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?
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.
March 23, 2020
Guidance, Navigation, and Communication
This is the most normal contact I’ve had today. Thanks for this bit of structure.
While this was not how or where I expected this blog entry to start, after a long absence. However, these comments are especially notable for me, since they came not from one, but two different people in two different online meetings in two distinct research project contexts. They were notable not because I was doing something uniquely innovative or novel, but exactly because I was doing something relatively mundane: regular weekly meetings with my students, and regularly scheduled project updates with my research team. Yes, there were a few technical hiccups, as there often are, but for the most part, they functioned as we always expect them to function.
And that, in a nutshell, was what was most appreciated today. I think it is no exaggeration to say that very few people alive today remember a similar period of rapid shift from normal to unprecedented, with such a sense of vertigo as we collectively stare into a social, economic, and cultural abyss. But that is not where I want to focus my emphasis in this entry; there are plenty of places to talk about that. I want to talk more about what we in the lab have been learning this year, which has become unexpectedly one of the most valuable possible lessons for me (and maybe others, but I will let them be the judges of that).
Fall 2019 was really busy. I was teaching my two courses (Perspectives on Systems Engineering, or PoSE, as well as Work Analysis and Design) with a bit over 200 students in total. Two students were finishing their dissertations (Megan on Cybersecurity Incident Response Teams, and Jordan on Spaceflight Mission Support Operations Teams), and three more grad students (and an undergrad) were joining—two from a different department with different cultures and traditions of graduate progress. I was also faculty advisor to the professional society student chapter. Add that to my normal level of travel (Japan in August, London in September, Washington DC and Seattle on consecutive weeks in October), and our regular habit of individual meetings (written as “1:1” in my calendar) just sort of fell by the wayside. We were making progress overall, and I was still having (most of) our weekly GROUPER meetings, so no problem, right?
Well, not quite. New students need orientation and support to start a new program—even if they are simply completing their BS degree and starting an MS/PhD in the same program. The culture of a lab changes significantly when the “veterans” leave and the “newbies” come in. If all the veterans are leaving at once (and living in other cities or even time zones as they finish), who is most responsible for managing the communication and socialization of the important aspects of the organizational culture? The advisor, of course—even if the lab is fortunate enough (as we have been) to have a set of new student “onboarding” documents. Thus, it was easy enough for me to think, “well, this is just a little schedule shift,” when postponing 1:1 meetings, it’s HUGE for someone just starting on a new path in a confusing feudal environment.
So, among the last gasp efforts of the overwhelming Fall semester, we made sure that we put a priority on making sure everyone had a regular 1:1 meeting, and that such meetings were a priority when possible. (Sometimes, from February Frenzy through March Madness and April Anarchy, we might not have 1:1 meetings for everyone at their regularly scheduled time, but we know to discuss that with the travel schedule weeks in advance.) I was even able to welcome a new international visiting student, and within her first week on campus, we had 1:1 meetings for her as well. Everyone remember to breathe…
Within the first three weeks of the new semester starting in January 2020, the difference was obvious to the students, and to me as well. Yes, it helped that I wasn’t teaching in the classroom (“A Professor is ALWAYS teaching!”), but each week, significant progress was being made in the crafting and focus on research projects, social and psychological development, and understanding of what I’m looking for and how to get there. As a result, when I asked for a “Captain Kirk to Scotty” response from the lab, not only could I get one, but the response seamlessly added into the discussions of each individual’s projects as well.
Figure 1. Scotty: “I need at least three days, Captain.” Kirk: “You’ve got an hour.” image from https://movieplus.news/25-false-things-about-star-trek-that-everyone-believed/
Since the lab has been experiencing “distributed operations” for at least four years (remember the students in other time zones part?), we have frequently had at least one member of the lab (including me, when I was working in Washington, DC for a year) “dial in” remotely via Webex, Google Hangouts, Skype, Zoom, …. It’s not weird, it’s just that not everyone makes it to the same room every week. So, if there is an illness, or travel, or simply a schedule conflict, “Can we do the 1:1 remotely next Monday? Sure.” In essence, regular contact, regular discussion, regular updates had all become… regular.
Back in February, one of our research project teams was having its quasi-monthly meeting. It’s hard getting people from four universities and a federal agency together for project updates, but we were able to find a mutual window in the schedule: March 23. We don’t know much else about the news and research environment ahead (our project had been already upended by a Sunday morning news story), but we do know that. As the possible impacts of “shelter in place” and “social distancing” were discussed in early March, GROUPER made a fairly simple decision on March 11, two days before Purdue’s Spring Break: “We’ll just assume all meetings starting March 23, for the first two weeks after Spring Break, will be electronic rather than physical.” At least it seemed simple at the time.
GROUPER studies how people get, share, and use information. We focus on elements of information sharing, knowledge exchange, and task coordination. We’ve talked about differences between physical interactions and online communication, and how we manage and moderate our expectations of those online information flows, for over 25 years. (See here, and here.) But today, there was an additional value to doing things we do regularly, in a way that we could recognize as familiar and repeated. And yes, there was a value to me as well. Guidance and navigation aren’t just for spacecraft, but for explorers of all types; communication is not a luxury, but a human need.