Thursday, October 29, 2009

Wonders never cease

Amazingly enough supply equaled demand for the pizza tonight. I hope that wasn't because people went away hungry. I thought for a while that there'd be a lot left over.

The other amazing thing is that I did not say a word about the World Series and have yet to turn on the game, though I can hear it in the background. Will be drawn into that momentarily.

The real reason for this message is that several of you missed Declining By Degrees and want my opinion on whether you should watch it. So I hope those who did can give their recommendation on that. I believe we'd all agree the movie is not uplifting. Metaphorically, it treats Higher Ed as a bunch of different Hand Washing problems, ones that haven't been solved yet. Beyond that, I'll let the students in the class say whether there is value from getting the perspective of the movie. Please do that in comments to this post.

I do think that if the reviews come in positive a bunch of you who haven't seen it could figure out how to watch it together. I returned the DVD to the Library so it should be available in the next 24 hours.


Please Link

Greg is the first to write a post according to this week's prompt. He references a post by Tiffany. It is best practice in blogging to link to other posts that are referenced, indeed to any Web pages that are referenced. This doesn't directly benefit the author of the post at all. The benefit is to the reader who can find and track down those references more easily. If we all link this way, it should help in making us a tighter knit group. That, in turn, would benefit each of us as authors.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Framework and Summary of Class Discussion on 10-28

I am going to try to write this in a neutral way where questions are posed but answers aren't offered up. So the conclusions could go either way. But at least in some cases I will try to list the set of possible conclusions from which to choose. Also, I will belabor some things because some students missed the class and this written explanation may help more than the recording of the session.

We started by talking about meta skills that all students need to learn and what we hope all students will have acquired at some level of proficiency by the time they graduate. On this I asserted the categories, more or less. A few students offered up others which either were subsidiary categories (I will illustrate below) or were different labels for the same categories. The three we ended up with are:

1. Communication
2. Learning to learn
3. Citizenship

We didn't talk much about Communication because we already heard about it from the College CIOs visit and because the class is in agreement that it is a fundamental skill of high importance. We did talk about learning to learn. Somebody (sorry, I won't give attribution because I can't remember who said what) talked about Critical Thinking, to which I responded that is the inside academia name for learning to learn. You may say they are not identical. For this purpose, let's say they are. Somebody else talked about information technology skills to which I responded that is subsidiary to learning to learn. I think we got agreement on that. Somebody else talked about research skills in a particular field. My response there was that you can't become skilled about learning to learn skills in the abstract. You have to talk about those skills in reference to some field. There is the question of whether the learning to learn parts translate to other fields. It's the part that do translate that are the meta skills. Some things you learn about a field are quite specific to that field, no doubt.

We then talked a bit about Citizenship. Here we talked about group work, we talked about leadership, and we mentioned responsibility and ethics. Someone asked whether ethics was a citizenship thing or its own separate category. My answer in class was to leave that as a pending question. But I'd like to amend myself on this and say it is part of citizenship for this purpose. We're better off having a shorter list of meta skills, where each member of the list is distinct but itself broad. I think the list above does that.

We then talked about how the meta skills are learned. One place for learning them is in class. I believe it is the aim of the Campus for the education offered up to significantly enhance student meta skills. We also said, however, that students can very well learn these skills from experience. We talked about experiential learning as an alternative to formal instruction, in some ways superior to formal instruction. (I don't like the jargon, but experiential learning is said to be "authentic". I do take the point to which the jargon refers.)

We then talked about typical places for students where experiential learning occurs. Members of the class offered up the two obvious categories - internships and RSOs. We also talked a little bit about service learning and then lumped everything else into a category called "other."

We then asked whether experiential learning gets course credit and the why or why not of that. It does in some instances that are well orchestrated, student teaching in schools was mentioned, as was a program in Applied Health Studies (though here my memory fails as to the specifics of the program). But much experiential learning does not receive course credit and some that does is only available in a capstone course setting. The reason for this is that the university must "certify" that specified learning objectives are met. That certification comes from a faculty member on campus. It's hard for a faculty member to do this when the experiential learning happens outside the university and outside the experience of the faculty member. If this certification were to occur beyond the faculty member's normal work, it would require substantial effort. The student teaching works because the relationship is conceived as a triangle from the get go between teacher in the school, the faculty member on campus, and the student teacher who operates in both places. Other types of experiential learning where the faculty member is not so integrated in are much harder to monitor. Alternatively, integrating in the faculty member itself often takes substantial work, which may not be the sort of work the Campus rewards. This is why much service learning is only available as a capstone offering.

At this point we brought in Drucker, focusing on chapter 5. We talked about Social Problems and divided those into two categories, problems created by society as a whole or problems created specifically by the enterprise as it goes about achieving its mission. Drucker says the enterprise is responsible for fixing those latter problems. Regarding the former problems, the enterprise may or may not have the responsibility, according to Drucker, depending on whether it has the competence to provide a solution. The enterprise should not extend beyond its competence to fix social problems created by society as a whole.

Drucker talks about possible solutions to the social problems. The first is to abandon the activity that causes the problem. This is best if the activity itself is not tied to what the enterprise produces. The second is to make a new business out of solving the social problem. This is a good solution when it is possible. The third is to introduce regulation to best manage the social problem, when creating a profitable business is not possible.

