Category Archives: learning

Degree programmes for the future: Inter-galatic Communication, Space Tourism or Hoverboard Design?

What do you get if you put together a group of academics from various disciplines who’ve never met before than ask them to design a degree course for the future? Not a degree in space tourism, intergalactic communication or hoverboard design, but a course which addresses a very immediate concern – that of the global ageing population. That was the challenge for our multidisciplinary group at the recent University Alliance ‘sandpit’ event at Nottingham Trent University.

Hoverskull - Jonas Bødtker

Not for the course we designed!

I will not get into a discussion about whether our present degree courses, bound largely in ‘disciplines’ which emerged in the latter quartile of the nineteenth century are fit for the present, let alone the future. Our brief was to cast off our collective baggage and come up with a degree programme which would somehow address a present challenge –namely that people are living longer and an increasing proportion of the world’s population consists of older people.

The only real rule in our brief was that the programme had to be at undergraduate level degree. We didn’t have to worry about whether the programme fitted in with any existing (real or imagined) institutional regulations.

The degree my group designed was called ‘BA (Hons) Lifelong Learning and Consultancy’ – I’m sure that given more than a two days, we would have been able to come with a catchier title for the programme. The proposed programme is aimed at older learners, possibly those who have recently retired from the police or armed forces, have been made redundant from ‘traditional’ industries or are just wanting a new challenge. Is was envisaged that learners would use their existing skills and experience to assist younger students on ‘traditional’ degrees and to work with community groups. The assessments would be largely project-based and by the end of the programme graduates would be able to facilitate learning and change in range of organisations as well as being able ‘deliver consultancy at a professional level’ (a direct quote from our programme proposal form!).

Module grid for BA (Hons) Lifelong Learning and Consultancy

At the end of the two days the facilitators expressed excitement that each group had managed to produce a plausible degree programme. The question then arose about why these things take so long in real practice. On this occasion we had the advantage that we had all allocated two days to this exercise, and by our very attendance at the event we were sufficiently open-minded to believe that something could be achieved. Unbound by the fetters of our institutions’ rules and regulations, no ideas were rejected on the grounds that our plans would be unacceptable to some committee or would violate institutional rules about contact time or assessment regulations and there was no reason to concern ourselves with the requirements of a professional body.

After attending the event and speaking to others afterwards here are a few thoughts / observations:

1. Is quality assurance (in all its local and national forms) inhibiting innovation in the design of courses, modules etc.? Too many conversations in universities revolve around what is allowed, rather than what is good.
2. Can more be achieved, faster, if we simply had the time and inclination to all get together for a day or two and focus on a particular task?
3. As a group we were unburdened by hierarchies, disciplinary traditions and a desire to preserve ‘our bit’ of the curriculum. I had not met any of my fellow group members before and did not know their ‘rank’ or standing in their disciplines.
4. This might be controversial, but would higher education be better served if everybody in academia was as open minded as the people who attended the sandpit?
5. A conversation which arose at a subsequent meeting considered issues of agility. Are our courses too slow to change to meet new challenges and the development of new technologies? Are our graduates equipped for the future or merely for the recent past? We sometimes moan about companies only seeking ‘oven ready graduates’, but does our lack of agility mean that we are serving graduates who have been the oven and are now going stale?

Tram in Nottingham
Trams are coming back. Skills and knowledge of the past needed again.

The idea of passing on skills from one generation to another is one which I think is very important and formed a key idea in our planned degree scheme. I’m not thinking solely about passing on the skills of a dying local craft, but broader skills which seem to be disappearing like the ability to put up shelves or a saw a piece of wood in a straight line. I’ve learned some of these skills from books and from YouTube, but a lot of people my age have never felt the need to acquire these skills. It would be a shame if they were to become restricted to a small group of professionals.

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Michel Foucault and the pedagogy of learning to swim

Reading Foucault today the following passage struck me, although it was little to do with the reason I've been reading Foucault.

The organisation of serial space was one of the great technical mutations of elementary education. It made it possible to supersede the traditional system (a pupil working for a few minutes with the master, while the rest of the heterogeneous group group remained idle unattended). By assigning individual places it made possible the supervision of each individual and the simultaneous work of all.

