Is your work your life?

Reconstructed after a browser crash. Ugh. Using ScribeFire instead of Google. Sigh. Usually I save as I go, but failed to so this time.

Anyway, I will not be able to elegantly retie all the threads I had going, but I’m going to try anyway. I’m normally a David (GTD) Allen fan, but today he has a post that I think I partially disagree with. There are two things I was immediately reminded of as I read this post. First, I thought of my post from earlier this morning, a post that was inspired by my beginning to make a list of all the house stuff. For now that list is separate from the work list and is actually on paper only. Second, I thought of the recent controversy spurred by Dr. Crazy’s announcement of making a cut for a job and her further explanation. In that discussion, very nicely summarized by Leslie Madsen-Brooks here, the issue of how much t-t faculty should be devoted to their institutions was central. Why did I think of these two things? Well, I realized that a) my house/personal life deserves some real attention and b) I have to balance that with my commitment to my career. This is a tough balance for academics, I think, one that institutions take advantage of and one that is obviously ingrained in the culture as evidenced by the discussion at Dr. Crazy’s. Most academics care about their work. Whether that translates into caring about the institution or not is another story. Many conflate the two, which is what ultimately causes problems. It is a classic tale, often seen in academic novels, where an academic devotes so much time to his/her work that he/she neglects his/her family (or never collects one to begin with). Despair ensues and sometimes the academic realizes that the personal part of life should have received more attention. That “work” is sometimes not about the institution. Sometimes it’s about ego and self-importance. This is often seen in the superstars who hop from job to job, usually because they’re being wooed by every top institution. Most academics fall in the middle–committed to work, but not neglectful of a personal life and/or pursuing personal career goals while being mindful of commitment to a particular institution. As some of Dr. Crazy’s commenters note, institutions often increase work loads and expectations in such a way as to make this middle position impossible.

As I started reading Allen’s post, I thought he would show a path out of this dilemma by trumpeting work-life balance or something along those lines. He was talking about putting your personal and work lists together and seemed to be suggesting a way to combine these two areas in a way that makes sense for you. He says this makes people uncomfortable. So he offered a possible underlying reason: “Perhaps it’s really the bigger question – you mean it’s OK to focus
with as much rigor and integrity on my personal life as on my
professional stuff?” I thought, yay, personal life gets the attention it deserves.

He goes on to talk about how we’ve only recently separated work and home life and quotes at length from a Division President of a Fortune 50 corporation who encourages integrating your whole life, which is messy, he says, but more realistic. What Allen really proposes in the end is that you set up a home office as your central workspace. I thought this was a cop-out. I realize he focuses mostly on making people productive, but in the end, he still seems to mean work productive, not life productive. Why not encourage people to do some of their “personal” stuff at work–within reason? For example, I need to make phone calls to contractors to do some small tasks around the house. These calls need to be made during business hours which is when I’m at work. Why not encourage these things? What about encouraging vacations to recharge? Taking a single day to take a long weekend with the family or just to decompress? Or why not mention ways to negotiate a flexible schedule or telecommuting situation? I mean if our personal life deserves “rigor and integrity,” shouldn’t we be allowed to devote some of our time at work to achieving that rigor and integrity. I’m guessing that the clients that he works with–mostly upper-level management–just do these things. (Or maybe they have people or spouses for that.) They don’t need to ask like some folks do. (I’m sure this is somewhat foreign to faculty who don’t separate quite the way we 9-5-ers do.)

And by the way, we already have two home offices and I know most academics have offices at home. We’re already decompartmentalizing. Now we need to balance.

Anxiety over online education

The NY Times offers an article that walks a fine line between exuberance and outright fear toward the prospect of online education. The article points out that 1 in 5 college students took a course online last fall. Traditional four-year private colleges, of course, don’t really do online education. There is some fear that the surge in online education, spurred in part by Congress allowing colleges to qualify for financial aid even if less than half their courses are taught at actual campuses, will lead to more diploma mills. But most of the fear is about the loss of some kind of idyllic view of college life:

Barmak Nassirian of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers wonders what will happen, should campuses go exuberantly online, to the intangibles — the late-night bull sessions, the serendipitous strolls with professors, the chance to feel one’s oats in student government? And what will one more switch to electronic conversation do to our need for intimate human connections, he asks?

