shape where no shape normally was.

'Ah, a tent,' I thought. People do occasionally camp near the summit, where there is a fine view down Ullswater towards Helvellyn. Strictly speaking, I don't think they are meant to, but who could blame them? And they normally leave no trace behind.

Then the shape moved: a head appeared upwards from it, and I realised it was one of the fell ponies. It's not that usual to find them on the summit in the early morning, but not unknown.  A second head emerged, and I revised that: not one of the fell ponies, but at least two.

Then, as I cycled closer, and the image became clearer, I realised it was, after all, a tent, and two people had emerged from it.  I bade them a cheery good morning as I cycled by, and down off the hill.

As I cycled home, I reflected. There are several tracks off the summit. Had I taken the first, I would have thought I'd probably seen a tent in the distance.  Had I taken the second, I would have been pretty sure I had seen something that had initially looked like a tent, but had, in fact, been a few of the ponies.

Indeed, had I done that, and then met someone who said "I see some people were camping on the hill this morning" I should probably have replied; "No, actually, I thought it was a tent at first, but as I got closer, I saw it was actually the ponies."  And I would have been confident that my information was better than theirs, unless they had said: "You're mistaken: I went right past, and I spoke to them!"

All of which made me think on how provisional our knowledge can be. We think that we know something, but we may often be mistaken, and be convinced that we are right. But also, that the truth is knowable: finally, it is true to say that there were people camping on Heughscar this morning and the ponies were not on the summit of the hill.

And it's that balance, recognising that truth is knowable, and also that we need to be cautious in our assumption that what we believe to be true is in fact true, that I find so fascinating.


It was (possibly) Aeschylus who said, some 500 years before the time of Christ: In war, truth is the first casualty.  Plus ├ža change...

Tuesday 17 October 2023

PhD Supervision in a Thinking Environment

Some years ago I introduced the Thinking Environment (qv) to a group of university professors on a leadership programme. We used it as a way of working on the course, and many said that it had proved very enriching. A couple of them surprised me by saying they had also taken the principles into their supervisory meetings with their PhD students, and were very pleased with the results. 

Since then, I have been looking for an opportunity to do that in a more structured and systematic way, and at last that is happening, thanks to a professor who came on a recent Thinking Partnership Programme.

So we have run a workshop with some supervisors and students, introducing the Thinking Environment and then running an experimental supervision meeting, with great results.

We have adapted the Thinking Environment Mentoring process for PhD Supervision, thus:

1: The Student's thinking session: the supervisor asks the student 'With regard to your PhD, what do you want to think about, and what are your thoughts?' and then listens, for up to 20' while the student thinks out loud about his or her PhD.

2: The Interview: the student asks the supervisor any questions he or she may have, and the supervisor answers them, briefly. (say 10')

3: The Supervisor's thinking session:
the student asks the supervisor 'What do you want to think about, and what are your thoughts?' and then listens, for up to 15' while the supervisor thinks out loud about whatever he or she chooses.

4: Closure: the supervisor adds in anything essential for the student to know, that has not already been covered, and both agree what needs to happen next, and when they will next meet. The session closes with each offering the other some appreciation for a quality they admire in the other. 

This worked remarkably well in practice.

The most radical aspects are, firstly the supervisor listening to the student thinking without any interruption whatsoever: no clarifying, guiding etc; and secondly, the student offering the supervisor a thinking session. 

The first (the supervisor listening without interrupting) is to ensure that the student is encouraged to think, and to follow his or her thinking wherever it goes. This is in service of the fundamental aim of a PhD which is to develop the student as an independent thinker. There is plenty of time later for the supervisor to interject his or her wisdom or corrections. 

The second (the supervisor's thinking session) was the subject of a lot of discussion. Clearly, it supports the notion of equality, which is one of the components of a Thinking Environment. Also, it is likely to be very educative of the student. The supervisor may think about the PhD subject (or the student's approach to it), or about the supervisor's own research, or about University issues that demand attention. Any of these would be of great interest to the student,

It does, of course, require a certain vulnerability in the supervisor; but we concluded that was good, both in terms of contributing to equality, in a context where the supervisor has a lot of power and seniority, and also as a way of modelling, and thus giving permission for the student to be vulnerable. Needless to say, there may be some topics that it would be inappropriate for the supervisor to think about in the presence of a student, so prudence is required.