(M. Foucault 1977, Discipline and Punish, London: Penguin p.147).

Every Saturday morning I take my son to his beginner swimming lessons. The approach taken by the swimming teachers at our local swimming pool is very different from the approach taken by my own swimming teacher at the same level. At my son's lessons the teacher is in the water and she spends a few minutes with each while the other groups members talk, splash each other or practice putting their faces in the water (the traditional method in Foucaultian terms). When I learnt to swim, the teacher did not come in the water at all. He stood at the side of pool giving instructions to the whole group then altogether, then we all did as as said (or at least tried). I never actually saw my swimming teacher swim-- he used the discipline approach.

I have no view on which approach might be better in terms of teaching someone to swim. Perhaps there is a debate in the swimming teaching community about which approach to group teaching is best. This post is pure observation and not an opinion!

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Drinking the wisdom of the sage on the stage: the traditional lecture on iTunesU

trueman170x170Over the past two weeks I’ve been making my way through a series of lectures on the Reformation by Carl Trueman of the Westminster Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania. I understand the lectures form part of a masters’ degree. They are available free through iTunesU.

The first thing I should say about the lectures is that I am enjoying them. They are well presented, full of interesting facts, contain some interesting and sometimes funny stories, and contain a great deal of Trueman’s own scholarly analysis. The course is also very broad covering the reformation from a historical as well as theological perspectives (not that Trueman would suggest the two approaches could be divorced). I’ve listened to the first seven lectures, which have focused not only on the person of Martin Luther himself, but also the geo-political situation of the German states and Holy Roman Empire in the early sixteenth century. Occasionally students ask questions which try to relate Luther’s experience and views to trends and movements in contemporary Christianity. While this may be expected in an evangelical Christian seminary where the students are in or are preparing for ministry, Trueman resists any attempt to draw such parallels and always falls on the side of constraint. Luther himself is a complex individual, his theological and political thought evolves over his lifetime and he lived five centuries ago.

However, I did not start this post with a view to discussing the Reformation, Martin Luther or Carl Trueman, but the nature of the traditional lecture. There are an astonishing 33 lectures in this series, most just under an hour long. I don’t know how the lectures fit into the Seminary’s (orthe accreditor’s) credit system, but 30 hours strikes me as a huge amount of the contact time for one ‘module’. The students ask occasional questions, all of which Trueman thoughtfully answers.

My own practice as tutor on the Postgraduate Certificate course for new lecturers could not be more different from the traditional lecture. My own input is generally short, activities tend to be group and discussion based, and assessments are varied. I’m well aware that some new lecturers would quite like to come to an hour long lecture where they could take notes, not be called upon to discuss as a class or in groups and write an essay and/or a traditional exam for the assessment, but such passivity goes against what I believe about learning.

My own undergraduate study was very lecture-based assessed mainly by unseen two-hour exams at the end of each module. There was some ‘coursework’, but the exams probably made up around 70% of the assessment. Most of those lectures were actually very interesting, but it was the small group tutorials which encouraged me to learn think independently and develop intellectually into the sort of person who could undertake postgraduate study.

Listening to and enjoying Carl Trueman’s lectures has presented me with an intriguing dilemma about teaching in higher education. Trueman lectures are incredibly detailed. Each time I listen to one I look forward to the next. I almost feel I am walking in Luther’s shoes. However, I really need to ask myself whether this is the best way for Trueman’s students to learn? It is tremendous that I can sit in East Sussex listening to fascinating lectures from Pennsylvania, but I will not be taking the exams and writing the essays. If I had to write an essay, a project or exam I would be somewhat overwhelmed that I could possibly produce anything interesting or original. If I taught about the reformation (which I don’t and never will as it’s not my area) I would be very tempted to tell students to listen to these lectures., and use my own time in the classroom differently.

Perhaps it is the enthusiastic amateur (like me in the case of the reformation) who benefits the most from freely available online lectures like these. I listen to ‘sage on the stage’* drinking his wisdom in a way I could not possibly comprehend if he was in my area of expertise. Trueman relates stories of email arguments he’s had the various (named) individual scholars. He tells of how one of his book reviews exposed so many factual errors it led to a whole edition getting pulled.** This is a teacher and colleague to fear!