I like face-to-face conversations as much as the next person, but I think there are other opportunities that online education allows that can be similar to the ones of a residential college. Why can’t late-night bull sessions occur with your neighbors or spouse, for example? Or they might happen online in a chat room. Strolls with professors? Again, perhaps a virtual stroll in Second Life or maybe the prof pops his or her head into the chat room on occasion. What if taking classes online allows you to volunteer for your local political candidate or community organization? Who says that electronic conversation isn’t intimate? I have more human connections online than I do in real life. Some might interpret that as a bad thing, and I think it would be if I didn’t have any connections in real life. I feel the two “worlds” as it were are symbiotic. I need both.

Here’s another point of resistance. The fact that in an online course, the possibility for students to learn as much from each other is increased:

They [students in an online class] point out that online postings are more reasoned and detailed than
off-the-cuff classroom observations. Students learn as much from one
another’s postings, informed by the real business world, as they do
from instructors, they say.

The dynamics are completely different in an online class. There’s no professor standing at the front of the room. Just that alone is enough for many students to open up to the possibility that they have as much to offer as the professor.

I honestly don’t know what the landscape is going to look like in ten years. Will schools like my slac move into online education at all? Will there be a backlash against technology that sends lots of students to colleges that focus on face to face education? If the costs of that education continue to rise at the rate they are now, I doubt this will happen. A lot of schools are pricing themselves out of range for many college students. Of course, I don’t want online education to be delivered at a cost that prevents paying the faculty well or providing a good education otherwise. So there’s still lots to work out in this area. But irrational fear about the loss of human contact is not going to help us wrestle with those issues.

Course Management and Social Software

Later this week, I’m facilitating a discussion about the relationship between course management systems and social software. In my world, where course management means Blackboard, the two don’t relate together very well at all, imho. We have a third-party plugin for blogs and wikis in Blackboard, which quite a few people are using. I’d like to gather or poll these people to see if they’re finding the tool useful or not. My impression is that they feel it does what it does and they don’t expect much out of it. I don’t know of anyone using an external blog or wiki for their courses, though I have had people do that in the past.

My thoughts are, right now, that social software is the antithesis of a CMS. It’s open. It’s about sharing and collaborating with a wide group of people. Social software, to me, also involves personalization to some degree. People personalize their profiles, their blogs, etc. with their own look and feel. It’s a way of saying, “I’m part of a group, but I’m still unique.” A CMS, even in the social software arena, is about uniformity. Everything and everyone looks the same. This is my own bias, of course. But my own bias is also that education is not about developing students to all look the same, so I think the underlying technology should enable differentiation instead of uniformity. Too often, in CMS’s and other software, we force people to do the same thing, to look the same. I think it’s okay if we use the same software to simplify support, but I think that software needs to allow flexibility.

I’d love to hear my reader’s thoughts about this. Do any of you use social software in conjunction with a CMS? Successfully? Do any of you use social software within a CMS? Just social software? Why? If you haven’t used social software (blogs, wikis, facebook, etc.) in your teaching, why not? I’ll post notes or maybe even the whole presentation after it’s done.

Educause 2007: Some first thoughts

I haven’t had time to completely debrief my brain about Educause 2007. A lot happened there and I had a lot of really compelling conversations. I ran into this post on HASTAC about the conference, which starts to get at some of what I’m thinking as well. The last few sentences/questions are at the heart of what many of us are trying to figure out:

And are my pals in Academic Technology ceding too much ground as they
institutionalize via CMS’s and server virtualization tools and custom
database design? Or is this where they step aside and provide support
to a vision articulated elsewhere? Workshops and training can provide
software savvy, but what does it mean to be a 21st century knowledge
producer? Who decides and what do we teach? Before Academic Technology
becames so institutionalized, way back in 90s a decade ago, we hoped to
think we were part of the revolution. Does maturity = reform, not
revolution?

The answer to the first question is yes. I think that there is great tension currently in many computing departments between the need to become an enterprise operation vs. the need to remain agile and flexible. It’s easier to go enterprise than to try to figure out what people really need and meet those needs. The idea is if you’re meeting the needs of the majority, then everything is a ok. I’m understand the idea behind the second question about stepping aside, but I kind of bristle at it because I think the underlying subtext is that an academic technologist cannot be a part of the vision. In fact, I think both the questions have an us vs. them quality to them–a quality that was quite tangible at the conference. I think we really need to get to a point where academic technologists and faculty are on the same team and thinking together about the possibilities for 21st century knowledge. In fact, there was a great session about these issues, which I hope the facilitator will blog soon. I, too, have lots to say about this complex issue. Consider this a first volley.