Up till this point, much if not all of the above is definitional in nature, and I think everyone in class got this much. What follows is beyond definitional and I think there was some substantial confusion.

We talked about the disengagement pact, who has responsibility to solve it, and then whether the solution could turn into a "profitable business." Faculty disengagement, where it occurs, is clearly the responsibility of the Campus, since faculty are employees of the Campus. Student disengagement, where it occurs, may be a societal problem caused by the rigidity of approach in K-12, in which case the Campus role to address this issue depends on its competence to do, which may explain some of the tepid programs we do see. Alternatively, it may be caused by the high enrollment courses first-year students take, in which case the Campus does have responsibility to fix it.

We asked whether a possible solution to the student side of the disengagement pact issue can be profitable. We asked what does it mean for a solution to be profitable, since Campus is a not-for-profit institution. I suggested to view this on straight economic terms. A profitable solution either raises revenues or it lowers costs (or both). I did note that the profit so generated would be used to offset other areas on Campus that are less profitable. The Campus is looking at a significant budget shortfall in the future given the state government's budget deficit. If profit could be generated, it surely would go to help make up the shortfall.

At this point it is worth being extremely skeptical, but with that to consider possible alternatives. It may be that the status quo is the best alternative. It may be that some change is better.

One idea that was mentioned was to get students involved in Campus sanctioned experiential learning activities as freshmen. If such experiential learning was educative in terms of helping learn the meta skills, and if a faculty member on campus could reasonably certify that was the fact, then that activity might reasonably substitute for taking some large classes as Freshmen. There is an expression, with enough "ifs" you can put Paris in a bottle. So the assumptions need to be challenged. We talked about some internships being low level grunt work. Those internships are not sufficiently educative. We talked about if the faculty member is not involved, verifying whether the activity is educative can be difficult. We also talked about if the faculty member is involved it can nonetheless be costly. On that last point, some would say the solution lacks scalability. A profitable solution would not stumble on any of these points. That is a stern requirement.

We didn't have time but could equally talk about a solution where the Freshmen volunteer for experiential learning opportunities outside of a class session. This becomes an add on for them. There doesn't need to be faculty verification in this case. This seems to me pretty much the status quo. One wonders why there would be broad uptake by the students, since it doesn't seem to be happening now.

We didn't spend much time in class today on this, but the logical follow up would be on looking at peer mentoring the same way. We need to ask whether for the mentors the activity is educative in terms of producing the meta skills, whether the activity can be monitored effectively by a faculty member to certify that, and whether if so it can substitute for other courses the mentors might otherwise take. We also need to ask from the mentee side of the equation whether the mentoring actually does something of substance to address the disengagement. On that point many of you are skeptical based on your own prior experience with mentoring. I would argue here that those experiences were set up so they weren't sufficiently intensive. For something to work on both sides of the equation it needs to be quite an intensive activity. In class today there was some discussion to the effect that even if it did work on all these counts, it could still not substitute for courses in the major, which are essential toward the intellectual maturation of the student as the student learns the discipline. I argued that could go either way. It would be very good to put more flesh on that bone. So I hope some (or all) of you write about this before our course concludes. One particular issue that should be fleshed out is whether the peer mentoring is an option, creating another path for the student or if instead it became a requirement for all students and which of those alternatives makes more sense.

We didn't talk about it substituting for gen ed requirements, only substituting for courses in the major, but perhaps that should be considered here too. Some of you might argue that all course requirements are essential. Others might take a different position. I do want to note that the Zemsky proposal for a 3-year college degree forces one to take a side of this argument, one way or the other, quite apart from considering the disengagement pact. I don't know whether we can fit this into the class project or not, but having some writing on that argument would really help to set the full context of the project.

The last point to mention on whether the solution could be profitable is that the peer mentors could also volunteer (or do just for general course credit, not to substitute out of other specific requirements). We noted in class that most students don't have a lot of free elective time, at least that is so for the students in our class, so the course credit approach might help in some cases but not broadly. We didn't talk about students volunteering to be mentors and the issue of what non-course time would have to be given up to enable being a peer mentor. (I'm assuming here that the mentees, otherwise disengaged, have time on their hands to be a mentee. That assumption also needs to be challenged.) Potentially this avenue should be explored vigorously as well. A strong volunteer program might work better than trying to have a program where other course requirements are dropped. It remains, however, how to generate the strong volunteer program.

This, I believe describes all the possibilities for the question of whether there is a profitable solution. Which you think is best (including the status quo) depends on how you think the questions should be answered. We should argue about that. It may be that no alternative other than the status quo is profitable.

