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Category: curriculum and learning

Weekend Balance #2: Cassandra’s Postcards

Curiously, the concert that I left work to attend last night was something I discovered almost exactly one week earlier (even to the same clock time).  The group I went to see was Black Violin, two classically trained violinists who are a) black, from Ft. Lauderdale; b) insistent on thinking outside of the box; and c) have a strong alternative vision of how the world can be different than it is, beyond existing stereotypes or interpretations.   (Yes, the highlighted words and links are in fact the names of their albums.  Go listen.)  Last Friday, I was on the train to spend the New Year’s holiday in my hometown of Philadelphia with friends.  I had put on the music just for some simple enjoyment, and found myself transformed and emotionally intense and resonant.  (Yes, it’s also when I found out about their concern in Washington, DC last night.)

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Black Violin, with the National Symphony Orchestra, Feb 6, 2017

One of my favorite descriptions of my approach to the world was provided by a GROUPER a couple of years ago, during a 1:1 meeting at a conference.  (I can still see the design of the French patisserie / café in my memory.)  The description was that I live part of my existence in the future, but the nice part is that I “send postcards”.  This is a delightful image, but it hides a painful and problematic truth: not everyone can receive “postcards from the future,” or even know that they exist.  I used to think this was a simple problem of better explanation, but I have had to come to the recognition that there is more at play.  An alternative metaphor comes from my son, who once made a surprised and surprising revelation once when watching me dance to a piece of music to which I resonated very strongly.  He admitted that he had thought that I simply didn’t have a very good sense of rhythm.  Then, as he got older and started thinking more seriously about music composition and production as a career, he listened to more music, more often, at a deeper level.  His statement at a friend’s house was with a type of confused awe: “You’re trying to dance to all of the notes, not just the normal beat.”

 

One of my favorite and most inspirational books of my life is called Cyteen, for a number of reasons (including some too complex to go into here).  I am particularly taken by one of the descriptions of a major protagonist’s sense of their life’s work… that, if they are devoted and dedicated to their passion and their gifts and their uniqueness, because of and not simply despite their unique or alternative make-up, they may have the opportunity to someday speak their “Word,” their major contribution to history’s arc.  While Speaking Words to History sounds pretty cool (at least for my sense of doing what I was built to do), it comes at a major, even profound cost.  I am drawn most to the myth of Cassandra, who was cursed for defying the god Apollo (isn’t that usually how things like that turn out?) by being able to see and foretell the future, but being unable to alter it, and being doomed to have others not believe her when she told them.  (I have to hand it to Apollo, though: that’s a pretty exquisite form of sadistic torture.  But really, just because she turned you down for a date?  I mean, you’re a god and all…)

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Poor Cassandra.  (From Wikipedia page, public domain image: Cassandra (metaphor)

It’s really hard to explain to GROUPERs the process of finding and sending postcards from the future, and more importantly, I don’t think it’s a proper thing for me to insist that they do so. For nearly all of the students I’ve met, it’s not the right lesson to be teaching, and there are certainly a wide range of valid and important jobs that one can take on without invoking divine curses.  Having someone who can simply receive the postcard, and translate part of it, is worth a lot.   For example, our current experiences of politics, local and national security, and even the nature of honest communication is based on elements of situational context, information cues, and media characteristics of different information and communication technology channels.  We’re asking about tolerance and acceptance of new communications media in various organizations. That sounds like a really great research project, especially when combining new forms of social messaging as various types of an advanced, or evolved, model of email (written electronic communication), or other group interactions (with or without audio and video capabilities).  It might still be considered a bit ahead of the curve, or timely, because we’re in the midst of it now.  But consider a study of organizational acceptance of alternative media channels conducted in 1992, fully 25 years ago.  That’s before there were any iPhones, or web browsers, or T1 lines (or many of my students).  No graphical email or tweets with emojis.  Do the questions even make sense?  For most people, not really.  (At least that’s the memory of reviewer comments for the Taha and Caldwell, 1992 submission to the Human Factors Society conference.)

