Beki Grinter

Posts Tagged ‘academic administration’

Confessions of an ex-academic administrator

In academia, academic management, European Union, France, research on March 19, 2010 at 10:24 am

I’ve been an ex-academic administrator for about nine months. This has given me time to reflect on the pros and cons of returning to the faculty ranks.

Where to start?

The end was very abrupt, and somewhat unplanned. Crucially there was no transition plan. It was an end, not a moving up. More about why that matters later.

It was initially very hard, while also feeling like a real relief. The volume of email I received dropped substantially, which was nice. I was no longer on anyone’s critical path. But simultaneously I was not in the “people who know” loop either. Perhaps it shouldn’t be the case that administrators know about some things earlier than the rest, but I think there’s a good reason. Organizations are political and symbolic entities (for a great treatment of what I mean, Morgan’s Images of Organizations), not just rational entities (and here I am referring more to Simon’s version of organizational rationality). Information can be used to position not just individuals, but organizational entities, strategically. Of course some individuals do tend to use information for personal rather than institutional good, but organizations are also human. And I am accepting of some people having a “heads up” in such a way that they can act on behalf of me and the organizations I am in.

I guess I missed knowing, and I also missed feeling the type of usefulness that’s abundant in making progress in academic administration. You still have students of course, but that’s a different type of usefulness. Administration, in the very short time I was there, was a new set of skills to learn, a new type of utility, a new personal/professional growth.

About two weeks after the abrupt departure, I took another interesting step. I left the country to go to France to teach for a semester.

So, I was always bound to feel cut off, it would have been the same if I’d been a faculty member. Any organization, and perhaps especially an academic organization, is a fast changing target. But that was a profound disconnect. Initially that exacerbated the feeling of feeling so very isolated and cut off.

However, now I would recommend it. The separation was ultimately far more beneficial than the initial shock of separation. I used that time to do three essential things. First, come to a peace with my departure. Second, get used to the new place I was in. Not just being in France, although that was fantastic as a distraction and provided another set of journeys in personal development. Third, with the first and second completed I could now begin to see a way forward. And France was very good for that. I read, and I thought, and I made some career decisions that I’m starting to implement.

My final thought, some people leave an administrative position and have somewhere to go. I didn’t, as I said. I suspect that having a place to go helps, and sometimes it’ll be a promotion. But, I am reminded of Bryant’s observation that no-one should have an academic administrative position because they want it. He has a variety of reasons, but I’ll add one, which is that wanting one makes it so much harder to give it up, particularly without an obvious transition plan. And as he does point out, academic administration is absolutely unforgiving, it has no memory, and it can change suddenly.

In the academy where tenure and faculty governance tend to promote very stable organizational structures, academic administration presents an interesting contrast.


An Academic Blog

In academia, academic management on February 3, 2010 at 10:01 am

I’ve just created a new section in my Georgia Tech Vita. The Georgia Tech vita is the official format for an academic resume. It’s long and detailed, but it is a very accurate reflection of the values of the Institute (what Georgia Tech thinks matters for academics). But it has some curious admissions. There’s nowhere to put the media hits that your research gets (and mine, for example, has been on the Colbert report, it was the number 1 threat down, so pretty serious stuff) and there’s nowhere to put blog posts. And yet, both have a place in the modern University, although here I will focus solely on blogs.

So, what then is the role of an academic blog? Why do I think that they matter? I’ve been doing some thinking about what you can accomplish with an academic blog. This is based on my own experiences as well as observing those of my colleagues with blogs. Thank you Mark, Rich, Dick, Andrea, Henrik and Amy.

Like other blogs it’s a way to get the word out. Quickly, especially by academic standards!

One of my most popular posts, about facebook and social networking, was a timely (and thoughtful I hope) response to a meme that had circulated around facebook earlier in the day. You can’t get that article submitted and reviewed in a single day but you can offer an analysis via the blog. I’d like to think that even though the response is not peer reviewed, and would certainly require more if it was peer reviewed, the process of sharing any thoughts on a blog is reviewed in a different way. People don’t have to read the blog after all. And, it’s also your reputation that’s wrapped up in the blog, so what you say is a reflection of your expertise as a researcher.

