Humans in Cabbagetown

This from early pandemic days.

We don’t even bother trying to order groceries for delivery any more. Several times over the last seven weeks we’ve clicked “order for delivery” and then spent fifteen minutes filling a cart on a poorly designed website and put in all of our address and payment info only to press “place order” and get a message that no deliveries are available. But this morning I saw a posting on our neighborhood listserv where someone answered a query about online grocery deliveries saying, “I’ve had good luck with Loblaws, two hour delivery.” Now that’s the same store I’d been so frustrated by, so I thought I’d take a look. I clicked “order for delivery” and the perky little thing seemed delighted to serve me, so I put together a little order to test the system. Nothing more than what came immediately to mind as being in short supply. Milk, bread, eggs, breakfast cereal, cooking oil. And then I clicked “check out” and entered my payment and delivery info and clicked on “make this purchase” and the next thing you know I get a confirmation text. And a delivery window. Weird. So I go back to work, attend a few zoom meetings, respond to several texts from my “shopper” about substitutes (a bag of frozen mangos is not a substitute for frozen berries) and one that said, “surprise, the raspberries were on sale, Dan”, and edit some videos. But around six I get up to stretch my legs and I walk downstairs, wondering if maybe the groceries had arrived (I harbored doubts they really would, the order was really just a Friday afternoon lark, but I figure I should check). But as I land on the first floor I look through the two windows on our two front doors – you need a sealed off vestibule up here due to how cold it gets in the winter – and I see a very scruffy guy leaning over our front gate. Hair kinda long and wild, baggy clothes not exactly intactly worn, many days of beard. Lots of sad fellows in the neighborhood, guys who’d be homeless in a less supportive society. Harmless, mostly, but often challenging to interact with. I wanted to open the inner door so I could look out the outer door window to see if there was anything on the porch, but this guy was leaning over the gate and it looked like he was talking to somebody on our porch, in sort of angry tones, as he were rebuking someone, though I was pretty sure there was nobody on our little porch. I was afraid that if I opened the inside door I’d embarrass the guy, catching him mid-hallucination, or I’d embarrass myself turning him down when he asked me for booze money. So I stood back out of sight. I didn’t want him to get the sense I was shooing him away or that I was annoyed he was invading my property. I walked through to the living room where I could see him from a more oblique angle through the other window and still he was gesticulating toward the porch. And then, suddenly, he seemed to have had his say and he started waking away. And so I returned to the hall and opened the inner door and made my way to the outer door so I could look down at the porch. And there were our groceries stacked in front of the door. And, for about a second, I realized that those groceries could, in this neighborhood, be stolen from the porch. Not very likely, but possible. And so I should have put “ring the bell” in the delivery instructions, not just “leave on porch.” On the other hand, jeeez, what if that guy was hungry and looking over at the bags of groceries debating the morality or safety of helping himself to some? And at the end of that second, as I opened the door, I saw the startled raccoon trying to get away with at least a small piece of the loaf of bread she’d managed to pull out of one of the bags. And she’s looking at me with this expression that clearly says, “shit, just when I get rid of one, another human trying to fuck with me as I celebrate this eureka moment!” as I shoo her from the porch.

A Few thoughts, cobbled together, about Mills

TL;DR. I’ve watched the place for a long time. Can we imagine someone acquiring the place and turning it into a going concern? I think yes. But first you have to recognize that the current situation did not happen, it was caused. Take the ship’s tiller out of their hands. Second, realize that the status quo is more information about mismanagement than about the environment or the core product.  Third, leadership has to abandon its reliance on factionalism. Fourth, work with the core competency of being able to teach across a blindingly wide spectrum of preparation/condition/privilege. Fifth, you can still choose what kind of history to make. Sixth, take seriously the responsibility to design and deliver the kind of education that will turn out 50 years hence to be the one that the 21st century needed.

