Career, community, Learning, Purpose

Showing Up for Public Research

Frank Morrison A Student

One of the many benefits of working in higher education is easy access to learning opportunities. On any given day, a dozen activities show up on the calendar. Anyone on campus, and usually community folks too, can drop in on brown bags, seminars, conferences, performances, or dissertation defenses. Cost and distance are taken care of, so the only limiting factors are motivation and time.

I don’t take nearly as much advantage of this abundance as I could, but does this surprise anyone? I’m guessing others out there don’t read poetry or clock enough hours of sleep, both of which gratify a tired soul. As often as not, we fail to act as champions of our own happiness. Sometimes laziness leads the charge. Halfheartedly, of course.

Continue reading “Showing Up for Public Research”

Brain, Determination, Learning

Free Refills

unwavering

Contrary to the ego-depletion hypothesis, participants in the depletion condition did not perform worse than control participants on the subsequent self-control task, even after considering moderator variables. These findings add to a growing body of evidence suggesting ego-depletion is not a reliable phenomenon. . .


– John Lurquin et al, “No Evidence of the Ego-Depletion Effect across Task Characteristics and Individual Differences: A Pre-Registered Study,PLOS One, February 2016

Over the past several months, a number of studies have surfaced suggesting the popular idea of ego depletion may not be a real thing after all.  Possibilities of bias are showing up in the analyses of of studies from the 1990s and 2000s.  At the very least, no one has been able to replicate widely cited studies that led to the notion that willpower, like a muscle, grows fatigued with overuse.

This may be background noise for most of the thinking public.  After all, pop psychology is as ubiquitous as wellness and mindfulness.  The various trends are often jumbled up together, adding to the incessant self-improvement chatter that populates our news feeds.  The nuances are for the researchers, clinicians, and educators.

Maybe, too, for college personnel.

To a person who works with graduate students, this is a sonic boom.

Much of the advice I give students has to do with setting themselves up for academic and professional success.  Students who move steadily through a doctoral program tend to do little things well.  This involves putting in place many small systems across a life’s numerous and unique dimensions.  Implementing basic organizational tools, for example, and actually using those tools are tricky for most of us.  Effective students set up spaces that are conducive to studying.  They outline projects and manage time in a structured way, mapping out hours, days, even years.  In this way, they break a doctoral journey down into manageable chunks.

Students also perform better when their finances are in order, their families on board, their workplaces supportive, and their mental and physical health care structures sturdy.  Taking full advantage of the resources available to them at the university, successful students master research tools and set up study and writing groups with their peers.

These folks aren’t more intelligent or “better students” than their floundering counterparts.  They are simply more organized.  They persist with the systems they implement.

Organization and persistence are not qualities in an of themselves.  More like mosaics,   they are a collection of many small habits coalescing into a general way of being.  These are  habits of mind as much as behavior.  Many students come into a PhD program with skills suited to passing courses on the fly or excelling in their jobs.  Developing a scholarly MO is a different game with different rules.  Setting the pieces in place takes dogged attention to detail.

In order to advise my students effectively, I’ve immersed myself in literature on habit formation.  That branch of psychology has been awash in ego-depletion for the past 10-15 years.  It’s a compelling idea.  I bought into the paradigm that self-discipline, as a limited resource, must be conserved for the important things.  Barack Obama only wears his blue and gray suits and he has someone else select his outfits each day.  He has a country to lead, right?  He shouldn’t be tapping his store of willpower for fashion picks.

Because of this thinking, I’ve developed guidance for students that has to do with putting the hardest work in the early part of the day and reducing the number of “intersections,” or places where a choice is required.  To reduce decision-fatigue and keep that discipline muscle focused where it needs to be, students should cut out the complexity and stick with certain rules.  Pack the same lunch every day.  Take the same route.  Study in the same place.  Carry the same backpack, wear the same shoes.

All of these are great bits advice as long as two conditions are met: 1) ego depletion is a real phenomenon; and 2) a life is predictable enough to support invariability and routine.