Back to the train last Friday.  Imagine me trying to dance to all of the notes as the train pulls into (and then out of) Philadelphia as I continue my journey.  The lights of Philadelphia’s Boathouse row are still holiday festive.  I am crying my resonance to the music playing in my ears.  I finally feel like a type of homecoming has occurred, one that I had sought in vain for nearly 40 years.  In the midst of this, an insight.  Normally, I wouldn’t tell anyone, or I’d write it up piecewise in journal papers.  Not this time.  I’m going to show you the postcard here.

 

View #1:  The Spectrogram

A few years ago, Jeremi London (not the actor) and I worked on a model of STEM education based on the concept that what we in fact try to teach engineers in order to be functional, productive engineers is not a single thing, but a large matrix of skills, habits, attributes, and techniques.  Different courses supposedly load on different matrix elements, and different students have different strengths and weaknesses in those elements.  I visualize this as a type of dynamic matrix of peaks and valleys, as you might get in a audio spectrogram.   What we might think of as intelligence or skill or functionality is actually an aggregation of those peaks and valleys across that range of matrix elements: a person’s functionality is, generally, how well their peaks map onto the things they need to do on a daily basis.  Zero functioning is actually hard to imagine, and if most of the population was in fact functioning at zero, we might not even see it as a relevant matrix attribute element to consider.  (If someone had a peak there, would we even think about it as a peak?  Consider the question of tetrachromats.)  For the sake of analysis and comparison, it’s important to both retain the spectrogram as a matrix, and also consider a simplified representation of it.  You could call it IQ or something.  Let’s just describe it as the determinant of the functionality matrix.

 

View #2: The Bowl

Some of you know that I have a deep, longstanding, and personal interest in questions of neurodiversity: creating models of acceptance, encouragement, and tolerance for people with different sets of skills and forms of excellence.  (This isn’t just a “feel good” about diversity and tolerance as a moral issue.  This is about benefitting from excellence where it is found, including functionality peaks due to alternative wiring that represent “signs of life” not common in the general population.  Well, if you’re training PhD students, that’s not a bad thing to look for: higher, and more distinct, functionality peaks than exist in the general population.  After all, not that many folks get PhDs.)

So, the more your spectrogram pattern of peaks and valleys differs from the standard version (not just higher peaks, but peaks in different places), the less “standard” you are.  (Standard, in this case, represents not just the population norm of the matrix determinants, but the modal matrix pattern.)  In an extreme case, someone with a whole lot of peaks in places where standard people are close to zero, and very low functioning where standard people have peaks, would find it exceptionally hard or impossible to communicate with standard folks at all.  (The concept of “communication” here might work as a multi-dimensional convolution integral, or a multiplication of functions against each other.  You don’t worry about that just now, unless you really want to.)  The more non-standard a person is, the further their pattern is from the standard pattern, and the more overall capability and functionality it might take to compensate for the mismatch, and be seen as equivalently functional as the modal, standard person.  If we considered a function where the matrix determinant was the height, and the difference in pattern was a radius (different types of different patterns would be angles, so we’re in polar coordinates), the “bowl” would be a surface of “equivalent perceived functionality,” with an edge being at a place where someone, no matter how many peaks they had or how profoundly high those peaks are, could not interact with standard folks well enough to be seen as functional.   (So, you can’t see in our standard visual spectrum?  Well, we think you’re blind, even if you have a great visual experience of radio waves.  Too bad if you can hear and sing the vibrations of the planet.  We work in 200 – 4000 Hz, thank you, and if you can’t hear or produce in that range, we won’t hear what each other is saying.  Literally.)

 

View #3: The Disk

Another of the elements we have been playing with in the lab gets the shorthand description of “The Six Dimensions of expertise,” with a corollary of “the disk”.  As we described the matrix above, there are lots of different ways we could organize the elements of the matrix of ways people are good at different things.  They may be socially skilled and charismatic; they may be great with tools and interfaces; they may enjoy structured rules and processes; they may enjoy mathematical analysis and quantitative exploration.  There are other ways to slice skills up into different collections, but there’s been a lot of work recently into “four-quadrant” cognitive styles inventories that are used in organizational assessment.  For the purposes of this discussion, all this tells us is where in the spectrogram the matrix elements of your peaks and valleys are likely to be found.  Useful, if we want to do systematic comparisons of different patterns of functioning (and convolutions of functionality for communication or information alignment).  Which is the “right” four-quadrant model?  That’s not a proper question; it’s kind of like asking what is the “right” set of compass directions.  We agree on one for the purposes of discussion, even though there isn’t even alignment between magnetic and geographic compass directions, and it’s even possible that we could have a situation where magnetic south points towards geographic north.

