Posts that are engineering edu-ish
I thought other Olin community members might be interested in this 2009 white paper on engineering leadership programs at universities we’re reading for Monica Cox’s “Leadership, Policy, & Change in STEM Education” course at Purdue. It’s a survey of “programs that are trying to make undergraduate engineering students better leaders,” and some of their interview subjects were familiar names at Olin — Rick Miller, Norman Fortenberry, etc.
A couple notes that stood out to me as being particularly cool for Oliners interested in leadership development / entrepreneurship (I have more detailed notes upon request):
- “When asked to identify best practice approaches to engineering leadership, many non-US interviewees also spoke about successful approaches using problem-based learning. Aalborg University and Olin College of Engineering were both widely cited and highly recommended in this regard.” (Direct quote, p. 16 — international people know about us.)
- Most “engineering leadership education” programs are in the USA, are less than 5 years old, inspired by the ABET 2000 criteria, and have either a business-theory flavor or a “save the world with projects!” flavor. Outside the USA there are fewer programs and they’re usually not called “engineering leadership” because of cultural discomfort with designating some people as “leaders” — that’s not “equitable!”
- American “engineering leadership” people are usually familiar with “engineering leadership” programs… but only in America. International “engineering leadership” people are usually not familiar with “engineering leadership” programs (maybe because they don’t get named/marketed specifically as such), but are familiar with “engineering leadership” things outside their own country. Generally, though, a lot of this work (as of 2009) happens in isolation; programs don’t know about each others’ existence.
- Programs tend to fall into the following categories (document pages 5-6, parenthical notes with Olin examples from me): those that are “business-school-ish” and based on the theory of leadership and management (FBE or anything-with-Babson), those that are based on team projects that are often save-the-world in flavor (ADE and many other projects), those that are based on “coaching” junior students in project teams (pretty much everything at Olin), and those based on “real world” industry experiences (SCOPE).
- Selectivity is a huge deal for many of these programs; only a small number of “elite” students participate in them (picked via applications, test scores, or whatever means). It’s weird to have everyone at a school do “leadership development.”
Some fascinating food for thought here. I’m one of those people who thinks Olin is doing a pretty good job at “developing leadership,” but could always do better — and I’d personally love to see more exploration/experimentation in this area. I’ve heard that FBE and alot of E! stuff got rebooted last term so I’m curious to hear what happened with that.
It’s rough to get a glimpse of how confusing you must look to other people. My cultural foundations class is doing this to me big-time; apparently I’m “intuitively poststructural,” but never having really read anything else poststructural, my boundary-blurring ends up spewing out in horribly sign-posted spaghetti. I dismantle things, but have no language to talk about that dismantlement, so I leave the mess on the floor.
Now I am reading things by people who are better at me at dismantlement — and better at signposting (they have to be, or their stuff would be utterly incoherent). Here’s how to take something apart and leave it apart, but put little flags on toothpicks in the pile so that it becomes somewhat coherent to others taking the time to sift through it. (I say “somewhat” coherent, because our first reading assingment was the entirety of Lyotard’s “The Postmodern Condition,” which had supposedly been translated from French to English. I know that what I was reading wasn’t French. But I’m not convinced that it was English.)
This is swimming in a different world. How do I navigate between a language of dismantlement and a language that other human beings, particularly those who value comfortingly-assembled thoughts (hello, discipline of engineering!) can and will want to understand? Is there a tradeoff – should this be somewhat confusing, do I lose the point of being poststructural if I put everything back in order for my readers? What creative strategies can be used?
I found one in Dani Cavallaro’s book “Critical and Cultural Theory.” Basically, Cavallaro makes the nonlinearity both explicit and optional, which is the key; my mistake with my Readiness Assessment was to make the nonlinearity mandatory. To summarize in a way that’s stealable by future-doctor-Mel:
- Make nonlinearity explicit and optional.
- Point out that the order-of-printing is one order that the text can be read in, and provide a concrete example of another route that could be taken through the content.
- Provide “hyperlinks” within the sections of the text to help readers see how each part might connect to others that are not immediately beside it in print; this gives them paths to walk between the nodes, so they don’t need to make such giant jumps across. If possible, let your example in #2 also show how to use those hyperlinks for navigation.
- Invite people to make their own orders, but emphasize (again) that they don’t have to.
- Stop explaining and start the dang book. I (Mel) have a bad habit of too much meta-annotation up-front. Sometimes I need to focus on making a short good map (part of my longwindedness is compensation for not having good maps to give; put that time into making a short good map instead), then give that map to my reader and just tell them go.
In the example of Cavallaro, she does this in her introduction (pages xii-xv, if you really want to follow along). It says up-front that the book can be read in order, but it specifically notes it can also be read out of order. To scaffold that choose-your-own adventureness, each section contains links and call-outs to other sections, like hyperlinks that help you jump between them and preserve their relatedness.