Note: I’ve picked on Carl Trueman because that is what I’m listening to at the moment. I’m sure my feelings would be the same of a lot of other publically available online content.

*King, Alison. ‘From Sage on the Stage to Guide on the Side’. College Teaching 41, no. 1 (1 January 1993): 30–35. (Not open access).

**Carl Trueman (2012) You Cannot Judge This Book by its Cover: A Review of Evans, G. R. The Roots of the Reformation: Tradition, Emergence and Rupture. IVP Academic, 2012. The publisher brought out a second edition with corrections.

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My Open Educational Resources

I have put many of my teaching resources in the humbox where anyone is welcome to download and reuse them. They are primarily used as handouts in face-to-face contexts, so most would probably need adapting to turn them into materials suitable for purely online context. Most are available under creative commons licenses, but please check first.

My profile on the humbox

Click on "View all resources" to see a full list of my resources.

The PhD research training collection includes resources on the PhD viva, academic writing, employability, academic writing, doing book reviews and ethnography.

The Head of University language departments collection includes scenario planning exercises, for curriculum change, people management and presenting research.

Further resources I have produced for sharing are on other project websites such as SPEAQ (Relating to quality assurance and enhancement) and Getting the Most Out of Feedback which has resources for students and staff on feedback and student evaluation.

There is also my Statistics for Humanities online book.

I have made a list on Diigo of other people's open educational resources on study skills

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Mary Willingham: the courageous and subversive act of pedagogic research

I hadn't heard of Mary Willingham until today. Her story has been the US education news for a few days now.

One of the risks of researching something is that you often find something out. When that research is into what actually goes on in a university the results can be unpalatable. Pedagogic research is often looked down upon, but in many respects it is the form of research that requires most courage.

Mary Willingham works in the Center for Student Success and Academic Counseling at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Over the course of her experience she came to notice that many student athletes were struggling with basic reading skills. She could have said nothing at all or merely harboured prejudice based on anecdote; instead her research into the reading levels of student athletes (and publication of the results) has brought condemnation from her university senior management, including according to CNN a demotion.

Those us in the UK (and elsewhere in the world) find it difficult to understand the concept of a university in which sports are such a great deal. Games are televised and watched by thousands of people. 80,000 plus seater stadia are not unknown. Athletics is seen as both a money spinner and community outreach. Some universities and college accept students who would not otherwise be qualified based on their abilities in particular sports. The [American] football coach is often the highest paid employee at the whole university. The Chronicle of Higher Education forums are a source of many stories about pressure from sports coaches to be lenient on students who have not done the work required or not done as much as they should.

But sports is not really my point here.

Mary Willingham’s experience illustrates that research into the activities of the universities, especially learning and teaching can be a courageous, even subversive act, which may have high personal costs. Real courage on the part of university management would be to encourage and applaud research into those things which happen every day in our universities.

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Interview with Professor Philip Davies: On American Studies

As the 50th Anniversary of John F Kennedy’s assassination approaches I thought it would be a good time to republish my 2009 interview with Professor Philip Davies, Emeritus Professor of American Studies at De Montfort University and Director of the Eccles Centre for American Studies. The interview itself took place shortly after the election of Barak Obama as the first non-white president of the United States.

The original article (with pictures) appears in Liaison Magazine 3, July 2009, pp. 12-15

Philip Davies arrived at Keele University in the late 1960s to study mathematics  and geography. Thanks to the Keele tradition of joint honours degrees and flexible courses, and a year at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, Davies graduated with  a degree in sociology and American  studies. After a Masters degree in American politics at Essex he studied and taught at the University of Maryland, College Park, Lanchester  Polytechnic (now the University of Coventry) and the University of Manchester before becoming Head of the International Office at Leicester  Polytechnic in 1991, just as it was becoming De Montfort University. As well as writing and editing numerous books and articles on US politics, he has served as Chair of the British Association for American Studies (BAAS), the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) Benchmarking Group for Area Studies and the UK Council for Area Studies Associations (UKCASA), and is currently Chair of the American Politics Group of the UK. Now Emeritus Professor of American Studies at De Montfort University, he is Director of the Eccles Centre for American Studies, hosted by the British Library.