Dear Trustees and Other Friends of the College,

I write with the perspective of some time and distance (though I’m back in Oakland these last many months and in close touch with lots of Mills friends). I’ve missed working at Mills and I’m sorry the last few years have been so challenging for those still working there. Looking back, I must say, that while I found it astonishing how easily smart people were bamboozled by a small number of people with a perverse and vague agenda a few years back, it is no surprise at all that their implementation of that agenda landed us where we are today. Even absent COVID, it was the kind of thing you could have set your clock by. And yet we continue down the path.

I resigned tenure 2017, after 20 years at Mills, partly in protest over the firing of my tenured colleagues. It seemed unethical to countenance a decision that could destroy lives and was unlikely to solve the college’s financial problems. It also seemed wrong to hold onto my chair given that I was fortunate to have an alternate employment option that others did not. It was the most difficult decision I have ever made and there’s not a day that I don’t regret it. Working at Mills was the most meaningful work I’ve ever done and I think I was pretty good at it. In retrospect, the whole affair is all the more painful because the Financial Stabilization Plan did, in fact, stabilize nothing.

Watching from afar, I have often, over the last few years, pondered the possibility of assembling a group of like-minded education/innovation/make-a-difference folks to acquire the massively under-performing asset that Mills College is. We see that happen in the commercial sector, why not in education? The challenge, of course, is that most folks who play that game do so for the promise of profit, and that’s just not a very likely scenario in higher education. There IS a massive return on investment when it is done well, but those returns, and their multipliers, are socialized and hard to capture. So, investors aren’t breaking down the doors to get in on the deal, but that does not mean that the place could not be reorganized into something that is a successful, ongoing concern. I think it could be. I think it’s real. I think it is worth doing. And I think we could win.

That window of opportunity has not completely closed, but it cannot be exploited without some serious tapping on the brakes and some hard steering.

Stop Digging

I suspect most of you have little appetite for hindsight at this point, but ignoring how we got here distorts what we take away from the status quo. We have heard it said “we’ve tried everything and that proves that nothing will work.” That’s bad logic. 

As I write this, the Mills website boasts about percentages in student demographics. But compared to a few years back, Mills, according to its own numbers, in 2021 educates fewer undergraduates overall (997 in 13-14, 609 today), fewer students of color (almost 500 in 13-14, maybe 400 today), fewer LGBTQ+ (~400 in 16-17, ~350 today), fewer Latinx (222 in 16-17, 207 today), and fewer resumers (~160 in 12-13, ~100 today) . After jumping on the faux-price-cut bandwagon tuition plus room and board minus average financial aid award has gone down maybe 1,500 in 2011 dollars. Years of hand wringing and tens of thousands of consultant dollars barely moved the needle on the bottom lines for families. Operating budgets have been squeezed, faculty ranks shrunk, but deficits remain. And, as best I can tell, the single most important outcome of good management, revenue, has only contracted.

Let that sink in – four years of massive restructuring and almost every single indicator is basically unchanged or worse. And you ask the leadership “what’s next?”?

While anemic investment in marketing and lack of strategic messaging, maybe even the negative valence of our Oakland location, and COVID have all contributed to the revenue drought, most of the downward spiral, I believe, did not happen, it was done.

This team’s response to an alarming drop in enrollment post 2015 was to reduce full time faculty, increase adjunctification, cut majors, reconfigure the curriculum in a manner that made the school look amateurish, and shift the meaning of critical thinking from tool to critique.  Each of those moves made Mills a less robust, less attractive, less serious, less competitive institution.

Who really expected that those changes could be papered over and be turned into expanded revenue? Anyone? 

And someone, I think, needs to stand up and ask why all those cuts happened at the same that time the college announces its aspiration to enroll more students from Oakland, more students of modest means, more students of color, and more LGBTQ+ students, and to get the designation of “Hispanic serving institution”: why was it OK to offer to these prospective students less of a college than the students who attended Mills before these changes?

