Push and Pull
Well, it’s been a while. We haven’t written, and maybe someone out there has noticed this. But, since we don’t have lots of followers, this lag has not cost us followers. Alternatively, I could say that we are not responsible for excessive irrelevant material that clogs your email inbox and causes you to want to delete your subscription. I did reference, in an earlier post, the problems of people complaining about posts on a discussion list that they consider irrelevant by asking to be removed from the list—by replying to the entire list. This is a problem of “push” vs. “pull” information and communications technologies. You might want to have your favorite information delivered right to you, but it seems unreasonable to have, as was once prophesied, a “Me Channel” with nothing but information that you want, but all of the information you want.
So, in the lab last Thursday, we did a bit of push and pull ourselves. We went around the room, and everyone gave a brief update about the project that they are currently working on for their next degree—undergraduate honors, master’s thesis, doctoral dissertation. They’re not all on the same topic, of course. In fact, the best way of describing GROUPER research is a matrix of application domains (healthcare, spaceflight, STEM education) and theoretical concerns (communication bandwidth limits, requirements for knowledge sharing, and system delays and lags). But there are enough areas of overlap, and enough interests among the lab members, that each person could share feedback on others’ project ideas. Interestingly, one of the students then asked what I thought distinguished GROUPER from other research labs across IE or the College of Engineering.
Collaboration is already an evident element of the lab, just from the setting that generated the question. Students aren’t competing against each other for access to the equipment, or the field site, or even for the money. (That’s right. This semester, I’m funding none of the students—they have assistantships from other sources.) But I think there is something even more important operating: contact hours. So far this month, I estimate that I’ve spent approximately seven hours in individual meetings with students, four hours in group-level meetings, and another 10-12 hours in reading and reviewing emails and sending responses. (The email creates a modern update to what used to be described as “management by wandering around”—discussions occur that fuel internet searches that result in paper downloads that get attached to email replies.) Whether this is push or pull may depend a bit on where you sit. However, it should be clear that the process of generating a research topic is not strictly sequential. I don’t like telling people exactly what to do. It goes against my general philosophy. (I can most certainly tell them what I want accomplished, and I do.) So, the student who expects their dissertation to be crafted solely by me, for them to execute without having to think about it, is going to be in for some problems. By contrast, I don’t like waiting in an information vacuum, and I am very uncomfortable leaving a situation to stagnate if I can actively do something about it. (I’m an engineer. “What do I do about it?” is a frequently expressed sentiment.)
I also realized something recently. After more than 20 years as a faculty member, and closing in on 40 MS and PhD students, there is a lot of experience that any new GROUPER should have the opportunity to call upon for assistance. That experience may come from others in the lab—hence the value of the GROUPER project discussions. But some of it is in my head, just waiting for the right connection to emerge. It can’t be purely pull from the student: they don’t always know what question to ask, because they haven’t been through this before. If they can only meet with me once they have figured it out, that’s a large waste of time and a failure to engage available expertise. But undiluted push doesn’t work either: they do need to put some effort into making sense of the problem and helping me understand their own perspective. As my son once said, “Part of learning is trying to figure out the answers yourself.”
I’m not sure I want the “Me Channel”. I learn a fair amount from making new connections based on things I haven’t thought about before, from perspectives that aren’t mine. GROUPER theses and dissertations wouldn’t be as interesting or far-reaching if they only came from a single disciplinary or experiential origin. New knowledge isn’t purely about learning what I’ve already decided is important—because if I don’t know, what criteria am I supposed to use to figure out what I need to know? Obviously, though, I can’t spend all of my time just picking up random factoids: lectures still need to have a point (and they need to get written) and conference presentations and journal papers still need to answer the question about addressing the research question in an effective and focused way. Oh, yeah. It’s that exploitation and exploration thing again—I talked about that before, too. Push and pull. What is the dynamic stability range of information access patterns? Don’t wait for someone else to generate the answer for you, though.