I’ll get to point #1 in a moment.  Regarding point #2, let’s ask the next question, with the understanding that a PhD program is a commitment of anywhere from 5-10 years.  Has any of us ever lived through a  5-year period free of change?  Jobs change, rents go up, recreation morphs into addiction.  Partners come or go or get sick.  Families grow, shrink, move. Children need IEPs or swim lessons.  Bus lines get terminated, cars break down, knees blow out.  Libraries close.  Stock markets crash.  Babies are born.

Far more effective than simplicity and routine are adaptability and resilience.

Perhaps I need to look differently at my effective students.  They may have structures in place, and organization is still a critical skill.  That said, a focus on habits may miss a key contributor to the ability develop and stick with habits.  Underneath the external behaviors may be an effective mindset.  Self-concept unites with a particular framing of the world, creating the way we respond to change.  Yes, successful students implement sound structures.  They also adjust those structures as the ground shifts.  They dismantle the parts that were fixed in one place, then redesign and rebuild them to function on new terrain.

How can a person cultivate a growth and adaptation mindset?  It may be time for a new approach in my advising.  While habits are critical, the perceptions from which those habits grow may be equally, if not more, important.  Clearly, I have some work ahead of me.

Regarding point #1. . .

. . .it may not even really matter that much whether ego depletion is “real” or not. What matters is how you think about your own amount of willpower. A very intriguing direction of research is finding the power of a person’s own beliefs about willpower may be what makes the difference here. When people believe their willpower is limitless, they’re more likely to go after personal goals, they’re less likely to burn out, and they’re happier. In a sense, when people believe their willpower is limitless, it turns out to be true.


– Melissa Dahl, “If You Believe your Willpower is Endless, It Is” in New York Magazine

Students who persist and finish a PhD are most likely those who see themselves as capable of maintaining momentum under any circumstance.  It’s true for the rest of us, too, right?  What happens when we think of ourselves as fundamentally resourceful?  When we picture ourselves having a consistent and bottomless capacity for working through the tough stuff?

What happens is this:  As if by magic, the source delivers.  We find a way.


Image: Martin Klein, “Unwavering”

 

 

Career

Fight, Flight, Freak

One of my coworkers just told me I should go somewhere to hide. Security has been called.

I ducked into my office. Now here I sit, perched on the quiet, stiff chair (not the squeaky roller one) under doused lights behind a locked the door. On my credenza under two years of accumulated, unfiled papers is the list of steps for how to respond to a campus active shooter.

Someone is looking for me. Not the general Director-me, but the specific Name-me.

She’s unarmed (they think) but how would we know?

Digging through papers makes noise. The active shooter list stays buried. I remember it says we’re supposed to silence our phones. Keep the room dark. Tapping on a computer keyboard makes noise, so don’t be tempted.

Deep breathing makes noise too, I now discover.

A heartbeat is deafening.

They told me we need to make her think I’m not here.

If only I wasn’t.

This piece would make great fiction.

If only it were.

Sometime when the threat has passed and my pulse slows, I’ll write about what it’s like to be a student advisor in the age of VA Tech and the Oregon community college. I’ll describe the trainings we receive, the offices we have to call, the way skittish professors will invoke feeling “threatened” by emotional students, and the chilling consequences such a claim can have. I’ll explain how, just when you decide it’s all a little too much paranoia, a student walks into a law school class right next door and attacks an instructor with a box cutter.

Someday I’ll write that. Another day when my keyboard’s noise is no longer a danger.

This is not supposed to be the trenches. But I sit here in paralyzed silence hearing only the throb of my own blood against my skull as it primes me for attack. I know, of course, that this is the real gritty world as much as the busy street 5 stories below. All of my community is here. All the financial stressors, the diminishing mental health support, the demands for excellence in a context of dwindling resources, and the social isolation that plagues every overcrowded city. It’s all here, inside this not-so-ivory tower. The students carry enormous burdens. Which means we do too. This is the trenches after all.

I hunker down wait for someone to come for me, to tell me it’s safe now.

If only.

Career, Determination, Things I Can

74. Things I Can Backstop: On-the-Job Training

I think breakthroughs come from putting an inordinate amount of pressure on yourself and seeing what you can take, and hoping that you grow some new muscles. It’s not really that mystical.

