Thursday, September 27, 2007

Quiet Finns?

One of the most common stereotypes about Finns is that we are very silent. If we speak, we speak in short sentences with a quiet but serious tone of voice.

Anyone observing my classes would quickly agree that this seems to be true, even among young university students. If I ask a question, it is met with silence. It has nothing to do with knowing the answer, I've tested with questions every knows the answer for. If I try to engage the group into a discussion, it never takes off. We have managed a spontaneous conversation with 3 exchanges (yes, I'm counting just like when doing keepy-uppies or playing tennis), but that's not what I would call a lively debate yet.

And yet, when I've met with them one-to-one to discuss their dissertations, it has been almost impossible to shut them up. I've overrun every single 15-minute slot I have given them for quick chats about dissertation topics, and not because I've had a lot to say, it's because they've been thinking aloud, asking questions, making suggestions etc.

Probably I've underestimated the social pressure they feel in the seminars and lectures when they are faced by their peers. Some people have suggested before that I must be a scary teacher and that I must be extremely demanding and intimidating (this is probably an extrapolation based on how I sound when coaching rowers at 6 AM...). I don't think this is the case, though. Definitely my students know that I'm as lenient as it gets and almost too understanding when people do things late or fail things. And if I am so scary, why do people not show that in the private supervisions? I'm sure it is the social situation in the lectures... Although it would be a bit cool to be scary... :-)

Speaking of the social situations, they can be funny. In the seminar there are a couple of older students who are very confident and also the first ones to answer questions or make comments, although only after a looong painful silence. When we were having a round table about research questions and difficult concepts that would need to be unpacked, many of the other students in the group were actually talking to them when explaining their work, rather than me or the rest of the group. Interestingly enough, these two are very certain about their work when presenting it in front of others but are having many more doubts and questions one-to-one. I don't mean to say this is a bad thing, on the contrary I think this shows their good social skills. And the fact that they aren't playing the confident know-it-all with me but are honest about what they know and what they've done is of course great. The challenge is to infect the others with some of that confidence, because some of them do have ideas that are as good or better.

The question remains: how to get people to contribute, how to start lively discussions in seminars, how to engage people in the kind of active learning experience we nowadays like to see our university courses? I guess partly it is something that grows over time, people are shy at first and it's not a sin. But partly it is about technique, and so I'm trawling lecturing pedagogy websites for ideas. Most of them are for American universities and some feel somewhat naïve, to put it mildly, but there are good tips as well. I'll try them and report how they worked...

The fact is, however, that if you have 50 people at the lecture, or 20 people in a seminar, there is only so much you can do. It just isn't the intimate supervision for three people I got used to at Cambridge. Also, a lecture is not a conference presentation or a political event, which I'm very familiar with. The lecturer is talking to students, not to his or her peers. You can't be patronising or assume you can get away with anything because you have the authority, but you need to be in charge and take responsibility of the situation, and the social interaction that takes place. Dealing with these kinds of audiences and these kinds of situations is a new experience for me, and there is a learning curve. It's very interesting, though.

(Pic: two mute swans, Encyclopaedia Britannica)

Wednesday, September 26, 2007


Sometimes taking a break when you don't really have the time is actually a good idea. I went to Ireland last weekend, to a friends' wedding, and up to the moment of arrival I was feeling like I shouldn't have gone... I had felt (and still do to some extent) that I'm falling behind in my work just because there's so much of it, and so blowing a few days is not really that bright an idea. But as the saying goes, all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy, and we wouldn't want that, would we?

The trip gave me the chance to test drive Irish trains. Unfortunately I realised too late that Aer Lingus has just started to fly between Helsinki and Dublin, and so I resorted to my old foe R***air. Travelling with hand luggage only and with priority boarding I managed to skip all queuing at Pirkkala. Although it must be said again that Finns have no clue about queuing anyway, as I missed the priority boarding due to a swarm of people who were standing around where the priority queue was supposed to be but were in fact not in the queue.
Then, Dublin-Killarney with Iarnród Éireann. I had reserved a ticket and a seat online, and had taken a late connection as you never know when you arrive with R***air. This time we were on time and so while collecting my tickets I asked if I could take the earlier train instead. He said it was fine, but I would lose the reservation. This I thought was fine. Then I noticed that there was a massive queue forming in the Dublin Heuston station, from the platforms to the station hall, through it and outside. This was for the train to Galway. Puzzling, I thought...

