water has no form

It was Sun Tzu in the Art of War who said: as water has no constant form, there are in war no constant conditions.  I know that I’m not the first to make this point, but interestingly, I think that with the slight sideways step from questions of war to questions of teaching and management, Sun Tzu has distilled a point that has been dancing at the edge of my mind for some time.

Being in what is effectively, essentially university middle management as an associate dean, I spend a fair bit of time thinking about questions of management, particularly management in academic contexts.  Part of this thinking involves motivation and leadership and how to direct the efforts of my colleagues in particular directions, and this was in fact a question I was asked at a session I delivered last week on engaging with an audience.

This is in fact is a critical part of teaching.  I have a clear view of where I wish the students in my class, in terms of them understanding the specifics of what I’m teaching them, the definitions and theorems and lemmas, as well as the underlying principles that form the meshwork holding everything together.

The reason that teaching falls under this quote of Sun Tzu is that each cohort develops its own different personality, and each student in the class also has their own particularities of how best they learn, of how best they engage with the material.  And so part of the role of the teacher is then to navigate the shoals and rapids of a class over the course of a semester.  There are no constant conditions from one year to the next, from one session to the next, and part of what we have to do as teachers is to adapt and to help our students adapt.

But it is a much broader point.  The higher education environment in the UK is changing rapidly at present, even beyond the wider political changes in the UK, and I’m not alone in speculating about the extent to which universities will be different, perhaps unrecognizably so, in ten or twenty years (or sooner), as the technological and social changes we are all experiencing drive us to change.

I could at this point refer back to the joke is talked about some time ago now, about change and academia, but I would like to be more positive than I sometimes am.  Yes, there is great change underway at present, and what we have taken to be constant forms such as the nature of a university are crumbling, but I think this is largely the reflection of the times we live in rather than the nature of change itself.

Everything changes and has always changed.  Perhaps the deeper truth of Sun Tzu’s single line above is that war is no outlier.  There are no constant forms, and so what we should be looking for is the inherent flow in everything around us.  Hoping against hope, that is, that we don’t encounter any ice-nine, that most remarkably stable form of water.

Circling back to the point at which I’d taken aim initially, recognizing the lack of constant forms in anything we do is for me at least an important part of my view of the world.  And this is not ignore the lessons of history.  But on this point, I close with a quote that may or may not be due to Mark Twain: History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.

~ by Jim Anderson on 24 February 2019.

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