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Mar 26, 2010

What is easy and what is hard

As I was writing my annual report for faculty and for the Dean, I thought about things that are easy and difficult for me to do, and why they are simple or complicated.

Organizing information flows is easy. Perhaps I have a particular gift for visualizing how information flows from people to documents to computers. I usually can see right away where there is too much information, and too little; where it is not converted into another form properly, and what can be cut or collected/processed automatically. As much as NCATE report writing is a chore, I really had fun playing with all the data flows, data presentation formats, files, folders, websites. It's like a puzzle, which is not that hard to solve.

Making personnel decisions is difficult. Hiring, firing, evaluating, praising, reprimanding – I don't know if anyone is born with the natural ability like that, but it is hard for me. First, because the information is never objective or complete. It comes to me already strongly colored with human emotions, people's webs of relationships, past grudges and deals. I am always so acutely aware of my own imperfections when I have to pass a judgment on someone else. Not just a passing remark, but a serious, consequential decision that can affect someone's life, hurt one's feelings, or make someone happy. I am always torn between what I believe are the interests of the School and the college, and those of individual people.

Computers are easy. They have a hard, predictable logic. If something does not work, it is not because the machine is mad at me, or that I am stupid. I know there is a solution, even if I have to ask an expert. If it is really screwed up, you just kill the computer and create an exact clone of the old one minus the bugs. People are difficult: their hard drives cannot be reformatted; it is never clear what drives them anyway. They are all different, so each needs a different kind of work and enjoyment. The redeeming quality of people that they have the amazing capacity to self-repair. They adapt, they think, they are able to make peace, to forgive and forget. But there are no solutions, and no experts to call.

Doing things myself is easy; delegating is difficult. To delegate, I need to first see if a task is repeatable, and will likely be re-occurring again and again in the future. Otherwise, the investment in training someone else to do it won't pay off. Then I need to see if I myself understand the process, because teaching someone requires more than intuitive knowledge. Third, delegating implies asking someone to add it to his or her responsibilities, which is not always possible, and sometimes may backfire. Then I need to figure out if the new task is within the person's general level of skills, or slightly above. If it is too difficult, training may take too long, and be frustrating for both of us.

Structural changes are easy: changing or adding courses, reformatting courses, reshuffling coursework, improving individual assignments, instruments, data collection processes. Deep curriculum and pedagogy reforms are difficult. We don't really have an abundance of new ideas, we disagree on what should work. The institutional assumptions are very strong (try to avoid using concepts such as credit hour, a class, a field of expertise, the distinction between liberal arts core and major, and pedagogy areas; the distinction between class work, field work, and home work).

Easy things are pliable like clay; they usually require nothing but an idea, willingness to get your hands dirty, and to work. Hard things are hard like stone; you need to chisel away at them, have patience and right tools. But if you let your clay to dry, and if it get fired in the oven of human conflict, it becomes hard like a stone.

Mar 11, 2010

Genchi Genbutsu

Genchi Genbutsu is a Japanese management technique. It roughly translates as "go and see for yourself." It addresses the simple fact that when a problem is reported to the management, it is by necessity simplified, and made abstract. When a manager who has not been on the factory floor for a long time develops a solution, it does not work. The Genchi Gembutsu principle invites them to go on site and see the problem and potential solutions in context.

We sometimes have solutions offered to us from above that show little knowledge of what is going on closer to the ground. For example, the problem is we have too many changes in schedule; those are hard to track and errors slip in. A solution is to document every change in schedule, with someone responsible signing on every change. But that just shows that whoever thought of it does not know the context in which schedules are developed, and why they change. It is not only top managers that manage to misunderstand the Gemba (the Japanese term for "the place" in this case 'the place where it actually happens' - Wikipedia). Faculty often create rules and programs that are very hard to implement for the academic support staff. Most faculty members never "go and see" what is going on in the world of the support staff. The financial services think they know how to fix the problems on the academic side of the house, and the feeling is mutual. I am probably also guilty of imagining Gemba rather than actually knowing it. Solutions for someone else always look more obvious and easier to come by. One's own world always look more complicated and somehow more nuanced.

This is where our reliance on assessment may be flawed. Classroom assessment is always a form of abstraction; data is only possible when much of context is ignored. Anything with a number is an abstraction. My talks with students always bring different kind of information that the numerous surveys and assessment data we collect. It is not necessarily more complete information; it is biased and skewed by the sample. However, when you just see or talk with someone, many hidden complexities are always revealed. If you want to improve and move forward – yes, collect the data, but don't forget Genchi Genbutsu.

Mar 5, 2010

What’s moving us?

I am an unsentimental guy, or at least trying to act like one. But all said and done, only a few things are really moving. And the English expression "this is so moving" has a wonderful double meaning. To move somewhere, one needs to be moved emotionally.

Last December, our students and faculty collected and wrapped some 1000 gifts, I packages of 3-4 items. I was told yesterday that many parents who picked the gifts up to give to their children broke down crying. What were they crying about? If you are a parent and had not been able to afford a little gift for your child, you'd know. We have no fewer than 500 homeless children in Greeley, and about 10,000 on free lunch – not on reduced lunch, on free lunch. In comparison, the imperfections of curriculum, or inadequacy of faculty evaluation system all look… not small, but not very moving. That we also collected some food for homeless kids to take home in backpacks is moving – it is moving me to try to do more, for it was really a drop in a bucket.

A few month ago, a student came to me and said that her program changed her life – and not only because it is designed for working adults like her, and because all instructors have been knowledgeable and kind. It also so happened that she did not have a room to stay for a couple of weeks, and an anonymous donor paid for her motel. The donor did want to be named, and simply said he was helped in a similar way many years ago, and now is simply returning the debt. This story also moves – moves me to remember the debts I owe to many people.

I am also moved by small, almost invisible things – a kind word to a student beyond the job duties, by a question asked of a colleague about his family, by all small acts of kindness, but also by the acts of ingenuity, humor, persistence, and just an effort to do one's best within the given circumstances. Oh, man, that was really syrupy. Sorry about that; this is the last sentimental thing you'll hear from me ever.