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May 1, 2008

Flexible but sticky

At the end of the academic year, I reflect on what worked and what did not, and if there is any pattern that separates the two kinds of projects. Unfortunately, my little self-analysis does not bring that many generalizations. No discernable pattern emerges. For example, projects that I thought were well thought out, and on which we worked really hard, did not materialize (for example the off-campus cohort in Alamosa), for reasons beyond our control. Others I considered to be risky, worked out just fine (both the checkpoint system and the new student teaching placement database). Where I did not expect any complications (our scanning project), such complications occurred. Things I thought really simple and doable (the study abroad in Siberia project) did not work. Most of our projects are still working themselves into something definite, the jury is still out. For example, we are yet to see if the massive revision of the Elementary program will bring real results. We don't know if our Secondary Postbac program will work or not. Some projects appeared from nowhere, they were simply opportunities: The Jordan Early Childhood grant project, or the Content Reading project, or the partnership with Association of Retired Educators. Many other things though worked out about as expected and did not create major surprises one way or another. We worked hard on NCTATE reports and State reauthorizations, and both went well so far. I wanted to sign a book contract, and it took longer than expected, but it happened. I worked on my last PES conference, and it went on as planned, more or less. Many of my colleagues did a lot of great things, and I am sure they all have had a successful year. But not everything worked as planned.

OK, this is getting tedious. But all I want to say is that there is not a lot of predictability in what we do, and good planning and good effort do not guarantee success, although make it much more likely. The world of a university like ours is not all that stable; it has much fuzziness, and changes fast. What shall we do in a world like this? My strategy is to diversify efforts. We should always pursue slightly more projects than we are able to maintain. This is simply because not all of them will succeed. However, it is also important to identify priorities, in which if one attempt fails, we should get back on our feet and just start over again; try something new. For example, there might be temporary defeats, but no failure in three areas (there are probably more; this is just an example):

  • We must work on improving curriculum and pedagogy. It does not work as fast as I would like, and perhaps it should go slowly, but we will be doing it until we all are dead. This is what business people call our core business, and everything depends on our ability to train teachers as good or better than anyone else in the world. Whatever else is going on, whatever budget crises or economic collapses, we need to do our thing well.
  • We must have a little extra money to have some sense of self-respect. Although we are relatively low-paid, we should always be able to travel to conferences, to have comfortable chairs, and working computers. If the civilization ends, and everyone goes back to the Stone Age, we should have decent stones to sit on. I just think it is important; small but important.
  • I think we should constantly work on fairness and morale. This includes evaluation processes, many big and small decisions, and the climate in which we work. Again, it does not just happen without constant, multi-year effort.

The challenge is to be opportunistic and adventurous, but still stick to the most fundamental concerns, and never lose sight of them.

Of course, this is a bit of wishful thinking. The reality is such that problems and successes come and go. Every day brings something different, and we all forget about something, we drop the ball, ignore that memo, etc. In truth, some of the projects (not listed above) did not work because we screwed up; OK, I screwed up. Flexible but sticky is just a phrase, perhaps it is my understanding of the ideal. This is how organizations should work, not necessarily how we work. My hope is that we will develop that style eventually. We will be highly mobile, creative, and opportunistic, but will cling doggedly to what is really important to us, and never let it go.

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