There is then the question of whether a non-profit oriented and regulated solution to peer mentoring might make sense, which is what Drucker recommends to look at if the profitable solution comes to naught. One can look at this as an intra-campus college issue on our own Campus. Suppose an individual college wanted to encourage peer mentoring to combat student disengagement from the large classes it offers, and to make things concrete suppose that college is LAS, since it offers the bulk of the Gen Ed courses. LAS reduces course requirements in the major for those who do mentoring. But LAS can only do that for those majors within the college. Since LAS is a net importer of students for Gen Ed, it will need peer mentors from other colleges. But those other colleges haven't changed their course requirements. So there aren't enough peer mentors. There is the further factor that if the other colleges went along then rightfully this would be a net income transfer to LAS, because the peer mentoring would be for work done in LAS. The other colleges won't want that net income transfer to LAS because they lose money on that deal. So any solution would have to be at the Campus level to deal both with getting mentors from outside LAS and on the income transfer issue so the other colleges would play along. It's the sort of regulation that would be necessary. The Faculty Senate and the Provost's office would both have to see it this way to make this happen.

There might also be inter-campus issues about implementing such a program. If Illinois did this but Michigan did not would some students perceive Michigan to be more rigorous because it has retained all the within major course requirements. If you can't make this move because of the impact on recruiting (incidentally, this issue also could be there on the intra-campus single college implementation) then it would have to be implemented everywhere in order for it to happen at all. To get it implemented everywhere, the accrediting agencies, both the general ones and the ones for the specific disciplines, would have to take up the call.

The above framework is perhaps a lot to digest. I would appreciate comments of the form - I understand what is said about x, but I don't get what this means about y. Then we can use class time to follow up on this.

One last point in case this is not obvious. I don't believe the status quo is the best available alternative. This would not be a good project for a course on effective change if it were. Also note that as an economist I believe in tradeoffs and making a cost-benefit analysis on proposed solutions. If, for example, taking away some requirements in the major and substituting peer mentoring created some loss in terms student preparation in that major, but the peer mentoring created a win with student engagement, then if the size of the win is big enough I'd say that alternative is better. If you didn't allow for tradeoffs and instead insisted that the win has to occur in all dimensions, that approach tends to make the status quo triumph.

Deliverables for the class project

This post will be easy to understand and straightforward for you. (I hope so, anyway.) The next post will be longer, more involved, and *maybe* suggests a different component to the class project.

1. Process deliverable. Each subgroup should supply minutes on a weekly basis. These don't have to be eloquent writing nor do they have to be lengthy. These should be posted on one member's blog and tagged with "subgroup minutes." The idea here is ensure all members of the subgroup sees this as do I and other members of the class. We can better track what is going on this way.

2. Product deliverable. One part of this will be a write up like the write ups for the in class interviews. Another part is a deliverable that you deem appropriate, which may vary from subgroup to subgroup. It could be a recommendation. It could be information collected. It needs to be labelled either as "complete" or as "work in progress." If the latter, it needs to be left in a way where others might receive a baton pass and continue to work on it after our class has concluded. If you suspect you will end up with a work in progress, some though should be given as to how you will pass the baton.

PowerPoint Template

This is here to assist you with the multimedia project, should you choose to do that for the second project. Will cover use of this template in the second hour today.

Quote of the Day on Originality in Writing.

Especially apt for 396 students on their multimedia project.

About the most originality that any writer can hope to achieve honestly is to steal with good judgment.
Josh Billings
US Humorist (1818 - 1885)

Content from Last Monday Posted

The pdf file of the BTW 250 report on Advising in LAS is posted. It is available on the class homepage in Compass. The recording of Monday's session is also available in the Class Recordings folder.

Movie Night Food Choice

If you are planning to attend Movie Night tomorrow, please complete this very brief form, so I can order the right stuff.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Tips for Interviewing for the Science Job

I thought this might be useful to folks. It's from the Tomorrow's Professor listserv. It covers the before, during, and after. You might also appreciate point 2. in the before part, since it specifically talks about Facebook.

Also, on point 5, which discusses the weakness question, I don't know if any of you are old enough to remember Dan Hampton, who played defensive tackle for the "Dah Bears" in the glory years. He was a quotable guy and I can recall a line from him published in Sports Illustrated, "Strength is not my weakness."

Monday, October 26, 2009

Youth Must Be Served

But sometimes older guys do okay too. Here's hoping the Yankees wage a Philly buster in the World Series.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Is Courage Necessary for Effective Change?

It sure would have been easier to have a list like this to talk about the first part of the course, though I'm not sure whether making this list requires accomplishment or if simply tackling a tough problem is sufficient.

Fear and Good Cheer

Many of this week's reflections had a similar ring - blogging is frightening, especially so for the novice who has yet to find his or her own voice. With that, naturally, there was some discussion about others like a potential employer or a graduate admissions committee, who might come back to your blog later and come to some judgment about you based on your blog, because it speaks about you in some way that the normal applications material do not. Some of you said you are modifying your writing a bit as a consequence. That's ok, though my guess is that the worry is about something that is highly improbable. The stories you hear about young people losing a job because of what they've posted on Facebook are not stories where they wrote something thoughtful but of a different ideological bent from their potential employer, who then rejected them for that reason. If we heard stories of that sort, they would speak as poorly about the employer as about the applicant. The stories we do hear about entail an open depiction of debauchery showcased in Facebook, which apart from the behavior itself demonstrates a lack of discretion on the part of the applicant for having posted it. That a potential employer would not want to hire an immature kid with a lack of discretion is reasonable and doesn't speak poorly of the employer at all. In any event, the online writing we are doing for our class lies entirely outside this domain.

