Visionary?

Reading about Nipissing University’s Students in Free Enterprise (NUSIFE), which is a group of students who undertake projects “intended to increase the public’s awareness of entrepreneurship and business-related subjects,” it occurs to me to wonder why such an endeavour is undertaken only by business students.

Consider the projects listed below – and imagine…

– “Global Crusaders” educated high school students about minimum wages and exchange rates in five different countries – why not educate them about gender issues in five different countries?

– “Team Builders” led team-building exercises during a weekend program at the YMCA – my guess is that sociology students’ take on team-building would be quite different than that of business students…

– “Junior Tycoons” were high school students presented with a basic business plan – why not present “Junior Diplomats” with a recess plan based on insights from political science, history, and psychology?

– “Budgeting for Mental Health Patients” – how about “Philosophy for Mental Health Patients”?

– “My First Bank Account” – whatever happened to “My First Library Card”?

– “Nipissing East Community Opportunities” received a marketing plan – they could have used an environmental assessment plan…

– “Show Me the Money” was about financial planning guidelines on the web – how about “Show Me the Stars”, astronomy on the web?

– “A Feasibility Study” was presented to graphic arts students – how about presenting them with an ethics study?

Such projects, both by training students to apply their knowledge outside academia and by increasing the visibility of business in the outside world, probably contribute to the strangle-hold business – business activities and business interests – has on the world; therefore, suggesting that such endeavours be undertaken by humanities and science students as well is more than an exercise in imagination – it’s an identification of responsibility.

This particular infiltration of business is so developed that there are actually competitions among universities for their SIFE teams.  Yes, there are poetry and drama competitions too, but poems and plays don’t reach out and engage the community in the same way; they just present to, perform for, the community (except for those cool workplace theatre guerrilla groups).  Perhaps science does a little better – there are, of course, the annual science fairs, but from time to time I also see students out in the field with their lab kits.

This lack of engagement is rampant throughout the humanities curriculum.  We teach our English students how to appreciate and write poetry, but not how to find a literary agent; how to appreciate and write drama, but not how to produce a play.  Philosophy students are great at clarifying concepts and values, identifying hidden assumptions, testing for consistency and coherence; psychology students know all about how our minds and emotions work; sociology students know about people in groups, small and large, in cultures and subcultures and countercultures; history students know what hasn’t worked.  Along with our students of gender studies and native studies and our other social science students, humanities students (the humanities focus on humanity – and who, what, are we talking about when all is said and done?), and of course our science students (what is humanity but one bunch of carbon-based organisms among many), would be great consultants if they had any consulting skills.[1]  But we don’t teach them how to write a proposal, how to contract for business, or how to manage a project.

Until we do these things, our humanities and science students will be dependent on business students as go-betweens and as enablers.  And since business students, by definition apparently, have profit as their motivator, their purpose, and their goal, there is bound to be a certain amount of unfulfilled potential.  Business students are not likely to set up Sociologists, Inc. or History Is Us.  Nor are they even likely to engage the services of non-business students as consultants.

OPAS is another example of the deficiency I’m trying to expose.  It’s a partnership between Ontario universities and Canadian companies, named “The Office for Partnerships for Advanced Skills” with a mandate to “foster more effective relations between universities and companies who hire and maintain a highly skilled workforce” and “respond to requests and develop initiatives that promote increased use of university-based resources including advanced skills development.”  One might be forgiven, therefore, for thinking it was pretty inclusive.  This seems indicated even by the Special Events & Programs (which includes “the Visionary Seminar Series, Industry Sector Symposia, Internship & Reciprocal Exchange Programs and the development of a National Network”) and by the Skills Development statement (which says “In knowledge industries, skills requirements advance and change, creating new needs. OPAS responds to these changing skills needs with solutions designed and delivered by leading university programs across Ontario”).

