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Category: learning

Returning to Practice

I’ve been interviewing Millennials for work.

 

In one sense, that is no surprise at all.  Many of the students applying for graduate programs stay in the same age range.  I have, by contrast, gotten older.  Incoming students who were approximately my age (or older) are now the age of my children (or younger).  This is the nature of the cycle of life (cue the music from “The Lion King,” which is now considered “Classic Disney”).  So, why was this experience different?

 

First, and most important, was that I was not interviewing people for work in the Lab.  These were postdoctoral fellows applicants for Department of State positions.  The vast majority of them are still just a few years from their PhD dissertation, experiencing a very different world and context than I did when I was interviewing for my first faculty position.  Well, that suggests another difference: I interviewed for a faculty position, and never seriously considered a postdoc.  I have spent months engaged with discussions of the role of scientists and engineers engaged in Science Diplomacy, and the interplay of innovation and policy—quite frankly, the education I had come to Washington to have in this very interesting and challenging period.  These folks aren’t being recruited to work on my favorite projects, or to have exactly the sort of background I would like a GROUPER to have… but there was still a request from my unit chief for what sorts of people to identify in the stack of resumes and personal statements.

 

Signs of life.

 

I was starting to wonder about what that would look like in this context, and in fact, I was starting to question if my time away from the university had left me cynical or unable to see beyond my own narrow daily priorities.  Maybe it was a broader sense of unease with the sudden transition from a snowstorm in late March to 90 degree days in late April.  Where and how and when was I operating?  (I had come to feel a certain sense of stress and negative anticipation regarding my transition back to Purdue, starting in late March when I was requested to provide new course syllabi for my Fall classes.  There are new opportunities for next academic year, but after eight months here in Washington, I am neither ready to start right back in on the academic world, nor think in terms of another full annual cycle of activity here.)

 

And yet, my unit chief wanted me to not only be involved in the interviews, but to craft a few questions for them.  It was, as I have said before, a bit different to operate in support of others, instead of being my own “Principal,” but that is part of my learning these days.  I’ve also been learning a lot about the differences in cultures of science, and hearing about the distinct experiences of what I have come to call, “Millennial Scholars” (those who may be part of the generation born in 1985 or later, but also have completed their advanced STEM degree programs since 2010).  I’ve even produced a few of those people myself, but I already knew enough not to look for people just like Ashley or Karim or Marissa or Jeff (or those who are in the lab now).  The discussions in the AAAS meetings in Boston and Washington still had an immediacy and curiosity to me: I was meeting so many people interested in a concept, science policy, that I had long thought was an oxymoron.  Why were they interested in this?  What new was going on?

 

What are the challenges and opportunities, strengths and weaknesses, of these Millennial Scholars?

 

This is, in my experience with the lab, a “signs of life” question.  Signs of life it had become a part of my thinking at a time where spring is definitely upon us in Washington.  I’m walking much more around the city again, and over the past few weeks, I have been able to enjoy the cherry blossoms and new plants and warm weather.  In other words, “signs of life returning” was part of my daily experience.

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Figure 1. Signs of life: Tulips at the bus stop

 

The answers were also informative, as well as reminders of an earlier age.  There were those who seemed to have trouble thinking about themselves, and their colleagues, in such a comparative context.  However, this compared to several who actually commented about the relative lack of a sense of historical comparison as a weakness of Millennials.  What was another weakness?  There were several comments about the ease with which new information and new activities and experiences were available, leading to a sense of being dabblers in a variety of skills (“jacks / jills of all trades, masters of none”).  In fact, that ease of collecting and novelty even extended to the strengths and weaknesses of networking.  Although the world of embassies and interagency discussions and think tank receptions clearly indicates a value to the work of engaging with others… there is a difference between engaging in an effective, distributed knowledge network, and collecting friends and likes as a way of keeping score.

 

I found myself curiously replaying one conversation in my mind, about the concept that Millennials were more interested in finding ways to align their actions and employment with their passions.  Now remember, I lived in Cambridge, MA and California during the 1980s startup crazes, where people were all about passion.  I heard the Flower Children talking about living a life of meaning and service.  And, most importantly, I have learned how much my career as a professor is actually well aligned with my passion for exploration and sharing what I found.

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Figure 2. Albert sharing a sense of passion.  Maybe science diplomacy was never so far from my thinking after all.  (At the National Academies Keck Center, 500 E St NW)

 

Was this really different?  And then I heard an interesting alternative take on this thought.  “Well, if I can’t rely on a pension or Social Security to be around, there is no reason for me to trade boredom for security.”  From that discussion, I was transported back to the first few times I taught the course Sociotechnical Systems at Wisconsin. I had known about two different models of work and income as “covenants”:  income and status as a way of demonstrating success and favor, or work as a demonstration of one’s passion and artisan’s skills.  It took discussion and debate in class for me to learn that there was a large population with a third approach: work was something one does to get enough income to spend the rest of one’s time doing what one really preferred to do.  Apparently, lots of people live that way, whether they’re working second shift at the auto parts store, or vice president of global distribution for the auto parts company.  I have not chosen to live that way, and I can’t really imagine doing something I hate just to have the income to do what I love, later.  Is that what others were assuming we were all doing?  Or were others doing this a lot more than I was ever aware?

 

I felt like I had come full circle in the discussion, and my awareness of my own experience as a young scholar.  I am convinced that there are confusions in each generation, not sensing the range or intensity of experience from when prior generations were young and emerging, like new plants bursting into the sunlight and struggling against snow and wind and dangerous frost.  I can appreciate it much more now, because I have been in both places, and I have come to feel them both.  I am not yet done with the intensity of feeling and learning.  And yes, I am still pleased to take a moment on a Spring day and feel the sensual joy of lamb’s ear as I walk from meeting to office or home.  Because, even after a great enlightenment, a return to practice and repeat of small things still has value.

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Figure 3. Lamb’s ear on 19th St NW.  A good reminder of small lessons.

 

 

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/.