In practice, both the supervisors and the students on our workshop agreed that this was a very valuable part of the process; and that the process overall was a very valuable approach to supervision. 

It's worth noting, of course, that each student has (at least) two supervisors, so this framework can be adapted to that reality; in fact for our practice session, both the supervisors were present. One took a lead role, and it was that one who had the thinking session: we envisage that alternating over time (and it is worth recording that the co-supervisor also learned a lot from listening to a colleague think in this way).

So the supervisors and students committed to experiment with this, going forward, and intend to write up their experiences and learning for publication in due course.  I, for one, look forward to their reflections!

Tuesday 10 October 2023

Further reflections on the EDI Agenda

In a previous post I commented on the ill thought through guidance on Trans inclusion, published by the CIPD. My point was that their naive approach didn't work, as it wasn't - indeed couldn't be - reciprocal across all the different groups with protected characteristics under the Equality Act (these are: age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, sex, and sexual orientation).

I have been reflecting further on this, and think that the EDI challenge is profound, if not intractable.

It has been brought into sharp, and tragic, relief by the events of the weekend. How do we (and indeed should we) create an organisational culture that includes the most radical supporter of Hamas and the most radical Zionist?

Will the CIPD be publishing inclusivity guides?  Based on their recent track record, they should say:  authenticity – empowering Hamas militants to express their authentic self in the workplace, and showing outward acceptance when they do. and likewise, of course: authenticity – empowering Zionists to express their authentic self in the workplace, and showing outward acceptance when they do.

One problem I have with the EDI agenda is that I don't think anyone really believes it: not all the way through. Would anyone argue for equality and inclusion for the sake of diversity extending to those we believe to be advocating evil, or supporting genocide?

And it is an intellectual cop-out, I think, to say that it doesn't extend to those who express themselves outside what is legally permissible. We cannot outsource our consciences to the law; nor can we assume that the law is always just, as even the most cursory look in a history book - or indeed survey of current legal systems around the world - will confirm.

Or do we really mean, EDI (for those whose opinions I value)?

Because I am interested, too, in whom we seek to shame. It's a useful barometer of the moral atmosphere. People often talk as if shame is some evil that enlightened people have left behind. It is deemed quite wrong to fat-shame or to slut-shame, for example. But in fact, what has happened is that the targets of shame have changed. All the vogue words that end in -phobe (for example) seem to me designed to shame those who hold views that we now deem shameful (and possibly rightly so). Shame is, in fact, a useful and important moderator of undesirable behaviour. It would be a good thing if politicians were ashamed to lie, or celebrities ashamed to indulge in sexual exploitation. But we seem incapable of being honest about this; or even talking about it openly and clearly.

So where am I on all this?

My current thinking, and it is somewhat provisional, is that Equality, Diversity and Inclusion are not absolute goods (though we are invited to reverence them as though they are) but rather that they are, in reality, useful indicators. Where one or other of them is lacking, it should cause us to stop and take notice. And what we should take notice of, I think, are justice and truth and compassion.

That is, we shouldn't unjustly (or dishonestly, or cruelly) exclude someone; or unjustly (etc) demand that they conform, or unjustly treat them as less than equal.  But there may be occasions when it is indeed just to do so. Men are justly excluded from women-only spaces; students are justly required to conform to intellectual rules (such as not plagiarising) and children are justly placed under the authority of responsible adults for their own protection. 

Justice and truth, then, I see as absolutes to which we can - and should - commit; and compassion a default operating system. They are not, of course always easy (or even possible) to attain, but we should commit to striving for them. And I find it interesting that the pursuit of truth is so out of fashion in some intellectual circles; and further, I wonder if it is the search for a value-base to replace the gap left by its absence that has led EDI to be promoted to the first rank, when it should, by my reckoning, be in the second.