However, a close look reveals that there isn’t a whole lot of room for humanities and social science; there’s something for science and engineering (an auto parts symposium is listed, as well as a biotech sector symposium), but it seems that the university programs they’re talking about partnering with are pretty much the BBA and MBA.  Their website welcome page confirms this: “In today’s knowledge-based economy, business organizations are faced with the need to address constant changes in operating practices, human capital requirements, and technology.”  That page is pure business buzz (“human capital”?!).  (And there you do see the specification – “business organizations….”)

Indeed, had I visited the OPAS website first, I wouldn’t have been so surprised to discover that the keynote speaker (the only speaker) at the “Visionary 2000” seminar was the CEO of the Royal Bank (how much more focussed on business, profit, money, can you get?).  And the very fact that his talk, nothing more than a Royal Bank promo, was billed as visionary indicates just how much we need to correct this deficiency.

 

[1] Marc Renaud, president of SSHRC, says “many of the key questions confronting our society fall within the realm of the social sciences and the humanities and our disciplines represent a goldmine of knowledge that can help.  We need to make sure that people outside the research community know about this goldmine, so that it can be put to broader use” (quoted by David Bentley in “Humanities for humanity’s sake” University Affairs).

Mentoring

Studies show that people who have had mentors, who have had someone to provide “sponsorship, exposure, visibility, coaching, protection, and challenging assignments – activities which directly relate to the protégé’s career” do indeed experience more career advancement than people who have not had mentors [1].  In a study of 1241 American executives, 67% of all respondents said they had a mentor [2].  Which just goes to show  – it’s who you know.  That’s how, why, they are executives.

Given that it’s a 1979 statistic, presumably the respondents are referring to an informal mentorship, which arises spontaneously, as opposed to a formal mentorship, which is arranged by the organization as part of a mentoring program.  The problem in both cases, however, is that most people who are in a position to mentor, a position of power and prestige, a well-connected position, are men.  Still.  So sexism keeps women from becoming protégés – because even if the guy’s wife is fine with it, everyone will wonder whether she’s sleeping her way to the top and that’ll handicap her, essentially cancelling any advantage of the mentorship.  Furthermore, women who could be mentors avoid mentoring other women because they fear being labelled feminist troublemakers.  Why don’t men fear mentoring other men for fear they’ll be labelled – what, part of the old boys’ network?

All that aside, it seems to me that mentoring is unfair: it makes ‘it’s who you know not what you know’ true.  Merit becomes not the sole criterion for advancement.

Though perhaps mentoring counters chance.  Chance is unfair too.  With mentoring, those who do get doors opened for them are those who deserve it.  But to say ‘All A are B’ doesn’t mean ‘All B are A’: to say ‘All those who are mentored have merit’ doesn’t mean ‘All those with merit become mentored’.  And, of course, I’m not sure mentors choose their protégés according to merit.

So why do mentors choose who they choose?  Why do mentors mentor at all?  I wonder if it isn’t just some primitive lineage impulse in action.  You know… men need a son, someone to carry on the family name.  And since it’s more and more unlikely that men have actual sons in a position to be their protégés …  Do mentors tend to choose sons of friends when available?  Do they tend to choose people who are twenty to thirty years younger, in the ‘son’ age bracket?  What about women who mentor?  (More likely, their motive is social justice, not personal legacy.)

I’m not saying people shouldn’t seek, or give, advice and guidance.  That’s not what mentoring is all about.  A mentor does more than that: a mentor introduces you to influential people in the organization, facilitates your entry to meetings and activities usually attended by high-level people, publicly praises your accomplishments and abilities, recommends you for promotion, and so on.  But see here’s the thing.  Introductions should be unnecessary.  Meetings attended by high level personnel shouldn’t be open to others.  Everyone’s accomplishments and abilities should be praised publicly.  Only your immediate supervisor or some named designate should be able to recommend you for a  promotion.  And so on.

