Friday, August 29, 2008

You had me at Enough

I decided I could not miss a historic moment like watching the first African-American presidential nominee give an acceptance speech. He said everything I've wanted Democrats to say for years. He hit some key issues head on that previous candidates have pussyfooted around--oil, abortion, gay marriage. He pointed out that Republicans have basically been trying versions of the same policies over and over again and they're not working. I thought his line about "policies of past vs. policies of the future" was really more "okay, old white dudes, you've had your turn; now get out of the way." I think I'm ready to put my bumper sticker on the car and start handing out some literature. If we don't win this thing, I'm moving to France.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Because I'm tired

A meme. For some reason, there was no sleep to be had last night. Maybe back-to-school jitters. I really should keep a notebook beside the bed. I came up with some interesting things and now, of course, can't remember them. Anyway, as seen at many places, most recently at New Kid's, the finish the sentence meme.

1. My uncle once yelled at me for eating his living room.

2. Never in my life have I felt so confident and so uncertain at the same time.

3. When I was five I was chased by boys until I teamed up with them to chase other girls. I negotiated with my oppressors and then became one of them. This is either sad or smart.

4. High school was something to survive.

5. I will never forget the time I thought I'd been transported back to high school and had to live it all over again.

6. Once I met a few famous people and felt really really awkward.

7. There’s this boy I know who is smarter than he thinks.

8. Once, at a bar, I fell off a barstool.

9. By noon, I'm usually starving.

10. Last night I could not sleep to save my life.

11. If only I had cajones.

12. Next time I go to church it will be for someone's wedding or funeral.

13. What worries me most is that the world won't be a hospitable place for my children.

14. When I turn my head left I see my husband still sleeping.

15. When I turn my head right I see my bookshelf that desperately needs organizing.

16. You know I’m lying if I say I'm voting Republican. (I almost can't lie--seriously.)

17. What I miss most about the Eighties is my own youth.

18. If I were a character in Shakespeare I’d be Viola.

19. By this time next year things will be very different.

20. A better name for me would be "the strident technophile."

21. I have a hard time understanding why people don't change.

22. If I ever go back to school, I’ll study computer science or law.

23. You know I like you if I invite you out for drinks.

24. If I ever won an award, the first person I would thank would be my husband.

25. Take my advice, never assume you can spend time with someone you love later.

26. My ideal breakfast is two eggs over easy with toast, grape jelly, bacon, hashbrowns and cantelope with coffee and orange juice, preferably in a restaurant.

27. A song I love but do not have is half the songs on the radio that I don't know the names of.

28. If you visit my hometown, I suggest going only to visit friends. There's really not much to do there.

29. Why won’t people conserve energy?

30. If you spend a night at my house we'll treat you right.

31. I’d stop my wedding for someone having a heart attack.

32. The world could do without George W. Bush.

33. I’d rather lick the belly of a cockroach than vote for John McCain.

34. My favorite blondie is a cookie.

35. Paper clips are more useful than shoe horns.

36. If I do anything well it’s writing and troubleshooting weird technical problems.

37. I can’t help but sleep in past when I told myself I'd get up.

38. I usually cry when I'm angry.

39. My advice to my nephew/niece is to get as far away from your parents for a while as you can. Live your own life!

40. And by the way, this was harder than it looks.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Apparently there's an election coming up

I have been mostly lost in my own little world the last few months. Last election, I watched the Sunday shows, read blogs, read the paper, kept up with every little thing. I really, really wanted to get Bush out of office. But then I got burned. Like I got burned the time before. I do think Obama has a really good chance of winning. I don't have that anxiety like I had with Kerry (especially with Kerry, but Gore too) that he's doing it all wrong and he's going to screw it all up for the rest of us.

But I can't get my heart broken again. I'm having a hard time even paying attention much less getting more involved. I thought briefly on the way home one day this week that I should volunteer or something and then I felt immediately tired and thought how much sadder I'll be if I put even more energy into the election and Obama loses.