Then Cavallaro gives an example of a nonlinear route through the topics; the table of contents has already given us one, but she gives us a second by writing out a few paragraphs that weave the topic headings (in all caps) into the text. For instance, page xiv: “Neither the MIND nor the BODY are in a position to supply incontrovertible proof of the world’s existence… Mind and body give us the coordinates — most notably SPACE and TIME — within which we may map out our experiences.” The all-cap words are section headers, but that’s not the order they are in within the book; it’s an example of how to weave through them in a different order, but that weaving-out-of-order is up to you and you can read it straight through and it will (supposedly) make sense.
And then she says “I’ve given you two routes, see? You could make a third, or a fourth, or…”
The non-linear route outlined above is by no means the only possible way of reading this book across its three Parts, rather than sequentially, chapter by chapter. In fact, it is intended to supply just one example (as limited as an eample of this kind is bound to be) of the potentially limitless number of journeys which a reader may take through the kaleidoscopic worlds of critical and cultural theory. Ultimately, the book wishes to emphaisze that several disciplines influenced by critical and cultural theory have proposed stimulating variations on a wide range of themes and, more importantly, to suggest that any moderately curious reader may move on to formulate his or her own variations. (page xv)
So, that’s in academic prose still. If I were to translate it into Mel-style English for my own work (after disclaimers that the book can be read linearly or nonlinearly, and an example of how it could be read nonlinearly):
The example I’ve just given isn’t the only way you could read this book; there are an infinite number of journeys you could take from section to section. One journey, of course, is to read this as “normal book,” going straight through the chapters in the sequence they’ve been printed. That’s perfectly all right. But if you’re feeling curious today, you can choose your own adventure and read the sections in any order you’d like, as in the example. There’s no “right” way to read this; it’s meant to be an invitation to playfulness and exploration.
…eh. I feel like I am still struggling to write that, but perhaps I’ll wait until I want to apply this to something specific that I’d like to make navigable. At the very least, it is good for me to think about such things — signposting is something I want to become very, very good at, because it will expand the range of (intellectual — and other?) places I can take others through.
In the first two weeks, my signal processing class has…
Feel free to comment on any of these things, by the way! No guarantees as to how comprehensible the material is to folks not in the class, but… if something looks nifty but is vague, holler and I’ll see if I can fill missing parts in. All our content, including homeworks and so forth, is open-licensed. (Thanks to Mike Heinz for licensing his MATLAB code GPLv3, which enabled us to open-license our last homework assignment tonight.)
It feels good to be teaching again. The classroom is where I first felt the meaning of the word “vocation” in my bones and not my head; I remember that evening. I was 19, running a ModCon tutorial at Olin, and it felt like there was fire pouring through me; the classroom environment, the questions and reactions and projects of my students, everything about that room flowed with a powerful magic, and I knew the alchemy was mine; I could ignite people, and it felt as natural as breathing.
I’d been teaching for a couple years at that point, and liked it, and was pretty good. But that evening was like nothing I’d ever felt or seen, the first full blast of a fluent symphony I’d only heard practiced in skillful yet labored passages up to that point. I remember walking out of that room, finding an empty hallway, and slumping against the wall in the half-darkness, breathing hard, trying to figure out why I was shaking. The plans and figures of my future life were shifting in massive ways I couldn’t see or understand. It was my junior year of college, and my (extremely vague) career plans involved “product design in industry, or something” — grad school wasn’t really on the “or something” list, being a professor was still something Other People did.
And look what I’m doing now; I’m on the path to becoming Future Dr. Mel.
I think my friends and professors realized it before I did: I teach. I have to teach. No matter what I’m doing or where I am, I teach. And when I teach well — whether it’s in a classroom, or giving a conference talk, or through my writing — that’s when the thunder pours through my bones. It doesn’t happen often, and it’s only happened that intensely a couple of times in the 7 years since. I often don’t remember the actual experiences as well as the coming-down feelings afterwards; falling onto my hotel room bed covered in sweat, leaning my forehead against the cold metal of a bathroom stall door feeling my heart rate pound itself slowly back to normal in my throat, shaking against the wall of another empty hallway, or another, or another.
I also remember clumsy tutorials and fumbled moments and aggravating nights of grading papers, tracking down late students, the anguish of not being able to reach or help someone, learning (with difficulty) how to set boundaries so I wouldn’t drain all my energies trying to help my students and would actually complete my own coursework (there are dangers to the love of teaching). Or talks I could scarcely get myself to give beforehand, pacing my room and trying to stop hyperventilating. Or things I’ve written that wouldn’t come, or splurted out in the wrong way, or tangented off in tumbled words, or that I just became sick of looking at, thinking about. There were many bleary-eyed evenings when I wondered why I was bothering at all. And then I’d step into the classroom or on the stage or behind the keyboard and the thunder would come — even faintly, for a moment — and I remembered that my answer was a thousand times yes, forever.