Ta-Nehisi Coates in The Atlantic Monthly
 
 
When my two star students poked their heads in my door four years ago, I bit back the “no.” Their half-apology for just a few minutes had a red flag flapping over it. They wanted something big. Bigger than anything in my job description.

“A graduate student research conference,” they said. “Students run it. Students present. Faculty moderate the panels.”

Students? Faculty? I wouldn’t trust them with a bake sale. Please. Leave the administering to the administrators.

But I turned from my other work. “Come on in,” I said. “Tell me more.”

So they did. They talked about networking and research collaborations, about presentation practice and scholarly community.

I pictured catering orders and room setup, abstract review and program tracks.

The students wanted practical experience in more than just presenting research. This was the toughest part. I could get us from zero to showtime in a snap. Add the task to my list and make it happen. Anyone who manages programs and people knows that an event is an event is an event. Steering committee, marketing, budgets, presenters, tech and space. Hire a wage assistant to make calls and print name badges.

Whatever the substance of the work — in this case, graduate student advising, but it could be affordable housing advocacy or the international association of clown car manufacturers — a thousand details large and small keep the machine chugging (sometimes hacking) along. People like me pull those levers.

People like my students? They get to do cool research and write about it.

In truth, my students’ brains intimidate me a little. These folks are digging into some of the most pressing topics facing our world. Poverty, climate change, security, infrastructure, health care. They conduct research that shapes policies and legislation. As for me? Inside the university, my role is to clear paths. If I can help students through the briar patch of public higher ed bureaucracy with their skin intact, they can get on with their research.

But those two students knew better. Doctoral grads today are stepping off the stage into a 2015 world, and it’s far from Kansas or 1975. The protected academic research-and-teach career has died on the vine. Folks with PhDs today are expected to know how to do things. Like lead people and projects, like find and manage money.

Like organize conferences.

Those two students wanted to do more than show up and present ideas. They wanted to make the thing happen.

We began.

Like parenting, mentoring is agony. Every stage, every step, takes twice as long and breeds three times as many mistakes. A mentor has to will herself to sit back and let meetings unfold through hours of jumbled conversation that could easily find resolution with a few simple facilitation tricks. A mentor must step with care through one-on-one conversations to offer opportunities for reflection. Mentoring requires pointing people in the direction of resources and contacts, and letting them seek out the tools they need. Like a parent, a mentor must stand at attention behind the curtain, poised to pull the nose up if the machine takes a dive.

I did my part so they could do theirs. The students ran that first conference, and they were giddy with pride. Emerging scholars traveled from around the region and country, and the event exceeded every one of its aspirations.

Then next year, two new students showed up at my office.

And the next.

Every year for four years, I bit back the “no.” I fought through weariness and overcame painful resistance to the colossal undertaking that has yet to appear on my job description. Every year for four years, I faced a fresh opportunity to hone my mentoring skills.

Every year for four years, I sat in on panel discussion and listened as new scholars shared research and ideas on everything from labor policy to gender violence. I watched my students shine as they handed out awards and tallied the number of attendees.

The conference grew. A major TV news personality gave a keynote. A student joined us from Japan. The organizers got hold of funding from other parts of the university. They joined forces with a larger student organization to pool talent and resources. Last year, they reached out to a major international policy association to find out about partnering on the conference. The association sent a representative to spend the day shaking hands and taking measure.

Then the big national association decides they want in.

And the world bucks under my students’ feet.

Four weeks ago.

They show up at my door.

“Help,” they say. “What does this letter mean?”

A fait accompli. The national association lays out a plan for a regional graduate student conference. It will be a consortium event with nine participating schools.

I read and re-read the letter. The phrase hostile takeover hisses through my brain. I look at their baffled faces. I look at the 472 other items in my inbox that are far more pressing than this.

I bite back the “no.”

I turn from my other work. “Come on in,” I say. “Let’s sit down.”

We do. I take a breath, rub my face, then begin.

“Okay,” I say. “What matters most?” I apply facilitation and advising techniques. I guide them through their complex and understandably histrionic responses. I help them hatch a plan of action. I sift around in myself for some kind of map, knowing that from my perch behind the curtain, what matters most is reflective practice. These students have before them a chance to manage conflict and lead change with strategic and effective dexterity.

