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Sep 26, 2009

Solar flares and chicken soup

I have absolutely no idea why this happens, and therefore choose to attribute it to solar flares. It maybe a particular influence of the planets, which is as good a theory as any. But it definitely happens in specific times, which have little to do with season. Sometimes it happens in the spring, and we think it's the cabin fever. In other times, we find another good explanation, like stress of such and such event. However, this is utterly inexplicable, so I will go with the solar flares.

Many different people would just get very nervous, and over-react. I am not only talking about things I refer to, however vaguely, in my last two blogs. In the last month, I had to deal with a dozen different, unconnected small crises. For some reason, students complained remarkably more than usual, completely uncharacteristic for the beginning of a semester. Several people got into conflicts, in some cases with no previous history of it. A simple question would result in people getting angry or upset. Rumors that are normally ignored, would suddenly gain currency. I must admit, my own actions do not seem terribly wise either, so I am not immune to the solar flares. Although speaking objectively, I could not have caused all of these little crises. It was just a difficult month, for me and for many people I know. Solar flares, definitely solar flares. My computer's hard drive fried, too.

But some people obviously are immune – they are happy, not noticing any tensions, and just going on about their business as usual. About others, I just don't know; please tell me so we can run some statistical analysis. Was the time from the end of August to now hard for you? Were you nervous? Anxious? Did people seem a little less sensible and pleasant than usual?

What are we supposed to learn from this? Simply put, we don't always know why something happens. Err, make it – we rarely know why something happens. We know very little about the social dynamics; there is no good theory, and little in a way of predicting and affecting it. We don't know how small events can sometimes cause large consequences, and why human groups sometimes become more anxious and agitated. The cure is very simple: like a seasonal flu, it will go away. When you are sick with flu, you may feel so bad; you think you're going to die. But we, of course, know that it will pass, and this is not really the end. In fact, you did not know about how influenza usually ends, you could really get scared and hurt yourself by applying drastic measures. Bu we know better: it's just feels yucky for a while, but it will go away. Chicken soup, some rest, and it will be over.

Sep 18, 2009

La Comédie humaine

La Comédie humaine is a collection of inter-related novels and short stories by Honoré de Balzac, a 19th century French novelist. It is actually not funny (the title probably refers to Dante's Divine Comedy), but is richly amusing in showing how people can behave in different circumstances. It's a parade of characters and stories. In the last couple of weeks, I felt like Balzac, wondering about the way people think, act, and make decisions. I was particularly interested in how a coincidence of smaller events, half-understood and half-misstated phrases, accumulated tensions, and undefined relationships can all conspire together to create drama. The world of humans is truly unpredictable, and prone to disruptions. Whatever peace, whatever community we create together, is always fragile and in need of defense, maintenance, and constant restoration. And when people become closer to each other, it does not necessarily mean their relationships necessarily improve or become stable. Rather, the opposite is true: it is easy to be civil and generous with a stranger, with whom you have no overlapping interest or common affairs, and whose actions you don't need to understand. Once you become closer, and interact for a longer period of time, the Other comes into your scrutiny, and you are forced to make conclusions about his motives. The Distant Other is easier to like than the Close Other. I was always struck by the radical and pointed challenge of "Love thy neighbor," as opposed to asking to love the stranger, the traveler, and the distant.

Most people judge too quickly, because by nature, humans are story-tellers. If we know a little, have an incomplete picture, our brains just go on autopilot to construct the missing pieces into a coherent story. We MUST make sense, otherwise we are miserable. That story then takes on a life of its own, especially if it is emotionally charger. Do you ever become caught in a vicious cycle when the more you think about something, the madder you get? It's because no new information is coming in, and your mind keeps refining the story it has created, making it more coherent, more logical, and nastier. Once constructed, it becomes a framework for interpreting all the consequent interactions with the Other. The new events tend to strengthen the old frameworks, because they already come into a coherent narrative. Suspending one's judgment is perhaps one of the most difficult skills to master, hence the other most radical advice ever give to humanity: "Do not judge." Why? Because the initial story that you make up might be just wrong; it may or may not be accurate. Of course, we need to judge, but we also need to learn to not judge, or change our minds. If I learned one thing on this job, it is how easy for a misunderstanding to perpetuate, multiply, grow, and create a conflict.