Because I think that’s all that you can say to a vocation, even one you’re still trying to pinpoint (and sometimes it’s a moving target). You take your calling with both the glory and the slogging mundanity it brings; you find what you’re built for, and then you rebuild yourself to do it better. Even here, in this writing — I am tired; the words are not flowing well, they try too hard. And I am halfway through grading, which I would really rather not be doing. And… well, you know. It’s part of the package of a craft you can’t not master.
I think the thing I love the most about teaching is that it is, more than anything else, a way of giving, a pouring-out of yourself.
I think I need to stop writing and finish up my grading now. I’m… I’m losing coherence and focus, and this is a stumbling and awkward post. But ah, teaching. I’ve missed you, classroom. Hello again. I’m… I’m a Mel.
Ever seen someone swing dancing in a wheelchair?
Okay. Want to help more people do that?
Some of you have seen this, but I’m blogging it as well because the cause is very worthy. Andrew Bouchard, my friend and fellow Olin ’07 alum in Florida is working on bringing the joy of dance to the disabled, and has a Kickstarter going to support the project. (Among other things, it features wonderfully geeky engineering dance shirts for $25. Feedback control loops + dance = AWESOME.)
They’re pretty well on track to reach their goals, but need more help to do so. If you think this is awesome, please chip in!
“If a college that’s in the middle of a STEM curriculum revision swaps stories back and forth with a college that’s already finished with a similar one, what happens?”
That’s the informal version of my (probable) dissertation research question. The more formal version (with more questions!) is: “How do STEM faculty make sense of their experiences during a curricular change process? How does engaging in cross-institutional mentorship impact their sense-making? How do practices of transparency support this sense-making mentorship?”
And I think I have an idea of how I want to do it. At the moment, anyway. This is all early-stage, subject to change, thinking out loud, and so on — but rough beginnings are still beginnings, and if I’m doing radically transparent research, I ought to release early and often. With that in mind, here’s a draft of what I’m thinking might turn into my proposal; it’s all of 3 pages long, and I’m not yet completely happy with the voice (I want to write more informally, but I haven’t figured out how to rewrite this less stuffily without losing specificity), but look: it’s a first version.
You’ll notice that I’m still working on selecting sites, so the 2 schools involved are called “School A” and “School B” (not very imaginative, I know) — there have been conversations, but nothing is final, and I haven’t yet asked if it is ok to write publicly about the conversations I’ve been having, so I won’t yet. That’s one of the lines I’m walking here; in general, I’m not releasing the names of the people and institutions I’m talking with until they give me their explicit consent to do so. Also, I’m logging the time spent on my dissertation work on a spreadsheet, in case you want to see more fine-grained detail on what this PhD thing takes.
Without further ado, the proposal:
Mel Chua’s dissertation proposal, v.0.1 by Mel Chua
As always, I’d love thoughts/ideas/feedback. In particular, are these questions important questions to answer? Is this an important problem in Engineering Education? It doesn’t matter how well I plan and execute if my end goal is useless once it’s reached (Richard Hamming’s talk on “You And Your Research” is a good read on that topic). Basically, I’m curious whether people give a damn.
So if you do, let me know if you want to — but if you don’t, please please let me know now. I am particularly interested in negative feedback and people who think I’m doing the wrong thing and people who disagree with me and think I’m blind and foolish, because that is what I’ll learn the most from.
I’m writing this post from the first meeting of Patricia Lather’s qualitative research methods class at OSU. To take this class, I’m driving over 4 hours each way from Indiana to Ohio — every week — and it is going to be totally worth it. I’ve done qualitative work before, but never critiqued by someone who “thought like me” (in the sense of being poststructural) — and Dr. Lather is one of the pioneers of that paradigm in educational research, so there’s no better way I could be learning.
During the first portion of the class, Dr. Lather talked about equipment that qualitative researchers should have to make their lives as easy as possible, and I think this is something others might want to know. We need to find practices (including tools) that fit us — that fit the way we want to work, the way we do our knowing and our learning and recording, so these are lists to start thinking from rather than absolutes.
- A good tape recorder. A good digital recorder might run you about $300. I personally have the Zoom H2 from music recording experiments, but have taken to recording research interviews on my digital camera or even my phone so that I can lipread the interviewee I’m transcribing. (I’m deaf, so my transcription setup and considerations will be different than most people’s; in fact, part of the work I’m doing on my dissertation methodology is finding workarounds for this.)
- A foot pedal, maybe $15 at Radio Shack.
