Archive for January, 2008

rickzI came across an informative post on the OCIS doctoral student blog providing some helpful suggestions for preparing for job interviews. The photo included in the post alone (duplicated here, image source: rickz on flickr) was worth the link.

I think I’ll dedicate a future post or two to answering the sample questions included in the post.

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I read an article in the New York Times this evening summarizing a position paper by a physiologist arguing that reticence about exercising in cold weather is largely a product of 1) misconceptions about the safety of exercising in the cold and 2) inappropriate dress–driven by misunderstanding the nature of our physiological response to cold–for cold-weather exercise. The author of the paper argues that exercising in the cold can be safe as long as you keep moving, you are sufficiently covered but not overdressed so much that you sweat, and you don’t overstress yourself by being paranoid of the cold.

This reminded me of a book I read recently by Ellen Langer entitled Mindfulness.  In this practitioner-oriented book, Langer summarizes over fifty social psychology studies that demonstrate how people live up to and within constraints that are frequently artificial and that are either placed on them by others or self-imposed. Langer cites the example of the paradigm shift that occurred when an athlete disproved the widely held belief that it was physically impossible for a human to run a mile in less than four minutes. Once it was accomplished, multiple athletes have accomplished similar feats over 100 times.

So whether its exercising in cold whether or running a mile in less than four minutes, it seems we (rather than the physical world) often define what is possible and what is impossible. I wonder if someday, we’re going to learn that humans really can hold more than 7 +/- 2 pieces of information in working memory at a time, or that it is possible to read several thousand words per minute.

In my own scholarship, perhaps I can look at applying this principle by setting incremental goals (i.e., to write 1,000 words per day for a month, 2,000 words per day for the following month, etc.). Obviously, quantity and verbosity doesn’t equate to quality and simplicity, but such an exercise would give  me more practice in my writing and allow me to exercise this aspect of my scholarship more.

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After I finished teaching class one day, I walked in late to a presentation. Almost immediately, I could tell things weren’t going well for the speaker. There was an uneasy tension in the room. The facial expressions of the attendees were masked or furrowed, and the questioning was not very energetic. Regardless of the ultimate outcome of the presentation, I am amazed at how readily apparent the group feeling was to me.

Thinking about this experience has lead me to question whether I would have had the same experience had the interaction occurred in a virtual environment. Recent psychological research (Oberman and Ramachandran 2007) indicates that our brains are especially effective at simulating the observed behaviors and intentions of others within ourselves. When we see an acrobat walking a tight-rope we naturally tense as if we were on the line ourselves. In my situation, I was able to enter the room and see and hear my colleagues. My mind simulated their expressions, body language, and words and mapped the feelings and intentions I would have had had I made those same actions. To some small degree, I became one with my colleagues and was able to experience empathy for them.

When these empathetic simulations are occurring reciprocally among group members, I believe this could be described as a group-level instantiation of the organizational construct of the collective mind (Weick and Roberts 1993). Unlike its organizational counterpart, the group collective mind hinges on empathy rather than on interrelated specialization. Both require synchronized interaction. But the development of a group collective mind allows the group members to achieve this synchronization through psychological and behavioral alignment (Pickering and Garrod 2004), whereas the organizational collective mind facilitates synchronization through identified expertise within the organization and through coordination among specialists (Weick and Sutcliffe 2001).

With regards to the development of the group collective mind, I’m wondering how well we could mentally simulate the actions of others in a computer-mediated context. Perhaps a better question would be under what conditions do different media enable the development of a collective mind (i.e., empathetic alignment)  among group members? I this regard, I don’t think text is consistently inferior to speech. Rather, I think it’s the forms of communication that facilitate or inhibit the development of a collective mind. A well constructed narrative of a tragic event can bring me to tears whether it’s written in print or displayed on a movie screen. But does this process of developing the collective mind work differently when groups use different tools to communicate electronically?

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I had to put together some instructions for our secretary to enter a considerable amount of data into a series of web-based forms.  My first impulse was to create a series of screen shots, dump them into Microsoft OneNote and annotate the screen shots with the instructions. (I’ve done that in the past for a similar type of task.)

However, I caught myself, picked up a pencil and some scratch paper, scribbled out the instructions, and wrote the date at the bottom of the page. I took the paper upstairs to our secretary, and she was able to follow the instructions perfectly.  The tech-heavy solution would have generated some glamorous pictures. But it would have used up a lot more time and paper to accomplish the same job. It would likely have been more difficult to follow as the instructions would have been spread across several pages as well. I’m finally learning that, particularly when delegating, it’s important to keep things as simple as possible.

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I just read a summary of an interview with an accomplished artist that illustrates my last post. It appears that Chuck Close attributes his genius to consistent hard work. He also describes how he is able to structure his work so that it is achievable in discrete chunks. I think there’s something to be said for studying the work and living habits of people who have accomplished great things.

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I’ve been thinking a lot about how to be more productive in my scholarship lately.  A  challenge and a blessing I’ve found in the Ph.D. program is that there is always something to do.  The challenge becomes learning to select which of the many opportunities to take advantage of.  I think I found a key to answering this question in a conversation I had with some colleagues on the bus today. One of my colleagues commented that you have to get to a point that you enjoy doing your work for its own sake.

I have pondered this evening how I can get to a point of enjoying scholarship for its own sake to such an extent that I can enjoy it every day. Paradoxically, I believe the solution lies in working at it every day. Just as I can’t expect to expect to comfortably bicycle a mile after a long period of sedentary living. I need to consistently exercise my scholarship every day. Gradually, it will become easier and less mechanical, just as running, playing sports, and dancing become easier to us.

I am reminded of a sermon I heard once relating how a young man was consistently teased by his peers for being unable to throw a baseball between two bases.  He resolved to win the championship of the territory. After purchasing a baseball, this young man practiced for hours, throwing the ball at his neighbor’s barn until his arm was sore.  He kept at it and eventually played on the team that won the territorial championship.

It’s like Ralph Waldo Emerson stated, “That which we persist in doing becomes easier for us to do; not that the nature of the thing itself is changed, but that our power to do is increased.”

As I face the end of the hiring season without an academic position, I feel like that young man who was left out of the ball game, because he couldn’t throw straight enough and far enough. I need to be like him and hunker down and start practicing. I need to set daily goals that are simple enough to do every day, and just exercise until I get strong enough to succeed.

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