Networks and Academic Research

The Chronicle reports today on a newly created Humanities Research Network. The site has been developed by the already existing Social Science Research Network. I’m not sure yet what I think of these kinds of sites. On the one hand, it’s obviously a good thing to have access to papers that one might not otherwise have access to. On the other, I have this feeling that many people doing cutting-edge research already do this informally. They have a blog, post works in progress to that or another web site, and they’re connected via various social software apps to many other researchers. I vaguely knew about the SSRN, so I poked around the site for a little bit. It didn’t exactly knock my socks off. It’s certainly not very Web 2.0. And, according to the CHE article, there will be some gatekeeping, with volunteers making sure that the uploaded papers are scholarly. The academy is so obsessed with the gatekeeping thing. But the site seems popular and maybe these networks are necessary. But it still strikes me as somewhat behind the times. Let me explain why.

RSS has changed the way I get information. I can quickly scan hundreds of blogs and other feeds and see what might be important. It really makes finding and reading information more efficient. But many journals don’t have RSS feeds, so I have to go to the site and keep checking to see if something new has happened. Even journals in a technical field don’t have RSS feeds. How crazy is that? These networks are also still functioning on email subscriptions rather than RSS. Maybe many people don’t want to use RSS, but those of us that do should at least get the option. I really think RSS can form a backbone for research networks. It can help scholars connect and keep up with important work in the field. Currently, what we have is fragmented network. If people would move themselves into the 21st century, we could mend that, but until then, we’ll be wasting all our time digging around looking for information.

Appropriate Use of Institutional Tech Resources

On Friday, I linked to this Chronicle article about using institutional email and other tech resources appropriately on my other blog. I didn’t comment on it at the time. Then Mr. Geeky sent me a comment via email in which he called the author a “stupid bean counter.” He ranted for a bit and then said perhaps he was slipping into the curmudgeon zone. And now Kathleen has commented in somewhat the same vein (though less curmudgeonly). I completely understand Mr. Geeky and Kathleen’s point, which is essentially, these are our accounts, leave us alone. But let me offer the flip side.

One of the comments Mr. Geeky made was that email was essentially free, so what are you complaining about. Email is not free. Even if you use an open source solution as we do now, there are costs for the server, for the staff to support the server, for the staff to train and support people using various clients, and even for the electricity to run the server. However, some of us have been saying for a while now that email is becoming like a utility. Would you complain about someone having a personal conversation while using the heating/cooling/lighting that the college pays for? Not on the basis of the cost of those utilities. What you’re really complaining about is the time that that conversation is taking away from work or they that conversation prevents you from working because it’s loud or whatever. So, I think to some extent, the author is using the costs of providing these tech services as an excuse for dealing with a completely different issue.

Another issue Olson mentions is installing non-university software on a university computer. Olson puts the issue of software installs in an odd context. He says:

[M]any faculty members attempt to install their own software on machines assigned to them, arguing that they will use the software primarily to
conduct official business.

Campus information-technology departments don’t see it that way. They
are charged with serving the tech needs of faculty and staff members,
but they are also obligated to report infractions by those users. That
conflict often creates an unnecessarily adversarial relationship
between the two.

Umm, not really. I don’t know anyone in my department who serves as the software police. Now, I do know that if we see obvious conflicts, we might make suggestions about removing certain software. The real issue for most of us has nothing to do with possible system conflicts but with expectations of support. I’ve had people ask me how to use x piece of random software they bought at Best Buy and that’s just annoying.

Some people do cause a significant amount of difficulty in regard to using equipment, accounts, and other resources for personal use. Is it fair, for example, for someone to store gigabytes of their music files on the college server when space is at a premium? If someone uses physical equipment–laptops, computers, hard drives–and doesn’t treat them carefully, allowing, for example, their young children to play with it, is that problematic, especially if it means that the college must buy another computer for them more often than they have to buy ones for other people? Is it fair to make someone spend an inordinate amount of time working with you to install or use software that you’re using for something personal? This last item the author mentions. When a request for help clearly regards something for personal use, I steer clear and say no, but I’ve been blindsided before. I’ve had people ask for help installing home DSL, setting up iPods (for personal use), working with various software to be used to create a home movie, family Christmas card, poster for an event. Because most faculty have such blended lives, working both at home and on site and not drawing clear lines between the two, they often don’t realize that most staff do draw clear lines and don’t, for example, check email after they go home for the day. I and my colleagues have all had the experience of coming in on a Monday morning to find email or voice mail or both sent on, say, Saturday morning asking for something to be done by first thing Monday morning. Probably a few of those requests have not been related to their work.

Both Mr. Geeky and Kathleen are tech savvy folks. They know their way around the web and a computer. They can install software without help and they don’t install crazy toolbars and cursor crap–or worse–that might infect their computers. In fact, they are Linux and Mac users, respectively, and even if they did accidentally install something crazy, it wouldn’t hurt their computers. Both have been on the net long enough to know how to behave themselves on listservs.