In any case, the need for mentors means the organization isn’t structured to advance based on merit.  So shouldn’t mentors’ efforts instead be directed to making sure that it is?  To making sure that mentors aren’t needed?  You shouldn’t need a mentor to open doors because the doors shouldn’t be locked.  You shouldn’t need a mentor to give you inside information because there shouldn’t be any inside information: an organization’s policies and procedures should be written out for all to read, perhaps even presented at a new employee training session (and there should be no unwritten policies, no under-the-table procedures); any preferences for application materials, be it for a job, a promotion, or a grant, should be stated on the application form itself, or perhaps explained in a separate ‘Tips for Applicants’ sheet; and knowledge of any available job, promotion, or grant should be freely accessible to all.  Influential people should use their influence only in formal channels; their authority should only be that vested in them by the terms of their job description.

Men are so proud of not mixing pleasure and business, of separating the personal from the public.  Bullshit.  Aren’t a lot of critical connections, let alone decisions, made on the golf course?  At the bar?  Between conference sessions?  It seems that by ‘personal’ and ‘pleasure’ they just mean women – wives, daughters, sexual liaisons.  They leave the women in their lives out of consideration.  But their relationships with their buddies and their sons – these are very much brought into the workplace.

 

[1] “Formal and Informal Mentorships: A Comparison on Mentoring Functions and Contrast with Non-mentored Counterparts,” Georgia T. Chao and Pat M. Walz  Personnel Psychology 45.3 (1992)

[2] “Much Ado about Mentors,”  B. Roche.  Harvard Business Review 5.7 (1979)

The Problem with Business Ethics Courses

The problem with business ethics courses is that all too often they’re taught by business faculty.  And ethics is, after all, a field of philosophy.  And with all due respect to my business colleagues, philosophy faculty are far better qualified to teach ethics than business faculty.

As far as I can see, business ethics when taught by business faculty is superficial at best.  The so-called ‘media test’ and ‘gut test’ are in essence nothing but appeals to intuition and childhood conditioning.  I think it far better to teach the many rational approaches to ethical decision-making which consider consequences, rights, values, and so on.

A further weakness of business ethics when taught by business faculty (and medical ethics when taught by medical faculty, and so on) is that what takes place is preaching, not teaching.  The course is essentially ‘This is the right thing to do’ or ‘Do this in this situation’ – what is taught is simply the current conventions, standard practices, and/or legal obligations.  Far better, I think, that a critical thinking approach be used: provide students with a toolbox of approaches so they can figure out what to do for themselves (after all, they are responsible for the decisions they make).*

Unfortunately, philosophy’s disdain for business is matched only by business’ disdain for philosophy.  So even when a philosopher does teach a business ethics course, it is unnecessarily difficult and sadly unsuccessful.  Students can be quite hostile when things they have been taught as fact (such as ‘The purpose of business is to maximize profit’ or ‘As long as it’s legal, it’s okay’) are challenged.  They take it personally and spend a lot of time trying to win – and so miss much of the course.  But that’s what philosophers do: we challenge the assumptions that arguments are based on.

And we insist opinions be based on arguments!  Clear and logically sound arguments no less!  That’s a lot of work!  Students are especially hostile when a lot of work is required for what is, after all, ‘a bird course’!  If the student is used to knowledge and comprehension courses, then teaching ethics, requiring arguments to support opinions, is doubly difficult.  (And business students have led me to believe that the kind of critical and abstract thinking required in these ethics courses is significantly different from anything they’ve had to do before – which is worrisome because this kind of thinking, at a much more advanced level, is required for the Reading Comprehension and Logical Reasoning sections of the GMAT.) (Of course, that’s the least of the reasons why this is worrisome.)

And in ethics in particular, we navigate through grey: there is no right answer; there are only degrees of right.  Students resist this, they stand on the sidelines, never really getting the value of the course.  They are far more comfortable with the black and white they seem to be taught in their other courses.