Nonetheless, the fear that many of you wrote about is real enough and I believe is grounded in the here and now. It's the sweaty palms and white knuckle variety. It's the type of fear that distracts you from doing other things and makes you feel as if there is an illness within. You don't have to be a psychologist to understand the fear of being naked and on stage, not infrequently the object of our dreams. Everyone is capable of having this sort of dream. I conjecture, without doing a research project on it, that these sorts of dreams are all the more frequent in high achievers, because one obvious reason for the high achievement is that these people as a routine place high and sometimes extraordinary expectations on themselves. In the dream they are both the person who is naked and a member of the audience watching.

If this is even remotely close to what is going on, then one reason for why the blogging is frightening is because it is new. Fear of the new is very real. It is unreal to expect to be very good right off the bat at something that is new. So fear of the new is tied at the hip to fear of failure. What does it mean to fail at blogging? I don't know. Not having clear ground rules about what success and failure is may be part of the problem (er, part of the issue). Maybe my occasional correcting of grammar or word usage is counter productive because it contributes to the fear, if not of that person than of others in the class who read the comments. (Incidentally, I had hoped that somebody would post about the benefit for students of reading my comments about other student posts, but obviously with The Force there is also The Dark Side.)

Students and instructors don't tend to talk about fear very much when we talk about learning, either out of shame or because culturally it seems improper. But it obviously is important and beyond recognizing that, we probably should work through a bit what we think about it, because it will have bearing on how the our class functions for the rest of the semester and it will also have bearing on the recommendations we come up with as part of the class project. In the rest of this post, I'm going to give a start in this direction. The goal is to get issues out on the table, not to be definitive on any of them. Before doing that I want to thank those of you who talked about being afraid with the blogging, because it gave me license to move in this direction.

It may be natural to think of fear as a disease (I'm not sure that is right, but I do think it is natural to have this view) in which case the next thought is to look for cures. I'll get to that in a bit. First though, a different way to think of fear, really any of our emotions, is as some Darwinian trait that emerged via natural selection because it is helpful with survival. If there is a real threat, being afraid of it is a good thing, much better than ignoring the threat entirely. The fear that emerges because of a real threat I would term a rational fear. Those you don't want to cure. Rational fears should be respected and then acted upon.

I believe some fear is learned the way Pavlov's dog learned to salivate. There was a rational fear based on an experience with a real threat. Over time, however, that rational fear gets converted into a pathology. It's the pathology for which the cure is sought. The child is right not to touch the hot stove a second time. If the child stops exploring altogether things that are entirely different from stoves,because of the memory of pain from burning his hand, that is a problem, one that needs fixing.

One "cure" to the fear of the new, obviously, is experience. I joked in a comment on Angelica's blog where she indicated her reluctance to offer up criticism of her peers, just wait 30 years and you'll have no problem with offering criticism at all. Of course, conquering fear via experience begs the question, how much experience is necessary? Apart from offering up the obvious - it will take as long as it takes - I don't really know. But I do want to point out something else that might not be so obvious. Often, one overcomes fear via experience by developing numbness to the stimulus. The ideal is to conquer fear while maintaining sensitivity. That's a tough one. Sometimes it's one or the other.

There are other ways to overcome fear. Sometimes a sense of urgency does it. Something else comes up that is more important and demands your total attention and commitment. In carrying it out, you confront something you've been fearful of and this time you just crash through the barricade, as if it wasn't there at all. Knowing that is possible, I'm not sure how helpful it is as a model for you, though if there is a subject that you feel urgent about and you choose to write about it in one of your reflections, the intensity of your own emotion will almost certainly carry through in the writing, making it much more compelling to read (provided you slow down enough to produce something that is coherent).

Other emotions can also enable you to overcome fear, both joy and anger. I bring up the latter, in particular, because even when fear is a pathology one has to wonder if the cure is worse than the disease. Let's admit that as a possibility.

This, in turn, gets us to consider that other pathologies may emerge as a consequence of looking for self-protection against fear. Alienation that leads to nihilism can be one outcome from looking for a a cure to fear of the new. Nihilism can seem sophisticated where eagerness to participate according the rules can seem painfully naive. But the nihilism constitutes a type of caving in while the participation is an affirmation of being for something. I won't elaborate, because the thoughts are still painful after more than 30 years, but do know I transferred from MIT to Cornell because I thought too many of my dorm mates had gone down the nihilistic path, I was being likewise infected, and thus I needed to be in a different environment for my own well being.

On this, rather than on conquering fear per se, I did ultimately find some peace with myself, which was to do something I had always done, but to make more of a point of it, enjoy the peccadilloes and the personal idiosyncrasies, as much or perhaps even more than the accomplishments. In the blogging mine are manifest with the word play and rhymes (fear and good cheer). I can't say that it makes the fear go away entirely. But it does make it seem that many of the worries are not of such grave consequence. And when the amusement with self comes from the mild transgressions or the just as mild victories (this summer I was able to get Educause, the international academic IT organization, to do surveys like we did in class using Google Docs at an institute I was part of rather than use paper surveys as they've traditionally done, an accomplishment I found extremely satisfying I must say) that helps on figuring out what else is important and what is less so. With a better sense of balance on what is important, the fear of the new changes. It doesn't vanish, but it does help to figure out where you're willing to give it the old college try.