And I think this matters because as a researcher, especially one employed by the State of Georgia, I feel a responsibility to communicate not just with my academic colleagues but with anyone who happens to read my blog. I’m not always sure whether I do manage to communicate broadly, but I view the blog as part of that opportunity. And I see it in my colleagues posts too, a sense of explaining why some event or discussion has more significance than it might appear to at first blush. It probably is largely colleagues, but I’d be happy if it was broader than that too. I’ve always thought that it’s a responsibility, particularly of a tenured professor, to use their knowledge derived from the research process, to help explain and inform broadly.

Blogging also helps me think, not just about my research, but about my professional experiences. I frequently think things out in my writing. So, the blog is another forum for this type of thinking. I can see my thinking reflected not just in the lots of dead text that I carry through each posting (I delete it right before I publish). It’s also visible in the number of draft postings I have. Each accretes notes as I do more thinking about what the topic of the post is going to be about. Unless I write the post very quickly. Most posts, the majority, are written over several sessions. This one, for example, has been in the works for a few months now. Each time I think about blogs, or see something going on one of my colleagues blogs I add it to the list.

And then there’s the thinking that happens as I write the post up in full text. I have found myself coming to conclusions that were different from what I initially thought. This makes for considerable time spent writing, with less to show for it. But, hey, I’m an academic, this is not an entirely unknown phenomenon. But this process, even when it ends up being contradictory, is a great way of clearing my head and getting my ideas together and clearly. I think it’s helped me with my research. I use my blog in part to write about cross-cutting themes I see in the research that my students do, to synthesize the products of other research and workshops, think out assumptions, and to examine disciplinary business.

A colleague of mine suggested that a blog might be a way to kick start the process of writing a book. I’m still not sure what book my blog is (I’ll take suggestions). But, I view that as emblematic of the thinking work that a blog can provide. And it spills out into other places. I recently gave a talk where I was asked to reflect on futures for the field of Human-Centered Computing. My blog had helped me to think through a number of the ideas that I talked about. Perhaps you should never talk about things you have not published about, but for some types of topic (such as, say, the disciplinary business of Computing, it’s not precisely clear to me what I would have published or where if I was constrained to the more traditional writing mediums).

Some of my colleagues post fairly frequently to their blogs. I find this both inspirational and vaguely terrifying (Where do they find the time? Where they always have, through discipline). But what fairly frequent postings, particularly when they are all focused on the same topical area, do is show the importance and prevalence of a topic. I’ll borrow from Mark’s blog here, to which he posts multiple times a week. Even before his blog I knew that Computing Education mattered. Can you be a professor in Computing and not know this? Anyway, what I get from Mark’s blog is not just updates on critical issues in Computing Education but a sense of how important it is, how Computing Education is connected to other worlds of education, practice, and learning, and so forth. It’s not just the content it’s the frequency of that content that communicates this to me in a profound way.

It’s also a place to have an opinion, to take a position. In the reporting of research results, it is often best to not have an opinion, beyond those supported by the facts. The blog encourages the development of ideas beyond the scope of research. This of course likely can be abused, taken to extremes. But, I think it’s useful in measure. I do have opinions, quite a lot of them. Some in no particular order are that Computing4Good problematises human-centered computing research; that I am a Computer Scientist and that discussions about who/what counts are premature in a discipline that draws on methods/theories that are philosophically contradictory; that the University is an unusual organizational entity and should not be managed with tools imported wholesale from the business world as a result; and that recognising and understanding the human-built nature of computing systems is as important as understanding the patterns of human-used systems. You can find all of these opinions in my posts, perhaps not quite so succinctly stated, and while I would like to tell you that these are all opinions I have arrived at carefully and thoughtfully (and frequently through research), the blog is a place where I find it easier to express them.