- If you’re doing phone interviews, there are devices that connect to the phone that can record phone conversations. (I can’t lipread over the phone, so this will never be the case for me — however, I might want to figure out something for videochat interviews.)
- If you’re doing group discussions or focus groups, you’ll need the ability to mic multiple people — table mics and so forth. Those are getting more expensive, $80 and up. Also note that group discussions are hellishly hard to transcribe; people overlap and interrupt, you need to tell whose voice is whose… (and I think: “hard to transcribe? that’s why they’re hard for me to hear!”)
- Transcribing software. I still need to figure out what I want to use for this — any recommendations, o internet metabrain?
Dr. Lather wants us to transcribe our recordings — to know in our bones that every hour of interviewing is multiple hours of transcription, reams of data to work with… the course philosophy is “do more with less data,” which I sorely need to learn. She also emphasises the importance of taking good notes; many people are afraid to take notes during an interview because of “losing rapport,” but you need to learn how to do it because it forces you to pay attention in a different way. It’s a skill that needs to be developed; sometimes interviewees actually respond well to it because it makes them feel important. Also, not everyone wants to be tape recorded; what if you can’t record where you’re going? That limits where and how you can collect data. Why be limited?
Rule of thumb: when you tape, transcribe within 24 hours. (Quote of the week: “If you get home and put that tape in the closet and think ‘Oh, I’ll transcribe it later,’ that tape will have babies, and then you’ll look and there’ll be 10 tapes in the closet, untranscribed.”)
It’s fascinating as I sit here — they’re talking about recording setups and the things most people don’t realize when they’re novices to interviewing. For instance, “don’t record in a restaurant, it’ll pick up the noise and the tape will be hard to understand” is something I would never do — I can’t hear in a restaurant, period! If it doesn’t work well for audio recorders, it won’t work well for me; conversely, the mic setups I think about for making situations understandable to me (ok, I need a table mic for remote CART for this, a lavalier mic for that, I need to set the room up this way so the acoustics will be good)… are also the same considerations for making recordings. So in a weird way, I’m ahead of that game.
Break time; I think we’re mostly done talking about equipment. Other notes:
One recommended reading for our qualitative research methods course is “The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales” because of how it takes familiar fairy tales and flips our preconceptions of what fairy tales are — there’s a lot of postcolonial and postmodern thinking in that children’s book. Tell the story from the villain’s point of view, the ugly duckling grows up to be an ugly duck, that sort of thing. A lot of qual, I think, is becoming aware of and playing with your own thinking; how can you turn other people’s perceptions upside-down unless you know how to do that with yours?
Discourse analysis is the most difficult kind of analysis, apparently — compared to quantitative analysis of qualitative documents, or other kinds of qualitative content analysis that look for themes. (Oh, boy. Discourse analysis is what I’m planning on doing. Awesome.)
It’s important to be there — to see reactions, to see what’s happening. One researcher had an illumination moment when the subject she’d given a survey to got mad about the questions on the survey — and then that anger became the grounds for further understanding.
As I mentioned in my last post, I’m working with Sally Schmall, an academic career coach, to scaffold “Future Dr. Mel” development. ADHD and academic writing are a combination that I could, ah, handle better — so my last post talked about the ADHD, and this one will talk about the writing. I’ve paraphrased the questions she asked and provided my answers below.
First word that comes to my mind when I think about writing:
Simultaneous ties between “freedom” and “self-expression.”
Why I want to work on my writing:
I’ve always been a happy, prolific, and pretty good writer (see blog). It’s more a matter of finding ways to productively channel that writing-energy into academic venues and formats now that I’m a graduate student – and those targets are unfamiliar territory that move a lot more formally and slowly than I’m used to. I hoped I could pick up on the “rules of the game” by hanging out in that environment for a while and reading a lot and writing and getting feedback (as I’ve learned writing-rules for other formats and in other places in the past), but the “rules” and conventions of academic writing aren’t always explicitly spoken or written down, and the edit/revision cycles for formal feedback are so agonizingly slow, and so far down the stage of “you already have a thrice-polished formal draft,” that I’m feeling a real lack of formative feedback that will help me figure out how to develop into an excellent academic writer. (I don’t think I’m absolutely terrible; I think my current abilities would allow me to survive – but I’m looking to do way better than survival.)
Post-mortem of a recent writing project:
I recently finished writing my quals – about 50 pages in an isolated 2-week writing sprint – and it was the least coherent 50 pages I’ve ever written; though the document has good ideas, I’m not proud of its structure in the slightest. So… what went well and poorly that led to that?
- Research went well; when I was given an unfamiliar topic to write on, I was able to hit the library, use databases, crawl backwards through bibliographies, and use many other strategies to find and triage materials to read. (This is something I specifically asked some of the librarians to coach me on multiple times during my first year in grad school – a great investment.)