I wonder what sort of follow up we should do on this. I'd appreciate suggestions on how to proceed.

Friday, October 23, 2009


If you are ok at generating prose but looking for a way to improve your product, a classic book worth the read is The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E. B. White. Of the many short notes in praise of the book listed on the amazon page, I liked this particular one the best.

"To the extent I know how to write clearly at all, I probably taught myself while I was teaching others -- seventh graders, in Flint, Michigan, in 1967. I taught them with a copy of Strunk & White lying in full view on my desk, sort of in the way the Gideons leave Bibles in cheap hotel rooms, as a way of saying to the hapless inhabitant: ‘In case your reckless ways should strand you here, there's help.’ S&W doesn't really teach you how to write, it just tantalizingly reminds you that there's an orderly way to go about it, that clarity's ever your ideal, but -- really -- it's all going to be up to you."

-- Richard Ford

Not so shocking and not so futuristic

Schooling that caters to the individual kid's own interest. That idea has been around for quite a while. We've forgotten it. We should bring it back.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Getting Ready for Next Monday's Class Session

On the theme that in order to learn about what is happening inside your organization you have to look outside first, where the categories of things are more recognizable, I found some sites on other campuses about Peer Mentoring programs. The one from Reed College is interesting because Reed is a small, private, liberal arts school and you might envision that peer mentoring is not necessary there. (In the movie Declining by Degrees, Amherst College, another small liberal arts school, is depicted as a place that gets the approach to learning right.) The Reed program is targeted rather than across the board. The targeted population is comprised of students of color and first generation students. So I wondered whether we do targeted mentoring of some sort as well.

I already was aware of the Office of Minority Student Affairs, since instructors have to fill out mid-semester grade reports for students that office tracks and way back when I helped them with some technology deployment. Click on their Academic Service Tab and then their Structured Study Groups, which is quite similar to the notion I had in my blog about Inward Looking Service Learning, except that Minority Student Affairs utilizes grad students instead of undergrads to lead the groups.

I was unaware that the Campus had any particular program for first generation students. But searching the campus Web site leads you to the Counseling Center's page, and from there clicking on Educational Services one finds the Counseling Center Paraprofessional Program, which is an educational program for the paraprofessionals themselves and includes peer mentoring for the students the paraprofessionals assist. This mentoring program is aimed at students who are having difficulties.

Taking a little cue from the health care debate, where an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, it certainly seems to me a wiser use of resource to manage transition issues up front before they have a chance to fester. One place I found that seems to be doing that via mentoring is the University of Vermont. Note that this program is run out of their Alana Student Center, which might suggest some targeting like Reed. But their mentor and mentee applications make it seem as if the program is open to any student.

We, and I believe several of our sister Big Ten schools, are trying to address the transition issues via the University 101 Program, of which our class has heard mention specifically in regard to Business 101. This approach is different from mentoring. Here do note that some of the instructors in University 101 courses are not faculty but rather are Student Services types. (In Business 101, those people are from either the Office of Undergraduate Affairs in the College of Business or from Business Career Services.) Among faculty, there is some concern whether that sort of content should merit academic credit. I mention that mostly to highlight a divide between faculty and career services professionals on the importance of certain skills and dispositions.

Personally, the questions for me are a little different. They are:
1. Is mentoring, though more labor intensive, that much more effective than the University 101 Approach?
2. Does it matter who mentors the mentors, whether that is Career Services folks or Faculty?
3. Mentoring tends to be opt in. University 101 is required. Which is better on that score?
4. No matter which, are the approaches sufficiently intensive to accomplish their goals.
5. Does the need evaporate after the first semester or persist beyond that. If the latter, how should it be extended?
6. How do we know the answer to any of the prior questions? What information would we need to have an answer?

On Monday, I'd like to discuss for a while and then see if we can make teams, either the existing ones or new ones, each of whom will take a piece of this to research. I envision going till about 1:30 on this. We have no one-on-one interviews scheduled afterwards.

Also, I need a couple of minutes to talk about logistics for Movie Night.

Recording of Libbie Morley Visit

Is now available in Compass.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Startups and Other Developments in Journalism

This is a a lengthy and exhaustive piece about the changes that are happening in journalism today. There are quite a few new and innovative ventures that feature what the authors value most in journalism, independent news reporting, particularly of the local variety. Many of these have journalists who used to work for commercial newspapers that have since downsized. These are professionally trained journalists who want to continue to practice their craft. They are now working for these new ventures at much reduced wages, sometimes for free. This abundant labor supply is fueling experiments with alternate forms. Alternate funding models are also being investigated. Nobody know what will ultimately emerge. The only thing that is clear is that the current model is unstable.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Mixed expectations

We've had some exposure to pretty highbrow theories of effective change in the course. For a change of pace I thought I'd lead with something quite different, a quick tour of Murphy's Law and corollaries. Outside the setting of our course, my favorites are Paul's Law - you can't fall off the floor - particularly apt for new parents, Persig's Postulate - The number of rational hypotheses that can explain any given phenomenon is infinite - we actually teach something like this in microeconomics, and Young's Law - All great discoveries are made by mistake - which perhaps the eccentric needs occasionally to justify his departure from the beaten path. Even if Murphy's Law is meant as goofball satire, these are worth pondering for real.

