Clarity and Credulity

I need reading glasses. When this need first emerged – maybe in my late 40s – it was only for extremely small scale close up activity such as marking fine gradations when doing finish carpentry or working with very tiny screws or reading extremely fine print on some labels. But now it’s pretty much for anything printed and so I always have them with me, generally perched atop my head ready to be slid down to the bridge of my nose in an instant. And each time I do that, there’s a thrill of the world (or at least that small part of the world right in front of my face) coming into focus and clarity. In the blink of an eye, consciousness and world re-engage. The visual apparatus with which I do so much of my ascertaining of what is and is not the case goes from blunted and blurry to sharp and in-focus and I go from a state of “I don’t know what to believe” to one of “seeing is believing.”

I frequently transition from a reading task to moving about the room or house or just looking up or out the window. Many times a day I’ll get up, reading glasses still in place and start across the floor of my studio toward the stairs down to the second floor and only after a few moments remember that I have my reading glasses on and that that’s why everything is blurry. I flip them up onto the top of my head and my more-or-less 20-20 distance vision kicks in and all is clear. Again, the thrill of going from thick fog to blue sky clarity, from “whoah, what?” to “it is what it is,” that is, I now am in possession of information about the world that a moment ago I lacked. We might call this lower case “aha” as a sort of mundane version of big discoveries that merit “AHA!”

Both transitions resolve quickly into a state of taken-for-granted “me-here perceiving the world-over-there as it is,” but repeated experience of the transitions themselves leaves a mark.

One can think of these transitions as having a rate – the amount of change divided by the duration of the transition. What I experience as the thing that changes is my capacity to know the ((appearance of the) part of the) world  (that’s in front of me). It’s not merely or only vision1 – it’s me using vision to, as phrased above, ascertain what is the case here – but clarity in the visual field is a prerequisite element and the one that is subject to change. There are elements here of an “aha” experience – We might think of this as what in mathematics we call a derivative:

where we define delta clarity as new clarity minus old clarity so that aha is positive when clarity increases which is more in line with our intuition and everyday usage. Like my bringing the glasses down for reading or pushing them up to walk across the room, most examples that come to mind probably have a positive value for aha – that is, we move from less clarity to more clarity so the numerator is negative.

Daily life is full of very small values of aha wherein we gradually come to understand how something works or a story unfolds slowly as we read or hear it. And occasionally there are really high values of aha, those that elicit an “AHA!” because of the size of delta clarity as when a mystery is finally, and suddenly, solved.

But what about when aha is negative, that is, when we move from situations of more clarity to less clarity?  When I am looking at a text through my reading glasses and I suddenly take them away the text multiplies and slides over itself, the individual letters vibrating and morphing. My eyes reach out to grasp them, but they move before I can reach them.

When we suspect or discover that a friend is a liar or we conclude that a media outlet is peddling fake news or we become persuaded that what we’d taken to be a credible source was actually propaganda or a therapist helps us see we were being gaslit or radicalization brings us to critical consciousness (Lukács 1967; Mannheim 1959) or we realize that the story in the novel we are reading is told by an unreliable narrator (Booth 1983) we experience various sized negative values of aha.

Two other loci of the experience of negative aha will be examined in the next section: the failure of our relational partners to notify us of things we think they should and the diminution of cognitive/sensory tools in old age. Both these highlight another aspect of this phenomenon: the meta-experience of negative aha – the realization that our relationships (Ryan 2006) or our faculties may not be what we thought they were and that things we’ve depended on for information about the world may no longer be dependable.

1 One could experiment with other things – perhaps what comes into focus is an optical illusion or a coded text so that there is another step and another faculty engaged in coming to clarity, but those are questions for another day.

Booth, Wayne C. 1983. The Rhetoric of Fiction. Revised ed. edition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Lukács, Georg. 1967. History & Class Consciousness. Merlin Press. https://www.marxists.org/archive/lukacs/works/history/.

Mannheim, Karl. 1959. Ideology and Utopia;: An Introduction to the Sociology of Knowledge. Harcourt, Brace.

Ryan, Dan. 2006. “Getting the Word Out: Notes on the Social Organization of Notification*.” Sociological Theory 24 (3): 228–54. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-9558.2006.00289.x.

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.

Epilog

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?

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.

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”

Small Group Meetings on Zoom

An alternative, with different functionality, to “breakout rooms.”

Zoom, a video-conferencing tool that lots of folks have started to use for teaching recently, has a “breakout room” feature. It has to be enabled in one’s settings (via My Account > Settings on the web sign-in page) and then a meeting host can split a session up into multiple separate conversations.

Here’s another approach that is integrated with the Canvas (Quercus at UofT) platform.

I want to split my class of 64 into groups so that each student can present her work in progress and get feedback from peers. I want every student to have the opportunity to present over the course of a 3 hour class session.

Basics: I’m going to divide the class time into several “rounds” or “sessions” during which several student groups will meet in parallel. During each round a student is either a presenter or a feeder-back. Every student has one role or the other over the course of the class.