And sad to say, though I was a philosopher teaching business ethics, one day I was informed that I would not be asked to teach ethics again. (Well actually I wasn’t really informed – talk about the need for ethics: if it weren’t for the phone call of an administrative assistant acting on her own initiative, I probably would’ve found out I was ‘fired’ by seeing an ad for an ethics instructor in the paper….)  Why?  I asked the Dean for confirmation and an explanation.  Student evaluations have been “mixed”, he said.  True enough.  In any ethics class, there is a handful, usually the less mature and less academically apt, who react with the hostility and resistance described above.  And there are others who nominate me for an Excellence in Teaching Award.

It’s quite possible, though, the ad won’t appear.  It’s quite possible the course will simply not be offered anymore.  Such was the fate of the IT Ethics course I also taught for a couple years.  As it is, the business ethics course was offered only every second year, as an elective, sending a message of unimportance that also makes the course so difficult to teach successfully (after all, since business is profit-driven, ethics is irrelevant, and anyway, everyone already knows right from wrong).

 

* These weaknesses, by the way, are horribly magnified in business ethics practitioners (consultants, officers, and the like).  To my knowledge, most have no training in philosophy/ethics at all!  And that’s considered okay!  Would you accept an accounting consultant who had no training in accounting?  After all, anyone can add and subtract (just as everyone knows right from wrong).  Ethics practitioners are either legal people or management/human resources people and so their approach to an ethical issue is either ‘Comply with the legislation’ or ‘Comply with the company’ (but in either case, remember that bottom line). Articles on ethical issues that get published in business magazines (as opposed to those that get published in ethics journals) are, frankly, embarrassing in their lack of depth; business codes of ethics are laughable for their simplicity, their naiveté….)

 

Postscript:  Since this piece was written, a business graduate has been elected president of a country.

Telling our Members of Parliament How to Dress

So I recently found this on the Parliament of Canada website:

While there is no Standing Order setting down a dress code for Members participating in debate, [84]  Speakers have ruled that to be recognized to speak in debate, on points of order or during Question Period, tradition and practice require all Members, male or female, to dress in contemporary business attire. [85]  The contemporary practice and unwritten rule require, therefore, that male Members wear a jacket, shirt and tie as standard dress. Clerical collars have been allowed, although ascots and turtlenecks have been ruled inappropriate for male Members participating in debate. [86]  The Chair has even stated that wearing a kilt is permissible on certain occasions (for example, Robert Burns Day). [87]  Members of the House who are in the armed forces have been permitted to wear their uniforms in the House. [88]

What could possibly justify this Speakers’ rule?

Could it be that our Members of Parliament can’t dress themselves?  The people we’ve voted into positions of power? Doubtful.  They’re adults.  Many of them even have a university degree.  (Okay, I know …)

Could it be somebody in a higher position of power is prioritizing appearance over reality?  What you look like is more important than what you are like.  That bodes well for, well, the world.

Could it be someone in a higher position of power is making a series of non sequiturs from clothing to behaviour and character?  If you wear a business suit, you must be honest, hard-working, mature – respectable.  Say what?

It is certainly that someone in a higher position of power is appealing to tradition and practice.  Philosophers rightly consider that fallacious reasoning.  Just because we’ve always done it that way, just because we do it that way, doesn’t mean we should.

And the other thing to note?  There’s no mention of what exactly female members must wear.  Because there’s no standard business attire for women?  No, that can’t be right.  To judge by the Speakers’ own criteria, tradition and practice, it is standard for women to wear shoes with high heels (that will be uncomfortable for standing, difficult for walking, and eventually cause postural pain), to wear a skirt or dress (that will ensure their legs are showing, because – men want to see women’s legs at all times?), and at the very least to not wear a jacket, shirt, and tie – because we MUST MUST MUST enforce the gender norms.  Our patriarchy depends on it.

(Oh, one other thing to note: “..male Members wear a jacket, shirt and tie” – what, no trousers?)