I have before me a chance to help my students learn how to pull the levers. And how hard. And which way.

In the four weeks between that letter and the association’s big conference call, the students come by. They poke their heads in. Individually. Pairs and trios. They hover around the door. They want more.

I don’t have time for this crap. We’ve talked, we only know what we know, we’ll deal with it on the day of the call. I bite so hard against the “no” that I nearly split my tongue.

“Come on in,” I say. “What do you need?”

An ear, a sounding board, an easy out?

A firm grip? A soft word?

A hand?

“Enter that call like you’re sitting at the head of the table,” I say.

“Do your research,” I say. “How can you find the budget and planning models for the other two regional conferences?”

“What matters most to you?” I say.

“Write it down,” I say.

The day of the call, four of them come. We take over a room. They take over the call. The nine other people on it — faculty and administrators from both the national association and seven regional universities — wake right up when these students chime in. With force I’ve never heard in those emerging voices, the students lean in and articulate a clear vision. They name their questions as opportunities.

I sit back and watch it unfold.

The students have swagger and expertise. Halfway in, the faculty and administrators are directing all inquiries to them.

Somehow, the students claim every part of the shiny new regional conference they’d chosen to keep, and delegate every part of it they’d chosen to surrender.

At the end of the hour, folks on the call begin talking RFPs and laying out a timeline. One of the students interrupts. “I want to say how important it is to have students involved in the planning.”

Isn’t this a given? Apparently not. The nine other people on the call marvel and fumble.

“You mean on the steering committee?” someone asks.

“Sure,” I say.

“So, you mean students will be the ones voting on things? Actually planning everything?”

“Yes,” I say. I glance around the table. Four students are rolling their eyes and suppressing giggles.

“You feel comfortable leaving budget decisions in the hands of students?

To my left, one shoves an invisible gun in his mouth and pulls the trigger. Everyone else chokes back laughter.

“Look,” I say, leaning into speaker. “Students have built this thing and led this thing for four years on their own. All I’ve done is sign the forms. They are responsible and capable. I trust them completely.”

Silence on the phone. Beaming faces around the table. I take the advantage. “The thing is, our students need this experience. Academics, professionals, whatever they do after they leave school. This conference is supposed to be a learning experience. I figure, let them learn all of it.”

What I really want to say is Dude. People rise to the expectations you hold out for them. How high are you willing to go?

The grudging decision is to let each school figure out for itself who will represent it on the conference planning committee. We all know who will sit at the head of the table here.

And because no one is going to ask me, I can give my “no” a rest.

But only for a minute.

Because it’s clear that word is missing from my job description.
 

People Watching, Things I Can

66. Things I Can Cross: Campus at the Edge of Could

They sit on the grass in a loose circle. Rain has steamed the patches that remain to a fecund spill of harlequin and jade. The one with long hair and glasses is a swaying stem, her pod at the edge of splitting open. “He had a whole philosophy about the virtues,” she says. Her hands flit out to catch the round putty of this idea then stretch it out, out.

On these summer days when dusk falls near bedtime, the lunch hour employs a more forgiving clock. Two men in dusty coveralls striped with orange reflective tape sprawl on a bench next to chain link. A temporary enclosure wraps around campus like silver Christmas ribbon, knotted somewhere hidden, impossible to pull free. You’d have to find the shears. Behind them, a sign strapped to wire: Do Not Move Fence. Someone has not only tried but succeeded. The lousy lot of us — students and faculty and staff, our shared absence of virtue rendering us indistinguishable from one another — has such an excess of time on our hands (or perhaps a paucity of imagination when it comes to selecting a target for our disaffection) that we need reminding how to treat a fence.

The younger one is white, filmed with dust, his red goatee threaded to rust. He holds a phone — or the amalgam that now passes for a phone — aloft. A noise crackles from it. His buddy’s hair fans in every direction. He is black, though in this case the speciousness of the designation is even more palpable than usual. Dry soil has powdered them to an identical tone.

Race, of course, is about everything else that churns under the surface we imagine solid. It is thrumming here. In the way they speak, sit, gaze. The one on the left splays his legs and drapes his arms, one over a knee, the other along the back of the bench. The one on the right leans forward, stiff, holding the phone-like object. Whiteness and blackness is in this posture, this way of taking — or pretending not to take — the measure of passing students.