 

View #4 = Function (#1:#3)

What I’ve described for each of the views above is far from a standard description of how we consider psychological concepts of intelligence, personality, functionality, or cognitive diversity.  Lots of researchers toil very intensely in intelligence assessment or engineering aptitude evaluations, or the genetic contributions to Asperger’s syndrome, or refinements of MMPI or Myers-Briggs inventories (to use examples of standard questions in each of the three views).  Mathematically, however, what I have laid out can be combined (although it’s extremely hard to draw the picture in three dimensions).  Imagine the spectrogram matrix (#1) of a “standard average person” (both in terms of normative / neurotypical wiring rather than autistic spectrum, and in terms of average intelligence), where the matrix is organized according to a four-quadrant disc model where different capabilities are ordered within quadrants with respect to their relative frequency and strength in the population.  Take the determinant of that matrix (note that this result should be independent of how you order the matrix elements).  We’ll now define that “value” of the bottom of the bowl as “standard normative functioning in the modal pattern”.

 

Whose Project is This?

Is this what the lab is currently working on?  My goodness, no.  I would NEVER assign this, in totality, as a project for a student thesis.  It requires significant revisions of three or four major disciplines, as well as some advanced mathematics for the methodologies, and new forms of data collection on thousands or millions of persons on a set of variables we don’t even define well, let alone currently measure or collect.  But, for the first time, I have been willing to describe a panoramic postcard of this type in a public venue.  Why?  For years, I was worried that lots of other people would understand, and jump on the problems, and start working on them, and that my best contributions would be left behind, meaningless and trivial.  Then I started to think that this would be considered foolish and ridiculous, unless and until I took on myself the responsibility of being able to explain it better so that “most people” could get it.  But, Words Spoken to History are not widely understood, even for years or decades, and the measure of the mark on the tree of knowledge is not how many people applaud when the mark is made.  Galileo learned this lesson, as did Leonardo DaVinci, and Marie Curie, and Rachel Carson (and Ariane Emory).  Am I comparing myself to them?  No, not even close.  I’m just trying to Speak my Words.

 

 

 

Thank you, C. J. Cherryh, for the concept of sets, and A-E, for the introduction.

Weekend Balance #1: Learning the Right Things

Approximately 5:30 Friday (yesterday) evening, I told my unit chief that I was headed out for the evening and weekend.  That was not only okay, it was expected; I’d been heading into work 11 hours earlier to work on a very active set of reports from the day’s activity in Japan, which I summarized and sent out to our colleagues.  (Ah, the joy of nearly 24 hour coverage due to time zone differences: the Japanese Embassy in Tokyo starts to wind down about the same time that the first folks in Washington are getting on the Metro to start their work day.)  He surprised me by encouraging me not to think about work for a couple of days as I went to a concert and planned for a quiet time at home.  Well, those who know me will recognize an immediate disconnect: Barrett to not think about work for whole days at a time?

Well, that is a challenge these days, for multiple reasons.  It’s actually something that we discussed in a couple of our (distributed, online) lab meetings last fall, about finding appropriate forms of balance and mechanisms for taking care of one’s internal resources.  Now, it would have rung hollow if I were to take 3-4 hours on Christmas Day to write up a blog entry on work-life balance.  (Don’t worry.  I spent much of the day with a roaring fire, computer games, and lots of cookies.)

When I woke up this (Saturday) morning, I was looking forward to coming out to the kitchen to a waiting blanket of snow, to make some tea and settle in for a quiet day… of typing up notes and responding to Purdue emails and designing new projects.  That is a day off?  Well, it is a day away from reading media reports of Japan – Korea tensions or considering meeting preparations for trilateral engagement.   But on the other hand, the truth is that I have somehow set myself to try to manage two full-time jobs.  How does that really work?

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McPherson Square, with the first snow of the season: a good day for learning.