Under its current leadership the College has been digging a hole for five or more years. It lost its grip on growing enrollment. It appears to have  lost its grip on growing fund raising. It appears to have lost its grip on maintaining a national reputation. So, stop their digging. Reckon with the realization that the takeaway from the current situation is about who’s been running the place and the decisions they’ve made; it’s not about COVID, it’s not about women’s colleges, and it’s not about the prospects for moving forward.

Eschew Factionalism – from MyMills to OurMills

The College has a long tradition of managing its stakeholder communities via a sort of Tito-in-Yugoslavia-like miracle of balancing opposing forces, side-deals and special arrangements, begging indulgence while the latest crisis was dealt with, and dressing up the goings on with lots of euphemism. But those techniques come back to bite you in the end.  

And now this factionalism is mixed with it’s nightmare cousin: individuals and categories of individuals angling to get the best deal before the curtain comes down.  You’ve seen the demands – back pay, loan forgiveness, refunds. If you are cynical, it’s the rank-and-file wanting a bit of what the top folks have had for a long time: a chance to live OFF instead of FOR Mills. Or it’s just creditors getting in line.  Or, it’s good strategy: it makes pulling up the stakes and striking camp more expensive for those who want an uncomplicated, amicable end. Or perhaps, if one is merely realistic, it’s a path by which the largest number of people might conclude the institution had a good death.

Factionalism has infected the ranks of “SaveMills” too, perhaps, giving the administration and board some comfort in not having to face a fully unified opposition.  

We see this at a personal level: a lot of people have been posting on the internet or writing or speaking to the BOT about how important Mills was to them qua some human category with which they identify.  I’m X; Save Mills because it is important to Xs.

That Mills has done, or does, well by Xs is a good thing. And if Xs think of Mills as a place that’s good or safe for Xs, that’s a good thing. But you can’t build a sustainable institution around “just X,” especially when your institution works tirelessly and effectively to reduce the need in society for a special place for Xs.

This factionalism would give anyone thinking about a turn-around pause and we should just commit to stopping it.  But to do that, you need some leadership. Not leadership that says “sorry, we’re closing up shop but don’t worry we’re going to have an institute that we don’t really know what it is yet (and we’ll ask some of you to do design thinking with us to figure out what we mean).” Nor leadership that says “you just don’t understand how bad things are and by the way we have already tried everything.” But leadership that can say “the path we took is either wrong or we were the wrong ones to lead us on that path and so we step aside and ask that you give a new team a contingent vote of confidence. They’ll seek your wise counsel but they are not designing an institution for the past, they are designing it for the future.  It will not be the Mills you remember, but it will keep doing the things you remember Mills doing. We need folks not to be conditioning their support for Our-Mills on it being their own particular MyMills.  We ask you to lend a shoulder for, say, the next five years, and if you don’t like the direction things are going in then, withdraw loudly.”

Is There (Still) a There There?

During my time the College often hired brand consultants who aske people which words they associated with Mills and which words had positive valence. Interesting enough (more interesting that we generally rejected findings that did not resonate with our priors), but there’s more to a brand than the mental associations of consumers.  If I were talking about the Mills brand to potential “investors,” they would want to know what Mills is good at.  What are its core competencies? There IS an answer to that question and it is important.  And it’s not what’s on the website.

What Mills has excelled at across the decades is providing a transformational educational experience that worked for folks who are conventionally positioned for success in higher education (and life) as well as for folks for whom higher education was, for one reason or another, not going to turn out well.  And for everyone in between. All at the same time, all in the same classrooms. That does not happen everywhere. It mattered. It mattered a lot.

The school’s motto, I find myself thinking, may have gotten it wrong. It was not “many paths and one destination.” It was, strangely, many origins, one path, many destinations. 

