Purdue is now on summer time, which means it is a time for day-long retreats, meetings, and types of work. I’ve experienced two flavors of day-long meetings, and have one or two insights to share with you about each.
My first meeting was one scheduled months in advance, with various academic heads of state (ok, not really) and leaders from across campus. The day was organized to get some specific kinds of work done, and I had high hopes; however, as it turned out, half the attendees had not read their email, and therefore had only done half of the preparation for the first activity (a teambuilding activity); this activity rather set the tone for the rest of the morning, in my opinion, and also feels fairly representative of the response to many other kinds of work this project has required.
I didn’t really feel like I had much of a role in this day-long meeting. I’m on the leadership of the project, and I’m conducting the research components, but I am also the youngest person and most junior person in the group, and I sure felt like it.
An example or two: We had a brainstorming activity, and the brainstorming devolved into lots of criticism or arguing about what we were “supposed” to be doing, although as this was the leadership group, I’m not sure why they were looking to others to outline the “supposed to” part. We had a few sessions on program planning, and when area leaders shared the discussion of their program where ideas were supposed to be shared and considered, not judged per se, we devolved into more criticism. When I pointed out that I was impressed with the discussions that had developed for each area, and asked for people to be a bit more positive in giving constructive feedback, I was told I had misunderstood the criticism. I don’t think I did. There was a lot of passive voice talking — such and such “should be done” or “should be decided,” rather than people deciding to make decisions themselves.
I left the meeting disgruntled to say the least. I felt put down, devalued, that my time had been wasted by people who were patronizing to me because they don’t even see why I am involved. Not a great feeling.
The second meeting was an ad-hoc meeting to try to accomplish some desperately needed work that was supposed to happen last academic year, and didn’t. Specifically, this has to do with my department’s teaching load, strongly influenced by two introductory courses for first-year engineering students. The courses serve 4 credits for 1750+ students, and rather than having 1 3cr course and 1 1 cr course (that almost a quarter of students fail even though it is attendance based P/F) in the fall semester, we are working to make it a 2 credit course taught across fall and spring (2 semesters). There are advantages and disadvantages to this layout; debating these have taken the larger part of a year in my department. And no one has actually developing curricula, or involved many of the people who were slated to actually *teach* this course.
Rather than waiting much longer for someone to do something about the curriculum, because I am one person who will be teaching this new course in the fall and I didn’t want to be left as unprepared as it looked like might happen, I took the bull by the horns and invited all the prospective course instructors to block out a week of May/June to try to discuss and nail-down the course’s learning objectives, schedule, assessment. I didn’t wait for someone to say, “will someone take the reins?” nor did I ask anyone’s permission to do this. I just did it. My assistant booked a room for a week, one with whiteboards on many walls, and wall space for flip-chart stickies. I brought in a printer, and we had a computer with projector, big stickies, large, medium and small stickies, all my course notes and textbooks for the two times I taught the 3-cr course, sharpies, dry-erase markers, and (I confess) junk food.
We took over the space for a week — we determined some house rules based on rules of improv comedy and the assumption of the benefit of the doubt of colleagues. We decided that as many people as could make time would have to be enough, and we asked those people who couldn’t come if we could get their input in some other way – by phone, conversation, or through iteration on written documents. We determined what needed to get done as we went along, and we set out some goals for where we wanted to be by the end of our time in “the room.”
People chipped in how and when they could. People brought lunch for others, or snacks for everyone in the morning. People popped in between meetings, or at the end of the day before they had to go pick up kids from daycare. People wrote thoughts on post-its and left them for others to find. If you found yourself in a conversation that was not being productive or where you were disengaging, it was up to you to step away and engage in something else (a sort of “open space” approach to the conversations).
It was hard work, but well worth it. By the end of the first day, we had a gameplan, some questions we needed to find answers to, a beginning calendar for 2009-10, some thoughts for a 3-year roll out of all the changes to make, and the start of a list of learning objectives.
It took THREE DAYS to come to some agreement on learning objectives. We made concept maps out of stickies, pulled ideas from various syllabi and past discussion documents, added, subtracted, wrote them up on Google Docs and sent them around to the group, did more editing, figured out how they related to some other curricula and courses, and then iteratively thought about how to assess them.
By the end of the last day, we weren’t done. Shock. Not really. But we also had a group of committed folks who were willing to put in a bit of extra time; now (3 days later) we have a 30 page manual, organized course objectives, a plan for assessment, and a couple of cool projects that we think might solve a bunch of concerns of folks not able to be in the room.
To this meeting, I felt I had contributed. I knew that, if I wasn’t contributing, I felt the authority and validation to go to a different task to contribute. I felt the space to be creative and optimistic, knowing we would get to the “real world”ness of details later. I felt my contributions and ideas were valued, as I heard them reflected back at me by others, and saw them appear on the walls, integrated into a new set of ideas.
Some of our groundrules, from the Syracuse Cultural Workers
Using the How People Learn framework to structure class activities and assessment
So what were the differences between these two day-long experiences? From my perspective:
- One expected participation and was disappointed; one was happy to take whatever people could contribute;
- One was top down; the other was grassroots;
- One presumed everyone was on the page when they weren’t; the other developed house rules over time;
- One was where people were paid to be there; the other was a volunteer effort, even if it was self-motivated to prepare us for the fall;
- One was taken over by strong voices in the room; the other was anarchic but in the end more productive;
- One was attended by people who apparently know better; the other was attended by people who wanted to do better.
Okay, a little snarky, I know. Sorry. I’m not trying to criticise the particular offering itself, per se, really. But I offer the contrasting story in another of the “just do it” series of posts I seem to be writing — all the second meeting took was someone to book a room and commit some time, and be inclusive in inviting participants and grateful for whoever would show up.
It was a great help to have a project room where we could leave all our stuff, and for the time to be long enough to make some progress. We’re now in the phase of writing up what we discussed, and sending it to the rest of the team for their input, and hopefully their willingness to take a particular chunk and run with it on behalf of everyone else. I’m very grateful to my colleagues (particularly Matt, David, Senay, Robin, Chell, Teri, Eric, Monica, Bill, and Cordelia) who participated in the grassroots effort — some people dedicated a huge amount of time and effort to this planning, and it will really show. I’m almost excited to think about the fall.
Speaking of which, I had better get back to editing that manual…