One of the first recognitions is the difference between what I want and what is, and if there is a gap between the two, what do I want / choose to do about it?  The truth is, I specifically chose the Jefferson Science Fellowship opportunity as a unique experience to expose me to activity and opportunity that I could not get in my past patterns at Purdue, with a few grad students and departmental responsibilities and a few obligations to the state of Indiana.  Those aren’t bad things, but there was a gap that needed to be addressed.  (When I return to Purdue, there will be another gap, because for me to return to exactly the set of activities I left this past August would be a waste of this experience, no matter how familiar, or comfortable, or well-prepared I am for them.)

I am seeing this recognition in another context when I think about the experiences of my students.  To be here, in Washington DC, is more than anything an experience of learning.  And sometimes, learning takes up all of my time: it is one of my primary job tasks.  Learning is also a task that takes focus, and discipline, and patience.  I’m not just talking about the process of collecting a bunch of facts for later regurgitation, which is what most students think of in the context of taking a class for a grade.  I mean a deeper learning, about context and discernment and recognizing what aspect of this pattern is important, and real, and valuable for me to integrate into a larger whole.

Well, that can be a process of life discipline, which then applies to everything.  Learning is about noticing how I balance on one leg during morning exercise, or how well I could run through the cold last night to catch the bus or rail, or… how I improve the management of the lab.

It’s often been suggested that I have a casual approach to managing the lab.  Actually, this is not true.  I could insist on clocked hours, minimum amounts of in-person time in the lab, weekly reports, and any number of other rules.  Some people actually have de-selected the lab because I don’t have lots of those rules.  As I experience this year as an immersion in this bureaucracy, I recognize that it’s not that students don’t learn anything if I impose such rules; however, it’s clear that they can easily learn the wrong things.  Did you reflect on the task, or simply put in the time?  Did you embrace the difficulty as a form of instruction, or simply as a burden?  Do you examine the situation as a system with gaps in design or execution of objective functions, or just complain about how “they” don’t care about (fill in the blank with whatever you feel is important from your local perspective)?  Do you even think about what the various objective functions are?

As a result, I now have a much deeper appreciation of what choices are being made when one of the members of the lab considers taking on a full time job at various stages of her/his graduate professional progression.  These are not trivial decisions, and there are various reasons why someone may need to choose to work at a job during one’s graduate career.  And I’m not casual in my feelings about this.  But I need the student to learn the right lessons, and I have learned (with both students, and children, and other organizational participants) that the right lesson comes from a well-designed combination of the teacher, the student, and the lesson (there is an interesting book on this called The Seven Laws of Teaching, originally published in 1884.  Read widely, question deeply.)

One of the lessons is that getting a PhD is about learning to think about questions, and developing answers, that others have not done so.  If you can’t work your way all the way through your own dissertation topic and method and analysis and interpretation, you really don’t deserve the PhD.  Yes, your advisor can help you, but if you need your advisor to give you all of the steps, then it’s not your PhD.  (Thanks, I already have my own, and I don’t feel the need for another.)  Another lesson is that very few people outside of academia, or those who do not have a PhD already, really understand what that first lesson is about.  There is just a different way of thinking and working going on.  Not bad, not good, just different.  So, if you’re used to approaching the world with one set of priorities and tools, and you move to another place where people don’t approach the world that way, you’re going to have to shift back and forth… and most people don’t shift back and forth among ways of thinking that well.

On the other hand, given how much I think about rules and lessons and managing and studying humans for a living, if there is a rule or insight or lesson I try to share, it’s usually not just for the sake of the rule.  (See above.)  That’s not casual either.   If there is a disagreement between myself and a student on a dissertation topic, or methodological approach, or insight available from a course, there is a possibility that the student is right and is operating based on information not available to me.  (In other words, they are good and working in an alternative domain.)  However, one observation of learning the right vs. wrong lesson is when I see students trying to fulfill the letter of a rule, but miss the spirit; or try to avoid the rule because it’s not ideal or fun or convenient (or “fair”?); or argue with me about how my accumulated experience is not relevant for a particular case.  Again, there may be reasons why any of those is correct.  But, to be honest, that’s not likely, and what concerns me more is, what lesson is the student learning or trying to execute?

So, as I move forward through 2017, there are lots more lessons to learn, and quite a few gaps to examine and determine how I might want to resolve them.  I admit that I am nowhere near content with my resolution of how to perform both Purdue vs J Desk jobs ideally.  (One lesson is, I really want to do this J Desk job really well, because that is the priority and opportunity available to, and surrounding, me now.  I care about the Purdue version / job, but it’s hard for me to do that full time too, and still care for my health and sleep and eat properly.  So it slips in priority right now… but I know that’s only for a year, not for an indefinite shift as a career.  That’s a lesson also for the students.)