How did you first become interested in the United States?

I was born in 1948 at the time of the Cold War so you really couldn’t ignore the US. I came from a fairly working- class background but my family was very politically aware. My generation lived through Kennedy getting shot; I do remember exactly where I was and it was the first time I had seen my father cry. Although I discovered American studies at university I was ready for it. As a school kid in  Shropshire I was always at the town library. You could borrow books from the American Embassy by post and I was doing that. I was reading books about obscure jazz musicians, and  politics books only available in the US. I won a school essay competition with an essay on the aftermath of Kennedy’s assassination. I had no idea you could study American studies at university. At school I studied history,  geography and mathematics. I knew I didn’t want to do a single honours degree. I think that there were only six universities in the whole country where it was possible to do degrees of the kind I wanted. I was brilliantly lucky to go to Keele. And then there was American studies. David Adams gave this lecture on the St Valentine’s Day Massacre and it was just superb. I thought “If you can do this at university, why am I still doing maths?” In those days they gave you four years to do your degree and you had to study a subject you had never done before. All the departments knew that they had the opportunity to take you away from your original subjects. I was always brilliant at maths at school, but I got to university and found that there were 40 other people who were just as brilliant, if not better. I knew American studies would be hard. I had not studied A-level English literature. I wasn’t very good at languages but I was interested in foreign countries, interested in America and interested in history, and there it was. With some trepidation about the literature I decided to give it a go. I think that’s where the extra year was so important. It gave me the time to work out how literature works. I’m not sure whether it is the politics or history which interests me most - if you live long enough the politics becomes history!

Student exchanges were competitive and I won one to Swarthmore College in Philadelphia. In those days they didn’t transfer credit which meant that you could experiment. I did courses which were more challenging and offbeat than I would have done if the marks had been transferred. In the end my degree took five years, but I had two years’ more reading than most students. On my first visit to America I arrived in Chicago the Saturday before the 1968 Democratic convention. I thought politics was very exciting and ended up getting into a barney with police outside the convention!

What changes have you seen in American studies over the years?

When I was a student and when I first started teaching, American studies was a fairly well-formed tripod of history, literature and politics. You had Dick Pear who was professor of American politics, Dennis Welland in literature, and Peter Marshall in history. There has been a slippage away from politics and social sciences in American studies. As I got involved in UKCASA I learnt that this was not true in all area studies. I may be wrong but in my mind European studies has this very solid social science basis which even includes economics (you don’t get this much in American studies). Cultural studies, media studies, film studies are a big part of American studies now. The political science element seems to have diminished in undergraduate teaching, though not necessarily in the research culture.

Part of that is student demand. Even when I was at Manchester the vast majority of students had English literature and history A-level and very few had politics. When they arrived they were mostly interested in literature, but by the final year when they had choice they were divided roughly a third each way. Over time programmes have responded by  becoming more arts and humanities focused, including subjects like cultural studies and media studies, which didn’t exist or barely existed when I was young. International relations (IR) has grown and a huge part of IR programmes is American  foreign policy. There are many other opportunities to study America.

In the 1960s English departments, history departments and to a lesser extent politics departments didn’t do a lot about America. Many literature departments were very snooty about American literature, several Nobel prizes notwithstanding - they still didn’t believe Americans could write! Now all these subjects have increased their coverage of America and in newer areas such as IR, film studies and media studies American content plays a big part. American studies is competing against these subjects and the number of students applying to study for a discrete degree in American studies has been in decline for a long time, though it has gone up this year. I believe that the number of undergraduates studying America as part of their degree is bigger than it has ever been because of all these other options. It’s great that literature, politics, history and so on now contain American options.

However, like all area studies people, I believe there is virtue in studying an area in a multidisciplinary way which is not achieved through a single discipline approach. You know more about the literature if you know the history and politics of the place, you know a lot more about the politics if you know the history and about the cultural artefacts including literature and so on. Area studies gets squeezed, underused or undervalued because of the nonetheless valuable inclusion of the area in more single disciplinary areas.

Have you noticed any changes in the type of people who choose to do American studies?