- Reading went well. I have a system for taking notes as I read that preserves page numbers and distinguishes between direct quotes, paraphrases, and my own thoughts – some examples are at https://www.zotero.org/groups/design_cognition_and_learning (I share my notes publicly as zotero groups; this group is for readings from one of my classes this semester.)
- Synthesizing topics and themes across readings went reasonably well. I’m a qualitative researcher and do a lot of grounded theory analysis, so I treat my reading notes as “data” and write “memos” to explore ideas spread across them. Usually I do this on my blog as part of trying to be a transparent researcher (http://radicallytransparentresearch.org is one of my projects). I don’t have as good a system for doing this off my blog – I haven’t needed to set one up, but maybe I should.
- Going from those memos to a longer paper was an instructive disaster. Halfway through my writing period, I looked at my memos and panicked that I didn’t have “The Paper!” yet – sat down and wrote an outline utterly separate from the memos I’d been writing, and glommed a paper together off the top of my head that didn’t use my notes and memos very well (although the notes and memos made it far better than it would have been otherwise). So: lesson learned! I can outline as an independent/stand-alone skill, but clearly I need to find a better way to integrate outlining/road-mapping into my actual scholarly writing process.
I think one thing that might be happening is that I can set and reach small writing targets (outlining a paper that’s just several pages long, then writing to that outline – not a problem!) and I can also reach large writing targets in an emergent manner (sit down every morning and read/write about topic X – not a problem, actually my preferred mode of output!) but setting and reaching large writing targets in a predetermined manner is harder – how do I set those targets in the start so that they’re loose enough to allow flexibility, and how do I recalibrate my progress against that target (and recalibrate the target) as I write (inevitably in an emergent manner) so that I do hit things at the end without panic?
Is writing hard/tiring/something I dislike?
On the contrary, I love writing – it energizes me and is one of the main things that gets me into a flow state. It’s only tiring or difficult when I’m writing something I don’t want to write, or in a manner or style I don’t want to write it in, or when I “have to” write to hit a target I think is humanly impossible for me to achieve (like in the panic moment during quals when I went “wait, I have a week to write 50 pages? GAH!”)
That’s probably part of the problem. I’m used to writing being this wonderful, enjoyable craft that I’ve chosen to spend a lot of time and effort honing because I love it – and now it’s actually my job. It’s like being an excellent street basketball player (who’s used to hard work to develop that talent, spending hours practicing jump-shots to improve) who suddenly gets drafted into a college team and finds that now there are these practices, and drills, and competitions, and diets, and all these things – and doesn’t want to have their love for the game and the feel of the court swept away, and longs for those pickup games in the alley again, and that flow.
Is writing something I have too little, too much, or poorly managed time for?
I’m an ADHD kid, so whenever “poorly managed time” is an option, I should probably be choosing it, yeah? :) I think I have enough time, but don’t like the pressured feeling I get when I schedule in specific writing blocks (“nooo, ruining my flow state!”), so I sometimes avoid doing that and thus end up with “too little time.” Working with Boice’s book has been helping me recognize and start to alleviate that, though.
On writing confidence:
I feel like I’m a good writer in general. I don’t think I’ve figured out how to become a good academic writer yet, and am at the point where I think I’ve gotten as far as I can on my own and need some help, because in the absence of mastering writing in this particular domain, then yes, I do sometimes get hit with Impostor Syndrome. I know I’ve got good ideas and the capability to express them well in academia, I just don’t know exactly how to tap that capability consistently yet. I also don’t know what it means to write “like a Mel” (which hopefully means, among other things, “well” – but also “colloquially/informally” and other things usually not associated with academic writing) and “in a scholarly manner” at the same time. I strongly associate “scholarly writing” with “bad writing,” but know this is false and that I need to figure out what “good scholarly writing” means and looks like, and then what the Mel version of that is.
On writing anxiety:
I rarely feel nervous while writing. When I do, it is usually because (1) I am writing something right up against a deadline, and am stressing out about being able to submit it before the clock runs out – I was surprised to learn that the “last minute work rushes for focus!” may actually be an ADHD coping strategy, but every single book I’ve read describes it perfectly – or (2) because it’s an email to a person I don’t know and might have interesting political consequences depending on their reaction. Writing things related to academic politics, or writing things in a way that takes them into account, would be another weak point of mine; I simply don’t understand them, so I just try really hard to avoid them, but sometimes you can’t.
Do I ever get stuck with starting?
Yes, but I have ways to get around those (though I sometimes fail to use them consistently). During my quals, when I got stuck and felt like I had a hard time starting, I would eventually get to the keyboard and start writing that I was having a hard time starting because of XYZ – and gradually that would turn into a dialogue of “well, I could try this…” and then eventually I’d be writing my actual paper again. (Incoherently, though – because of my outlining failure as described above. Oh well. Can’t do everything perfectly. But I have ways to get my momentum back, in any case.)