Lessons are, in fact, about resolving gaps—not just gaps of factual knowledge, but gaps of how experience can affect interaction with the world.  I continue to explore how to find the right gaps, and resolve them in good and effective ways, to solve the right problems.  That’s a fairly comforting and happy thought for me as an engineer.  And although we didn’t get as much snow as I might have hoped, I can improve my recognition of what gaps were most important for me to close today.

 

 

Back to School

The Labor Day holiday weekend is drawing to a close, and I have finished up my second week of the Fellowship.  Even though the start dates of the semester and my tenure here in DC were the same, I have gotten to notice how much the routines differ between the two environments.  Unlike my academic routine that can adapt and adjust based on the day of the week and the differences between class and no-class, committee and research schedules, things feel distinct here.  There is a bus I catch, most days, between 8:14 and 8:40.  On Wednesdays, there will usually be lunch with the other Fellows.  There are Monday and Thursday morning “huddle” meetings.

 

However, that is not what I notice the most from the past two weeks.  I admit that I have developed a particular appreciation for my manager.  Each day, there is a specific new thing I have to learn.  How do I send a particular type of email?  What is the formatting for this kind of documentation?  Who do I contact for this activity?  Of course, he’s seen this all before, but it’s my first time.  And it’s not like I have had 3-4 weeks of easing into the situation.  I’ve already worked on international memoranda, and meetings between embassy staff and local representatives, and sat in on planning discussions with the offices of some folks whose name might appear on someone’s bumper sticker.  (But notably, the importance of the office is communicated by an acronym, or even a single letter; the people whose names are used are names I don’t recognize, and even those names go with acronyms.)  The most appropriate phrase for this experience is one that I learned during my first few weeks as an undergrad at MIT: “Drinking from the firehose.”

 

In that environment, where I’m supposed to come up to speed quickly, it seems like a luxury to have someone check in with me as many as 3-5 times per day to help me with one task or another.  In truth, some of the help sessions seem a bit remedial, teaching me things I do already know.  But he doesn’t know that.  And more importantly, I don’t always know when something I think I know how to do isn’t exactly how this organization does it.  So, I find myself learning to be more patient when being taught, and listening all the way through the lesson.  I even have a guiding document for goals to achieve over the next month or so—distinct from a to-do list of tasks, and an in-process list of assignments.

 

One of the things that surprises me most about this firehose experience is a new-found empathy and appreciation for the situations that confront new students in the lab.  We’ve been working on SoS and PoSE conceptualizations of ICT use in the SHARK and DOLPHIN and PERCH* streams for years—why are you nodding blankly at me?  Of course.  I’ve been doing it for years.  You just got here.  I just used a bunch of acronyms—shorthand for me, incomprehensible jargon for you.  Even when we get to time for a thesis outline, or a prelim draft, or a set of PhD defense slides, it does take some reminders to recognize that two dozen years of practice and 75 or more iterations don’t get transmitted easily to someone who is experiencing it all new and in an intense, nervous state.

 

I would like to hope that this lesson comes back to Purdue with me next Fall.  For a new student, or new faculty member, each new item can be part of an overwhelming onslaught of novelty and complexity.  Maybe it won’t stay that way for long, but it feels like that now.  In the senior capstone design course I teach, I remind the students to take the time to capture those initial moments of novelty and first attempts at processing and decision making, because it will be really hard to recall those feelings (and assumptions, and senses of confusion) again later.  I can tell them that, but it was a long time since I have felt that at the level I feel it now.  It’s good to be reminded of what the first few, chaotic weeks of new experience feel like.

 

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Photo of Little Kern Golden Trout by Middleton and Liitschwager (1988), hanging in the C Street entrance lobby of the National Academies.

 

 

*Acronym decluttering:

SoS: Systems-of-Systems. or a description of complex systems engineering settings where individual components of an overarching system represent complex systems in their own right (such as individual aircraft, with pilots and co-pilots, in the airspace over Washington, DC while Marine One is traveling across town).