First I decide on the timing and group size. The constraint is the number of students. One scenario is 8 sessions with 8 groups in each session and 8 students in each group. If I divide my 180 minutes up evenly (with a little wiggle time for transitions and a break) this gives me 20 minute sessions. Other options:

  • Four 45 minute sessions with 16 groups of 4 students
  • Sixteen 10 minute sessions with 4 groups of 16 students

Once you’ve decided on the number of sessions, take the class roster and assign everyone a session to present in. For example, if I have 8 sessions I assign first 8 students to session 1, next 8 to session 2, and so forth.

Next: in Canvas go to People > +Group Set and call it, say, ROUND1. Then tell Canvas to randomly assign students to N groups where N is the number of groups per session that I will need.

Click the arrow to expand all the groups so you can see who is where. Go to your presentation assignment list to see who presents in round 1. Say the first one is Amal. Scan the students in the group until you find the group Amal is in. Make Amal the group leader and change the name of the group to Amal.

If the next student for round 1 is Bashar, scan the groups until you find the one Bashar is in, make Bashar the group leader and rename the group Bashar.

If the student you are looking for is in an already named group, just swap them with any student in an unassigned group and make this the student’s group as above.

Once you have all the presenters assigned in this round you should see a group set with each group having the name of a presenter.

Now repeat this whole process creating a group set for ROUND2 and so forth.

Once the groups are set up, go to DISCUSSIONS in Canvas and create a discussion topic for each round. The description can be the same for all of them. But when you get to the settings, choose “Make this a group discussion” and then select the group set that you created for that round. Thus the discussion topic “Round 1 Presentations” uses the group set “Round 1.”

When a student clicks on the first discussion topic she will see a notice that says “this is a group discussion and here are the groups you have access to” and then the name of the presenter she will be with that session.

You share the roster with the round assignments so that students know what round they present in along with a schedule saying what time each round happens.

Students create Zoom meetings for their designated time slot and they post the meeting invitation as an announcement in the group workspace that Canvas creates each time you make a group. This announcement then goes out to everyone in the group – all the students who should come to that meeting.

After the meeting, students post feedback for the presenter as posts in the discussion. Canvas keeps track for you of who contributed so you have a record of group participation in the critique session.

The advantages of this method (which no doubt seems logistically challenging but it’s not once you try it and then it’s set up for reuse) are that it systematically gives every student a slice of “the floor” – attention on her work – and that it ties a digital workspace to the conversation. The group space can contain drafts, handouts, pages the presenter creates, ongoing dialog and feedback after the “face-to-fade” synchronous session, etc., mitigating, a bit, the effervescent quality of remote-interaction.

To Grade or Not to Grade

My musings when a friend asked about my thoughts on whether we ought to switch to credit/no-credit for this semester.

At the law school here we are having an advisory faculty vote on this – as I understand it, some law students petitioned for change to credit/nocredit. They tend to be a very anxious bunch. At the Faculty of Information, my home faculty, a few discussions about doing this in particular classes but otherwise current plan is business as usual.

When I think about it, much lands on the side of switching to pass/fail. There’s the fairness of changing horses midstream when students had been marshalling their resources and work habits in light of what they know as their strengths and weakness and such. Maybe I’m banking on acing the final after mediocre midterm, but now I might be thrown for a loop. Or maybe I was struggling to participate, but now I find participation by chat suddenly frees my voice. In short, there is so much unintended, and out of people’s control, movement in factors that can affect the thing we think we are measuring with grades, and so much measurement error introduced by the untested methods we are about to use that the error bars on the grades we come up with will be so large that A might overlap with C and so on.

Counter to this, especially in the case of first year law students is that no small number of external things are keyed to first year grades. It could be argued that credit/no-credit would be a real disservice to the students who were destined to get higher marks. ON THE OTHER HAND, if this crisis forced employers and scholarship providers to look beyond the GPA, that might represent a sizable social good.

And then there is the mindset we are all in which is “adapt and be pro-social.” It’d be nice not to be contradicting that with incentives to maximize one’s own grades in the midst of turmoil.

Selfishly, perhaps, I find myself thinking how much of a nightmare headache it is going to be as I try to be fair at semester’s end. I will be adjudicating a whole bunch of personal situation information that’s below the threshold of official requests for accommodation. There’s always a bit of this, but I expect a lot this round. Is that really what the school wants me to be spending my energy and time on next month?

The employer issue raised above relates to the question of the external utility of grades: are any employers or graduate schools going to apply strict scrutiny for grades earned this semester? Or are they going to know full well that extraordinary circumstances render those grades perhaps a less reliable signal than they are usually taken to be? In a sense, both students and professors would be investing a whole bunch of time to come up with fine grained measurements that nobody is ever going to pay attention to. (WE certainly shouldn’t when it comes to cumulative GPAs if we are honest – course to course variations are wide in the best of times).

Maybe I can get a handle on this with some analogies: sometimes in a restaurant when they mess up your order or have to substitute things they just comp you the meal or part of it.