Do I ever get stuck with finishing?
Hyperfocus can be a problem, yeah. It’s why that 50 page quals document starts out with 16 pages of lit review that I didn’t actually need (and which therefore contributes to the incoherence of the paper by starting it out with extraneousness). I started writing it and kept on writing and writing and writing it without pulling out and realizing “wait, I don’t need this! Write the sections you need to write, Mel!” When I did pull out and write those sections that I needed, I had less time and energy to write them well.
The struggle to finish writing also interacts with my last-minute-deadline-running tendencies; “maybe I’ll have a better idea for how to improve this paper later, so I won’t turn it in now” is a common rationalization (because, alas, it’s frequently true – I have a hard time assessing diminishing returns with any accuracy, which is another skill I’d like to improve). This compounds when I’m trying to incorporate feedback, and even more when it’s from multiple people, and even more when it’s conflicting feedback.
My most common writing problem:
Struggling to finish – particularly when I have multiple writing projects to juggle and lose sight of how to prioritize/load-balance them. I’ve been trying to train myself to finish things whenever possible, and used to close-the-loop and get things out of mental RAM by simply doing things start-to-finish the moment they were assigned. This works brilliantly for undergraduate assignments, which are smaller, shorter-term, and often don’t depend on anyone except for you, so it was theoretically possible to have close to nothing on my Things I Am Responsible For queue. However, in graduate school and beyond, that close-the-loop completion so often depends on other things – you’re not “done” because it’s under review, you’re not “done” because you can’t submit this for another 3 weeks until the CFP opens, and so forth – and my Things I Am Responsible For queue has a lot of things to monitor, and I don’t monitor them well. (I don’t have a system to monitor them well, and need to build one.) Consequently, I forget to finish, end up racing to hit deadlines when I remember, and too often get sucked into hyperfocus when I’m racing.
Bonus Mel section: Sally didn’t ask for this, but I’ve gone up and pulled out specific goals/weakness-areas I wanted to address from the text I wrote above, then tried to rank them in priority order (highest first, lowest last) and then indicate difficulty (my best guesses for both – it’s open to discussion, since I’m not actually sure which ones will have the largest impact on an academic career, nor which ones may be easier/harder to work on than I’m guessing now!)
|Managing the queue of Things I Am Responsible For – including decisions on what can go in there in the first place / saying no, ongoing triage, and keeping track of external and long-term dependencies. Need to build system.
||Medium – lots of work, mostly upfront with tweaks after
|Figuring out what “good scholarly writing” means and looks like, and then what the Mel version of that is – I’m likely to be a quirky and nonstandard academic, so what does Future Dr. Mel look like?
||Hard, probably long-term
|Spotting the Pareto Point (80/20) beyond which additional effort will be met with diminishing returns, and stopping there – and not feeling guilty about it. Strongly related to counteracting the tendency to hyperfocus on writing things I don’t actually need to write.
||Medium, relies on knowing “good scholarly writing” target
|Designing a systematic rhythm/routine/process/plan for writing that still lets me enjoy writing and the pleasure and flow I get from it. A lot of the pieces I need to build that process are there, just not hooked together fluently – but one missing part is the skill of outlining/road-mapping in a way that can be integrated into a larger process.
||Medium, but will probably take a lot of iterating to tweak. A pretty large-scale project.
|Figuring out venues, especially nontraditional ones, for my work – how to find them, assess them, pursue them. (This is not from the text above, but along the theme of “Future Dr. Mel will probably always be a bit odd in her department.”)
||Not hard, but might take a couple iterations to develop strategy.
|Figuring out academic politics – what I need to know about them (especially as non-standard Future Dr. Mel in terms of tenure and promotion and whatnot) so that I can stay out of their way.
||I have no idea. This is a blind spot. I don’t think it should be too hard though.
|Systematically incorporating conflicting feedback from multiple people on an ongoing piece of work, especially when I do not know when that feedback might be coming in.
||Easy. Come up with a plan and do it.
I’ve long wondered what career coaches actually do. I generally consider myself to be pretty clueless as to “how the world works” — it happens easily when you can’t overhear side conversations! — so I tend to seek out alternative sources of information whenever possible. So I’ll be working with Sally Schmall, an academic career coach, to see what I can learn. When I first wrote her, I explained that I’m at the point where “Future Dr. Mel” development would benefit from scaffolding, since I’m a bit of an odd duck in academia both in terms of wanting to do unorthodox things, and in terms of wrangling deafness and ADHD while doing them. From my original email:
The ADHD/deafness coping strategies I find are often addressed towards those struggling to perform at adequate levels, and have little guidance for people who are already doing okay but could do fantastically if they developed better strategies — whereas the academic career advice books are written for folks with normal hearing and attention spans.