PoSE: Perspectives on Systems Engineering.  This is a course that I developed to teach about four distinct traditions of systems engineering, ranging across systems thinking, cybernetics, component-whole relations, and project management.  Only in its second iteration as a hybrid distance / on-campus course, it is one of the most subscribed courses in Engineering Professional Education (and I’m not even teaching it this semester).

ICT: Information and Communications Technology.  When I first started as a faculty member, most computers had line-by-line display screens in single colors of amber or green; email and word processors and bulletin board chat groups were the most sophisticated information exchange tools available.  Even with all of the changes in capability, it’s still important to recognize that the point of these technologies were, and are, for humans to communicate.

SHARK, DOLPHIN, PERCH:  These are designations of project areas within the research lab, referring to knowledge sharing architectures, information flow delays, and applications to healthcare delivery improvement, respectively.  Check them out at https://engineering.purdue.edu/GrouperLab/streams/.

Who’s Your Team?

(After a recent entry entitled, They Got Game, you might think that this is turning just into a sports blog.  I promise: neither that entry nor this one is only, or even primarily, about sports.)

 

After a glut of sporting festivity, the college football bowl season and first round of NFL playoffs are now history.  (Because of the winter storm and “polar vortex” that deposited 10 in / 25 cm of snow, followed by temperatures of -22F / -30C, my satellite receiver has been offline since midday Sunday.  Supposedly, there was a fairly entertaining football game on Monday evening.  I hope someone enjoyed it.)  People who know me know that I’m a fairly intense sports fan, and I have followed both college and professional football (and college women’s basketball) for most of my life.  I have also lived in a number of locations and developed attachments to quite a few teams.  (I’m going to assume that at least a few current or alumni GROUPERs were pretty pleased with the outcomes of the Rose and Orange Bowls.)  So, it’s not surprising when I’m asked, Who’s your team?

 

This was an interesting philosophical question put to me by a close friend while we were watching one or another of the various games.  It became a philosophical question when it was pointed out to me that I was getting more upset at the commentary by the announcers than who was actually winning on the field.  It’s understandable to be disappointed when the team you’re rooting for is losing.  However, my friend pointed out that I was annoyed even when I wasn’t cheering specifically for one of the two teams playing on the field.  Suddenly, I realized that this might not just be about sports.  Fortunately, my friend and I prefer very analytical discussions, so we started to analyze it.  When I have a team that I feel an affiliation to (I consider them a version of “us”), I want them to win.  (If I don’t have an affiliation to the other team, I am perfectly thrilled to have “us” win by a large margin, in what might otherwise be seen as a poor matching of teams.)  But more importantly, I want the game to be exciting and entertaining.  I want the officiating to be consistent, appropriate, and responsive to the rules as they are currently in place.  (Like many fans, I comment about the officiating.  However, I also will frequently observe the penalty and announce both the penalty and penalized player, before the referee does so.  Did I mention I’ve been an intense fan for a long time?)  I don’t like it when the official misses calls.  But I will frequently accept that “we” had a bad play instead of always assuming a “bad ref” when a penalty is called against “us”.  Why is this?  If I want the referees to do their job appropriately (without bias or favoritism), I feel obliged to acknowledge and “own” our errors as well.    I respect good announcers who point out important elements of the game play.  However, I found myself profoundly upset when an announcer would shift from one bias to another just based on the most recent event, using general references that they’ve heard as “it’s generally known” or “everybody thinks that”… (Using trite catchphrases, especially with wrong or mixed metaphors, will always draw specific ire from me.)

 

This suggests that there is another level of affiliation going on; this other affiliation applies both to the active participation in research at GROUPER and the spectator role for a football game.  It’s not just about sportsmanship, although that’s part of it.  Let’s call it the search for The Better Rule, Well Applied (BRWA).  As you know, academics have their rankings, the equivalent of the Coaches’ Top 25 poll.  The analogy is pretty strong: the rankings for the top US IE graduate programs are voted on by the department heads of those IE programs.  So, I can be excited or upset that Purdue is #10.  But wait.  Let’s look at MIT, ranked #3.  I have an affiliation with MIT, so I should see them as “us,” right?  They don’t have any degree program called Industrial Engineering.  How about Stanford or Cornell?  Great universities.  But there are more people in human factors in Purdue IE than at the corresponding programs (again, not all IE) in those three universities combined.  They don’t do IE human factors.  This issue challenges how we might use the rankings.  I’m actually less concerned about our actual ranking than the distortion.  Hence, this is an issue of BRWA, not just whether we’re better than the (logically nonexistent) competition at a specific other department.