The people in our classrooms represented the whole of the bell curve on pretty much any education-relevant dimension you’d care to consider. We’d have students whose current life situation is beyond challenging and students who were in extremely comfortable positions. We’d have students whose lives had been charmed and students who’d been to hell and back. We’d have students who were exquisitely well-prepared for college and students who barely qualified. We’d have fresh faces just out of high school and wrinkled faces with grandchildren. I had students who would make it as long as I didn’t get in their way and I had students who wouldn’t make it without intense mentoring and hand holding. In today’s terms, students with lots of privilege, students with some privilege, and students with minimal privilege.  Intersectionality notwithstanding, where people were on these different dimensions was not rigidly tied to particular demographics.  You’d see cis white students who’d been homeless and queer students of color with trust fund and on and on. At orientation each year we knew we’d learn something from the variety of human conditions and capabilities that sat in front of us. But we would get to know each student and together we’d figure out how each would get their unique Mills education. We aspired to take each student seriously intellectually and to get them to take themselves seriously intellectually.  And no matter where people started, people grew. Class after class, year after year.

Most of the testimony we’ve been hearing this last month is related to this core practice of excellence.

Mills changed the world, not with programs, taglines, partnerships, and expansions of ancillary non-academic services or by incanting “social justice” over and over – not that there’s anything wrong with those – but by staying focused on the self-transformation of students during their time at Mills and then turning them loose in the world.

As far as I can tell, the College has never put big brains and serious time and real resources behind an effort to answer a simple question: how might we do more of this in a manner that’s sustainable and affordable? 

Instead it chased every squirrel that got applause from the choir it was preaching to, listened to consultants rather than thinking, engaged in sleight of hand name changes, disdained the full time faculty, built teams based on affinity rather than competence, told lies with data, implemented bogus pricing schemes, adjunctified the faculty, narrowed the visibility of the brand, and generally turned the college into a less serious place in American higher education.

Despite wear and tear this core still exists because a group of teachers come to work each day and do their job even as things fall apart around them.  That there there is in the DNA; it is not clientele dependent.

We Make the History We Choose to Make

I was in the room with some of you at various points over the last decade when mistakes were made. Some of these were certain sets of voices being heard and certain sets of voices ignored. The most critical were poor personnel decisions and conspiracies to ignore elephants in the room.  I’ve seen “governance by it’s already been decided before you got here” up close. I’ve seen the things that should have been whistle-blown. Lots not to be proud of. But that’s water under the bridge and the question is what now?  

All indications are that the current modus operandi is “steady as she goes”:  minimize transparency, shroud things in euphemism, manage the message, double down on planning processes that gave rise to current failures, defer to people who have demonstrably failed in their appointed tasks, hope that high-minded rhetoric will make up for vague ideas and lack of due diligence.

Maybe let’s stop all that. Maybe let’s stop telling the truth in side-conversations but not challenging absurd claims in open session. Maybe let’s stop letting euphemism pass for analysis. Maybe let’s stop writing off the input of folks who don’t toe the line.

Perhaps it’s time to see through the fog of convention, expedition, prejudice, and posturing, and to do what’s right, to recognize that the fiduciary duty is not to a pool of money or a tract of land or the projects of an incumbent president, but to a next generation of students that the 21st century needs to have gotten a Mills education. No other place is going to do it.

Reprising the Women’s Leadership Institute as a successor to Mills College should embarrass you. An insignificant niche think tank will do little or nothing for those might-have-been future students. The world is awash in non-profits where would be scholars pump out tweets, op-eds, and reports that no one reads. The world doesn’t need more opinions and studies echoing in chapels of the like-minded. We have a demonstrated failure to attract students to study a themed curriculum; why would we now want to divert resources to a bunch of professors to talk about those same themes only this time with no accountability to actually recruit an audience?

The 21st century demands of us who call ourselves educators that we actually build and deliver the education that will turn out to be the one that was right for making this century’s history. Next to that, an institute is but a sad joke, poorly told, an abdication in the face of opportunity. I guarantee there will be no plaques with the names of the founders of a Mills Institute.