Then another queue started to form, this time for the train to Cork which I was supposed to take. I watched it for a moment, and it grew very fast, and so I went to the ticket office again, to ask if there was any chance I would actually get onto this train. The bloke in the office, rather than checking the reservations situation from his computer, just looked over my shoulder, and told me that it will be full enough, but that I should be fine. So I thought I'd give it a go. Not really sure about how anything works, I took my place at the end of the queue, which by that time had reached the other end of the station, and started the 30-minute queuing. About 20 minutes before the scheduled departure, they started letting people on the platform, and when my turn came I realised why the queue - they were checking and stamping tickets at the entrance to the platform.

I then asked one official, if there was any way of knowing which seats are reserved and which aren't, and as I'm taking a "wrong" train if I could sit anywhere or if there are some specific areas etc. I knew that in some countries like Finland, you automatically get a seat reservation with your ticket, while in other places only very few seats are reserved and in others most are. Also, in places like Austria and Germany the few reserved seats are marked with passenger names. The guy said that I could go and check my seat but someone else might have taken it. I explained again that my reservation would be for a later train and I didn't have a reservation for this train. He then repeated the same advice. Finally I concluded that I can sit anywhere, the train is getting very full very fast and as the staff have no clue about reservations, probably not many people have them. I managed to find a seat, and in just about time - dozens of people were left standing in the Friday evening train.

The train left 15 minutes late, the process of making everyone queue before getting on didn't really work. The train was packed but people were very kind and nice. Many fo the passengers were students going home for the weekend. As the train rolled out of Heuston, and passed through the south-western suburbs of Dublin, we were greeted by the famous greenness of Ireland. Pastures, fields, woods, rolling hills. In all shades of green, so beautiful, so clean. And then some more of it. And yet more... I'm not complaining or anything, but the scenery is very similar to that in the Finnish trains, where it's just forests and lakes for hours.

In Mallow I changed to a commuter train and reached Killarney just under 4 hours after I left Dublin. Not exactly a bullet train but it did the job.

On the way back I saw that at all the stations they are advertising how much money EU is pouring to the railroad infrastructure in Ireland, and how they are rolling out new trains (like the one I took), and they were rebuilding many of the stations especially at the outskirts of Dublin. All good news, but they do still have miles to go. The tracks didn't seem to be in particularly good state, the ride was bumpy and speeds were very low at times. The trains are running on diesel, as none of the southwestern network is electrified. The whole queuing-system us bizarre and having to stand in lines for ages belongs to the airports, not on train stations.

But the views were great and it is still a nice way to travel. Compared to flying, at least, especially with R***air, which managed to piss me off again on the way back. This time they did it by selling me Saturday's Irish Independent that costs 1.70€ on Monday morning for 2€. I would understand the markup on price, but quite honestly, I couldn't even imagine that a newspaper would be 2 days old, when we take off at 8 in the morning (hours after the paper has been printed) from the town where the paper is made. I must say that I only realised this after a while, and actually didn't make a fuss about it as I was the first to exit the plane and everyone else wanted to be the second. Despicable anyway.

The wedding was very nice, as I expected. The actual ceremony was in the little chapel in the picture. Such a beautiful place, and a very friendly ceremony. The party was great as you could expect in an Irish wedding, and the food was great. When I saw the hairstyle and Ferrari-jacket I knew the DJ was going to be dodgy, but luckily the bride was firmly in control and set him straight before he could make people mad with his ridiculous ADHD-remixes, and finally he subdued and started playing the cheese people wanted to hear.

Sunday evening in Dublin was lovely as well, and I was well relaxed although somewhat deprived of sleep and dehydrated. Now it is back to business and teaching, lots to do and probably not so much to blog. Although I might try to write something about the students who you can't shut up when you meet them one to one but who do the most amazing mute fish impersonations when in class.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007


Finally... Here it is, my new computer. Well, to my (very slight) disappointment it isn't a brand new MacBook Pro, but rather a PowerBook G4, which is the previous top-end model. It has a nice 17'' widescreen display and it is so smooth and nice to use.