When I first started at Manchester we did surveys of student background and 100% would have either English or history A-level and about 80% had both. Just 5-10% had politics. I don’t sense that has changed. If anything the proportion of social sciences was getting lower in the last couple of years I was teaching. The American politics A-level is  really popular. We run events for the students here at the Eccles Centre and we have hundreds coming. We have given them the American studies CD but very few are considering American studies; they are thinking politics or IR or PPE (philosophy, politics,  economics).

 You are currently Chair of the American Politics Group of the UK, you have been Chair of BAAS and  UKCASA and you chaired the first QAA Benchmarking Group for Area Studies. What motivated you to be involved in the leadership of these groups?

I think it was Ben Franklin who said something like “don’t join anything unless you can run it” - I’m sure he would have said it a lot more eloquently. I was chairman of my kids’ parent teacher association as well. I  like running things and it has generally been a pleasure. I enjoy the way it introduces you to people with a wide variety of experiences. Now I am on the committee of the European American Studies Association which involves 25 different nations - a great experience.

In the early 90s after I had got to De Montfort, I decided to become more actively involved in the professional side. I was lucky to be chair of BAAS while the Subject Centre was being set up. Many people forget there are Anglophone area studies. The first QAA subject list did not have area studies on it and they included American studies in English literature. BAAS created a noise about that. I discovered American studies at university, I have lived American studies throughout my career and it has given me a raison d’être. I’ve lived in America, I’ve got American friends, and my kids’ godparents are Americans. I’m locked into the country and I’m from a working-class background where nobody left Stoke, so I feel I owe a lot of the pleasure I’ve got out of life to American studies and now at the Eccles Centre I have the best  American studies job in the country.

What attracted you to that role? What does being Director of the Eccles Centre involve?

It’s brilliant. The job came up just as my time as chair of BAAS was finishing. We organise a lot of events. We do a research conference with the Institute of the Study of the Americas and sponsor lectures and conferences, and we do politics conferences for A-level students, undergraduates, and their teachers. For the general public we work with the Fulbright Commission and Benjamin Franklin House. We’ve had Timothy Garton Ash and David Cannadine is coming soon. The British Library has its own events so we work with them on topics which have an American spin. We do publications and several books have come out of our conferences so there’s editorial work, chasing authors, etc.

We have Eccles Fellows money so people from North America and outside London can come to the  British Library and use the North American collections. The Eccles Centre is also tasked with adding to the Americas collections. We fund the acquisition of items which are so expensive that the Library would have to go fund-raising for them and which are important enough that the general public can understand why they are special. We recently purchased the first map of the Americas by an English cartographer. He did a set of four continental maps. The Library already had the other three and the  American one came up at an auction. We got it very cheaply - within a few months a similar map at a different auction sold for more than three times the price. We have purchased a couple of very early American books, notable not only for their quality and early production, but because they are about the contemporary 17th and 18th century debates on theology and government. In both cases no copies existed outside North America.

Is there anything you miss about working in a university?

One misses particular colleagues of course, though I still do have connections with De Montfort. In a university your actual teaching hours are a small part of what you do, but talking to colleagues is a substantial part of the job. I ask myself whether I miss the teaching. I don’t miss the marking and I don’t miss setting the exams. I don’t miss the meetings, except for the conviviality of the meetings. I give a few guest lectures at De Montfort and I’m still doing a modest amount of research. I don’t get the consistent relationship with a group you get throughout a year or a complete degree, so that body of people I proprietarily think of as “mine”, I don’t get anymore. So when I look at the television and see Richard Lister, the BBC Washington correspondent, I can say “he’s one of mine!”, or I listen to the radio and hear that it was produced by Sally Flatman, I say “she’s one of mine”. Even Boris Johnson’s media adviser was one of mine – all this stuff about how these left wing professors politicise their students, it never worked for me!  Campus experiences are nice, but the British Library is a bit like a campus. In many jobs you would say you miss the library, but I’ve got The Library!

As an expert in US politics and US elections in particular, people inevitably ask you about the election of Barack Obama as America’s first black president. Do you see Obama’s election as something particularly historic?

Even if it tarnishes it will be significant because of the number of people emotionally affected by it at the time. When you see a big swing in one election, the people who voted for the first time in that election tend to maintain that bias. Obama brought new people to the polls.