One Sunday in the spring of 2017 I spoke at an admitted student event at a hotel in Pasadena. There were two or three such events there that day: ours and I think maybe Whitman and Pacific Lutheran. The Mills event attracted maybe 30 students and their families. The other receptions were, by comparison, mobbed. The relative numbers were a bit depressing, but our reception made up for it in a sort of quiet intensity.  Before the program began, I made my way around the room trying to say a few words to each student and their families. Quite a few of those families included one or two parents who did not speak English well and so sometimes the daughter would translate. Behind each polite exchange was a question: “So, Mills College, you realize we are making a big big bet on it for our daughter here. Is it a good bet?” I’d had that conversation many times over the years with parents, grandparents, uncles, and aunts whose child was considering Mills and I knew what the answer was: “you don’t need to worry, mom/dad, I can guarantee you that we will make a big difference in your daughter’s life.”

And when I’d see those and other parents/uncles/aunts/grandparents/foster relatives at graduation a few years later a familiar scene would play out – new graduate bubbly saying “grandma, this is the professor I told you about and blah blah blah…” – but grandma and I didn’t hear because we were exchanging a look, a look that said “we both know what happened here, we both know who arrived at orientation a few years ago and who is standing here now and we both know what a world of difference these few years made.” I’d say thanks for letting me be a part of that and they’d say thanks for being a part of that and then we’d clink our plastic glasses full of faux champagne.

But I couldn’t volunteer for that reception in Pasadena the next year because the President and her team had already begun to dismantle the place that could deliver on the promise (sadly, right as they were seeking to be designated a Hispanic Serving Institution – that should make you as mad as it made me).  Current students can still have a great experience at Mills because the faculty will deliver that even when they are the last one left standing. But the place has been diminished and most savvy families would spend their hard earned savings and courageous borrowings somewhere else. 

How can it be that not one among us is bold enough to say what is obvious: the current failure mode – at least on the enrollment and revenue front – tells us that the place has been managed into the ground NOT that the core product is outmoded or unsellable.   It IS real. It is worth doing. And we could win. 

None of us have yet conjured up the roadmap, but why not convene the right team and motivation and try?

Why, Why, Why?

In a FB conversation I let loose with the idea that the leadership at a former institution had worked hard to reduce the kinds of things that contributed to its once great reputation. And I said “Educational malpractice in my book.” A few correspondents said, “hmmm, say more.”

TL;DR: the college’s onetime world brand was deliberately undone by decimating the faculty so the college could be steered in a new direction. It didn’t work.

In design we often do an exercise called “5 whys” where we keep asking “and why does/did that happen?” One has to channel one’s inner three year old. But working back to a cause we can grapple with often helps avoid misdiagnosis.

So instead of just accepting enrollment crash as an explanation, ask why that happened.

One of the answers, I believe, is the hollowing of the academic core, abandonment of the traditional liberal arts model without a vision of a new one, and shifting of resources to ancillary support programming which became the centerpiece of the “brand” presented to the world along with a shift to hyper-local focus.

I think these turned out to be bad bets.

A few people choose a college or university on the basis of such things, but not many. And very few will come across the country or world for it. Many families who can afford tuition won’t pay for it and neither will many of those who have to go into debt for college.

This is not rocket science. It wasn’t rocket science 5 years ago.

At the end of the day, the faculty deliver the thing that people choose a college for. Starting several years ago the institution’s leadership team seemed to choose to see the faculty as the problem and obstacle and whittled away at it. Very successfully. A lot of folks were forced into retirements they did not want. Folks with tenure were effectively fired. Others made the rational decision to take advantage of other opportunities when the admin waved bogus data at colleagues and said “your field is no longer of interest to young people.”

And the “new” institution? The supportive environment and engagement with the local community are wonderful and needed in higher ed, but if you don’t have a robust academic program behind it, it’s just icing on a fake cake. And if you radically slim down your faculty and curriculum, you don’t have a robust academic program. And people can tell.

This doesn’t mean students can’t find a way to get an excellent education from what remains. Some will. But lots of potential students will look elsewhere.