Returning to our course theme the idea we know as Murphy's Law, if anything can go wrong it will, serves as an interesting model for design, because it leads to a "weakest link" approach to analyzing potential solutions. In engineering solutions that have a chance to be better, to borrow a term we've almost certainly overused in the course already and will likely continue to do so in the weeks ahead, the weakest link approach offers us a way to focus our thinking. I note that there actually is a weakest link approach to design, with a key example the fuses or circuit breakers in buildings made deliberately to protect the rest of the electric system, and that at least in some approaches to engineering there is an explicit idea to put in sufficient funding to shore up the weakest link.

People really don't have much problem thinking about weakest links when it comes to physical systems, but when we are talking about human interaction, then sometimes folks get idealistic, sentimental, or too enamored with success had with small numbers and then focus their attention on the potential upside when things go right instead of concentrating on what likely will go wrong. You get quite different designs with the first attitude than with the second. Then when the idealists confront the realists there is a mismatch and a tendency for the views to remain dissonant rather than converge.

I had the feeling I was witnessing failure of the weakest link as students in the class described their experiences with peer mentoring, advising, etc. in our session on Monday. It wasn't all doom and gloom but surely that was the norm. The Senior Sibling program within CHP didn't score well with the class, with many class members having played both roles at some point in their time here, but frequently where the connection between the more experienced student and incoming student was weak, even nonexistent in at least one case. I also recall some discussion of "leaving the nest," as if mentoring is a crutch and the able and aware student can maneuver without it.

It was likewise for official advising about courses, where the academic advisors were depicted as ill prepared and not particularly knowledgeable and where students could "look it up" on Web pages, almost surely a more efficient way to get the information. On this one the class got an early warning from a reflection written by one of our students that dealt with the advising system in LAS, again a system with a degree of dysfunction, where the project the student was engaged with aimed at reform.

Some students did talk about very positive mentoring relationships with faculty, folks from the Career Center, and at least one story of such mentoring from within CHP leadership. These things do happen, but they seem to occur by unplanned means, which enable the mentor and mentee both to come at the relationship willingly, an ongoing conversation of mutual interest and benefit.

I thought about this a bit and compared it to our course, not the course goals but rather the functioning of the course itself. We as a class are more relaxed and confident with each other now than we were at the start, where I didn't know you and vice versa and none of us knew what to expect about our processes and what we might gain from them. So we flailed around for a while in an attempt to find a good process and we got to know each other while flailing. Aspirations were articulated in the process. That experience created a bond common to all members of the class. I can't imagine having any trust with others without forming a bond first.

Many of you seem to frown on "forced" pairings of people and feel that goes for naught. There is, however, a forced element in being part of this class. Apart from dropping, there really isn't an option to be in the class but not participate. So you were part of the flailing because you were enrolled and did it even if you didn't like it. The sense of coercion is short lived as the forming of the bond doesn't take forever. Your sense of perspective changes while the bond is formed and it continues to change afterwards too. When you are relaxed you can be more open about your interests and concerns.

I believe that just about every student, here I'm referring not just to our class but to the entire campus, is deeply interested in the existential questions, which for the sake of brevity I'll pose in this simple sentence.

What should you do to be you?

And it is not just students who are drawn to answer that question. I know that since reading this post about the Japanese Retirement System, where people retire at age 60 not to leave the workforce, but to do different work that is more appropriate for where the person is in the life cycle, I've been thinking about what I'll do with the rest of my work life. But some of the related questions are different or more important for students, where the existential questions are wrapped around questions of personal identity.

What are you for? Why are you for it?

Some of the reflections and other writing from students in the class have snippets on these questions. The snippets are there integrated with course themes. So we are getting some of this discussion in class, even though the class itself is not mentoring and the class is not primarily about addressing the existential questions.

The flailing I mentioned was accompanied by a certain intensity and commitment. A lot has been written online in this course. A certain tone was adopted. A point was made to do this in a way that you know that your classmates know that I know, etc. (The reflection this week asks that you write about this in more depth.) The intensity mattered for making the bond. It continues to matter for the ongoing conversation once the bond has formed. I don't understand wanting to leave the nest once such a bonding experience has happened and open discussion about existential question is possible. Leaving the nest is perfectly understandable in the absence of that.

Returning to the weak link, expecting a strong relationship to develop in the absence of a way for a bond to form seems like delusion to me. In the case of the Senior Sibling program, perhaps the aspirations are modest - CHP has limited resources and the need exists only till the young student gets acclimated. In the case of advising, I believe the issue is more problematic. If it is an important function that the institution is short changing, then that would seem to contribute to the Disengagement Pact that we are trying to remedy. If it is not an important function but it's on the books as necessary, that's got it's own issues. And then, with whom does the student have discussions about the existential questions?