Maybe the conventions will bring me out of the slump. But then again school starts this week, for both me and the kids. Soccer begins. All kinds of stuff has. to. get. done. How can I pay attention when there's so much else going on? I suspect I'm not the only one with this problem and at least I know who the candidates are and mostly where they stand on the issues. I think this is the first election where I'm not saying, "How can those people *not* know what's going on?" I know. I feel their pain.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Productivity on the home front

Most of the time at home, I'm treading water, just managing to keep the family fed and clothed. Ever since I started working on the dissertation and pretty much dropped any regular routine in terms of cleaning, etc., the house has gone to pot. I pretty much kept to my usual routine of coming home, making dinner, eating, and then either vegging out or doing some writing/research. I did not do housework--none. I left it all for the weekend. But then, on the weekend, I'd feel after a hard week at the salt mines, I needed to spend time with the family and/or veg out. This weekend, I decided to start truly digging out, one small area at a time. This weekend's target was the kitchen cabinet where we store food. I labeled all the spices, rearranged all the cans, threw out stuff from 2003, and now have a good idea of what food I have and don't have. Like oregano--I don't have oregano--good to know.

The house seems overwhelming taken as a whole, but spending just a couple of hours on a small project like a single cabinet or countertop (and yes, I could spend an hour on a countertop) makes it seem more manageable. Maybe in 5 years, I'll have tackled the whole house.

Friday, August 22, 2008

On productivity

This has been a busy, busy week, filled with productivity and failure (yes, both). I have to say that the people I work with often rise to the challenge of difficult situations and we really do band together in that goofy, sappy way you think of when the chips are down. So I'm grateful that there are good people in the world and that they happen to work in my building.

I've taken on a new strategy, which flies in the face of GTD, but I think I like it. I only check email twice a day and each time, I only spend 1 hour at most responding. In my line of work, I could spend all day just reading and responding to email. So, what I do is scan email, looking for important things, and respond to those first, and then deal with the more mundane issues. Honestly, I've had a lot of people figure out their problems all by themselves. I figure people will either email again or call if they get truly desperate. And this way, I actually get work done, I feel less frustrated (because I'm not constantly seeing messages that make me think, you have a Ph.D. and you can't figure this out?), and the day goes by pretty quickly. David Allen may not approve, but I think I like this plan so far. I do twitch a little when I realize there are over 300 messages in my inbox, but likely by the time I get to some of the earlier ones, I can delete without reading them.

Surprisingly, even though this was a post-vacation week, I didn't have the usual post-vacation slump, where I wish I were still on vacation and kind of flounder around hoping that work will disappear. I guess it was because there was just so much to get done, I didn't have time for that. The other strategy I developed over the last few weeks (also somewhat anti-GTD) is to just focus on getting 2-3 things done in a day. So often I'm staring at a huge list of things and it seems overwhelming and I get frustrated when only a couple of things get done. But that's because most everything I do takes several hours and if things don't go smoothly, well, you know how that goes. So now I write down a couple of things to focus on and it feels better to have accomplished everything on the list. I use post-its, so I don't even have room for more than a couple.

So maybe I'm falling out of love with GTD a little. I think I felt that sometimes, it made me focus so much on getting more done that I wasn't getting the right things done. While my inbox was at zero, I wasn't getting the more important things done--important both to me and in many cases, a large number of people. I still like having a kind of repository for stuff that needs to get done, but I think looking at it once a week is a better plan than staring at it every day. At least for me.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

The four-day work week

The article in Inside Higher Ed about some colleges shifting to a four-day work week to save on energy costs isn't the first I've heard of this. NPR did a story on government offices doing the same thing. The comments at IHE indicate that some people think this is a bad idea, a poor use of resources, etc. I think it's a great idea but poorly implemented, mostly from a human resources perspective. In both the IHE article and the NPR story, the workers had to fit 40 hours into 4 days, meaning they had to work 10 hours a day. In my book, that would suck. If I had to work a 10 hour day, I'd have to leave my house at 7 and wouldn't get home until after 6. So I'd be gone most of the day and I'd be exhausted when I got back and would probably snap at the kids, etc. And I still have to make dinner, tend to homework, do laundry, etc. in a much more compressed schedule. And I know, I'd get a 3-day weekend, big whoop. What I'd like to see is someone propose a true shortening of the work week. Why not shorten it to 30 hours? That would mean a 7.5 hour work day plus a 3 day weekend. Why do workers have to suffer so that a company can save money? In some cases, the theory goes that you're saving the workers gas money. That probably amounts to about 10 bucks a week. Is that worth a 10 hour day? For parents, the 10 hour day has been problematic because most daycare centers aren't open that long. Some have been accommodating and some haven't. Another solution that hasn't been discussed is telecommuting. Why not have one day where everyone works from home? For those who do mostly office work, this would work out just fine.