Blood & Oil

[since I’m at it — posting about tv that happened oh, a year ago…see June 1 post]

About a year ago, the weather reports became dramatic.  Forecasters started talking about “extreme weather events” with voices and gestures that rivalled sports game commentary, making droughts, wildfires, floods, tornados, and high temperatures all so—exciting.  My god, I realized one day with horror, they’re making the evidence of our imminent death into entertainment.

There was no mention of short-term, let alone long-term, implications for things like, oh, food and water…  There was no mention of why our weather is changing.  No mention of who’s to blame.  (The oil industry for providing the supply, and not telling people about the consequences of use.  The media for agreeing to censorship on that point [whenever any public interest group tries to put out an advertisement informing us, the media refuses to sell them airtime].  And most Americans and Canadians for allowing their worldview to be formed by forementioned censored media.)

I imagined the world actually ending as people continued mainlining television, utterly oblivious.  And that was bad enough.

Then I saw the trailers for the new tv series, Blood & Oil.  Oh    my    god.

They’re making oil sexy.  They’ve got Don Johnson, they’ve got two bare-backed supermodel female bodies, they’ve got a phallic fire-gushing oil rig.  They’re making it exciting (at least to the male brain), what with the sex, the fire, and the blood.

Why?  Why have the oil companies commissioned a tv series that makes oil sexy and exciting?

Do they think too many of us are limiting our fossil fuel use?  Carpooling?  Reducing air travel?  Turning down the heat during these colder winters? Not turning on the air conditioning during these hotter summers?  (Like residential resource use comes anywhere close to the unbridled industrial use…)  (Just for example, it takes 4.3 barrels of water to produce one barrel of oil from tar sands mining, and once the water’s used, it’s radioactive, toxic, pretty much useless.)

This is decade zero.  We’re halfway through.  Decade zero.  And we’ve already pretty much eliminated the possibility of staying under two degrees.  Given what we’ve already done, we’re certain to reach 1.5 degrees.  Certain.  Cause and effect.  It’s a done deal.  (To stay under two degrees, we need to limit our carbon dioxide concentration to 450ppm.  We hit 400 ppm in 2013.  And we’re adding 2-3 ppm every year.  Do the math.)

So what’s the point, now, of encouraging us to maintain, even to increase our use of fossil fuels?

Are they trying to distract us, play a little pretty music on our way to the gas chambers?  (No, that’s the least plausible explanation.  They clearly don’t care about us.  And there is no need for oil in that pretty little music.)

Do they really not know they’ve already guaranteed the end of the world as we know it?  (According to Naomi Klein’s research, if we don’t get our emissions under control by 2017, “our fossil fuel economy will ‘lock-in’ extremely dangerous warming” [This Changes Everything, p.23].)  (And “under control” means leaving 80% of the claimed oil where it is.  Underground.)

Are they trying to hasten our death?  Move the predicted date of extinction from 2100 (we’ll be at five degrees by then) to 2050? (Watch the insurance companies.  Watch what riders, exclusions, they start attaching to our policies.  Refusing to insure for damages and injuries resulting from nuclear accidents will be the least of it.)

Are they trying to rush the return on their investment so they can buy one more company before we all die?  Guarantee their ticket to ride on the shuttle to the new world—on Mars?

Have they forgotten that the free trade agreements they paid our governments to sign guarantee that their profits trump the planet?   (Never mind that the $775 billion in subsidies that they’ve received from taxpayers make their profits ours.)

Or are they trying to minimize the likelihood that someone, someone, will eventually go all vigilante for justice and target them with a semi-automatic.

Or did Hollywood come up with the idea all on its own?  Could they really not know what they’re doing?  (Just like they don’t know they have single-handedly desensitized millions of people to violence, to harm, injury, pain, death.)  (Ah.)

Given the facts, Blood & Oil is the equivalent of making heroin or the plague exciting.  And making vomit and pus sexy.

