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Aug 31, 2012

The many species of time

We’ve been saying “Happy New Year!” to each other. Yes, our year starts in late August. That is when we wipe our slates clean, make the New Year resolutions, and try to set things in motion. For me, the first few weeks of a Fall semester is a sensitive time with its own temper and its own wonderful mood. Over the years, I learned to treat it with special respect.

The start of classes hits like a ton of bricks, manifesting mainly in the oversized inbox. It is not about glitches necessarily; faculty and students just need to figure out many things at the beginning of a semester. But this is also the best time to set in motions certain processes (which is why we have to think about which projects to commit to in the summer). If you wait until October, sometimes it is too late. For example, if we are thinking about an off-campus cohort to start a year from now, and it is for a program that needs some revisions, the timeline is like this: to recruit students, we learned to start in November; it is hard to get teachers in December, and in February it may be too late. Why? - Because we need time to admit students, and before that, they need some time to take a GRE exam. Also, despite the instant information transfer, it takes at least four-to-eight weeks for our message to penetrate the teacher’s consciousness. In order to take an email from a stranger seriously, people need validation from someone they trust. OK, back to November: to start recruiting, we need to have a very clear understanding of the program for ourselves, we need to schedule information meetings, and before that, we need a web page with program description, and copy for advertisement. It does not have to be fully approved by curriculum committee until Spring, but we at least need to agree internally on what it needs to look like. To get to that point, we need some time to meet and figure it out. To set up meetings in September, it is better to start now, because calendars get full quickly, and people start grading, and engaged in other hundreds of projects. Time is uneven; some months are denser than others, some months and weeks are more suitable for specific purposes than others.

We get in trouble when we assume time to be all even and homogeneous. But it has texture and fibers, and different viscosity. Here is one example I probably already have written about (I have 257 posts, not including those I had to take down; it is easy to forget). Our use of committees for curriculum design is often wrong. It takes a long time to agree on a meeting time. A one hour meeting is really a 30 minutes meeting, because 15 minutes go into trying to remember what the last meeting was about (it could be a month or more ago), and another 15 minutes for trying to set up the next one. It is simply too short for a substantive discussion. Plus people need to catch up, chat, etc. So almost every program revision takes a year or two, and it is before other departments get involved. Now, this is not how the rest of the world moves, and we simply cannot afford to continue working like this.

In my view, the best schedule to fit the task may look like this: a very small core team of people gets together for a brainstorm, figures out the problems, and possible solutions; just the options available (a 1.5 hour meeting). Then one person creates a draft, or a set of alternative drafts. Assemble a panel (or just make a few phone calls or emails) from the practitioners in the field for their feedback; rewrite. This would be also the best point to work with administrators and other departments if they are affected. Then a larger group of people who have the stake and know the program gets together for a retreat (at least 2 hours, better 3 or 4), and discusses/critiques, offers alternative solutions, imagines unintended consequences. Then one person takes the consensus and the ideas into consideration and writes the final version. Send it out for the larger group’s review and consent; include external audiences, and anyone who may have an objection; incorporate all good ideas. Push the proposal through the curriculum approval process. It is done – in 4-5 hours of meeting times, and in only two scheduled meetings. Remember, the scheduling itself takes a long time, and is an unproductive activity. Forgetting and failure to follow up on assigned tasks are the two major contributors to inefficiency. Our regular way of doing things like this would involve 6-10 meetings stretched over the period of one year or more.

Of course, the task at hand determines the time configuration. Policy-making committees will probably need more meetings, with people doing specific research in between. Curriculum alignment among several existing courses may also take a combination of individual work with committee-based fact-finding, and consensus-building. Wherever context of a conversation may not be shared, more face-to-face interactions will help reduce misunderstanding and build trust. A large portion of our tasks can be more efficiently accomplished by one person alone, with others involved as needed; we all need to work on the art of soliciting feedback from right people at the right time.

One should learn to recognize the different species of time.

Aug 17, 2012

In the woods

Breaking with the bad habit of eating over keyboard, I went out for a walk on campus. We are about to dive head on into the new school year. Many are trying to do something to clear their heads a little, to reset the emotional clock. So I ended up on a dirt utility road behind the Anchorman field. Someone has made a little path that starts at the back entrance to the Field. I am pretty sure some adventurous students did, because right now it is overgrown and thorny. There is some trash, but not much at all. I did walk through though, and met a young family of wild turkeys: a graceful mom and four awkward adolescent chicks. They were not particularly scared, but neither did they want to talk. We nodded and went our separate ways. It was so quiet, I could hear their footsteps.

I like forests, always have. It gives me this particular sense of solitude without the self-absorption. The forest is a whole world. It will let you in, but is too busy to care about you. The forest can be counted on to quiet down the noisy lists of things to worry about.

