The Church of High Impact Practices

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Educational fads come, and educational fads go. A dominant fad at the moment is “High Impact Practices.” Several years ago, George Kuh wrote a book about High Impact Practices that has come to dominate discussion in universities throughout the United States. If you want the nutshell version of the book, this seems to be a good summary.

I doubt anybody is actually reading the book. Continue reading

The three most important members of your department

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Everybody matters. But on a day-to-day basis at work, there are three people who have a lot of power. They can make things very pleasant, or the converse.

Here’s a slightly premature Thanksgiving. Unless you’re Canadian, which would make this a late Thanksgiving.

First, our departmental administrative assistant is five steps above spectacular. When I say that I don’t know how she does all that she does, it is not hyperbole. I truly can’t imagine how she handles all that she does, and she does it so well. She schedules, she allocates, she does politics, she is a central information center, she shares, she supervises, she tolerates, and she handles. She won the university-wide staff award this year. If we put in a bid for her every year, there’s a very good argument to be made that she should win every year.

Second, our techs who set up labs are not only models of effectiveness, but they are masters at making do with few resources. Not only do they fix problems when they come up, but they are even better at anticipating and avert them before they happen. They’re excellent teachers on top of all of this, too, and our students benefit so much from working with them. Our senior tech in the department won the university-wide staff award, the year they invented the award, two years ago.

Third, my chair. He protects us from unnecessary bureaucracy as much as possible, and he arranges our teaching schedules, taking us into account as human beings, and to maximize our efficiency in teaching. He has to deal with all the crap that we don’t want to, and he doesn’t like it any more than we do ,but he does it as a service to his faculty to help the department serve its students well. He works hard to make opportunities for our students and he sees how being in charge of stuff, done right, really can make a difference. My chair is spectacular. Somebody needs to give this man an award.

I have an exceptionally collegial department, and it’s a privilege and a pleasure to work with everybody. I’m grateful, and a little humbled, because the folks I listed above do their job to facilitate what faculty do in classrooms, labs, and our research programs. This work is inadequately appreciated, and when it’s done well, it’s not even obvious. Labs are set up with things I didn’t even knew I needed. Paperwork glitches get resolved without me being aware they happened. Phone calls get made on my behalf without me even putting in a request. These kinds of things are priceless, and I’m ever so thankful.

Is innovation stifled by overwork? The case of Iceland

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A few years ago, I spent some vacation time in Iceland. I saw plenty of the country, and probably visited most of its museums.

near Husavik (photo by A. Chapman)

near Husavik (photo by A. Chapman)

I learned a lot about the the place, the people, and their history. I took many things home. The biggest thing I brought back was one prevailing idea — or question. It’s continued to fuel some thought:

What facilitates and what inhibits innovation?

I’m sure a historian of Iceland will cringe at this encapsulated history of the island, but here it goes anyway: The Vikings came by about a thousand years ago, and set up a number of settlements. Eventually an ice age hit, and the Viking ships stopped showing up. It got really cold, and every accessible tree was cut down as people made a subsistence living off of sheep, cattle, and fishing. Life in Iceland, before the 20th century, was hardscrabble and meager. To persist in an environment with such low productivity, people had to work very hard to simply not die. As an event of vicariant biogeograpy, the language, culture and genes of the Vikings persisted in Iceland more so than other homelands of the Vikings.

Iceland was a developing nation until the influence of World War II brought some prosperity to the island. However, there were imperialistic and trade connections with the European continent for many hundreds of years. However, most trade was the shipping of processed fish and finished wool products away from Iceland. These natural resources were harvested using traditional methods that were less efficient than the techniques practiced on the continent. They just didn’t have any other way of doing things.

The mid-atlantic ridge in Iceland (photo by T. McGlynn)

The mid-atlantic ridge (photo by T. McGlynn)

To make the long story short, people in Iceland had retained cultural practices and technologies that were no longer used in other parts. Some of these things were very inefficient compared to other ways of doing things, but the more efficient technologies hadn’t made it to Iceland.