The turnout went up a bit, about 1%, but there was a significant dropout among conservative and evangelical voters - they weren’t going to vote for Obama and they weren’t happy with McCain. 19% of black voters had never voted before and there was also an increase in the Hispanic vote. These voters are more into governmental action and more liberal on social issues. If they continue to vote it would suggest a swing in those kinds of directions. I expect that if in four years’ time the Obama administration is perceived as even moderately successful, the impact will be seen for a number of elections. If it is seen as very successful it could continue like Franklin D Roosevelt. I was there for the last few days of the election campaign and people were very moved. Even if the administration cannot cope with the great problems they face, there is now no barrier to a non-white person becoming president of the United States - that’s hugely significant. The barrier has just gone.  If Hillary Clinton had got in a woman would have done it - that barrier has probably gone

 

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The order of learning, or does it matter in what order you learn things?

As a newbie to textbook authoring I am confronting the issue of the order of learning. Should you learn about a student t-test before an F-test? Pearson's product moment correlation co-efficient before Simple Linear regression? Perhaps it doesn’t matter in these cases but I am currently dealing with contradictory pieces of feedback regarding the chapter on presentation of data.

Initially I put it early on the book. I reasoned that things like bar graphs and scatterplots would be pretty familiar to students, and that the main aims of the chapter would be concerned with choosing appropriate ways to display data. After all my seven year-old knows about bar graphs. However, the risks of producing confusing, misleading or inappropriate graphs and charts is a real one. Moreover, bad graphics are highly entertaining.

Two people who saw early drafts felt that chapter 3 was too early for this chapter. After all, how you present statistical data if you don’t understand the statistics referenced?

Having moved it towards the end of the book, the latest feedback has been to move back to about chapter 3. In defence of early inclusion most of the material does not reference any particular statistical test, but is focused on principles of presenting data as clearly and unambiguously as possible.  Items such as boxplots which use medians and quartiles can be forward referenced.

Of course the learner can read the chapters in any order they like (or the teacher can assign chapter 20 to be read before Chapter 3). Yet at the same time I like the idea of book where the chapters build on each other. This is my ‘baby’ and I’m pretty precious about it all. “Could students go straight into the chapter on the t-test without having to read the other stuff?”,  I have been asked. I suppose they might be able to, but it depends on what they already know, and what they actually expect to learn from the process. None of the language learning books I have come across open with “Lesson 1: Forming the subjunctive.”

One of my aspirations for the book is writing something that fits together well as a learning journey. The journey is not just being able to ‘do’ something, but hopefully being able to understand and appreciate why you are doing it.

But back to the subject of order not everybody learns the same things in the same. I’m not a child development expert, but know from my own boys (n=2) (and their friends) that they do not reach the same milestones in the same order. On the other hand when the time comes for them to learn to drive (still a long way off…) I’m pretty confident that they will learn to drive forwards before they learn to drive backwards.

Either way the question of whether this particular chapter should come near the beginning or near the end (or indeed in the middle) is one I wish to ponder further.

 

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On accepting unsolicited advice from a stranger

The washing machine packed up this weekend. My sister-in-law is staying with us at the moment so my wife and I went on an impromptu date to the electrical store this evening while my SIL babysat. It is the first time we have ever bought our own washing machine. Prices varied between about £200 and £900. Most were A, A+, A++, or A+++ energy rating. Most were white, though some were grey or even black. Some had 1 year guarantees, some 2 and some 5. We were confused.

We were starting to take an interest in a particular model when a women approached. "I would never buy a [major brand] if I were you. I've had them out to mend mine three times now. Eventually I told them just to take it away. They gave me a better model and the same thing happened to that as well".  In the confusing situation of purchasing a washing machine any advice which led to eliminating certain options seemed helpful. No one came up to offer a contrary opinion. It would seem almost rude to have have ignored this unsolicited piece of advice.  We have ended up choosing a another brand.

It is interesting to reflect on how (and even why) we accepted this advice. We had no opinion and she offered one.

In the complicated process which is university choice I wonder whether negative advice from random people can actually be the most influential factor.

 

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