Maybe “malpractice” was a bit hyperbolic. I was referring to bending and reshaping an institution in a manner that the folks in your bubble applaud, and that some students sign up for, when in fact you have no plan or capacity to actually make it work. You’ll leave them in the lurch when you get your next job, rewarded, perhaps, for handling a crisis so well (n.b., the entire team of faculty members selected to guide the new institution c2018 has taken jobs elsewhere). Just kind of reminded me of a surgeon who totally botched an operation.

Throw in the effective destruction of some folks’ careers (and the estrangement of others from an institution they’d given their lives to) in order to get your way and it feels even a little more mal-.

Why? Why? Why? indeed.

How Do I Know It’S Not Saline?

Lots of talk about folks who do not trust safety of vaccine and so might opt not to get inoculated. Some talk in connection with that about lack of trust in institutions, etc.

But what is perhaps more interesting is how many of us will get vaccinated and assume without direct evidence that it was real rather than a placebo or saline. If we manage to have no side effects we’ll think we are lucky or robust. But we must have a pretty strong faith in institutions, etc. if we are willing to go to some website we heard about on the radio, give them information, go to a stadium or drugstore and allow strangers in white coats to inject us with who knows what. They don’t show us any certificates of authenticity or the freezers and dry ice or the security tape they cut through to take out our dose. You get an email that says “Go to this Walgreens in some other city at such and such a time” and then you get there and “Calvin will inject you,” they’ll say, and we’ll roll up our sleeve. Who even is this Fizer guy? Do I know where that cute name moderna comes from?

And it’s not just follow the crowd: people compete to be at the front of the line.

Why do we believe any of this? Some because we are desperate TO believe, but almost none of us has seen direct evidence. But NPR said so. And our employer. And people who claim to be scientists say so. And it’s on TV. And our doctor said to get the shot. And the president is talking about it. And they mention CDC and Johns Hopkins and that BandAid company.

So, while there are some noisy doubters and there are some legitimately aggrieved skeptics, for the most part this social institution think is still running. I have no doubts that it is saline.

Content First

Do you ever go into a funk about your work and suddenly become obsessed with rethinking your organization scheme? Were there times in college when things got so overwhelming that the only course of action that made sense was to go to the bookstore and buy a set of color coded binders and folders? Do you ever reach that moment where all your problems would be solved if you could simply start off with a brand new unblemished notebook or journal? Do you periodically go down the rabbit hole of investigating new software platforms for organizing your notes, references, and tasks? Do you ever manage to spend an entire work session fiddling with HTML and CSS to get just the right look for your stuff?

Me too.

I’ve lately taken to thinking of that stuff as form and the actual work I’m doing – reading, writing, coding, drawing – as content. Plenty of other ways to deploy that distinction – and organization can be the stuff of real work – but that’s my working dichotomy here. And then I try to remind myself of a simple rule – always do content first.

The reason is that for me, form is seductive. I revel in thinking through organizational schema, cool ways I could link this and that, awesome techniques for being able to see everything at once or having items in my files remind me automatically to come back to them.

And every time I indulge in those things FIRST I’m strengthening the part of me that hesitates to take a risk and get some ideas down on paper, to let them out of the echo chamber of my head where they always sound vaguely very smart, where the ideas themselves have passion attached, out into the world on the paper or screen where they are what they are. Sometimes they embarrass me because they’re silly. Sometimes they shame me because they are silly and I still have the feeling that they are awesome. But sometimes they accumulate out there and they make way for the next ideas to emerge in here.

And even though my mental appetite doesn’t always agree, it is actually more fun to organize something rather than nothing.

POSTSCRIPT: Of course I didn’t just invent the phrase “content first” – you see a lot of posts about it over the last few years in the website design space. And so I guess this is just another one of those “here’s a principle of professional practice that you can adapt to your personal life” posts.

Pedagogical Omissions

Subtweeting a few days on academic social media. Did we forget to teach that “I found this interesting” is not the same as “it is interesting”? That “I just found about this” does not imply “this is a new thing” or “no one knows that…” or “no one is talking about….” That I managed to find someone who said something is not the same as “people say” or even, really, of “there are people who say.” That people who follow me on Twitter liked something I said is evidence that I am empirically correct. And when did we teach that is critical thinking when you find some ignorant asshole that maybe most of us have never heard of and shout them down to the cheers of your peers? Lastly, and this is a different point, really, when did we start applauding illogical and fallacy-laden arguments and bogus analytics as long as they were supporting a position we believed in?