Sadly, they are the exception, not the rule. Olson does go over the top, especially for those of us at private institutions, where, honestly I’ve never seen anyone send something personal or offensive to the mailing lists. But he does provide some food for thought. On the other hand, if we all wanted to bean count . . . I think somebody owes me some vacation time.

ETA: If this is a bit incoherent, it’s because I’ve slept for 5 hours and I wrote this between flights.

Broad and deep knowledge

I consider myself someone who has a pretty broad knowledge base. By virtue of changing my undergraduate major 8 times and changing my dissertation topic and then going into a technology field related to education, I know a fair amount about a lot of different things. But I also know a lot in a few areas. One of the reasons I was leery of pursuing a purely academic career was the seeming requirement to focus on one narrow area of study. Certainly I know faculty who function this way. They know their area, usually a fairly narrow one, and very little else. Oh, sure, they can contextualize their area, say 19th century diaries, in a broader context of all diaries and of all literature. They know influences and antecedents. In smaller schools, faculty are more likely to have to venture out of their area in order to teach classes in related areas.

But I’m still often surprised by people who don’t venture much beyond their disciplines. They don’t care how history relates to science or vice versa. And forget popular culture. They don’t watch tv or listen to the radio. They don’t know that their students were obsessed with “The O.C.” and were sad to see it go. “Lost” is what they are when they venture into the wrong neighborhood. They know more about things that happened 50 years ago than what’s going on now. This isn’t all faculty, of course. I’ve run into many who share with me a general curiosity that extends to many areas, including popular culture. And I’m no cultural maven myself. I never really liked Lost and my tastes in tv lean toward reality shows, The Daily Show, and The Simpsons, not exactly the intellectual or coolest of fare. I don’t have a craving for mysteries the way many of my faculty friends do nor do I stick to reading “the classics.” I like nonfiction related to my field and in areas I used to study but no longer research–economics, history, cognitive science.

I can appreciate faculty who lament that students have no sense of history or context, no understanding of the complex world around them. But I also think that faculty should appreciate that some students understand their complex world in different ways than they do. Social networking, for example, complicates relationships and identity for students in ways that most of us never had to contend with as young people. TV shows and movies are often more complex commentaries on culture than the shows and movies we watched at their age was. A broad knowledge can provide students with even more ways to contextualize their experiences, but we shouldn’t dismiss certain ways of looking at the world just because it’s not our discipline. Disciplines can inform each other, always have, though we’re not always aware of it.

I can’t imagine not having a broad knowledge, not understanding science at all because it’s so different from English as a discipline or dismissing popular culture because it’s not “intellectual” enough. That seems, oddly, a shallow way of approaching the world.

Frustrating Graduate Students

I was going to write about the Chronicle article on frustrating grad students, but I was alternating between writing two articles and playing Civilization. Besides, New Kid did a stellar job. I couldn’t possibly top her.

I just want to throw in a few of my own comments, as a recent graduate student who had a lot of obstacles to success. New Kid mentioned that grad school often creates a culture the prevents students from being completely honest with their advisers. Are you really going to tell your adviser that you’re enjoying your research, but when you’re done, you think you might want to settle down and make apple pies or, god forbid, get a corporate job that has nothing to do with your work? I’m thinking that’s not going to go over well.

I think I was pretty honest with both of my advisers. The person I wasn’t honest with was myself. I should have followed my interests instead of following what I thought the market would be interested and what people told me I was good at. I liked and respected my first adviser very much and at first, I was interested in my topic, but my interest was not great enough to sustain a dissertation, much less a research agenda later on. I couldn’t get myself motivated enough to think about original ways into my topic. Throw in a relocation halfway across the country, two kids and a spouse on the tenure track and well, regular readers know how that turned out.

I’m sure I was frustrating in many ways. But life gets in the way and grad school isn’t really a culture that tolerates life events, pangs of doubt, and feelings of inferiority. So it’s hard to come clean about all of that and get the advice you need and deserve.

Both Gradgrand and some of New Kid’s commenters point out not just frustrating grad students, but unprofessional ones. Many of those may indeed put one off of advising, but it seems unfair to let the truly bad apples affect the ones who may, in fact, be pears.

What do you want your institution to look like?

I’m taking part in a series of conversations we’re having entitled “Risk-Taking in the Academy.” Our institution is going through a change in leadership. We have a new provost. We’re searching for a new president. So, the idea was to have some discussions about what that might mean for us in the context of taking risks. There have been three of these and they are attended by a variety of people–plenty of faculty, but also staff from many different areas.