The crackling is a voice, a distant Barack Obama. The president’s unmistakable cadence, the falling and punctuated pauses, is carrying across a field of cameramen and wind, piped through the pinhole speaker next to the tiny screen now aloft in the younger man’s grip.

Has something happened? While I was in my lunchtime yoga activating the parasympathetic nervous system with happy baby, did another plate shift? Another city block catch fire? Another of my neighbors fall in the dark hush of a redacted narrative?

I look around at the others. The grass-bound circle of literary acolytes is now far behind me. Women perch on metal chairs outside the student center which houses a new Panera. This is the most popular lunch spot on campus despite a growing national suspicion of Bread’s intentions. A beauty in a creamsicle dress and platform heels turns heads like a stadium wave, collapsing construction worker and student into one undifferentiated hunger. The only ones oblivious to her liquid progress are two younger men striding past. They clutch the straps of their backpacks, heads bent at such an angle they almost meet at the temple. The one speaking rushes out words and stumbles over them. They hadn’t run it with the new numbers — that must be why — that’s why it turned out like that. Neither breaks stride as the sundress swirls across their path.

The president’s voice pings off leaf, satchel, water bottle, sunglasses. If something has happened, the light would scour this plaza instead of skidding as it does off bared calf and shoulder. The fountain would pound instead of froth, the faces furrow, the gazes tunnel into the things we call phones, seeking an answer or maybe a map in those digital libraries that far out-Alexandria Alexandria itself.

When it happens, whatever it is, so much we think is solid in this place will tumble like rockfall into the ravine through which we course. Momentum we imagined our earned and maybe even natural pace will back up behind that unthinkable-but-now-here flash of history. In that instant, downstream will transform into the bewildered trickle of a future uncertain how to fill the space it occupied when it was so lush, when it was able to slake the thirst not only of its own banks but of everything in us that came there to drink.

 

Uncategorized

Happy 100 Days: 88

At the end of a long Friday at the end of a long week, I am missing my son’s birthday dinner because I have to work late. This is really okay, I keep telling myself, because I took him out to breakfast at Bob Evans and walked him to school myself. We carried the brownies for snack time in a hand-painted shoe-box. I will see him for a few hours on Saturday, and I have taken the day off on Monday because his school is out even though my university is not. And we were up late and up early, and then there is the actual swimming-pool birthday party next weekend, and and and.
 
But it is 3:50pm on the Friday of my son’s birthday, and I am upstairs in the windowless meeting room rolling around pre-fab tables to prepare for a series of presentations by doctoral students on public policy research.
 
This is my job. I love my job. I love my doctoral students, and I am curious about their passions, even when they start growing breathless over things like “financial liberalization in emerging market economies and international capital flows.” Yes, even that.
 
Several times in any given month, I seat myself in a room like this and drink from the information fire-hose. Sometimes it is a dissertation proposal. Sometimes it is an actual dissertation defense, the candidate as crisp and polished as a new apple but damp at the temples and speaking too fast. At weekly brown-bag lectures, faculty members talk about their projects. Peppered throughout the year are seminars by visiting professors, mini-conferences, and workshops like these where budding scholars present current research in a faux-conference setting in order to prepare for the real thing.
 
This program does a fine job expanding analytic capabilities and policy expertise, but most of the PhD students are just sort of expected to figure out how to present. Some are further along the curve than others. I have been wowed by a couple of rising stars who have employed both art and editing to design trim presentations with moments of humor woven into tightly organized structures. Most, however, cram 197 words on a slide, whisper and “um” through 25 uninterrupted minutes, and slog through table after table swimming with microscopic bits of data. Without a hair of irony, they refer to the endogeneity vs. the exogeneity of their various stochastic models, and their committee members let them get away with this gobbedly-gook. Everyone in the room, it is assumed, understands this language (where do you think the students learned it?) and anyway, the rest of the feeble-minded masses can just sit in the back and smile pretty.
 
