Friday, 30 July 2010

Basic skills: Cookery and courtesy

Aside from their academic achievements and qualifications, what basic skills do students need to pick up to make the best of their university years? Lots of things come to mind, but here I focus on just two, namely cookery and courtesy.

A few years ago one of my students came to see me and related a slightly alarming story. He told me that the previous evening there had been a fire in his hall of residence, with the fire brigade called out and everyone evacuated, as is standard procedure. And what caused the fire?Apparently it was a little 'cooking accident'. Specifically, a student (and I always wondered whether it was actually my student) was wanting to cook a chicken for a late supper. He removed the plastic wrapping, and deposited the chicken into a frying pan containing very hot fat. Now, at the best of times this would never have been a very smart idea, since it's hard to fry a whole chicken without risking that most of the interior hardly gets warm, let alone cooks properly. However, this wasn't the best of times, as the chicken was still frozen! As a result, the hot fat spattered everywhere and burst into flames - hence the fire. Luckily, no one was hurt and only fairly limited damage was done to the kitchen; it could have been a lot worse. So lesson 1: never attempt to cook a chicken unless it is completely thawed out.

Another of my students was an excellent cook, but this brought its own problems. For some boys in her hall of residence persuaded her to cook for them, the deal being that if she cooked, they would shop for the ingredients and she would get a free meal out of it. At first, this worked out well as she found it a good way of getting to know other students. After a while, though, she got fed up with the boys assuming she would always cook for them, and began to feel increasingly exploited. That was the situation when she came to see me to ask my advice. I asked her whether the students for whom she was cooking were at all interested in learning how to cook for themselves, e.g. picking up some helpful tips from her efforts. "Not at all", she said, so I advised her simply to stop providing cookery services to such an idle bunch. She was a bit hesitant, as she didn't want to quarrel with anyone. But quite soon she managed to stop the service, citing other commitments and pressure of work. Next time I saw her, she was much happier.

Now it's certainly possible to survive tolerably well these days on pizzas and a variety of food that just needs to be heated up in a microwave. But this isn't the cheapest way to live, and also not the most nutritious. So I do think it would be good for all our students to learn some basic cookery either before they come to university or in their first year or so. Such skills are not only handy during the student years, but they're invaluable later. Personally, I think it would be great if we could get to a situation where it was even rather embarrassing for a student to have to confess that they hadn't a clue about cooking. Everyone should learn how to cook, and the earlier in life the better.

Surprisingly, not only do we seem to have a fair number of students who lack basic cooking skills, but we also have students whose social skills are not as well developed as they might be. This is partly a matter of how widely read, how knowledgeable about the world, and how articulate some of our students are, but for this post my concern is much less elevated than all that. It has to do with our students' elementary professional courtesy. Many people these days, including I think some of my younger academic colleagues, are not unduly bothered about this, and don't greatly care how their students address them, how they compose e-mails, and the like. For me, though, and I think also future employers, these things matter.

Part of what we are doing when teaching our students - in addition to trying to convince them that economics is an endlessly fascinating subject - is to prepare them for the world of work, a world of professional relationships that are sometimes very informal, but often still quite formal in nature. Given this aspect of what we are doing, I always treat e-mails between students and myelf as professional communications, just as letters used to be. In practice, this approach has a number of implications:

(1) I always insist on being addressed as 'Professor Hare', or at the very least, 'Professor'. No use of my first name by undergraduates, though I do usually address my students by their first names. An e-mail that doesn't give me any name at all - formal or informal - gets the same response mentioned in the next paragraph.

(2) E-mails must be written in sentences, in good English. Some students are inclined to write messages using lots of slang, casual wording, bad grammar, or abbreviations as if they were sending me a text message (which they never do as I don't tell anyone at work my mobile phone number). When I receive a message like this I simply return it and inform the student concerned that I am always happy to provide help and advice, but that I only do so when the request is put to me politely and in good English. Amost invariably, such a message from me elicits an apology from the student concerned and a well written request for help, to which I immediately respond. Interestingly, some students have even come along to see me after getting such a message, to explain that 'no one ever told them how they should communicate in a proper, professional manner'. I've even been thanked on a number of occasions for the hard line I take on matters of courtesy. One wonders what our secondary schools are doing in this regard, but they're certainly not doing the students any favours.

(3) When advice is provided, I generally expect my students to acknowledge it with at least a one line message of thanks. As I point out to my students, taking the trouble to say 'thank you' costs very little effort and fosters good will, making me even more willing to provide help, advice, and support on future occasions.

Thus as I see it, being a student involves taking part in a whole series of professional relationships with academic staff, with a variety of support staff, and even with fellow students when joint projects and exercises are undertaken. It seems to me that learning early on how to conduct these relationships with a high degree of professional courtesy is helpful for all concerned. I know I'm quite old fashioned about these things, but I shall stick to my guns - courtesy matters!

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