Life in the Grey Zone

I spent an hour yesterday responding to a request from a colleague to write a clearer statement defining what level of support academic departments could expect from staff in our Academic Information Services group in maintaining their departmental web pages. She noted, quite correctly, that our service-level agreement (SLA) was a tad mushy when it came to that subject and that the ambiguity continued to generate friction among department chairs.

At one level, the text should have been fairly easy to write. The policy (sort of) says that we don’t support department, program, center or institute web sites.

We used to. Over the last few years the college has invested tens of thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours in developing a template application that allows non-technical users to create and maintain web sites. Anyone who can fill in a web form can have a website with a host of features that used to require late night hours by a departmental liaison with a PHP manual and a coffee pot. There’s no need to depend on an academic technology specialist to fill in web forms, and we have plenty of projects that do demand the skills that only those folks have. The SLA states that change pretty clearly.

The problem is that the service level agreement doesn’t align perfectly with reality. Over the years, our service model has been shaped more by our membership in the community than it has been the more transactional approach that’s implied by the SLA.

If I’m walking by a faculty office and I’m asked for help getting an image to display on a template site, I’m always going to do what I can to help. If a colleague who I’ve worked with on multiple committees, eaten meals with and see in the gym every Tuesday asks me for help re-sizing a batch of pictures for the department web site, I’d do it, because the relationship is more important to me than the policy. If someone calls and says that they’ve been struggling to understand the documentation on the template site and they still can’t figure out how to set up the calendar, I’m very likely to run over to their office to help, since supporting self-directed learners is a core value for me.

However, if someone who I don’t know sends me an email message and says “please have someone make these changes to our web site by tomorrow at 8 AM”, I’m likely to point to the SLA. Not our job. If a department creates a new center or institute that needs a complex web site built next week, I’ll probably invoke the SLA and suggest that someone attend the template workshop.

I don’t know how to capture that reality in a public document. (Maybe that’s what this entry is doing.) Our AIS group was founded to insure that there were people within the college community who had a deep commitment to learning and a passion for understanding technology. Living with commitment and passion requires living in a grey area where decisions are often made based on the implicit logic of community membership rather than on the clarity of an SLA. That logic allows us to say no to some tasks and to focus on others, even if we can’t always articulate it as clearly as we might like.

Action Verbs–Twitter Style

Twitter: What *are* people doing? :: Now I Have a Blog Too

Back in my career services days, we used to spend a lot of time putting together our infamous action verb list for students to use in preparing their resumes. Now Twitter answers the question about what people are really doing as they move throughout their days. Based on a sample of 500,000 tweets Chris Finke has compiled the most common ‘-ing’ verbs and the number of times they appeared in the 500,000 messages.”

We always had students write in the -ed form to focus on the fact that they had already used the skills. A few words are missing from the Tweets list that always found their way onto the typical career services list: things like systematized and supervising and prioritizing. The Twitter top 10:

  1. going
  2. watching
  3. listening
  4. getting
  5. playing
  6. working
  7. trying
  8. reading
  9. waiting
  10. looking

The Messages We Send

How to Read My Comments on Your Paper Drafts:

Every once in a while I read about some educational practice that makes such perfect sense I can can’t help but wonder why everyone isn’t doing it. Steve Greenlaw periodically directs posts in his blog specifically to his students. In a recent post he addresses the purpose of the writing students are doing in his freshman seminar.

“Writing is the tool most scholars use to think about ideas. You don’t write when you have your ideas figured out; rather, you write to figure out what you think. Writing, revising and rewriting is what scholars do. Completing the first draft of a paper is the beginning of your thinking; it shouldn’t be the end.”

When I read drafts, I try to read them as I would a colleague’s paper who is asking for help in improving their work. What that means is I’m not pointing out what’s “wrong” with the paper. Rather, I’m making suggestions about what isn’t clear to the reader, or what I think might make the paper stronger.

I had to contrast Steve’s message to his students with the one we’re sending to our graduate students. We’re in the midst of the comps season, and my colleagues and I are dutifully preparing questions for the two days of exams that will determine whether the students that we’ve spent the last couple of years (or more) working and learning with should be allowed to begin their dissertations. As I look at the fascinating questions my colleagues have prepared, two thoughts immediately pop into my mind.

First, I thank the design of the universe that I’m not being expected to answer them. The thought of having to enter a room with a computer and no notes and synthesize two years of thinking, reading and writing about leadership or planning or policy–much less all of them together–would be terrifying. (It might be interesting if we had a qualifying exam for those who are reading the comps–just a half-day in which we are expected to synthesize all the research in our fields since we took our last closed-book comprehensive exam. It might make it even harder to find readers than it is now.)

The second thought is to try to find some rational reason for subjecting students to this experience. Once they’ve jumped through this hoop, is there any professional situation where they would be expected to do this again? Comps were the most worthless step in my own doctorate–largely because the key research in the field suggested that the only thing timed exams measured was the the ability to take timed examinations.

As I understand Steve’s message to his students, he’s telling them that it’s worth learning the conversation that shapes professional writing because it will be at the core of their education. I can’t help but wonder what message our graduate students are getting from us through the comps requirement.

The Art of Building Virtual Communities

21st Century Collaborative: The Art of Building Virtual Communities

Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach, who was a student in the planning class a couple of years ago, has been putting together some extremely valuable posts on her blog. (I loved the news reel clip on progressive education from her post on John Dewey.) This essay on building virtual communities pulls together a variety of different frameworks and checklists to stimulate thinking about what might work for creating interest and sustaining it over time. The central question is precisely the one we need be addressing in each site we build.

The burning question for many of us trying to establish educational CoPs is how to design a VLC that is compelling enough that it will compete successfully for the attention of busy educators? Because communities of practice are voluntary, to be successful over time they need the ability to generate enough excitement, relevance, and value to attract and engage members.

There’s no definitive answer, but two ideas seem to flow through the various models Sheryl outlines. First, the navigation and design of the site need to encourage visitors to move through the various roles at their own rates. Site designers should clearly define what the benefits are to each group of users at each level and make it easy for folks to participate at their own comfort level. Secondly, identifying leadership that will commit time and energy to sustaining the community probably should be a requirement before launching the site. The likelihood of success without enough leadership is pretty slim.