At most of these things, I try to pay attention to the presentation itself. Masters degree notwithstanding, I usually only kind sorta comprehend the first and last quarters of each presentation. The middle chunk? The part that starts when the chi-squared flashes up on the screen? That’s where my bulb dims. So, I shift gears and attend to the presenter’s tone, body language, slides, tempo. The topic is beyond me, but I hope to give the student decent feedback on areas of strength and potential improvement. I am a quasi advisor, after all, so it’s nice to have something about which to advise when the best I can offer on the subject matter is, “Love how you had both an independent and a dependent variable! Super cool!”
 
So now it’s 4:00pm on the Friday of my son’s birthday and we are starting late because a few faculty members who had volunteered to provide feedback are not here yet. The students are here. More show up to support their peers (At 4:00pm! On a sunny, 81-degree Friday!), then more, until almost every chair in the room is taken, and professors keep sneaking in and grabbing the coveted back-row seats. We all finish our supermarket cookies and settle in.
 
The first presenter begins.
 
And she is good.
 
I mean it. Good! Her topic is fascinating. She is a stronger speaker than when she started the program a year ago. Her research explores the relationship between childhood obesity and participation in certain kinds of leisure physical activity. Specifically, she asks whether spatially expansive activities (she explains, God bless her, that this means things that need lots of room to do, like soccer on a field) are more significantly correlated to low body mass than, say, activities like playing Wii, jumping rope, or even recreational swimming.
 
Relevant! Easy to follow! Her data, though problematic in ways that the peanut gallery discusses with her, are clear. She actually takes time to explain them. She even had the foresight to keep the research questions simple enough to tackle in a 20-minute presentation.
 
It is 4:35pm on the Friday of my son’s birthday. After a short break, the next presenter begins. I take a breath and prepare to busy myself with my to-do list. My list does not stand a chance. Another fascinating topic. This one is about land use in Lahore, Pakistan. He has big maps illustrating population growth in the developing world, and I learn all sorts of things about suburban sprawl, corruption, and the history of colonization.
 
By the third, presentation, I have stopped watching the clock. This one tracks the policy implications of the de-institutionalization of people with intellectual disabilities in Virginia. This, in a state with active institutions 40 years after the Supreme Court case that was supposed to do away with such approaches to the special needs population? Curious! Appalling! So much more to explore!
 
It is 5:35pm on the Friday of my son’s birthday. I have a heap of questions to ask every presenter, and we have to cut off discussion because half a dozen hands hover in the air, people are sitting forward in their seats, and we were supposed to be done five minutes ago. I help one of the student organizers pack up the equipment. “This was really so good,” I tell her. “This was the first one of these I’ve been to. . .” I stop, realizing I’m not sure how to say it without insulting the entire student body.
 
“Where all three presentation were actually interesting? I know!” She says, laughing. We fold up the cords and tuck them away. “Usually once the equations come up, I’m a goner,” she tells me sotto voce. “I know I’m supposed to understand that stuff, but boy, it’s nice to hear a presentation that doesn’t take so much work to follow.”
 
We grin together. She actually had to get a half-decent score on the GREs to get into this program, and I know she has received high grades in her statistics courses so far. It’s comforting to know the bright people I revere occasionally feel like dimwits.
 
It is 5:45pm on the Friday of my son’s birthday, and I explode out onto the sunny plaza and stride to the metro. On the ride home, I give myself the delicious pleasure of reading a Jonathan Lethem short story in a rumpled New Yorker I found in my office. I have missed my son’s birthday dinner, but traffic smiles on me and I catch Bug at home a few minutes before his dad comes to pick him up. We open the last of the presents. We cuddle on the couch and read a sweet little Patricia Polacco book called Mrs. Katz and Tush. Larnell shares a Kugel with Mrs. Katz who is alone on Passover after her Myron dies. (“My Myron,” she sighs. “What a person.”)
 
It is six years to the day after my son pushed his way into the world. Life looks absolutely nothing like I imagined it would. That night, someone dropped onto my naked chest a real boy. I felt him land there, that complete and living human, and I whispered, “Welcome to the world, little guy.”
 
The world, you know. Such as it is.
 
It is 10:40pm on the Friday of my son’s birthday, and I am alone in the spare room of my parent’s house. The night may not be as sweet as I expected, but oh, how rich the flavor.