And it looks amazing. I like the feel of OS X and I like the smooth feel of keyboard, the sleek metallic finish (although the previous user has left some fingerprints all over it, I need to clean this thing...).

This comes at the last moment. I've had a bad ____ day today, and you can pretty much fill the blank with anything. Hair is probably bad, as they were taking pictures today for the faculty website and to be posted next to the doors. For sure I had massive bags under my eyes, as I slept abysmally last night for no particular reason. Also, I've had a bad teaching day. Man, I should be fired for incompetence...

I was trying to cram together massive amounts of stuff into a lecture, and trying to make it understandable and at least somewhat interesting. And this is when I started having a bad IT day. My computer started crashing, and I had to restart it several times anyway because my mouse had stalled. This got me into a panic in preparation, as things that were seemingly simple started requiring massive amounts of time, and of course I lost all flow and therefore lost track of the narrative. Finally, about 1/3 in to the two-hour lecture, the projector failed. Totally and completely. And I had all these pictures, graphs, schematic drawings and everything that I had counted on as aids to get my message through, and now I couldn't use any of them. I had two videos lined up, one online-demo, and no picture. Disaster, simply a massive disaster. I had already been incoherent enough, and was hoping to make sense of what I had said in the beginning by showing the demo and the videos...

If I ever needed something turn the day around, today's the day. And if anything can do it, it is this beauty... I just love the way this works WITH me. I've used it for an hour now and we've already bonded. I think I should start referring to it as her, and probably would need to come up with a name as well. Or is that just too sad? Actually, I don't care, think whatever you like, I have a friend who likes me.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

First week of teaching

Challenging but fun. I think that sums it up. There were three sessions this week, all very different.

The first event was a "mass lecture" starting at 8 am on Monday morning. I had done a lot of preparation for this, as I wanted to get a good start. Also I wanted to try to get the students (most of whom are first year students, and this was the first ever uni lecture for them as well) participate actively, and I had prepared a number of features that would do that.

Some other teachers had warned me that sometimes it is very hard to get people to chip in and take part. And I knew this would occasionally happen even in the supervisions where there are only three people, not to mention how easily this is the case in a larger lecture, especially given the time of day of this lecture. On the other hand, as I knew most of these people have never been to a lecture before, they don't have preconceptions about them. So if I make them talk they will think that is the way these things work.

Beforehand I was also worried about time usage. I had 1.5 hours to fill and quite frankly I had no idea how much stuff will fit in. Also, I didn't know how much input I would get from students and whether a discussion I had planned to use 5 minutes for would take 10 minutes or 30 seconds.

I think it went well. People were active, had good ideas and comments and seemed interested in the subject. Timing was also good and I'm looking forward to the second lecture the day after tomorrow.

The second lecture was with a smaller bunch of people and I was giving it together with a lecturer who used to teach me when I was doing my first degree. Therefore this time I was more worried about her than the crowd... We have very different viewpoints to research and that is exactly why we are giving this course together. The first lecture we give together, then we alternate, and at the end of the course we again have a session together, to wrap it up.

The lecture perhaps started a bit slow, but gained momentum as we progressed. She kept challenging me and the point of view I was representing, and I was on the defensive. I did challenge her as well, but perhaps not quite as strongly. But again, people were well engaged, sometimes clearly amused or even astonished by our debate, and it was a positive experience. In a way, the old teacher-student relationship faded and was replaced by a more equal colleague-colleague -relationship. She has been very kind in actively promoting this transition, which of course has made things easy for me.

The third session was the first seminar session for those starting their bachelor's dissertations. I found it almost impossible to prepare for this, as I had no clue if people had plans about topics already or not, and as a consequence I didn't know how the conversation would go. This time, it didn't. The students were a bit unsure about me, and didn't really volunteer comments. I tried to ask about the kind of supervision or teaching they'd think they required, but I think it would have been better just to present my own plan regardless of it possibly being repetitive or patronising or over their heads.

Some people were even talking among themselves and writing notes to each other while I was trying to ask people about their topics. I was thinking of shutting them up, but restrained as they are adults, not kids, and I was hoping to be able to treat them as such. I got their attention with a longer monologue about scientific writing, but eventually I decided to stop short and use only one hour of the two we had scheduled as there clearly wasn't any reason to keep going. Instead I asked them all to come see me individually to talk about their plans and topics, and these meetings have been much more fruitful, and I feel I'm winning them over one by one. I have also decided to knock them out with the next session and will take a much stronger role there. And make them work hard.