Yesterday’s conversation was about two different models for an institution–the pyramid and the flock. We discussed the characteristics of both models and basically tried to draw analogies between the two models and an institution. Some pretty obvious characteristics were mentioned for each. For the pyramid, hierarchy, solidity, impenetrable. For the flock, fluid, adaptable. Although I definitely bristled against the idea of a pyramid serving as the model for our institution, I didn’t think the flock worked perfectly either.

At one point, while we were comparing the models and elaborating on how the applied or didn’t to our institution, a faculty member described how he imagined the pyramid model. He said he imagined he was in one of those boxes that made up the pyramid, running around doing his own thing, not able to move from one box to another but perfectly content because he didn’t have to worry about what was going on in the other boxes. I said I didn’t want to be in his pyramid. If I can’t move around more than that, I’ll be completely frustrated. Afterwards, we talked about this more and he said that he can go into his classroom and just do his thing and not have to think about institutional goals or even what and how the person in the next room is teaching. Someone pointed out that his teaching is in the service of the institutional goals so whether he’s thinking about that or not, it’s part of what he does. I told him to try being a staff member sometime. We can’t not think about institutional goals. That’s kind of all we do. We have to think about internal and external pressures on us to change. I explained that simultaneously I have to look at trends in technology and determine how they’re going to affect the institution and respond to internal pressures to add services or keep services. And that it’s a very complex dance that way. And he said, yeah, you don’t have a classroom where you can be protected from that.

The whole conversation, both the discussion as a whole and the brief side conversation I had at the end were really fascinating and they certainly revealed to me a lot about how people position themselves within an institution and what they think an institution should be for them. I think these conversations can go a long way in helping people to understand where different people are coming from, what they think their role is within the institution.

Teaching, Scholarship, Service on the Staff Side

On Friday, I had the great pleasure of having lunch with Martha Burtis. It was a rare opportunity to talk to someone doing similar things and having similar challenges and dreams. I’ve been thinking about a lot of what we talked about. Yesterday as I was walking across campus, I was thinking about my favorite topic–the faculty-staff divide. I was thinking about what I do, comparing it to my colleagues’ work and to faculty work and I had a flash of thought. Martha had said that she thinks of what she and her team does as R&D. I’ve thought that about myself and I’ve even been told that a lot of my work is considered R&D. If I were a faculty member, I’d be in pretty good shape. But I’m not. If a staff member’s work were divided in similar ways to a faculty member’s, most would list service as being nearly 100% of their job. That’s what’s valued on the staff side of things.

For most positions, teaching and scholarship don’t exist. And yet there are a few positions where they do, and I started to think about how work might be divided differently for some people. What if service were only 60% of the job and the other 40% were divided between teaching and scholarship, both defined broadly. Teaching could be sessions on best practices for using certain software or discussions about copyright and its effect on curriculum and research. In some cases, it might mean teaching a class of students (as I do). Those classes could be credit courses or non-credit ones. Scholarship could be of the more traditional variety of writing articles for peer-review or it could be researching emerging trends and presenting a report for the campus. It could be developing new software. Service, too, might be expanded. Instead of its traditional definition on the staff side of supporting faculty and students, it could entail serving on committees (departmental or college-wide) so that one gets credit for spending time in meetings and working toward larger goals as well as day-to-day support.

Though it makes sense to look at the traditional academic breakdown of work, one could also turn to corporations such as Google, where workers are encouraged to spend 20% of their time working on their own projects. What if that were encouraged of staff and what if it were rewarded? I think that would help retention a great deal. The academic market just can’t pay what someone is really worth. There are other benefits to working at an educational institution, but sometimes the work load gets to a breaking point and the benefits no longer seem worth it. If you’re a creative, smart person (which a lot of staff are; that’s why they’re there in the first place), then you’re motivated by getting to show off your creativity and smarts, which you don’t get to do if you’re only doing service–grunt work kind of service like showing people what buttons to press, making copies, answering the phone, etc. Add the opportunity to work on a pet project that might get used by the institution and you’re likely to keep people around. Some people pursue this anyway, even if it’s not written into policy, but if they’re not rewarded for that and if, in fact, they’re punished for taking away time from service, they too may leave.

It seems that such a structure would benefit the institution. Higher retention levels, some good ideas put into the institution, happy employees. IHE today has an article about shifting scholarship into new areas, many of which make sense for staff people. They say it’s about time that faculty got out of the 19th century and I think the same should be true for staff. It might go a long way to getting rid of the upstairs/downstairs culture that exists at many colleges and universities.