Tuesday, August 30, 2005

When I grow up.

I have a running list in my head. It's entitled, "When I graduate with my PhD and I am a fabulous professor with students that I advise, I will never..." It's a list of things that I will never do to my future advisees. Some of these are very obvious:

1. Take calls during a meeting with a student.
2. Have regular meetings that exceed four hours in length.
3. Interrupt; especially new students who are just getting used to technical words being in their mouth.
4. Meet with a student about their paper that I haven't read.
5. Assume the student knows how to do research.

Some are not so obvious. I have one that I'm trying to articulate right now. It regards meetings.

I have a true hatred of meetings, generally because most meetings are badly run. At my old workplaces, meetings were treated as a means for 1 to many communication which could have been performed just as easily in an e-mail or other document. Generally, a "boss" stand in the front of a big room, presenting information by reading bullets of a powerpoint document projected onto the wall while the "peons" sit very confused or bored, anxious about the time being wasted while the hours to their next deadline become fewer.

Other meetings consist of 1 to 1 communication where the rest of the people in the meeting become a drive-by audience. Of course this 1 to 1 communication can take a round robin fashion where each person in the meeting reports their current status to the meeting's leader. In some cases, this is an effective meeting model. It helps everyone to know what everyone else is doing, important for a tight group of software developers all working on the same few files of code. In other cases, it's a horrible waste of time for everyone, since the projects being reported may be incredibly divergent.

My ideal meeting consists of a few people who've all come prepared, have read the material and are ready to have a dynamic, interactive conversation about the topic at hand. People in attendance listen to each other, and each subsequent comment in the meeting is strongly or loosely based on what's been said previously. People walk away from the meeting feeling like their ideas have been heard, but with a greater understanding of new perspectives.

It's very difficult to implement my ideal meeting. In the classroom, it can be forced by awarding participation points to students and giving those points serious weight in the final grade. In the workplace, it can be forced by people's fear of termination or the promise of a promotion. However "brownie points" such as those can quickly single out one person into the group butt-kisser. Without some kind of reward system, this interactivity can't exist because there are so few people who will share their ideas just for the sake of the idea.

* * *

When I was an undergraduate at my small Oregon university, I was in love with Joel Sullivan, one of the guys in my engineering program. He was a tall, pale boy of slight build whose father was an tenacious engineer from Tektronix. Joel was a genius and often expressed his genius through his eccentricity. Many on the campus knew him as "The Bathrobe Guy" because he would often walk around campus in a bathrobe. When I asked him why he wore a bathrobe, he replied, "It's very absorbant. I always wear one when it rains." Genius. He always seemed two steps ahead of the rest of the us, often offering his own insight in class if only to help the rest of us understand what the professor was trying to say. I was always glad to hear what Joel had to offer, and he was a likeable guy. He was someone that I would always want in my ideal meeting, for he shared his ideas for the sake of the idea.

The opposite of Joel Sullivan was the "Ice Cream Guy." During the evening meal at the campus dinning hall, Ice Cream Guy would finish his dinner, bus his tray, and get an ice cream cone. He would walk out of the hall with the tip of the ice cream cone perched in his fingertips, holding the cone a foot in front of him. Ice Cream Guy was also in my undergraduate program, but he would never be invited to my ideal meeting. His idea of classroom participation was asking questions that he thought sounded very intelligent to which he already knew the answer. I was never sure if he was trying to show off his knowledge or trip up the the professor. I felt bad for him, because he was just a goofy guy with a good heart, but he would still not be invited to my ideal meeting, not even for pity's sake.

These days, I'm attending meetings as usual. They are definitely not my ideal. People come, they sit, they check e-mail on their laptop, they don't listen, they interrupt, they read papers, and they certainly don't contribute to the meeting's interactivity. The topic may appear to be not in their area of research, but they don't take pains to expand their ideas and their research to include new ideas. I don't blame them. It's hard to be interactive for many hours in a row.

I think one origin of this problem is American science education. For the most part, I have attended my math and science classes with nothing but a blank sheet of paper, ready to be lectured. The lecture consists of complicated material which I don't know, and couldn't possibly understand, so I'm not expected to contribute to the conversation. This is quite unlike the Spanish Literature courses I took in undergrad (I tested out of English). I was expected to read the material and be able to discuss it intelligently in a language that was not my own. The classrom was an interactive space for sharing, not a radio program.

All that, and I still don't really have an idea of how to put this in my list. I want to remember my ideal meeting. I want to come up with ways to implement it. I want to be able to inspire people to talk to each other in effective ways that further good ideas. Most of all, I want to graduate.


DC said...

I had a short, but interesting conversation today that I think somehow mirrors this discussion.

A certain individual had participated in several studies in my research group. He complimented me today by saying that when he did one of my studies, he really felt like I cared about what he had to say and was interested in the ideas that he was having and how they could help build up my project. On the other hand, he felt like a cold statistic in some other studies. This isn't really surprising since I've done studies that have been more qualitative and others have done studies that have been more quantitative, but the comment made me think.

This is similar to how I feel about many of the meetings I have with my advisor. He seems more interested in convincing me to go along with whatever he's thought up than to really listen to what I have to say. But this isn't limited to our one-on-one meetings. He often dominates our full group meetings, forcing the presenter (read as: me) to answer inane background questions that only serve to delay us from accomplishing the purpose of the meeting. It is very typical when I "lead" for me to come in with a list of things that I want to accomplish and never be allowed to actually get to any of them.

On the other hand, I've had some amazingly good meetings. For example, when I worked with Jake and Ramona as officers in the CSGSO, our meetings were short, to the point, yet fun - all with a tangible outcome. We each contributed more or less equally and all valued what the others were saying. Was this a product of a small group? Of our considering each other as equals? Of my amazing leadership skills as president? I have no idea. Probably it was just that we all cared about what everyone was doing and had respect for each other.

Tony said...

I think laptops are a detriment to meetings. While they have many legitimate uses (like taking notes or checking on a reference), the problem is that it's not obvious to the other people in the room what the laptop user is doing. As a listener in a meeting, you still communicate back to the speaker through eye contact and other subtle cues. But when typing notes on a laptop, this communication is lost.

This is why I normally use paper to take notes even though I have to then transcribe them back to a computer.

RussianViolets said...

Ditto, and I love your list. Me too -- if I ever finish the Ph.D., that is. :-)

FemaleCSGradStudent said...

You can do it!