All in all, I think it has been a positive start. Preparing for these lectures and seminar sessions has taken a lot of time, though. This is mostly because I'm now responsible for the whole course, from deciding the content to choosing the methods, selecting the reading material and deciding what to do with people who can't make it to the lectures but really would like to pass the course or started the course a year ago but are now having kids and refurbishing their houses 100 kilometres from here or did a course by the same name in a polytechnic some years back. Therefore I can't just prepare stuff as the course progresses (like I could when I was supervising), but the preparation needs to be done in advance. For me, this means doing it now, as I learned about teaching these courses so late. Needless to say that I haven't done anything to my t***** in two weeks, but I'm optimistic I can get back to that towards the end of next week.

Monday, September 10, 2007

First lecture

Tomorrow 8 am, the first lecture.

I must admit, I'm a bit nervous, but not in a bad way. It's the kind of feeling of expectation where you can't wait for the actual show to start... It is going to be a whole new experience, and I'm trying to mentally prepare for it. The actual preparation has been challenging, as I have never needed to come up with things to say for two hours (or one and a half, as it starts quarter past, and there's either a break in between or it ends quarter to the hour: were in the academic time zone) and I have very little clue about what these students know and how they think.

I have been warned that as most of these students are fresh from the high school they know very little and I can't expect too much. On the other hand, if they ARE straight from high school then they don't know what to expect either, and I can set the bar high and they just take it for granted that they will have to work quite hard for these courses. Right?

Well, I'll try to be sensitive and sensible about this, and of course the first lecture will be soft, lots of examples, sound clips, videos, discussion... I'm just trying to get people engaged, and get them to challenge the things they've learned at school, because that has very little to do with how things actually are.

We'll see how it works.

This has taken a lot of work. I've written web pages for the course, opened a new blog for all my teaching stuff, drafted the plans for all lectures, trawled the libraries for material and tried to figure out how this introduction is different from the other introduction lecture I'm supposed to be having on Tuesdays. Also, I've tried to learn how the logic of the integrated calendar - course scheduler - venue booker - student administration system works, and how you do things with it. And it has been difficult to envisage the whole year, the whole course, when I still don't know how much the kids can take. But I'll be that much smarter tomorrow. Now I need to sleep so that I'll be up in time for some coffee before the challenge.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Inspector Morse

Perhaps the greatest TV theme ever (the show's not bad either...). Hearing this made me miss England.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Appalling customer service

How can it be so difficult?

As I moved out of UK, I wanted to cancel my mobile contract. I had a pay monthly contract from Orange, and the easiest way to terminate the contract is to convert it to a pay as you go -contract. So you stop paying monthly for a bundle of calls and texts, and instead get an account that you need to top up in advance. This way, I thought, I could maintain a UK number and use it whenever in there, but not have to keep paying for services I wasn't using.

Unfortunately, this is where you sink to the bottomless hole that is Orange customer service. I've seen stories in the Finnish newspapers complaining how it takes up to 15 minutes to reach the customer service of mobile companies or digital tv helplines. Shock horror. It has now taken me and my girlfriend L a combined effort of THREE hours, and although we've occasionally managed to reach some customer service agents, the issue still hasn't been solved.

They have made leaving your contract criminally difficult. I'm going to make a formal complaint, as this is simply ridiculous...

OK, while I was writing this, I finally managed to bring this ludicrous saga to an end.

I had notified Orange at the end of JULY that I wish to terminate my contract. They said they'd send me a new pay as you go SIM card in a month, and then I'd need to call them again to activate the new card and that would terminate my contract.

As I'm already in Finland, L promised to take care of it, so I left my UK phone with her, with all the passwords etc. She got the new card, then tried to call Orange to activate it, and this is where it all started to go wrong. The first number didn't answer, the second said they were too busy to do these things (!), the third wasn't working at all. Finally, after a lot of queuing, she got through but they made a fuss about keeping my old number and it all got complicated. And finally they said they couldn't do it because she isn't me, and knowing all my security codes, birth dates, addresses and post codes, calling from my phone having unlocked it with my PIN wasn't enough. They take security very seriously... They told her that the best thing is to get me to call them and give my permission for her to act on my behalf and terminate the contract.