Defining human centered problem solving

I just got a text asking for language for a big grant proposal, one part of which involves bringing concepts and tools from human centered design to the realm of AI governance and regulation. At first there was the urge to find the right passage in a reputable source (Horst Rittel? Herb Simon? Dick Buchanan?), but none of the ones I reviewed seemed to be hitting the nail on the head. So I figured I’d just write one. Here’re the notes that came out of the exercise.

Human centered design is a discipline for tackling complex problems that keeps the actual humans who have the problem in the frame, builds into the process a recognition that humans and human institutions are doing the problem solving, and that grapples with the fact that solutions have consequences for the rest of present and future humanity.

Human Centered Problem Solving is a complement to deductive and inductive technological problem solving whose virtues include being bound by constraints of disciplinary rules of relevance and protocols that move from fixed definitions of problem spaces and solution spaces in a linear process of convergence on optimal solutions.

Human Centered Problem Solving:

  • deliberately curates encounters between multiple disciplinary expertises;
  • treats assumptions as assumptions, not givens;
  • choreographs an oscillation between convergent and divergent thinking;
  • produces prototypes that can tap the deep wisdom of the world and users instead of testing models in simulated, computed, or theoretical worlds;
  • proceeds iteratively, without prejudice against back-tracking, pivoting, or unreasonableness.

All of these are important manifestations of a discipline of transcending a conventional seeing the forest for the trees: not losing sight of the real forest for all the parochial forests that spring into our field of view. We attempt to not be distracted by the forest of disciplinary imperialism, organizational self-interest, myopic disciplinary aesthetics.

The point about prototyping is critical. Prototypes are like experiments in that they can be used to test an idea. But there’s a fundamental difference too. The classic experiment is run ceteris paribus – all things are held equal except one experimental variable. This mindset effectively backs the world into a corner in order to have it give up its secrets. It’s a very powerful technique when we are completely familiar with the room in which we have managed to trap the world. Human centered problem solving offers an alternative not for that situation but for the other cases when a problem either has not reached that stage or just is not that kind of problem.

The premise is the same: the world does know the answer. We just have to get it talking. Intentional prototyping as a component of the discipline of human centered problem solving exhorts us to recognize the world and potential users as better sources of insight than our mental simulations of that world and those users and to seek feedback by letting them try out things as we are doing them rather than just showing them later what we have done.

Conventional collaborative problem solving is analogous to conventional optimization algorithms: a solution space is defined and a “best” solution is zeroed in on. But machine learning algorithms depend as well on cultivating an urge that is contrary to “zeroing in on.”

One parameter in a machine learning training regime affects how much “jostle” there should be in a function between rounds of training.  Too much and the solution never converges; too little and it gets stuck in bad places. The same dynamic plays out when we talk about an algorithm’s trade-offs between exploitation and exploration.  In biological evolution, too, optimal adaptation requires the right tradeoff between genetic integrity and genetic experimentation. 

Human Centered Problem Solving borrows ideas, methods, and practices from design that help us to build a team and a process that can transcend the hurdles that we put in our own way with the disciplinary expertise we bring to our collaborations.

So much of the blowback against the technologies of computational intelligence represents an uneasiness with a perceived absence of “the human” in technological siloes producing the great “intelligence” achievements of the day.  “They ignore ‘fairness’!” “They elide ‘difference’!” In response the technologists say “OK, we’ll model fairness. We’ll model difference.”  Too often everyone is thinking “but that’s not what we mean by fairness” and “that’s not what we mean by difference.” We think that these things need to go beyond interest groups debating on the Tower of Babel.