I'd like to point out that in academic institutions, the people that 4-day work weeks affect most are the staff, not the faculty. Many faculty I know already only come to campus a few days a week, so institutionalizing a Friday off is not likely to affect their schedule. They wouldn't need to put in 10 hour days on campus (most work this much anyway, just at various locations). It might also affect the students, who, as the IHE article points out, still need access to libraries and student services.

I have to say I continue to be amazed at what American workers will do to keep a job.

Monday, August 18, 2008

The Traffic Jam Known as Higher Education

Over my vacation, I read Traffic by Tom Vanderbilt. I picked this book up because Mr. Geeky and I got into an argument about driving in traffic. Specifically, he did not like the way I was driving in traffic on I95. This, as well as issues around map reading, is our main argument these days. I've learned to read while he drives so I don't notice.

Anyway, I hadn't taken any books with me to the beach, so I popped into a local bookstore and picked up whatever struck my fancy. This was the perfect book to read after navigating 95. It also had some insights into my own work. I know what you're thinking--you learned something about educational technology in a book about traffic? But it's true. You see you might think that traffic is about cars and roads and tolls and signs, but it's not. It's about people. People make traffic. A couple of key insights in the book are that a) people don't really cooperate much while driving; they're in it for themselves and b) even if they want to cooperate, they don't know exactly how.

The first insight was the one I found most interesting for my purposes, although the second was also fruitful. When we're driving, we're focused on getting from point A to point B. We're in our cars. We can't easily make eye contact with each other to signal, for example, that you'd like to squeeze into that space just in front of you if you don't mind. As Vanderbilt puts it in a nice interview posted on the Amazon site:
people are more likely to cooperate with one another when they can make eye contact. When we don’t have it, when we become anonymous, we not only lose some of that impulse towards cooperation, we seem to become susceptible to all kinds of behavior we might not otherwise engage in. In most driving situations, of course, we lose eye contact, and have to make do with our rather limited vocabulary of traffic signals.
What does this have to do with higher education, especially technology and higher education? Most of my communication occurs via email or over the phone and not face-to-face. This allows both me and the person I'm communicating with to feel like we can be a little ruder than we might otherwise. I might get defensive about my time. They might get defensive about theirs. We both dig in our heels and no work gets done. Also, miscommunication can happen. I might think someone is asking for one thing, but they're really asking for another and vice versa. But also, I think, there's a lack of "signage" or "vocabulary." While I continue to live in the world of the academic--understanding tenure, trying to understand faculty work flows, areas of research and more--I feel that faculty often don't understand my world, both its vocabulary and its context. It's as if my signs are in Japanese with no English translation available. So how to fix this? In traffic, I'm afraid, there's not much chance of providing more eye contact, but that's easy in my world. It's more time-consuming to visit people in their offices, to try to catch people around campus, but I think the payoff is better. As for the "lost in translation" problem, obviously I can do some translating in face-to-face situations, but I can also continue to provide information to help people navigate in my world.

Speaking of anonymity, Vanderbilt also covers the the issue of road rage, which he theorizes has to do with a general increase in narcissism:
[Psychologists] find, as time goes on, more people are willing to say things like "If I ruled the world, it would be a better place." Traffic is filled with people who think that roads belong only to them — it’s "MySpace" — that being inside the car absolves them from any obligation to anyone else. People are glad to tell you that their child is a middle school honor student — as if anyone cared! — but they deem it less important to tell you what they’re going to do in traffic.
I'd say this is a general tug-of-war we all experience, but which may be prolific in higher ed. That is, we feel a sense of our selves as important, as perhaps more important than anyone else and so pursue a path that benefits primarily ourselves versus feeling a sense of our selves as part of a larger whole, as contributing to the greater good in some way and so pursue a path that benefits others. In traffic, this tug-of-war may play out by first, cutting people off, driving too fast, etc. When feeling more magnanimous, we might allow a car in front of us, keep a safer distance between us and the car in front of us, or generally drive more slowly. In higher ed, I see two things happen. One, there are plenty of people walking around with a lot of ego (I'm not necessarily saying I'm not one of these people). These people are the equivalent of the overly aggressive driver. Two, there's the definition of the larger whole to which someone might contribute. As a staff member, I'm more likely to see that larger whole as the institution or perhaps a collection of similar institutions. A faculty member might see the larger whole as their field and not as the institution. Students, I think, are focused primarily on themselves although many of them contribute to a larger whole that's even bigger than the institution--politics, fighting poverty, improving inner city schools, etc. There's a conflict then, not only between individuals as egotistical or not, but also between those who are genuinely trying to do good things about what those good things are.