OK, this is when I started calling them. The first call was on hold for 20 minutes, and then the person was too stupid (sorry, just a fact) to understand what was going on, but finally I managed to explain what I wanted. He clearly hadn't done anything like this before, and after feverishly consulting his manuals he told me that the best thing for me to do would be to get the codes from L and call them again and terminate the contract myself. I objected, as queuing for yet another 20 minutes using an international call didn't sound like the "best thing" to me, but he practically refused to help me anymore, said that he'd have to transfer my call to another department to get this permission-thingy even started blah blah.

So I called L again, got the SIM card number and phone IMEI code and got back to the queue... And this is what really cracked me up. After navigating through the menus I thought I was queuing to "follow through a disconnection request". But as soon as I had told him what I wanted to do, the guy asks me to hold the line while he transfers me to someone who can disconnect me. WTF?! And you guessed, there was more queuing...

Finally, the person who took my call knew what he was doing. I gave the codes, he disconnected my contract and activated the pay as you go SIM. In about a minute. And keeping the old number was not an issue, that was the default option. He was efficient, quick, helpful and polite. Excellent service. Mate, you're seriously wasting your talent in that rubbish company.

In all, customer service in Orange is shit. Sorry for cursing, there are other words I could have used but they are worse. In July, I actually walked in to their store to disconnect my phone, thinking somehow that they could do the paperwork there, and that I could reach a customer service agent directly, without queuing. Of course this is not how it works. They just told me they can't do that and told me to call the customer services.

I don't know what these guys in their cheap and badly fitting suits do for work, then, as when I was trying to buy the phone in the first place, they couldn't sell one to me, either. They made me stand and wait there while they were calling their boss asking for permission to sign a contract. And, with all their fuss about security etc., they were faxing my credit card details back and forth, so that "they" could check that it was "OK"...

I don't know if the other phone companies are any better. I've heard stories that suggest they aren't. But what I can't understand is, why in that highly competitive British market, the companies get away with such horrible service? Perhaps it is that displeased customers wanting to switch providers can't, because they can't get through to the customer service...


Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Fast trains

Just two hours. It is just amazing. In an inaugural run, the Eurostar travelled from Paris to it's new London home St Pancras in just over 2 hours. Once the regular service starts in November, the trip between the two Alpha cities will take 2 hours 15 minutes. Add to this the half an hour you will need for boarding and security checks and you still get from heart to heart in less than three hours. Some say that housing prices in Cambridge are expected to keep rising because it now is half an hour from London and three and a half hours from Paris. By train.

Brits use cheap airlines a lot, partly because flying in and out of an island has been the quickest and most convenient way. With the tunnel it was said that Britain is no longer an island, but it has now joined the continent. Poor rail infrastructure in England in general and between London and the tunnel in particular reduced this saying to just that, but now with the new high speed rail link this will become a reality. Fast trains have already wiped out most flights between Paris and Brussels, hopefully the same will happen for London-Paris and London-Brussels connections as well.

Another news is that the Russian and Finnish railroad companies are forming a new joint venture to equip the Helsinki - St Petersburg railway with fast Pendolino trains. The aim is to cut travel times from 5 to 3 hours. This is a very welcome development, as well. If the mental distance between Paris and London (or Britain and the continent) sometimes seems larger than the physical distance, the mental distance between Finland and Russia is even greater. A fast rail link will be a physical bridge that hopefully helps in reducing the mental distance. This rail connection isn't just to move traffic from air to the rails, it is to boost communication in the first place.


Monday, September 03, 2007

Rude awakening

What a great way to wake up. Have someone ringing your doorbell at half seven in the morning, and then yell at the flatmate who opened the door: "Get your stinking stuff the hell out of the drying room!" and then leave.

No greeting, no introduction, no checking that he's in the right place, that the things in the drying room belong to us, nothing. And of course the volume was as loud as it gets, so the neighbours were probably woken up, too.