And it is with wry amusement that I notice that it is often those who refute the notion of truth who make strident truth-claims for their own particular dogmas; and occasionally do so with a pronounced lack of compassion. 

Sunday 1 October 2023

Problems with the EDI Agenda

The CIPD is the leading professional body for those who work in Personnel/Human Resources/People Development (or whatever we are calling it this week). It publishes best practice guidance, as one might expect.

I have been reading its recently published (September) guide: Transgender and non-binary inclusion at work (Fletcher, L., & Marvell, R. (2023) Transgender and Non-Binary Inclusion at Work Guide. London: Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) Doi: 10.15125/ BATHRO-271384630).

I was initially struck by the claim that it was evidence-based, followed quickly by the claim that sex is 'assigned at birth.' I may not be a biologist, but I am a father and a grandfather, and I know that the sex of all my children and grandchildren was observed well before they were born, and was not assigned at all. 

I admit to a degree of pedantry when it comes to language, but that is (at least in part) because I think that conveying meaning clearly and accurately is important. It struck me that the choice of language here was driven by political considerations, rather than truth. (If there is an evidence base for the assertion that sex is assigned at birth, please let me know!)

Akua Reindorf
Reading on, it struck me that the document was profoundly problematic. On the one hand, it takes a very partisan approach throughout: taking the Stonewall (and allies) perspective as the gold standard, when as Akua Reindorf's review of events at Essex University highlighted, that is an unsafe approach.

But more problematic still is the problem of Equality that is unaddressed (and indeed subverted) by this text.

The Guide says that one of the day-to-day actions managers could (and implicitly should) take is to encourage: authenticity – empowering transgender and non-binary workers to express their authentic self in the workplace, and showing outward acceptance when they do.

It also says: The Equality Act (2010) may also protect gender-critical views, as holding these views is not in itself unlawful discrimination. A number of recent cases (See Appendix A: List of employment tribunal and employment appeal tribunal cases) have collectively reasoned that gender-critical beliefs can meet the criteria to be a protected belief. For example, in Forstater v CDG Europe, Forstater’s belief was that sex correlates to reproductive biology and that it is impossible to change sex. A person cannot be treated less favourably at work due to holding these views, and holding these views does not amount to unacceptable behaviour. However, this does not give anyone the right to manifest any beliefs in a discriminatory way at work, and the manner of expression of these beliefs could amount to unlawful discrimination depending on the circumstances.

It seems clear to me that the treatment of those with gender-critical views is not in any sense equal to the treatment of trans and non-binary people. One group is to be accepted and celebrated, the other to be (at best) tolerated. 

In terms of equality, the document should (I would argue) also say (or at least allow for):  authenticity – empowering gender-critical workers to express their authentic self in the workplace, and showing outward acceptance when they do. Yet immediately, we see that it could not possibly do so.

Likewise, one might consider other workers with protected characteristics: say those with religious beliefs that conflict with the beliefs of those who identify as transgender or non-binary. Again, one would expect:  authenticity – empowering workers with religious beliefs to express their authentic self in the workplace, and showing outward acceptance when they do. Againwe see that the guide could not possibly say such a thing.

My point is: it doesn't work. This simplistic approach, which lacks any reciprocity, doesn't work.  What it does is prioritise one group of people over others: equality is out of the window, as is inclusion (imagine how you would feel if you were gender-critical, or a devout believer of a faith that doesn't accept the trans world view...), and thus diversity.  

We need to think - and talk - with much more sophistication and nuance about these difficult topics; but there is little appetite for doing so.  We deserve better from the CIPD; and Universities (my primary sphere of work) need to engage much more intelligently and courageously with the difficulties here. 

Indeed, one of the reasons I wrote this blog post is because I know many academics who self-censor: they don't say (or in some cases teach) what they believe to be true because they fear that the repercussions from those who preach inclusivity will be so terrible. And when I realised that I too was feeling some fear about broaching the subject, I knew that I had to do so.