This little wooded patch could be a lovely little reprieve space for our campus; just imagine a short walk through the woods in the middle of a day. I am not sure who the land belongs to – not to RIC, judging from the maps. But I just wonder if people who live on Fruit Hill and on Belcourt Avenues would like to share with us a few paths through the woods in their backyards.

As I stare at the list of projects, THAT would be a fun project to add on. All it would take is a truckload of wood chips, and a few volunteers with hand tools. And we would need one person who understands water flows and walking paths. I image a warm September Saturday, a few faculty and students show up with shovels, saws, and wheelbarrows. We cut some bushes, throw some wood chips on the ground, rake them, and voila, we have our own little forest path! Not a park, not anything formal, no ribbon cuttings, please! - just a little path through the woods. Of course, we’d need to start with finding the owner, getting RIC and neighbors on board…

Any one wants to do this with me? A FSEHD Woods exploratory committee? Something tells me this is perhaps what we need the most.

Aug 5, 2012

The six tricks everyone should know

Many simple time-saving technologies are underused in the academia – by staff and/or by faculty. This results in hundreds of thousands of wasted work hours, not to mention the frustration of tedious work. Here are the six technologies everyone should learn to be a little less tired, and to save time and energy for more creative, more fulfilling and meaningful work. The first five are at least 20 years old, the sixth one is a little newer.
  1. Mail merge is extremely useful in communication with students, especially if you teach larger classes. The essential tension of teaching is between the need to provide personal attention to each student and the lack of time to do so. The mail merge provides a small but effective way of addressing it. You can write 60 individualized emails to your students in a few minutes. Imagine something like this: “Dear …, thank you for sending me your paper titled ….; I enjoyed reading it. Your strength are … However, you still need to work on ….. Here is the break-down of your grade: Mechanics … out of 10, clarity … out of 10, insight … out of 10; total … out of 30. I am looking forward to reading your next paper. If you have any questions regarding your grade, please do not hesitate to write me back. However, if you think I made an error grading, please send me a detailed explanation with specific references to your text.” It is virtually impossible to write these emails individually; no one has the kind of time. However, with Mail Merge, all you need is a table with brief comments that fit into the fields. It creates a bit of an illusion for students, but there is nothing unethical about appearing a little more personal and attentive than you actually can afford to be. 
  2. AutoText is an equivalent of old rubber stamps some professors used to have. If you grade many papers it could be a life-saver. For example, I used to type dm, and then F3. In the text of the student paper, the following entry would instantly appear: "THIS IS A DANGLING MODIFIER (DM), A WORD OR PHRASE THAT MODIFIES (DESCRIBES, CLARIFIES, OR GIVES MORE DETAIL ABOUT) A WORD NOT CLEARLY STATED IN THE SENTENCE. DON’T WORRY, IT IS A VERY COMMON MISTAKE, BUT YOU NEED TO LEARN TO AVOID MAKING IT IN THE FUTURE. READ MORE ABOUT DANGLING MODIFIERS HERE. There is no need to copy and paste, AutoText will remember this entry for as long as you own the computer (it is stored in the Normal template). It requires a minimal initial investment of time, but save much time subsequently, and provides better service to students. 
  3. Tables of Content. Anyone who writes longer documents – books, dissertations, reports – should learn this thing. If you consistently apply styles to your headings, go to References, and Insert Table of contents. It’s kind of magic. 
  4. Online surveys. Any time you’re asking several people a series of questions, you probably want to end up with a spreadsheet rather than with a stack of index cards. The reason is obvious – it takes less time to process: you can sort, filter those, and use for Mail Merge to communicate back. When to use online survey-like forms? The answer is – ALWAYS, unless there is a legal reason to collect original signature. This covers 99.9% of all office paperwork, and many cases in teaching. Any time you are receiving an email from each student to get a particular piece of information, you are wasting your time, and should instead use a survey. Several commercial providers have been around for a long time; most will let you do a small survey for free. Google Forms is completely free and you can publish the result link. 
  5. Pivot Tables. Anyone who works with large sets of data in Excel should invest a little time in learning Pivot Tables. If you find yourself constantly sorting, filtering, cutting and pasting, “stacking” columns on top of each other, you probably will be better off with pivoting. Just select the data you are trying to make a sense of, go to Insert, Pivot Table. Persist for a few minutes playing with it, and your life will never be the same. 
  6. Google Docs and Google Sites (now also the Google Drive). This is the only “newer” piece of underused technology, that started in about 2007. Any time you catch yourself sending a document for review, then receiving comments, and incorporating them back into the original document, you should feel a pinch of guilt and think of docs. A large part of our work is collaborative, and it results in a document being published online. This technology allows to skip most of the steps in between. If you end up with a website anyway, why go through all the preliminary drafts? Just create a blank site or document, let many people contribute their pieces, read, critique and review – all at the same time.