Sep 11, 2009

Evaluation Anxieties

For some reason, whenever we talk about the annual evaluation process, some people get anxious. I am not exactly sure why; for me this is just another project of constant improving processes and procedures. Perhaps the anxiety is there because of some history before me, maybe because in general, people do not like to be judged and evaluated. Maybe I failed to explain my intentions.

A simple efficiency is the only agenda I have. The level of rigor we have is just fine, which last year's results have shown. We have a well functioning system already, and I'd be happy to keep it as is. But last year, several faculty came to me with questions – what do you mean by this and that, and maybe we should clarify certain things, and they did not know something. So, last March, I dutifully pulled out the Evaluation guidelines file and started to write some definitions – what does it mean to have a paper in print or accepted, or in revision, etc. Then I read the whole document, and gradually found more and more things to clarify, so it is easier to read, and faster to evaluate. This is something I do all the time – if I see something can be done better, I will suggest another form or another process. Can you see me getting engrossed in the document? That's what happened. We have a growing School, and it just takes too much of faculty time and my time to look through thick dossiers, especially if they are poorly organized. Several people suggested that it is easier to read dossiers that are identically ordered, and where the most important information is summarized. Anyway, I felt like I am doing a good service to the School, and I was not quite ready to hear that at least some people think I am trying to impose something on them. Why would I want that?

This is a faculty decision, and there is simply no way for me to implement any of the changes. We do have faculty governance, remember, which is a democratic system. In fact, we will go through the proposal item by item, and discuss their respective merits. We are a community of scholars, and have always had open and honest conversations; our disagreements have never produced personal animosity in the past. We value rational argument and respect evidence. Whenever there is an objection, we will put each specific item to a vote, and use a secret ballot to decide, so there is no pressure of any kind. That is how we did it the last two times, and this is how we will do it again. If something passes, it passes, if not – so be it. I am certainly not about to lose my sleep over a few hours of work that may not turn out to be useful. We really have larger fish to fry, and cannot afford to spend too much time – and emotions – on this routine process.

Sep 4, 2009

How to tell a good meeting from a bad one

My calendar for this week shows 19 meetings, one of which I skipped, totaling about 17 hours. If we assume a 40 hour work week (mine is a bit longer), it is close to half of the work week, if you include a number of unscheduled ones. Some thoughts on meetings:
  • A lot of meetings are actually fun, when you get to meet people from other areas and units. Hanging out with a lot of smart people is one of the main benefits of our jobs.

  • A meeting can also be an opportunity to take a break, and just rest a little. They are never as intense as working alone.

  • Whoever is chairing it may or may not be effective at making it a social occasion, and put everyone at ease. But it is an important dimension of any meeting. We are social apes, and need to be comfortable with each other when there is a common task.
  • A meeting is useful when there is a specific, practical issue that needs to be resolved. When a committee is created without an urgent need, it produces bad meetings, where people are not sure why they are there, but are too embarrassed to ask.
  • Scheduling a meeting sometimes takes longer than the meeting itself. If only people used their calendars and kept them up to date, we won't have a problem, and would save hours and hours for more productive work. This is where technology really- really helps.

  • Getting people together to convey information to them is a complete and utter waste of time, unless the information is confidential. If you want to share information, write what you want to say, and send it to me, and stop wasting my time on useless meetings! Remember, writing was invented for these exact purposes. A meeting is only needed when you want active input from other people, when you want a discussion, or want to see their reactions. No conversation – no meeting. If you must talk rather than write, record a vide and send it to me.

  • I never take any paper with me other than doodling paper, because no meeting has ever resulted in more than half a page of actionable items. Those can be scribbled on the back of the doodling paper.
  • The best meetings have a small group of people; they last only half an hour, an each comes out of it with a list of things to do.

  • The best of the best meetings are those that solve a specific problem, and make everyone's lives easier.
  • The worst of the worst are meetings where people talk about generic problems, without ever hoping to solve them.
  • Larger group meetings are sometimes inevitable. They are very good for getting complex feedback, a reaction on a specific plan or proposal. Large groups of people are great at imagining how things can go wrong and what could be some unintended consequences. Groups over 10 are terrible at coming up with new ideas, and at working through a plan or a program of some sort. Why? Because the most banal ideas always win, and best proposals get ignored. Large meetings are for critical input, not for productive one.

  • As a colleague commented recently, I am a bottom line thinker. Therefore, I enjoy meetings that actually have the bottom line visible, so it can be discussed. A gathering where agendas of people are unclear is a fancy dance of power interests – sometimes interesting, but always pointless.