I had done some laundry in the laundry room last night, and so mine was the last name in the booking sheet. After I was done, my flatmate, who had spent the weekend in an adventure race, had gone and hung his rain-soaked stuff out to dry in the drying room. Admittedly we knew the next reservation was for this morning, and that it started at 7, but decided to leave the stuff (a tent, a sleeping bag etc., large things you can't dry in the flat) to dry there overnight because there was no other place.

So we went down to collect the things, and of course the laundry machine was still churning the first load, so there seemed to be no problem, which made us wonder what the hell the yelling was about. When we were almost done and just about to leave, an elderly woman (I'd say lady but she was not one) in her rubber boots appeared at the door, again without greeting or introduction told us in an annoyed voice that she is too old to clean up other people's stuff and that she'd need the room in five minutes and we should be gone by then. My flatmate tried to apologise for the inconvenience but she had already turned around and left.

I'm not sure if the man yelling at our door was her husband, but these two would definitely deserve each other. I don't remember anyone being so rude before, and I feel sorry for my flatmate who felt really bad about the trouble, and of course had planned to get the stuff out of there first thing in the morning, but probably because he had slept for about 10 hours since Thursday he had decided to get up just before 8 rather than at seven, when this no-life hag was starting what probably is the highpoint of her month. (She had booked the laundry for the whole day, as she seems to do every month.)

It made me think about how the world must seem like if you have no social skills at all. How every time you need to deal with people, every time there is something that you'd need to complain about or negotiate over you worry about it so much, you mentally rehearse all the worst case scenarios so many times that by the time you are in the actual situation, all you can do is get on the maximum offence and then leave (piä tunkkis, perkele)?

This is called negative assertiveness, and it is a very common source of social dysfunctions. Someone who scores high on negative assertiveness is able to deliver bad news, rejection or complaint, and handle those situations well. It is about influencing people and relating with them, and healthy assertiveness (in both positive and negative matters) is important in social situations. Many times people who lack assertiveness altogether, are overly shy, avoid difficult situations and in some cases social interaction altogether, and this becomes a problem. For some others, lack of coping skills results in aggressive behaviour, like in the case of the laundry-people in our building.

So, after some rationalisation, rather than being angry I started to feel a bit sorry for these two, whose lives we had so insolently perturbed, and refrained from sneaking in to the laundry room to turn off the mains during the washing cycle.


Sunday, September 02, 2007

Pay day

Although it was not that much, finding the first salary in the bank account on Friday was a great feeling. After all, this year has been financially very difficult, with having to get by with loaned money, small odd jobs and generosity of the family. And even though I'm not usually bothered about money, getting my own money that is a bit more than I immediately need to keep afloat was very important. And a relief.

So, I went shopping. I needed some new clothes, now that I'm a government officer I need an outfit to match my position of authority. Although I have the official position, there's no longer a uniform to go with it. This is a pity, as according to the decree by Nikolai II in 1897 about the rank order in the Grand duchy of Finland, I would be in the 10th class (out of 14). This rank order equates most civil officers to officers in the army and navy. Class 10, where the assistant in the Imperial Alexander University (nowadays Helsinki University) would be equal to lieutenant in the army, although by the same decree, the military personnel will get priority over civilians of the same rank. And there would be a uniform, with a hat to go with the status.

Anyway, although I wasn't looking for a uniform, I was somewhat shocked with what was on offer in the shops in terms of trousers. Jeans. Only jeans, but lots of them. Blue, bluer, bluest jeans. Black, blacker, blackest jeans. Faded, fadeder, fadedest jeans. And I started wondering that surely not everyone wears jeans around here, not all the time. But a quick look around in the town center shows that they do... Eventually I managed to find some non-jeans-based trousers in Hennes & Mauritz where I usually do not shop at. Weird. And for another shop I bought a shirt that I deemed too expensive but just couldn't put down after trying it on...

The other shopping related realisation came later on Friday evening. I went to get some food, and decided to mark the occasion of my first salary by getting some black-label Emmenthaler cheese, and was thinking of getting a bottle of red wine to go with it. Just as I was wondering where the wine shelf in the supermarket was, I remembered that there isn't one. Wine's only available in special shops, run by the state. And these aren't open for as late in the evening as the supermarkets. Luckily I had a bottle of white at home, but I had already become used to just buying wine when buying food, in the same shop.

(Pic: Students in their uniforms in 1853,