What can we learn from an academic and humorist who was writing around 70 years ago?
I've started to read and write about things that are not directly concerned with education in general, and education technology in particular, but which in my view have a bearing on it. That's how I came to consider writing about the work of Stephen Potter.
Potter was a lecturer in the English Department at the University of Oxford, England, and also wrote and took part in radio programmes. However, he is best known for the "upmanship" books.
The first of these was Gamesmanship, or the art of winning games without actually cheating. Then came Lifemanship, the application of the principles of gamesmanship to everyday life. Graduates of the (fictitious) Lifemanship course were known as "lifemen". Next came One Upmanship, and then Supermanship, which was about how to stay on top.
The basic principle of one upmanship was that if you're not one up, you're one down. Put like that it all sounds horribly negative, but in fact Potter was gently poking fun at snobbery and academia.
I think there are five areas in which Potter's observations are worth bearing in mind today. I've seen examples of every one of these in the field of ed tech research and practice, and I expect you have too.
You've no doubt heard of dangling modifiers, which are words that are detached from the word or phrase they are meant to be attached to (or not attached to anything at all), as may be seen in the following sentence:
"Looking into the distance, the bridge seemed to be safe enough."
It sounds like the bridge was looking into the distance, rather than the person speaking. Thus the word "looking" is the dangling modifier.
Well, one of the things Potter highlighted was what I have decided to name "dangling statistics" – stats that seem to have no bearing on anything at all, ie no context, and no purpose.
For example, in the introduction to Lifemanship, there is a footnote which reads:
"According to Hulton Research, the number of lifemen who drink tea but never buy fireworks is 79… The figure for those who are interested in soap substitutes and have not yet been to Portugal is, however, 385."
These sort of statistics are not only pointless but meaningless too: what do we actually learn from it, and how could we possibly benefit from knowing it?
But the interesting thing about it is that it looks like it should be important and relevant. After all, the research has been carried out by a body with the august-sounding name of Hulton Research (see below under "OK names"), and the numbers quoted are very precise – not, "around 80" but "79"; not "nearly 400" but "385". This gives the (spurious?) impression of accuracy.
In our field, that of ed tech, I come across dodgy-sounding statistics all the time, especially in speeches by politicians.
Rather than go into great depth here, I refer you to my article The world according to Potter: Part 1 – Going metric.
Many of Potter's terms lend a spurious academic air to his writing. For example, there is Doctorship, Lectureship, Chairmanship, Carmanship, Lowbrowmanship, Highbrowmanship and even Hands-across-the-sea-manship. There's another example of impressive-sounding but invented terminology below.
This is the use of names that sound impressive. In one of his footnotes, Potter advertises a booklet called "Places where it is OK for things to first come to you at".
In a note on OK words, he states:
"We hope to publish, monthly, a list of words which may be brought into the conversation and used with effect because no one quite understands what they mean, albeit these words have been in use for a sufficiently long time, at any rate by Highbrowmen, say ten years, for your audience to have seen them once or twice and already felt uneasy about them."
In yet another section, Potter discusses OK names:
"Just as there are OK words in conversationship, so there are OK people to mention…"
In How to Lie With Statistics, Darrell Huff mentions Potter and his OK names:
"It may take at least a second to find out who-says-so. The who may be hidden by what Stephen Potter, the Lifemanship man, would probably call the "OK name". Anything smacking of the medical profession is an OK name. Scientific Laboratories have OK names."
If you think about it, "Hulton Research" is a prime example of an OK name.
In his book Doctoring Data, Dr Malcolm Kendrick states that:
"… in the vast majority of cases, around 80%, the evidence used was the lowest level… otherwise known as "expert committee reports, opinions and/or clinical experience of respected authorities. This would otherwise be known as medicine based on anecdote by important professors. Or, as one wag has put it, this is 'eminence-based medicine'."
Stating the opposite of what you actually mean
A good example of this was the Supporting People initiative some years ago in the UK. This concerned funding for services like sheltered accommodation for vulnerable people. As soon as I heard the name of the new initiative I thought "They're going to cut the funding", and I was right.
It's the same sort of naming strategy that companies employ when firing people, eg enhancing their future career opportunities.
Potter deftly combined this stating of the opposite with an invented term: the petrification of the implied opposite.
Also see The world according to Potter Part 2: Opposites attract for more on this.
If you're overly concerned with a visit from Ofsted (the schools' inspectorate in England), you might take a leaf from Potter's section on "Counter-inspection play", in Supermanship. He recommends rehearsing a special inspector lesson:
But of course no good inspectorman would arrive the day he was expected. In later, more experienced days, I used to ring up Inspectors and say 'I think you'll enjoy the discussion tonight'. Amazingly, it worked. Tipped-off class would respond brilliantly to rehearsed inspector-lecture.
I feel that at this point I should declare the usual disclaimer!
The "upmanship" books may have been intended as a huge joke, but what made them so powerful and so timeless is the fact that most of the things he describes have more than a grain of truth in them.
It's hard to get hold of the complete set of books now, but here is a link to the full works. You may need to buy a used copy. Please note that the link is an affiliate link.
This article is an expanded version of one that appeared in Digital Education, the free ezine. Go to the Digital Education Newsletter page for more information.