How bad Is it?

Back in the olden days, I was one of those people whose bedtime was established by end of the Johnny Carson monologue. Carson’s opening act often included an interchange where he would lead with the line “it’s hot/cold/smoggy and the audience would respond “how hot/etc. was it?” to set up the joke. To this day, when someone makes a statement “it’s whatever”, my mind responds with with the audience’s line. “How whatever is it?”

This time of year, I spend a fair amount of time trying to figure out “how bad is it”–not as a way of setting up a joke, but in trying to figure out what problems are important enough to solve “at the root” rather than just dealing with the symptoms. For example, we’ve opened a new building on campus and one of my staff members just spent about a third of last week dealing with issues have nothing to do with academic technology–she’s chasing down questions about wire molding, conduit, network connections, door locks and other stuff that clearly is not her responsibility. (I guess these things are technology related in some broad way–they all do have wires.) She gets the questions because she knows all faculty in the building and because there is no clear communication path established as to who really is responsible. When we try to figure out a way to deflect those questions so she can focus on things are clearly are her job she comes back to the relational question: “If not me, who?”.

In complex, decentralized, underfunded organizations, figuring out who actually does have the responsibility for even something (relatively) simple like coordinating all those building changes (and then documenting the process) may require hours of phone calls, meetings, memos, negotiations and communications–even staff training. Deciding whether or not to try to fix the root problem is a judgment call that we make dozens of times a day, and, more often than not, it’s easier to just spend extra time to solve the immediate problem rather than to try to dig down and fix the root. Our faculty are busy folks and they’re generally very appreciative when someone–whoever–helps them.

But I have to wonder what the long term cost is when “fixing the symptom and ignoring the cause” becomes ingrained in the organizational culture and it becomes the accepted way of doing business. In my real (non-William and Mary) life, I much prefer to deal with organizations where the simple things are simple. No matter how helpful, friendly, and courteous someone might be in helping me navigate the corporate run-around (think Cox or Comcast here), I much prefer not not to get embroiled in a mess in the beginning. I’m wondering if we’re as much a part of the problem as the solution?

What Story Does Your Class Tell?

In preparing for a presentation on course planning for Blackboard last week, I came upon a great course design tip sheet at the Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning at Harvard. The sheet begins with a couple of general questions and suggests that teachers not think specific content until after they have thought carefully about their overall purpose and about the expectations, capabilities and needs of their students. Hidden in the midst of that checklist was a question that has really captured my interest: “What’s the story line for this course?”

I’d never thought of my courses as having “story lines”, but they clearly do. The story is what pulls the disparate activities, topics and conversations of a course into a meaningful whole. Each participant constructs an individual narrative that persists long after the “facts” and much of “the content” is forgotten. The story weaves the actions, reactions, motivations, emotions, thoughts and behaviors into an unique experience with the capacity to shape participants as active creators of our own learning. As teachers we don’t control the entire story, but we do get to shape it somewhat by the activities we choose and by the way we interact with our students.

When we look back at the learning that has been most significant in our own lives, we generally relate our experience as narrative. As Gardner wrote about Professor Elizabeth Phillips:

I remember the room where I first heard her speak.  No one in my immediate family had been to college. I had no idea what to expect. After that class, I left the room feeling dizzy, giddy, elated, and not a little anxious, for everything had changed, and I knew I had to at least try to be answerable to that revelation.

All of my classes have a common story line. My goal in the 15 weeks we’re together is to help all of us learn how to learn more effectively. The central issue is developing new flexibility and capacity in learning; content provides the tools by which we develop those capacities. As the catalog outlines in the emerging technology class, we’ll be thinking, talking and writing about a variety of topics including past innovations, present applications, and future advances in educational technology. We’ll look at these topics through multiple theoretical lenses, including change theories, diffusion of innovations, and learning theories. But the ultimate story of the courses goes far beyond that–at least I hope it will.

My goal in designing the course is to prepare educators who are confident in their ability to navigate in a world that is increasingly dominated by information technology. If we’re successful, we’ll be more prepared as teachers and administrators to help our own students deal with increasing pace of change in their lives. Some of the themes that I expect to emerge during my next class include ways that we can help students:

  • Manage their participation in government so that their rights to privacy, security and access to information are protected from both government agencies and corporate interests.
  • Keep personal information management skills up-to-date so that they can continue to be employable in a rapidly changing economy.
  • Manage their personal information both at home and at work to protect themselves—data, passwords, and personal identity—from intrusion and damage.
  • Use technology to overcome parochialism to become more active and effective citizens.

This has all the potential for a fascinating story.

All About Time

This is the point in the year when many of us in the academic community begin to think really seriously about time. When “the summer” began last May, there seemed to be plenty of time to complete our projects, however optimistic or unrealistic our expectations. Now with 5 days to go before our faculty orientation time doesn’t look the same. My project list is longer than it was when I started, and my conversations on the path with others suggest that I’m not alone.

This summer, these final reflections on my time and how I invested it have been inescapably colored by the death of Randy Pausch, a man I never met but who I feel I know somewhat through the miracle of the internet. Last night I watched parts the “nuts and bolts” presentation on time management he did at UVA and thought about what a gift it was to be reminded of the importance of the individual decisions we make every day about meetings, phone calls, email and the other things that shape our lives.

We’re doing an experiment in the next month to track how those of us in the Academic Information Services group spend actually spend invest our time. Just a few days into the project, it’s already clear how extraordinarily difficult it is to try to focus energy and time on things that are important. Over the years, we’ve filled our lives with actions and decisions and habits that probably need to change to deal with the realities of our work lives now. Change of this magnitude is always tough, but letting others determine the directions of our lives is tougher in the long term.