So, this meant that people worked really, really hard, all of the time. There was little time for leisure, it seems. For example, what is the classic children’s toy from yesteryear in Iceland? Leftover sheep bones.

Here are a three examples I particularly recall about how Iceland retained inefficient practices.

  • Icelanders did not use the a spinning wheel for hundreds of years after spinning wheels had been widely adopted in Europe. Instead, Icelanders used small hand-spools which took far more time to produce a smaller quantity of thread. This is no small deal because more than one fifth of all people, including children, were working with wool, mostly for domestic use, full-time, for seven months per year.
  • Icelanders didn’t make leather. Instead, they made shoes and other material out of hide, without processing it into leather, which made these materials far less durable. When people had to take long journeys, they would have to make several pairs of hide shoes for the journey, because they would wear out so quickly en route.
  • Iceland now gets nearly all of its energy from geothermal power. Hot water is underground all over the place, and this is circulated for heating homes and public buildings. They didn’t pick up this habit until the 1940s, facilitated by the influence of foreign military powers. Meanwhile, for a thousand years, Icelanders were freezing their bottoms off, and lived in the same buildings as their livestock (sometimes in a loft directly above), in part just to stay warm.

Why didn’t Iceland have spinning wheels, or leather, or use hot spring water for heat? Because nobody had the idea, or the opportunity to implement such an idea. (Of course, people with better direct knowledge can correct me on these things. I don’t speak Icelandic, after all, and though I don’t think I was hoodwinked as a tourist this is how I understood things as was I was making my way around.)

I have two competing hypotheses that could explain the relative lack of innovation in Iceland.

  1. People were just working so damn hard, all of the time, that there was no opportunity to make the investment into developing a better way of doing things. You can’t fuss around with building a machine to process wool when you’ve got to make thread! You can’t waste hide trying to make better shoes when you need to make shoes! Maybe.
  2. Iceland had a very small population, so small and recent that the entire history of the population of the island is known. (Worried about dating a relative? There’s an app for that.) With so few people, back in the day Iceland never had an extraordinary innovator that happened to be born there. Iceland has a rich history of civic leaders, it founded the world’s first parliament, has a great history of literature and music, and nowadays has remarkable public art. But when things were really cold and dark, and isolated from the rest of the world, by the fluke of history a special person that makes major innovations just didn’t happen to be born in Iceland. Maybe.

I continue to wonder whether the answer is the first or the second, or if my premise is mistaken.

Why is this on Small Pond Science? We all keep ourselves busy with teaching, research and service. If we didn’t have things to do, then that wouldn’t be fun. However, do we keep ourselves so busy tending to minutia, that we aren’t allowing ourselves the time to innovate?

When we’re writing up our syllabi, are we so busy just getting through it that we don’t focus enough to visualize innovative — and more efficient — ways to do things? Are we so busy getting things done that we don’t use our (relative) freedom from the publish-or-perish universe to do completely new science that others aren’t willing to take a chance on? If I’m not taking the time to evaluate my current practices, then I can’t improve. Which means I need to not live too quickly. I’m clearly not that rare Ben Franklin-esque character that changes the world with a series of spectacular thoughts and deeds. But I can make sure I’m not working with my head in a rut, so that I can be open to new ideas.

“Time management” is just a way to sell how-to books

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Time management books are like diet books. They’re both full of detailed and sophisticated ways to do something so simple, they can be explained in a short blog post.

Using time effectively is important, and being healthy is important. Everybody knows how to do them. Many just people fail in the execution.

How to behave healthfully? Don’t eat too much, don’t drink sugar, and move around a lot. Burn more calories than you take in. How calories get processed and burnt is extraordinarily complex, and there are many things about metabolism that we’ve yet to understand but the laws of thermodynamics are pretty clear about how to lose weight. The execution is the very hard part. There are all kinds of biological reasons that make carrying out the simple tasks difficult.