 

Over the past several years, I’ve had a number of students trying to pick their dissertation topics.  Some of the topics were exotic; others were relatively mundane.  However, I am concerned at how often a topic is considered unworthy because there’s not enough funding in that area.  “Well, you need to compete for, and obtain, competitive grant funding.  You need to show your colleagues at the highly ranked programs how much money you’re bringing in, and place your students at those programs.”  But hold on, my BRWA affiliation screams.  The program at XYZ university doesn’t, and won’t, have an opening in human factors.  My student would rather work in (and is better suited towards) industry or government than a research academic position.  Isn’t graduate training about seeking out creative and innovative solutions that push the frontiers of knowledge and understanding?  Isn’t the PhD supposed to be about supporting the student’s career development, more than mine—in other words, preparing them for what suits them, and appropriately emphasizing their strengths towards their best fitting pathway?

 

Sometimes, it feels like it is playing a different sport.  Some football folks talk about “winning at all costs”; others talk about integrity and sportsmanship.  They’re supposedly playing the same game, but in reality, they’re not.  In sports, and in research, maybe I’m not just playing for “winning”.  It feels like I’m playing for Truth.  In the lab, what sport are we playing?  Which “Game” do we need to bring?  My sport seems to be University (knowledge, understanding, career preparation), and I want to be a starter—or even captain—on the special GROUPER squad on the BRWA team.  Our team colors include Consent and Connection. …

 

This may not even be recognizable to other people.  It could sound like I’m rooting for the Montana team in the NFL playoffs.  (Um, not only is there no professional football team in state of Montana, there is no NFL team in any US state that borders on Montana.  Alberta and Saskatchewan have Canadian Football League (CFL) teams.  The CFL championship was played last November.)  How do you recruit for a team in a sport that others might not even see as the right sport to be playing?  Again, this is an interesting philosophical point.  For instance, why is the team BRWA, instead of GROUPER?  GROUPER can’t answer all questions, about all subjects—we specialize in human factors and systems engineering, and you need more than that to do well in University.  These questions aren’t irrelevant to working at Purdue in IE, even if they seem to be ignoring “reality”.  If we don’t ask the question, or consider the options, we never make our team or our sport better.

 

(By the way, the 2013 CFL Grey Cup Most Valuable Player was Kory Sheets, who was a running back for Purdue.)

Eaten up with Curiosity

The motto of all of the mongoose family is “Run and find out,” and Rikki-Tikki was a true mongoose.

–Rudyard Kipling

We find ourselves in the midst of a new academic semester, with the variety of challenges that face us in terms of schedules, task demands, and burdens both voluntarily and involuntarily shouldered.  In one sense, it is as it always has been; but for each individual, it may be the very first time of an experience that defines and influences the remainder of one’s life.  I have been thinking about this with the current configuration of GROUPER, and the need to help students make progress on existing dissertation topics or create new ones.   This is not always an easy task, and though I have gone through this process over 50 times (with over 30 MS students and 14 PhD students advised, plus the students whom I have assisted in various less formal ways) on this side of the desk, there are always elements worth learning and improving.

Maybe it is simply the number of times that an issue presents itself within the period of a few weeks that it becomes more salient, and the gap between what is and what could be becomes more evident.  Let’s assume that it may be no more than that, although a friend of mine was just mentioning today how there can be periods when one becomes much more open to insight and jumps in one’s self-learning.  But there has been something about the question, “What should I do for my research?” that has struck me in very different ways this fall than in the past.  I am asking myself different questions about my own research and career pathways; I am reminded of writings and insights from when I first arrived at Purdue.  And of course, in the senior project design course, there is always the sense of importance to get the students—so used to textbook problem configurations and well-organized linkages between the information given and the equation to use—to start creating for themselves a system definition and sense of their own active participation in defining the problem to solve as a necessary part of being an engineer.    And as an engineer myself, such gaps between what is and what could be are always met in my head with, “What do we do about it?”