In the tour-de-france if there’s an accident in the last 3km of the race they just give everyone involved the finishing time of those in the group who make it to the finish line. The point is to avoid dangerous behaviour at the finish AND to not give people time bonuses simply because they avoided getting wiped out by the falling cyclist on the last turn.

Then there is a part of me that thinks we should always be “pass/fail” with a bar that’s a lot higher than D. I’m inherently skeptical that there are meaningful small differences that we can well characterize with things like B+ vs A-. My current grading practice is something like 85-87 (the lower boundary on an A – this is Canada) means competently completed as assigned and then the numbers over that signal impressive extras and numbers below deficiencies and things missing, but I don’t manage much more fine grainedness than that. Since I’ve been grading assignments like that all semester, I’ve done all the “this is great, do more of it!” and “this is short of expectations” formative assessing along the way. A summative “done well enough, let’s wrap this up and move forward” would probably be a smart and responsible move for my professional students in the current circumstances.

Got a Plan? What does the college do when no one shows up in September?

I have not seen anything addressing the following issue, so here I go.

This is college/university acceptance season. The plan over the next month or two at most American colleges and universities was to build the class of 2024. Obviously, a spanner has been dropped into the works. What are the implications?

Most of us are up to our eyeballs trying to adapt to things on the time-scale of hours or days at the moment. When you see things tagged with longer time horizons there are way too many that go no further than “the next two weeks” or “the rest of the month.” The more sober ones are things like “classes online until April this” or, better, “for the rest of the semester and commencement exercises are to be rescheduled.”

But there might be a bigger wave out there beyond the one we can see: the current extraordinary situation might well become the new ordinary for a prolonged period, one that could easily stretch into the fall. If it does, colleges and universities might find themselves with no entering class of 2024. And we might expect higher than normal attrition if what we have to offer in the fall is all online. And maybe some pushback on tuition levels if that’s the product on offer. The astute student will recognize that it’s not just classes that she pays for – the very opportunity to be learning with other people is a big piece of our value proposition.

A very small college with, say, 1000 students and effective tuition revenue per student of about $15,000 would immediately be looking at a missing $3.5 million in tuition revenue from lack of a new class. Add fees and the expected shortfall is easily north of $5m before we even look at attrition among returning students. For an institution with even a moderate endowment that sort of hit means making payroll and bond payments will be difficult. For a school of 2 or 3 thousand students with a more favorable total cost per student the hit could be an even higher percentage of total revenue.*

What’s the Plan?

Maybe schools will be able to lay off all of the Non-academic staff associated with on-campus learning, but caution: that’s an operation that could be hard to rebuild from scratch in the post-Corona era. And there might not be much in the way of net-savings because they will simultaneously be staffing up to support the online alternative.

So maybe they could just layoff faculty, hire more adjuncts. Many of these institutions have already played the adjunct card so there’s not a lot of wiggle room there. And those that take this approach will figure out pretty fast that full time faculty were their product development team not just their pedagogical assembly line workers.

For a decade or two the mindset of administrators has been that online education might be either or both the cost-cutting move and cash-cow activity that they needed. I think they are about to discover that it is neither of these. The venal administrative mindset that has seen instructional faculty as a cost center may have come home to roost.

Why? Because the thing that a fully online college or university will need a lot less of is traditional administrators. Over the past several days faculty around the world have turned on a dime, struggled, and innovated. The results are almost certainly uneven, and it was not accomplished without the able assistance of centers for teaching technology and the like. But, it turns out, the work that instructional faculty do is transformable and the personnel involved are flexible. I hypothesize that the same cannot be said for the layers and layers of administration that have accumulated in most institutions.

The responsible college or university president has to go against her instincts. Those instincts are to sit with other administrators and figure out how to do the job with fewer faculty. The presidents who keep their institutions from ratifying the infamous 2013 prediction by Horn and Christensen that 25% of American colleges will fail in the next decade are the ones who will, instead, sit down with their faculty and figure out how to do the job with fewer administrators.

A Simple Google Drive Hack for Interactive Group Work

My class in human centred design has workshop presentations to do over the next few weeks and so we have to invent so remote analogs to things we would with workshop participants sitting around a table. Here’s one.

Create a Google Doc that is shared for editing with your participants (or whoever has the link).

Create a Google Drawing for each participant. To make it easy to keep track, name the drawing for the participant and put a text box in the drawing with their name.

Publish each drawing. Then, in the Google doc, insert each drawing from your drive on the page, resizing as needed. Adjacent to each drawing insert text such as “Edit drawing” or “Amir’s Drawing.”

Go back to each drawing and click on the Share button. Get the sharing URL for allowing editing. In the Google doc, use this URL to make an “Edit Drawing” link.

The document looks like this (it’s live – go ahead and click the link and edit the drawing):

Participants click on their link and they can modify the drawing. In the Google doc, an “Update” button will pop up when changes are saved in a drawing. Thus, the Google doc displays work of team.

I can go one step further and publish the google doc and get it embed code which I then put on a Canvas page