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Apr 18, 2009

Tinkering with the machine and crap shoveling

There is a side of our enterprise I like to call the machine: calendars, schedules, catalogs, web site, handbooks, policies, routines, and tasks. Those things do not directly affect what is going on in classrooms. However, when the machine is faltering, it can create a lot of problems. For example, students and faculty get confused or frustrated. In rare occasions, a poorly designed policy or procedure can have serious negative effects on people's lives. Thank god, this is an exception; otherwise we'd be in trouble, for the machine is faltering all the time.

When I just came to UNC, one of my aims was to simplify and fix the machine. Naively, I thought it could be done in a year or two, and then we all will have more time for the task of radical improvements of our programs. But the machine needs fixing all the time! I find myself tinkering with it again and again. For example, just in the last two weeks, I was helping to re-re-revise the student teaching handbook for the umpteenth time. And then just yesterday, I realized that the Diverse Experience form is not there. It is mentioned on the website, was discussed many times in many forums, and yet is not to be found in any of the student teaching handbooks. Besides, faculty found more need for revisions of what we have just revised last Fall. Fundamentally, those two factors cause a lot of machine maintenance: improvements and errors. Let's just say we want to revise the exit survey for students, common for three programs. Who can do it? Program coordinators are very busy this time of year. Our staff members are very knowledgeable and hard working, but they don't know all the nuances of the data we need to get. So, I am trying to do it almost solo. But, all projects done solo are bound to have errors, – both technical and of judgment, – because there is no one to check what I do. Carolyn and I will help each other when we can, but it is not the same as a deliberate, involved process of working with the entire faculty that is really needed. The choice is to let this little piece of machinery idle (skip the survey this year), or do it in the imperfect fashion. In other words, the option is to put the duct tape on it, which I did.

In addition, our machine is a part of even bigger machine of the University, which adds a layer of complexity. Who needs to know? Who gets to decide? How will it jive with the rest of the University? Here is another example. In December, I took large part of the Winter break time to revise the licensure parts of our catalog. It needed to be done badly, for no one could find anything in the catalog. However, we got only a few days for proofreading, and we simply missed the licensure part. Quite by accident, I discovered on Thursday that those changes were omitted. This is long past deadline, so I had to send some panicking e-mails, and the catalog people agreed to make the changes. However, every time you revise the catalog, other errors are introduced. For instance, Art Music and PE PTEP programs disappeared – inadvertently, of course. So, I had to put them back in. But the catalog is going off to the printer on Monday, so I did not have the time to consult with those programs, and I probably gotten these programs wrong, too. They will probably be mad at me, because the errors would be ultimately caused by my initiative to revise. So, we're virtually guaranteed that this piece of the machine will need another fix next year. Continuous improvement or continuous tinkering?

This tinkering work is absolutely endless. There is always something to fix, a process to improve, a form or a handbook to rewrite. It is fun at times, because sometimes I get to solve real problems, and find some new solutions. For example, on Wednesday and Thursday, I finally found a way to track our graduate admissions, something that eluded us forever, and costs us a lot of labor. However, it is one thing to find a solution, and quite another to make it work. Someone has to have it on their calendars, instructions need to be written, people trained, etc. Anyway, tinkering is mostly fun, but just in the last week got a little bit frustrating, and tedious.

And of course, quite independently of my tinkering, we were exposed to a case of irrational bureaucratic whim. Those of you in the School probably know what I mean, for those outside, it is not important. Tinkering with the machine – I embrace if not always enjoy. I understand why we have to do it. Shoveling crap is something else entirely. Here is my highly scientific definition of crap shoveling: dealing with unnecessary problems resulted from someone else's arbitrary decisions. So if I appeared cranky for this last week or two, now you know why. My apologies anyway, if I neglected or offended you in any way. I'll lighten up next week, promise.

1 comment:

  1. Dr. Sanford Aranoff5:37 AM

    Instead of tinkering, we need to focus on understanding how students think, and build from there, stressing basic principles. See "Teaching and Helping Students Think and Do Better" on amazon.