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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.

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