There's a lot more that I could say about the relationship between traffic behavior and the behavior I see every day, both from myself and from my faculty, but I'll spare you the details. But think about these few things:
  • When you're driving, it's hard to tell how well you're doing. There's very little feedback and most people are worse drivers than they think they are. In many areas of higher education, there's also a lack of good feedback. In driving, one can be made aware of how good a driver one is by installing some simple monitoring equipment. I suspect that monitoring is not something that higher ed will embrace quickly.
  • Doing something that benefits others rather than doing something that just benefits you actually makes the whole system better, including for you!
  • We are more distracted than we think we are.

What'd I miss?

In case you couldn't tell, I was away last week. I'm going to try to maintain the vacation glow as long as I can, ignoring the fact that I'm headed into the busiest weeks of the year. I actually read 4 or 5 books while I was away and oddly enough, they made me think. So I have things to say, but you'll have to wait a bit.

Monday, August 04, 2008

It's the economy (that's making us) stupid

A Chronicle article highlights a collection of books pointing out that Americans are getting more stupid. Many of these books blame the internets. I haven't read any of these books, so I don't know what they all blame, but in the brief synopses provided by Benton, it seems none of these books blame the economy or business interests more directly. If there's a book out there that does connect the increase in work hours to a decline in intelligence among our citizenry, I'd love to know about it. And if there's not, and you have a thesis to write, there's a topic for you.

I personally say it's the economy that's most to blame for a number of reasons, some of them unintended consequences of a thriving citizenry. Some of them a result of the greed of our various businesses. This morning I was reading this article about a woman who finds herself in serious financial trouble. I happened to read it on the heels of the article above, and I couldn't help thinking, who has time to keep up with politics and culture if you're working two jobs to pay your bills. On the one hand, a large swath of the American public is able to not just afford the necessities of life, but is also able to afford amenities once reserved for the wealthy: more than one car, a house of their own, vacations, an extensive wardrobe, electronics, and more. On the other hand, many people have purchased those amenities on credit instead of using cash on hand. Often this spirals into needing to use credit for necessities such as groceries and housing because all of their take-home pay in going to service interest on debt. Yes, the individuals can be blamed for their own dilemma in part, but I also blame (as does the NY Times, sort of) the finance companies, who prey on people who fail to read the fine print. Imagine if these companies weren't allowed to extend credit to people already paying 40% of their income to creditors. Yes, it might mean those people couldn't buy the couch or piece of jewelry they wanted, but they might learn to put off these purchases instead.

Americans work more than many other people in the world, most notably Europeans. Back in the late 60s, people predicted that by now, Americans would be working 4-day work weeks and vacationing 13 weeks out of the year. How fabulous does that sound? Instead, we're working more. Some of us are working to pay stuff off, some are working to have more stuff, and some of us are working because of the cultural norm of the Puritan work ethic. Labor unions, who could negotiate for shorter work weeks and mandated vacation time, are weaker now than in the past. Corporations, more concerned with the bottom line than with the well-being of their workers, have taken away benefits and kept wages stagnant, all while they have record profits and pay their CEOs 400 times more than their workers. I almost choked when I heard Exxon had the highest quarterly profits of any corporation ever. If gas costs so much for us, shouldn't Exxon be hurting just a little bit?

I have to imagine that if we all had a little more leisure time, some of that time would be spent learning. Maybe we'd have time to not just listen to the sound bites on Fox News, but to look up the blog posts that debunk those sound bites. Maybe we'd have time to visit more National Parks, Historic Sites, and museums, thereby learning more about our country's history, natural resources, and culture. Maybe we'd have time to read books again. There'd be more time for kids to spend with parents and grandparents, helping to bridge the generation gap.

I realize this is all somewhat idealistic, and sadly, because most of us are working our asses off, we don't have time to fight for these things. We don't have money for our own lobby the way oil companies and credit card companies do. But I think we should fight for these things. I think we should guard our personal lives carefully before their gone and before we're all really, really dumb.