The practices and mindsets we borrow from design thinking allow us to build an network of the new interdisciplinarity (new interdisciplinary collaboration) that will be able to generate new insights precisely because it is trained on a new and better synthesis of its component disciplines.

Do More of This

My “Human Centred Design” course finishes off with each student presenting a section of a workshop on human centred design/design thinking/creative problem solving that they have developed over the course of the semester for a client of their choosing. The goal of the course is to evolve their own take on these practices through an intense study of exemplars in the context of the history of design practice.

The workshops are developed over the course of five drafts each of which is presented to a group of classmates for critique during the semester (using a technique we call pitch and catch) usually, of course, in person. Today, because of shelter-in-place and work-at-home we had the first round of final presentations – 32 forty minute sessions in which one student facilitated a section of their workshop for an audience of seven or eight classmates – online. Over the course of three hours we have four rounds of eight sessions running in parallel. The interesting tools they deployed to simulate an interactive workshop online will be the subject of another post; the subject of this one is a tweak to the feedback protocol that I tried out today.

While roaming from one online meeting to another (over the course of 40 minute sessions I typically visit each one twice for a few minutes) I jot down things done well on grids on big tabloid-size sheets of paper – an especially coherent explanation, a highly professional demeanor, a very clever use of technology to facilitate interaction among attendees, a remarkable performance as a workshop attendee.

My old technique was to pass these along to the student in question as a comment in our LMS. My new technique is to assemble the entire list and send it to the entire class. Students always ask for examples of good work and today they saw some together. When they look over the distributed comments they’ll sometimes recognize themselves, they’ll sometimes recognize something a presenter did in a session they participated in. Either way, at semester’s end we can celebrate together all the positive modeling of good professional performance and exit the course with our heads full of “what to more of” and “what to strive for.”

  • “nice report on iteration from dress rehearsal and acknowledgment of colleagues’ contribution”
  • “good stage presence”
  • “excellent: using google form with results to capture input!”
  • “great job getting folks to contribute onto a slide”
  • “very cool use of slide deck as interactive tool – giving me ideas!”
  • “smart: calling on people by name instead of ‘anyone want to say anything?'”
  • “nice use of handouts as background images on slides over which folks could put text – smart idea”
  • “good idea – designate ‘tables’ at which participants are sitting”
  • “nice job with the verbal instructions – good facilitation style”
  • “loved the very calm walk through – comes across as mature, knowing one’s stuff.”
  • “nice use of slide as whiteboard”
  • “what a fine tone and ‘owned’ explanations – workshop comes off as very much an original concept”
  • “very nice example slides showing participants what each exercise produces”
  • “awesome verbal instructions”
  • “great templates for p.o.v. and other” 
  • “what a delightful wrap up at the end”
  • “really got folks thinking and producing good ideas – so highly interactive”
  • “super comfortable remote interactive presence, could feel presenter connecting with participants – make a note of how to be so personable over the video connection”
  • “So thought-full”
  • “What a good job of interactively thinking with participants – really solid thinking on her feet and engaging with the ideas participants contributed”
  • “very nice control of what’s going on – good facilitation and stage management”
  • “_______ is a good participant every time”
  • “really good prep materials and clear, easy to follow posting of them on Quercus”
  • “strong sense of her own workshop, what she wanted to do, really knew she had something she wants to teach folks”
  • “nice job putting folks in breakouts and getting the reports-back after”
  • “nice job calling on people and getting them all to contribute/participate”
  • “wow, what an engaged audience! nice job with the ask ’em a question, elicit an answer”
  • “very cool use of interactive whiteboard tool”
  • “loved the nice, patient explanation and setup of what we’ll do today in the presentation”
  • “great poise during technical difficulties – ‘OK, we’ll just switch to text chat for that’ – without missing a step”
  • “managed to create  a really friendly and comfortable ambience – tricky to do over video chat”
  • “elicited a really great crop of ideation ideas”
  • “really confident and professional way of saying ‘here’s what I’d do in a real workshop but we’ll do this other thing for the sake of time.”
  • “effective setup of chat interviews and role playing”