And yet, there was something that I couldn’t quite bridge on my own in the conversations with the members of the lab.  Where does one go to get ideas?  How does one start the organization of facts and methods and tasks that gets one from classroom student to nascent researcher?  Over the past month, I began to see that it was not just as simple as a statement in our “1:1 meetings” (as the nearly weekly individual meetings I have with all of members of the lab are known) to go figure out an interesting question.  Interestingly enough, this recognition for me comes from a couple of sources, as I am again reminded that I don’t seem to approach the world in a way that is like most of those around me.  Apparently, there are graduate seminars taking place in departments around the country (not just engineering departments, but bench sciences, literature, philosophy, sociology…) where students are encouraged and instructed to read through a bunch of journal papers or monographs or book chapters and determine which questions still required further study.  (For the record, I took such seminars myself: it’s how I first learned, in 1985 and 1986, of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky’s work on cognitive strategies or the cultural specificity of the fundamental attribution error.  I loved those papers.  I just didn’t define my dissertation that way.)

Benson Snyder, in the 1960s and 1970s, discussed a critical issue affecting higher education, one that has come to be known as “the hidden curriculum”.   (The “hidden curriculum” of the book’s title and premise is the informal sociological and socialization process of how and when to learn, not just what to learn.) This book seems to have had a very significant effect on me—not just because I have read through it multiple times (I still own a copy of the 1973 edition of the book), but because I can now see that much of the curriculum I experienced at MIT was shaped in part by the studies Snyder reports of students there 20 years prior.  As I am teaching undergraduate statistics again after several years away from teaching it (but never far away from using it), I am also freshly sensitized to the processes of how to learn, and not just what.  And this is how I started to recognize some of what I was finding vaguely concerning in the lab.

As an undergrad, one of the most telling philosophies of innovation and excellence I ever heard was one that was directly told to me as to why I had so much latitude in organizing my activities for my work-study job.  “I’ve found that it’s best to give good people resources, and then get out of their way.”  For me, that was an excellent and empowering approach, since I was never at a loss for ideas or novel approaches or unusual ways of thinking (at least ways deemed unusual by teachers or professors).  In fact, I recently came to think about this as something I found exceptionally compelling in a cartoon I saw as an adolescent: Chuck Jones’ animated version of Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, narrated by Orson Welles.   Rikki is perpetually curious, and fiercely protective, and powerful in ways that are belied by his small size and friendly interactions.  But isn’t everyone curious in this way of mongooses?  Isn’t everyone driven to “run and find out”?  Isn’t that part of the essential “inside” of every researcher?

No, says the hidden curriculum.  Students are socialized to learn which questions are the “right” questions, and these questions are “best” defined in an outside-in way.  The existing corpus defines the way the field is configured, and thus how new questions should be approached.  But wait… 60 years ago, we didn’t have plate tectonics or the cognitive revolution—just working from existing papers published in 1953 wouldn’t have gotten you there, and certainly wouldn’t have gotten you accepted within the “standard” configuration.  The same is true with statistical process analysis or scientific project management 100 years ago, or pharmacy or aerodynamics 150 years ago, or electrical and thermodynamic processes 250 years ago.  And yet, my learning and research now derives from all of those innovations.  Someone has to move beyond the standard, outside-in framework, and be ready to do the new work and meet the new challenges (and face the inevitable questions and criticisms that such an approach will engender).

It’s obvious to me now that it takes a lot more than a brief instruction to a graduate student to think in terms of the problems in the world of task environments, and interacting with people who live in those task environments.  (Although an introvert, I find it natural and obvious to talk to someone about the challenges of their work.  It’s easier for me than making other types of small talk.)  I begin to wonder, though—have I been assuming that, just by osmosis or creating a supportive environment, anyone and everyone will be “eaten up from nose to tail with curiosity,” as Kipling put it?  Might they need more help than that?

If you were expecting an answer to these questions… sadly, you will have to wait with me for that.  I’ve asked the lab to help me understand what I’m doing that’s different, and how the hidden curriculum has affected and shaped them up to this point (although I didn’t ask it of them quite that way).  But at the very least, asking the question is an important part of the process, and an essential element of making progress.  There are cobras threatening the bungalow of higher education… bringing in and raising a mongoose is not a bad idea.