Georgia Tech is doing through the strategic planning process (I have opinions about strategy too). And clearly this is way down on the list, but if Georgia Tech claims to value things (like media) then they should make sure that it’s reflected in the GT Vita format. What better way to incent desirable behaviour than providing an appropriate reporting method, the ability to demonstrate achievement in that area. And while they’re reconsidering how the GT Vita reflects the values of the Institute, I call on them to put in a section for blogs. Highly read posts, posts that whiz around the blogosphere, demonstrate a type of reason for existence. And I can’t help thinking that the personal-professional rewards of blogging are well worth the effort.

Revisiting Personal and Professional

In academia, academic management, empirical, research, social media on January 3, 2010 at 3:57 pm

Andrea Forte recently posted a note on Facebook about Facebook’s new privacy settings and how she hoped that they would help her to manage the content she posts there. In particular, (well what I took away) was that she had multiple constituencies of readers, friends, family and professional networks. So, when posting personal content that her family and friends would enjoy and desire, she was also—prior to the new settings—posting it to professional colleagues and wondering whether they wanted to see it in their news feed streams. The new privacy settings allow her to create different groups, reflecting her social networks, and she’s hopeful that this will help her manage the flow of content.

Her note reminded me of something I had written, initially in an email message to my advisor—Jonathan Grudin—about the WWW in the mid 90s (although, from the outset I want to say that what Andrea wrote was not identical, but it recalled memories).

The story begins in the early 90s. Irvine was a good place to be since a number of graduate students were busy not just using the WWW but inventing it. So, not to be completely left behind, I decided that I would create a web page, and it was live by 1994. And it was, in addition to being rather rudimentary in terms of format, a personal webpage in every sense of the word. So, a bit like my blog, it was a mixture of personal and professional items, including what I thought were some fairly strong political statements.

Then I went on the job market, and that’s what I wrote to Jonathan about. I wrote about how I had changed my webpage because suddenly I felt that it needed to be strictly professional because potential employers would view it. I was pretty convinced I did not want them to know my political views, or to potentially have those be in conflict with the people that would hire me. So I removed it and it ceased to be, for a time, a page where I could express my views. (A brief snippet of this discussion was then quoted by Tom Erickson in his Communications of the ACM article).

Andrea’s post, recalled to me a similar situation on facebook. And of course, it has been noted outside of academic communities, particularly with respect to recruiting. In fact you can attend a webinar, if your a recruiter, to figure out how to maximise facebook (and join the facebook group).

She mentioned the job search specifically, and I mean to ask her what has changed since it ended (successfully), but she was largely focused on the longer term use of facebook. She’s already written about the challenges of having multiple networks of friends, family, and colleagues. And so reading her piece and reflecting back I wonder how many technologies present this type of dilemma. I’m also reminded of another phenomena which seems to be related, about how technologies can morph from being very informal in use to quite formal in use. Email, not even originally a part of the Internet design, was a medium that was very informal when I first started using it in the late 1980’s. It was to connect family and friends, mainly those with other email accounts, mainly those in academia (of course it was in use in military networks, maybe it was different there). There was a spate of books, on email etiquette, helping people use emoticons and other things to make humourous comments, to avoid FLAMING, and so forth. I took this as a clue to the types of conversations that people were attempting to have via email, as well as a sign of the help needed to pull those conversations off.

And now I think about how email is used as a medium for people to apply to University, to have conversations with faculty that they might want to work with in graduate school. I look at my own inbox and I can tell you that the balance of informal, chatty conversational emails, is way down in comparison with the number of professional requests (serve on program committees, attend meetings and present, interview etc…). Instant Messaging may also have this feel… it’s not, I should add that all email or all IM’s have become formal, just that its use has expanded to include more formal types of exchanges (recognising that formal is also a little tricky in definition, but thinking of the exchanges I’ll be having with my financial institutions to prepare my tax returns as another type of example).

One more thought on Andrea’s post. She hopes that the new privacy settings and the ability to create groups will help her break apart her single monolithic facebook network into the multiple social networks that it actually represents. But, if usable security teaches me one thing (there are more, but for now…) it is that too many options (particularly if they are written in security ease) doesn’t really seem to solve the problem either. People won’t spend the time to configure the system. The key is to find the sweet spot I suppose, of options and incentives… I wonder whether facebook has found them.