Tribe, Village, City, State

Of all social structures, cities are the one I’m most familiar with; I’ve lived in the world’s greatest. But I grew up in a different structure, and as I get more used to this year on campus, I’m starting to like it again. The village.

Campus is a village: part of a broader society, yet somehow not. The instant you drive onto Warwick University’s campus a few klicks downstream from Coventry, you’re in a different place: banners proclaim you’re on intellectual turf, car parks and buildings are suddenly off limits. Unless, of course, you’re part of it.

The Autumn chill is closing in. But somehow the campus is warm. A living thing, connected by thought and ideas and 100Mbps internet connections. The warmth of its breath grooves and stretches campuswide like an organic WiFi hotspot, mellowing, calming, making a whole out of the parts.

The Mathematics Building, two perfect squares atop the Pythagorean triangle of Gibbet Hill and University Road. The Social Studies Centre, a writhing complex of murky corners and dark existential corridors. The Automotive Centre, all crash-tested flowing lines and safety-conscious rounded frontage. The Humanities Building, ablaze with life. From a systems perspective, there’s a line surrounding all these places, marking that subtle divide between organism and environment.

And within it, my room. My little place for the year.

Shelves. Duvets. A big cheap desk. A little flat red iPod. A couple of steampunk laptops. I didn’t bring anything valuable here; no design need. So simple, yet every part of it significant, because used and useful. Somehow part of the bigger picture. No shiny things here still in their wrappers. Everything’s a valuable part of the ecosystem. I feel alive.

Time to stomp. To walk campus, drink it all in.

Making study a snap

Of all the bits of equipment I expected to use on this course, never thought the most useful one would be my camera.

I mean, you can justify an iPod by listening to downloaded lectures on the way to class (although I haven’t done so yet and the walk’s only six minutes). A laptop and printer – go without saying. And a PDA is pretty much vital, with a To-Do list that extends to at least 20 tasks and appointments a day. But a camera?

What I’m using it for is capturing stuff: everything from class-sized whiteboards to A4 pages I can’t be arsed to scan. (With 10Mp on tap, a page of text snapped from half a metre away is perfectly readable.) And teamed with a zoom – which zooms out as well as in, letting me capture more of a scene from closer – it’s saving hours and adding real value to my notes.

I’m writing revision notes as I go along, so by course end I’ll have a complete summary of my MBA in a couple of hundred pages. But the real reason for doing so’s a bit less nerdy: the act of writing something down and putting it into your own words aids understanding.

What makes a great MBA?

MBA schools are a lot like professional sports: there’s a huge mass of wannabes feeding the league tables, a lucky few make it into the majors, and a small elite get all the coverage. (Of 5,000 schools worldwide, fewer than 100 matter.) Fortunately, that few dozen at the top includes WBS.

So I’ve been thinking about what really makes an MBA *great*. Quality teaching by enthusiastic experts helps; at least two of my lecturers wrote the textbooks used on the course. And of course the depth of course content matters. (For instance, Warwick’s Marketing module is more about business strategy than consumer behaviour; deep and meaningful.)

But I’m thinking the real wow factor of a top MBA lies in the way it joins things up.

On Monday, we do a P&L in Accounting, and the next day the Economics class shows how a company’s bottom line is linked from macro trends. 24 hours later Organisational Behaviour looks at the same thing from a human factors viewpoint. It’s all interlinked, so you can relate taught concepts to a broader base of learning. It’s what separates ‘information’ from ‘knowledge’. And why ‘knowledge’ is so difficult to manage; the value of knowledge isn’t the information, it’s the links it creates between ideas.

Where are the Americans?

I’ve noticed a distinct lack of Americans in my life this last year.

OK, so most of the 95% of human beings who aren’t American would be pleased to say that, particularly during the Toxic Texan’s reign. But citizens of Uncle Sam have been a part of my life since my teens, ever since a long backpacking trip that took in virtually every State save the two you can guess, and to not have any around feels odd. (There are a couple of Yanks on the course, but neither’s a Republican and one’s been here so long her accent is half British.)

Furthermore, the Americans you meet outside US borders are a different breed to the ones inside the USA: more travelled, better rounded. It’s a shame they’re always targetted by armchair critics when they travel, because in a way they’re the ‘best’ Americans, open to new ideas – we shouldn’t be pissing them off by constantly harping about US policy and aggregate attitudes, so I try not to.

So I never thought I’d say this, but I miss Americans.