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.)
June 4, 2014
After two days at the IIE Annual Conference in Montréal, I was heading to Atlanta early Tuesday morning for the FAA PEGASAS Center of Excellence Annual Meeting. The FAA meeting is for briefing our program managers about our recent progress and technical results; the IIE meeting is about much more. It’s about catching up with old colleagues, prior students, and interesting ideas. I found myself presenting some of Liang’s work in a technical session chaired by one of my academic grandchildren (one of Sandra Garrett’s advisees at Clemson), and becoming an impromptu moderator at Siobhan’s presentation. But, in a dinner discussion with Siobhan and Jake, and two students from Clemson, we also discussed what seems to be another big element of the IIE Meeting: the polo shirts.
I have spoken and written before about GROUPER as brand, as an iconic representation and embodiment of the lab and our topics and style of applied human factors engineering and human-systems integration research / development. We have GROUPER pins, but sometimes I wonder if we need a GROUPER logo shirt. It’s always a good idea to talk to people when you get creative ideas, because I heard some interesting views over dinner. Let’s be clear: IIE Meetings are in part about branding, and presenting and highlighting particular brand is important for many of the attendees. Far from being immune, Purdue IE is one of the prime examples of blatant name recognition and placement. Since 2011, we have sponsored the badge holders for the conference, which means it looks like everyone at IIE is from Purdue. (The badge holders are actually quite nice for those of us who really are from Purdue, as they work well for carrying passports and travel documents. The name-themed, school-color holders are perhaps not quite so enjoyable for those from Ohio State or North Carolina State—whose logo has been emblazoned on hotel key cards longer than we’ve done the badge holders.) We are the home of “Rethink IE,” which is a call to consider the evolution of the profession. But there seems to be something else, and something that is not always seen as good, in pushing one’s brand too far.
Because I had to go directly to the FAA briefing after I get off the plane, I decided to wear my Purdue Industrial Engineering polo shirt this morning. I also wore it at the Saturday night reception. Yes, I wore black and gold colors, and my GROUPER and Rethink IE pins (both pinned to the badge holder, on the other days of the conference. But a number of students at the IIE meeting do something I have never seen anywhere else in my conference experience. Several times I have found myself walking down the hall to a technical session, only to see a cluster of identically-clad students. For the purposes of this discussion, I’m not going to fixate on particular rivalries or comparisons. It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about the scarlet shirts with the O and buckeye leaves (Ohio State), or the white shirts with the Puerto Rican flag (University of Puerto Rico-Mayaguez), or white shirts with a red stylized boar (Arkansas). They are proud and pleased to represent their “team” in a coherent and unitary manner. (And, as I have previously written, I get it when you talk about who’s your team.)
Several of the comments over dinner expressed wonder and potential worry over this form of team representation. Would it be seen as a positive sign of camaraderie to have all of the lab appear in identical shirts, or would it be considered a demonstration of excessive conformity? Both Siobhan and Liang are working in the area of healthcare (which we describe as PERCH), but even though they both have the same advisor, they’re not using the same approaches or even addressing the same types of methods. This summer, we’re also making progress on DOLPHIN and CORAL elements of information visualization and sonification (Jake’s presentation at the IIE meeting). What I didn’t expect to hear is that this is something of a recruiting advantage for a subset of people, especially those who have a set of diverse interests and unique perspectives on the changing world of humans, engineering systems, and coordinated / distributed information and expertise in teams. While the lab has grown to a size and capability that active recruiting is not a priority for us, several of our current students started out as interesting conference conversations. GROUPER is not just a recognized brand in our community, but one to which our current students and alumni/ae are very loyal. Ours is not just a university level brand highlighting Purdue, but a unique brand at the level of the individual laboratory. What increases the value of the brand is exciting and transformative research, with excellent and compelling presentations, and not just fancy polo shirts worn in unison. We do have the logos on the slides, and we do wear our GROUPER pins with pride. (However, if you really want a polo shirt anyway, do let me know.)