We start next month, right after fall semester classes end for me. She asked some background questions about my writing habits and how I wrangle my ADHD nowadays; I’ll post my answers to the writing self-assessment in a moment, but first: ADHD coping mechanisms and how they interact with my writing.
- Exercise! I hit the gym MWF first thing in the morning, and the dance studio TR first thing in the morning, and know I’m good for an hour or two of work-sprinting afterwards. I used to do pushups before take-home exams and run laps in between exam sections, and still do variants on “are you distracted? exercise!” now when I notice it during writing.
- Getting as close to gluten-free as possible — I’m more distractable with wheat, less distractable the closer I eat to paleo, so I have semi-accidentally gone paleo (well before I learned that it was a diet called “paleo”). I now treat gluten the same way I treat alcohol — a nice treat, but one I know will do temporary things to my mental abilities.
- Sleeping. If I ask myself whether I’m tired, the answer is yes and I need to go to bed. (I have a huge problem with hyperfocusing when I am tired, because I lose the ability to tell whether I’m tired or not.) Oftentimes I am in the middle of writing when I realize I need to go to bed (and the writing may not yet be done, so clearly I need to find better ways to plan/schedule writing so it’s not always interrupted by rest).
- Ritalin, which I only got starting this August, and which I’m really reluctant to take, but which does dramatically decrease focus problems, including during writing — so, for instance, I was consistently taking it during the last week of writing my quals — but haven’t taken it for the past 2 weeks because I’d rather “tough it out.” (I know, I know. I’m trying to empirically determine how much a difference it makes, how long it lasts, etc. so I can make better decisions as to when to use it.) A related coping strategy which I use with similar infrequency is caffeine — coffee and/or tea. Yay, stimulants.
- Adventure working! If I’m restless, I can run to and work in the libraries, coffee shops, restaurants/diners nearby… if I’m really restless, I might drive several hours to my cousin’s apartment, or to Indianapolis, or… (and on any trip, the only things I bring with me are what I need to work on what I have to do.) These days, most of my adventure work is writing.
- Lots of scaffolding, reminders, and routines. Pack my backpack and pile it to block the door the night before I need to leave, lay out the items for the first project I want to work on in the morning, put neon post-it notes on doors, always put my keys in the same spot, always do things as soon as I think about them whenever possible. Unfortunately, I have not figured out ways to get this sort of thing into my writing life.
If you’ve got other things you’d add to this list, I’m curious to hear them. I know plenty of distractable academics who have been super-successful, and would love to swap strategies with a sort of distractademics club.
I love this definition of sketching (from Fish, J., & Scrivener, S. (1990). Amplifying the Mind’s Eye: Sketching and Visual Cognition. Leonardo, 3(1), 117–126.)
[Sketching is] the production of untidy images to assist in the development of visual ideas.
Fish & Scrivener complain that computer systems are too tidy and force people to describe half-formed ideas with too much precision, limiting their ability to discover and explore creative solutions in their sketching activity. Real sketches, they explain, are fragmentary and incomplete, forcing the mind of the viewer or artist to fill in the blanks — but because the blanks are being filled in mentally, they’re more flexible up there in “brain space” than they would be on paper.
I have this in mind when I check out the next paper in my reading queue (Goldschmidt, G. (1991). The Dialetics of Sketching. Creativity Research Journal, 4(2), 123–143.), which looks at architectural “study sketches,” the roughest (often incomprehensibly rough), earliest, and most preliminary drawings that architects make when they begin a project.
As I read this paper, I find myself paying more and more attention to the sketches than the text. They are ridiculously incomprehensible; random lines on a page, floppy circles scribbly-shaded in… and those are the ones I can describe. I’m reminded (once again) of cognitive apprenticeship’s tagline, “making thinking visible.” These sketches are literally making thinking visible — that is, pictorial. However, the blobby squiggles — while visible — are certainly not making thinking comprehensible; it’s only when we look at the commentary by the architects that some vague, verbally-expressible sense can be made.
So I scratch my head. Why is it that “understandable” means “able to explain in words” more often than not? Why do we require that level of precision? Might words in this case be doing a version of what Fish & Scrivener criticize about computer programs — overconstraining the ideas by forcing details to be specified that don’t need to be specified quite yet? If architects want to make floppy circles scribbly-shaded in, that’s cool, they don’t need to explain them to me. We do let architects get away with that, but not other people sometimes… how can we value and validate different ways of thinking and expressing?
Anyway, that was my ponder for the week’s readings. I also found an idea in Fish & Scrivener that made me scratch my head again when they started getting into more of the nuts and bolts of cognitive science. Brains have a certain amount of processing capacity for different modalities — think of your brain as having an “auditory” microprocessor, a “visual” one, a “verbal” one, a “tactile” one, and so forth. If you try to do two unrelated visual tasks simultaneously, it’s harder than doing a visual and an auditory task simultaneously (sometimes, viewing your brain as a robot and doing load-balancing can be helpful!)