So there are two weak links we should consider in anything we design. The first is the bonding experience. How can that be made an integral part of the program? The other comes from noting that intensity of commitment takes time. If time is spent on the program we design, what else stops that the student would have been doing otherwise? Programs that add on to everything else have a built in weak link. We need to talk about subtraction as well as about addition. That may not be fun, but it is necessary.

Before we get there almost surely members of the class will ask, why are we bothering with this? It will be very hard to make anything work and where is the payoff for the mentees even if it does work? My sense is that with regard to the existential questions many students on campus are like stroke patients - the ideas are in their heads but they can't get the words out of their mouths. They desperately want to speak but are unable to do so. That's what our program aims to enable.

Second Writing Project

This message is for 396 students (but 395 students are welcome too). Given that we've pushed back the date of the first writing project, I've decided it is sufficient for us to have two projects rather than the 3 in the original syllabus. This will allow you some more flexibility and to focus some of your attention on the class project.

Option A is to do another book review. You've been through that before so you know what to expect. Option B is to do a multimedia project. Those of you who did Gladwell for your first book review will appreciate that the multimedia project aims to make a presentation that sticks, and to do that via a combination of words, images, and music.

I understand "the theory" of this real well. This is to show I've tried, but am by no means an expert at the practice. It also demonstrates the cheapy way of captioning, by doing it right in the PowerPoint. That way you are guaranteed to have the text sync with the image.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Remember: Gawande says, "Don't Complain!"

Unfortunately, Audacity crashed on my Tablet right when I was stopping the recording. So we have no record of today's session, except what is implanted in your respective brains. Live by technology...

On a different note, I thought the discussion was pretty free flowing today. I don't know if that is because everyone is familiar with each other or because we were down a few students today, but I thought there was good back and forth.

Evaluations of Book Reviews

For 396 students - at this point I've read all those final drafts that were submitted and have written a few comments on each. I still owe an evaluation (and grade). Between the Yankees going very late Saturday night and installing a new printer at home that screwed up my home computer, I'm a little behind on that. I hope in the next day or so to have those evaluations done. They will be posted in Compass. I will make a discussion area for each 396 student (and private to that student). That's where it will be. Sorry about being tardy.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Survey Results on Drucker Chapter 4

Are now available in Compass.

Coinky Dink

By chance next Tuesday is National Day on Writing. Libbie Morley, who is Director of the Writer's Workshop and who is visiting our class the following day, will be leading up that Tuesday effort. Note that you can contribute writing from your blog to their Gallery. If you'd like to get more eyeballs for your work, this is a good opportunity.

Recording of Gretchen Winter Visit

Is now available in Compass. Actually it's about 2/3 of the session (and you have to wait about 20 seconds for the audio to begin). Greg will be amused and dismayed by this since he queried me about it right before we started and I dutifully answered that we were recording. But we weren't. I remedied that about 20 minutes into the session.

People over 50 can't multi-process. If your parents are getting to be that age, be nice to them. ;-)

Summary of Session with the College CIOs

Courtesy of Team Action

College CIOs Interview Summary- Team Action

On September 30, 2009, four college Chief Information Officers (CIOs) visited our class: Erik Hege, Beth Sandore, Paul Hixson, and John Rossi. They were representing the Graduate School of Library and Information Science, Campus Library, College of Aces, and College of Law, respectively. In the interview, we brought up ideas of management discussed in Drucker's The Essential Drucker. Drucker discusses three essentials of a business: profit, productivity of employees, and social responsibility. From the guests, we learned that each of these areas is co-dependent on the other and plays a large role in the overall university dynamics.

Since the university is a non-profit organization, the measurement of success is not necessarily based on profit as a monetary value, rather "profit" can actually be defined through different measures of "success". For example, "profit" can be defined as students learning through the use of new information technology or faculty receiving more funding for advanced research based on technology. Comparing the university to a business gives us a different perspective based on the fact that not all businesses are centered around financial profit. For example, the faculty and staff are not only employees of the university but are also clients. The university helps students with their education and the faculty with their research. Therefore, it takes both of these aspects towards its goal alignment.

The most important factor stressed throughout the interview was communication. Communication needs to not only occur within the individual department, but also externally across departments or colleges. For example, the CIOs need to communicate with the IT staff inside and outside their department in order to be most effective. This relates to the idea of feedback and how integral it is to the success of a group. The CIOs stressed the necessity of implementing early and frequent communication, so that if something important goes wrong a framework exists to solve it. The whole panel was very adamant about working as a cohesive unit. This has a lot to do with how their actions affect their relationships with each other and the campus as a whole. Case in point - they have lunch every few weeks. It would be interesting to note what changes would happen if different departments would implement a strategy like this.

An interesting question brought up was whether or not there is a goal disparity between the individual departments and the university as a whole. In response, the CIOs said that if each department works to improve that individual department while still considering the needs of the other departments. The campus as a whole benefits. In response, we asked them about how their jobs differed as a result of the different departments or schools that they were each serving. John humorously went on to say that he constantly deals with people who argue for a living, so it is a particular challenge to please the panel of CIO's and the University of Illinois Law School. To deal with this conflict of interest, John went on to make another point about balance - he needs to keep in mind the future and the other colleges when making decisions specific to the Law School.