How do healthy people make this happen? They have routines in which they eat well and exercise. It is a habit, just a part of everyday living.

The same applies to time management. How do people get stuff done? They actually do the stuff that they need to do, when they need to. They don’t waste time.

It’s that simple. You don’t need to buy a tomato timer or find out who moved your cheese or whatever. Those methods exist for the purpose of making money by those who wrote books. You just gotta to what you gotta do. You have to be in the habit of making the right decision to not procrastinate, and to focus on what needs to be done at a given moment.

Just like a fad diet, if you sporadically manage your time effectively, it doesn’t become routine as a result of extended and concentrated effort. Then, a time management plan is doomed to failure.

Being healthy, and managing time effectively, are part of a lifestyle. Either you do it routinely, or you don’t. If you don’t, then you just compel yourself to do it for a long period of time until it become part of your regular existence, or you never will.

There’s a lot of talk that academics really need to manage their time in minute detail to be productive. In particular, I’ve heard lots of folks claim that you have to be able to work on big tasks (manuscripts, grants) within small chunks of time (like 15-30 min between meetings, classes and appointments). And this is particularly important for parents whose time is more divided.

I say hooey to all that. If I don’t have a couple hours, at minimum, there’s no use for me sitting down to work on a grant or a manuscript, or some other momentous project.

Does my inability to do big stuff in small periods of time keep me from getting stuff done? No, not at all. I just need to identify those blocks of time and use them, and make them if they don’t exist. The blocks might be in the evening after my kid goes to bed, or early in the morning if my spouse takes my kid to school and I get to work early, but that’s when it happens. I have also made sure to defend large chunks in the middle of the day for research, and I’m fortunate to that have that opportunity.

For this strategy to work — like any time management plan — you’ve got to actually sit down and do the stuff that you gotta do. It’s as simple as that. Don’t browse the internet, don’t check up on something that doesn’t need to be checked upon, and don’t jump into social media by default. Just get your stuff done. Some people do it, and some people don’t. Those who don’t get straight to work when they need to need to find the way to get into the habit. Simple as that.

Once you have those habits, then the rest of time management should easily fall into place. I would guess.

As for myself, I have not yet developed those good habits, even though I recognize the importance of doing so. If I was better, I wouldn’t have written this blog post. Now, I’m heading to the gym. And tonight, I’m hoping to send our New Year’s Cards.

Making the telephone less annoying

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The phone has no respect for your time. Other means of communication happen on your own terms, but this only happens with the phone if you ignore it.

Email is only reliable when the reply is important to the recipient. If it’s not important to the recipient, then it goes on the backburner, and may slowly carbonize.

You can email about some convoluted topics, but the email can be used for the sole purpose of scheduling a two-minute phone conversation. A scheduled phone conversation can make the phone less annoying.

Here are a couple scenarios in which the phone can easily trump email or texting.

A: Last month, I got a phone call from a colleague in another department, who I have not yet met, about some university service. We chatted for about five minutes. If we even came close to having the same conversation over email, it would have taken 30 minutes of back-and-forth typing and I wouldn’t have even come close to establishing the working rapport that happened in the conversation.

B: You can harness the dislike of the phone to work in your favor. Use the phone to avoid unnecessary interactions. Students will make all kinds of imprudent requests by email, that they’d never dare do so in person or over the phone. When this happens, email back one sentence: if you’d like to discuss this give me a phone call during my office hours. They probably won’t call or drop by. But if they do, it’s easier than the email. If you need to respond to this request with substance promptly, then you can call the student. Their phone number is on record. They probably won’t pick up because they don’t know the number, and then you leave a voice mail and you’re done. That’s faster than crafting an email that has the balance of politeness, concern, and firmness that you need to portray when responding to a peevish request in writing.

Caveat: do not leave a voice mail for me, unless I already contacted you and asked for something specific that requires a voice mail.