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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.

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