No Advertising in Public Space

I once read a sci fi novel in which holographic ads suddenly appeared in front of you, ‘blocking’ your way, almost continuously, as you made your way down a city street. It made me imagine people paid by perfume companies wandering through the streets assailing me with sample sprays…

I am a strong advocate of prohibiting all advertising in public spaces. There is no justification for the desires of one person, let alone the desire of one person for money, to be imposed on everyone. Furthermore, there are enough alternative venues for advertising (radio, tv, newspapers, magazines, websites, malls), all of which, unlike, often, public space, can be used or not (especially as long as there are advertising-free radio, tv, magazine, and website options), making the use of public space is simply unnecessary.

We should be able to go about our lives without the constant assault on the senses, on the mind, that is advertising. Of course this is an argument made by someone who notices ads, who pays attention to her environment, who thinks about what she sees. For most people, ads are not such an assault, because they’re unconsciously perceived. But then they’re even more coercive, subliminally manipulative, and even more indefensible in public space.

Advertising is not only cognitively coercive, but physically dangerous when it appears on roadsides, especially in animated form, which shameless tries to take drivers’ attention off the road. Would we allow drivers to watch tv, similarly visual content with moving images, while they drive?

An additional argument applies to natural environment public space (forest, field, lake, ocean) which is, to my mind, beautiful (or at least more beautiful than city). In this case, there is the added transgression of the destruction of beauty. It was a sad, sad day when advertising was allowed along the perimeter of the rink and even on the ice during figure skating performances. Years to achieve the perfect lines, sullied by persisting, in-your-face, BUY-MY-SHIT signs we can’t help but see while we try to focus on the beauty. (And it’s not like the sign enhances the beauty. It’s not like the sign itself is remotely beautiful.)

Would those of us who can hear allow a deaf person to make a clamour with cymbals all day long? Then why do we allow aesthetically-challenged CEOs to do the same? Why do we allow our natural beauty to be degraded, destroyed, piece by piece, by those who are, obviously, blind to its beauty? Is it because we don’t recognize the beauty or because we don’t value it (or, at least, don’t value it over the individual pursuit of money). (Seriously? Do we really believe that an individual’s desire for money trumps so much?) (Well, no, the people with the power to make regulations believe that. And they are as aesthetically-challenged. And often CEOs.)

 

Have you noticed the way the weather is being reported lately?

Have you noticed the way the weather is being reported lately?  Climate change, specifically global warming, as evidenced by the dramatic increase in severe storms and the decrease in polar ice…they’re making it entertaining.  Entertaining, for gawdsake.

Commentators refer to “extreme storms” — making them sound all exciting and daring, like “extreme sports”.

Another opens with “this week’s wildest weather” as if we’re on a fun safari.

And there’s a video called “Force of Nature – Uncut”.  Again, exciting entertainment.

“Will any records be broken?” the commentator asks, the phrasing suggesting that, like athletic competitions, breaking a record will be a good thing. Read the rest of this entry »

Canada Day – Are you sure you want to celebrate?

Before you get all patriotic and fly your little Canadian flags in celebration of Canada Day and, presumably, of being Canadian, think about it. Are you really proud to be: Read the rest of this entry »

Air Bands and Power Point

I still remember the feeling I had when I saw my first air band performance. It was a sick kind of feeling.

I hadn’t known what an air band was. The announcement came over the p.a. at my school-for-the-day, and I dutifully shepherded the class to the gym. Then I watched, incredulous, as group after group of high school students came on stage and pretended to play their favourite songs. I mumbled a query to the teacher standing next to me. Apparently this air band stuff was quite big. Students spent weeks practising. They really wanted to get it right. ‘It’ being the appearance, the pretence. Read the rest of this entry »

The Futility of Teaching Business Ethics or Why Our World Will End

There are four reasons why teaching ethics to business students is an exercise in futility.

1. The profit motive trumps everything. As long as this is the case, there’s no point in teaching students the intricacies of determining right and wrong. Whether something is morally acceptable or not is simply irrelevant to them. It might come into play when two options yield the same profit, but how often does that happen? And even so, other concerns are likely to be tie-breakers. Read the rest of this entry »