But apparently doing two related tasks on the same “processor” helps both — makes sense, since they can sort of work with each other. It turns out that percepts (mental images of things perceived by the senses) are visual — so visual things and imagined visual things use the same “processor,” and sketching helps you imagine things in your mind’s eye.
…because we would never have figured that out on our own, of course. I thought the conclusion was obvious, but it’s nice to see some thinking about how the mental machinery behind it might be arranged. (It’s sort of like research that concludes that “water is wet,” but tells you how it’s wet. On the one hand, duh. On the other hand, cool.)
This week’s readings opened with a quote (at the start of chapter 3 of Lawson, B., & Dorst, K. (2009). Design expertise. Oxford, UK; Burlington, MA: Architectural Press) about the Dreyfus Model of Skill Acquisition, which has long been a favorite framework of mine.
If one asks an expert for the rules he or she is using, one will, in effect, force the expert to regress to the level of a beginner and state the rules learned in school. Thus, instead of using rules he or she no longer remembers, as the knowledge engineers suppose, the expert is forced to remember rules he or she no longer uses… No amount of rules and facts can capture the knowledge an expert has when he or she has stored experience of the actual outcomes of tens of thousands of situations. (Dreyfus & Dreyfus, 2005)
The development of expertise can sometimes be at odds with the development of reflection-in-action, sort of like strength and flexibility. Lest you become musclebound or noodle-limbed, you need to develop the two in loose tandem — not exactly in lockstep, because they’ll leapfrog each other, but just making sure you don’t end up saddled with too much unconscious process or too little actual skill.
Famous flautist James Galway advises learning the flute by first blowing across just the head joint — worry about the fingering and such later. This reminds me of the practice of scaffolding in cognitive apprenticeship — little by little, you give novices more and more complicated tasks to do, starting them off with simple things and getting them more involved in the full process as they gain skill (but letting them see the full complex process the entire time, whispers the “transparency! transparency!” voice in my brain).
Later in my readings, I started running into issues. If expertise is about fluency with context (according to Dreyfus & Dreyfus), and design requires fluency in context (according to pretty much all decent designers; you don’t just randomly make something for nowhere and nobody, you create designs for situated spaces that you’d better understand)… does all good design require expertise? Is it possible for novice designers to come up with “good designs” (what does “good” mean?) and if so, are any “good” novice designs an inadvertent accident? Hm. How do I answer my own question?
One attempt: design isn’t just a straight-up cognitive apprenticeship; it’s a ridiculously multi-disciplinary cognitive apprenticeship (or a combination of many cognitive apprenticeships in many disciplines) and people will enter at different levels for every domain and develop at different rates in each of them, so a designer might be novice in one domain and intermediate in another and expert in a third, and their design might be correspondingly “good” along some facets and not others.
As for what “good” design is (or what “design” is), we can look at the work of Shanna Daly for some clues. She looks at ways various fields describe design — how does a choreographer describe design compared to an architect or a chemical engineer, for example? She found that some domains view design as (for instance) evidence-based decision making while others view it as directed creative exploration — in other words, they literally see design differently.
This implies that different domains might disagree on the quality of the same design (because of their different criteria) and also on which designers demonstrate “expertise” in design. This is something that’s peculiar to design and other madly multi-disciplinary fields There are certainly many facets to single-domain things like flute-playing; people enter at different levels for certain skills like tone production, sightreading, etc. and progress at different rates for each of them as well. However, there will be more general agreement among flautists — whether they’re classical musicians or beatbox as they play the flute — regarding who is a “good” flute player than there will be among designers of many different varieites on who is a “good” designer.
A final thought and a throwback to Dreyfus: we hear a lot about how innovations in a field can come from newbies who don’t know what’s impossible yet — people not constrained by the conventional view of what’s “good.” Dreyfus & Dreyfus, on the other hand, describe this stage as being “visionary,” and they put it even higher than “expert” — and I agree. Novices can sometimes have visionary thoughts, but it’s hard to be a true visionary and create change without mastering a domain first — the impact is hit-or-miss otherwise because you don’t know the context you’re transforming. I think this is why I feel so uncomfortable with radically transparent research right now; maybe it’ll change the research world someday, but I need to learn the research world before I can change it, otherwise I’m just spouting hubris. It’s a tough balance to strike, knowing a context but not being mentally bound by it, knowing the world as it is and being able to imagine things beyond it.
For anyone who wants to be an agent of change, that’s the challenge; that’s the balance. Get out there and master, but don’t get musclebound by your mastery. Good luck.