When we were wrapping up the interview and opening up the topic for discussion to the whole class, one of the most interesting points came up - how technology is being implemented more and more into classrooms across campus, and what students' thoughts are on this. Despite the mix of opinions received, Erik noted that for innovations, some things just need to be tried before they can get it right. We believe that this ending point incorporates one of the main overall themes of the Designing for Effective Change class - success results from perseverance and the willingness to take risks, even though some initiatives might me unsuccessful.

There were a couple of notes for improvement that we observed through being the first group to conduct an interview. First, we did not get into what our class project was during the interview. Mentioning this might have steered the conversation in a more student oriented direction. Furthermore, we should have noted in the beginning that not everyone on the interview panel had to answer each question. This might have helped us to have time to ask more questions. Finally, before going into the interview, and also admitted by Professor Arvan, we were not sure how we could relate the role of a CIO to our project or even to our readings.

Despite these setbacks, important lessons about communication and the intricacy of balancing different, sometimes conflicting objectives, were learned through conducting this interview. All things considered, we believe our interview was successful.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

A request to 396 students and a different request to 395 students

For 396 students - If you are handing in something other than your first draft (meaning a second draft, a third draft, etc.) please also write me a very brief note to explain the changes you made, both where they are in your text and why you made them. That will make it a lot easier for me to understand your thinking behind the draft.

For 395 students - if you have the time and inclination, have a look the books reviews your classmates are submitting and write a comment on one if you like it (or even if you don't). I'm sure your classmates will appreciate the feedback.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Bio of Guest Speaker

This is a brief biography of Gretchen Winter, Executive Director of the Center for Professional Responsibility and our guest for tomorrow.

Peer Grading - What's your take?

I'm not sure I'm completely for this, but it is an interesting thought.

Contrasting Student and Working Professional Volunteerism

Yesterday in class we didn't ask whether any of you have a part time job and/or how such a job contrasts with participating in a volunteer activity. We also didn't ask questions about students need for income, for spending money or to contribute to pay for college expenses. One might reasonably conjecture that where the income need is strong, finding work to satisfy that need will trump any good works that might be done via volunteering. In Drucker, where the focus is clearly on the working professional, the assumption is implicitly made that the individual's income needs are already met, including providing for other members of the household. Volunteering in this case comes out of what otherwise would be termed "leisure time." It is not an alternative to a second job.

Another part of being a student is trying on hats. How can you know what you want to do with the rest of your life if you don't do that? Working professionals may do this too, but probably will do less of it than students. If a working pro commits to a voluntary activity, the commitment is ongoing. As someone said yesterday in class, student status is by its nature temporary. Many student commitments end with graduation and a change in location as the student enters the workforce or enters graduate/professional school. This experimental motive would tend to make students volunteer more than working pros.

In contrast, the presumed ongoing presence of the working pro on the job and in the community where the working pro lives encourages voluntary activity that improves quality of life in these locations. That incentive is much weaker for students, who are in a transient state for the most part regarding their residence. On this point, there may be substantial gender differences. With young kids at home, many families might prefer that work is part time. Finding good part time jobs is hard, however. Barring that, one spouse might continue to work full time and the other withdraw from the world of work for a time. That decision is definitely not gender neutral. Then, the stay home parent might look to volunteer, in part, as a way to diversify the set of activities, to interact with other adults, and to improve the environment where the kids go to school. Once these behaviors are learned, they may continue well after the child care needs have been dramatically reduced or eliminated entirely.

One motive that seems similar for both student and working pro is the volunteering for the credential. Participating in a professional organization in a way that is visible to one's boss or to one's potential future employer is similar if not identical to student volunteer activity that helps on a application to grad school. There is perhaps a small difference here in that some of this sort of activity for the working pro takes them physically away from their job and hence requires approval by the person the working pro reports to. So there is some organizational embrace of the volunteer activity (which means it is a little less like volunteering). But otherwise, the motives are similar.

However, there is an aspect of the participation in the professional organization that really is not replicated with students, which is a kind of giving back so the next generation have it as good as the current generation. This reason to volunteer as an extension of the work we do, requires being a mature pro. It is a tribute to the experience already obtained.

I've written this up to expand on the discussion in class yesterday. Drucker focuses exclusively on volunteering that is not an extension of work, but is apart from work. He also seems to focus on paid work that is not of the service kind - doctors, social workers, teachers, etc. One might wonder whether those whose job is service oriented also volunteer in activities that are apart from work.

I believe you can get more out of what we discussed in class yesterday, and out of Drucker, if we keep these sort of distinctions in mind.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Baseball Joke

Not wishing to jinx my guys, instead of a post with obnoxious in the title, here is one of a different sort. I spent some time looking for a joke where the punchline is .... you've got to take the world seriously. If you find that joke, please send to me. It is one of my favorite punchlines but, unfortunately, I forgot the joke. I didn't find it, but in the process of looking I found the following, which I thought was a riot. It shows the funniest things are true.

According to the Chicago Tribune, the following statistic was given in the press notes for the June 7 Chicago-Oakland game:

The Oakland Athletics are 32-0 in games in which they have scored more runs than their opponents.

This is the source in case you are looking for time to idle away.