26 September 2014

Conference Learning

Earlier this month, I attended the state public health association meeting. The location changes each year, moving around the state in a effort to engage a broader audience of individuals who work in local health departments. Attendees included dental assistants, directors and administrators of the health department, environmental engineers, public health nurses, medical directors, and health educators; to name a few.

I've now been to such meetings in three different states over my career. These state meetings are interesting in several ways.

The ratio of practitioners to academics favors practitioners, unlike many large public health conferences. What that means is the conversation differs from what you hear at the large academic conferences. The conversation stays close to "what does this mean for agency and my clients?" The desire and inclination to mimic a successful neighbor creeps into the thinking. While this maybe helpful, it may not be completely thoughtful. It does reflect the reality that the most visible evidence is likely to be what my immediate peers are doing, rather than the latest RCT published in an expensive, inaccessible academic journal.

The scope of problems stays local, not national or global. Local epidemiological data guide attention mainly to health conditions for which the local situation is near the bottom (worst).  The thinking takes the form of: If the problem is not in my backyard, I don't have the energy, resources, or time to worry about it.  This is by no means a critique. When resources are tight, it's a practical approach.

The other interesting angle centers around an underlying desire to find "what works." This might include finding ways to leverage connections to academics. Across the nation the culture has been shifting away from "ivory tower vs real work" toward "let's collaborate." Naturally, such a culture shift take time for complete uptake. But, I view the shift as a positive one, and one that I tried to help along.

Going to such meetings is always humbling for me.  I enjoy being reminded of what the details really look like. And, I have multiple opportunities to silently practice empathy.

19 September 2014

She mentioned Height-Ashby. That launched the conversation into a history lesson, beginning with the question: What is the curve of discoveries over the past 150 years? Linear? Exponential? Flat?  The surprise to me was how difficult it was for the graduate students (ages mid-20's to mid-30's) to name inventions. Their lack of a deep modern time scale and of milestones along that scale leaves them without a past that exceeds their first Facebook post. This has some of us as faculty worried, concerned. Why?

What's the value of knowing when the telephone was invented? Or the silicone chip? And how long was that after the transistor radio had been invented? Or, how long before the internet was created? What difference does it make to decision making or the development of scholarship to know when the birth control pill became available in the U.S.? And how long was that before the beginning of the AIDS epidemic?

It matters that they don't know Walt Whitman or Woody Guthrie. It leaves them with a diminished appreciation for the amount of suffering, effort, sweat, and failures it took to get to the amenities, the freedoms, and the opportunities of today. It distorts the distribution of effort across historical figures and those on the edge of their shadows. It makes shallow our culture, rather than deepening it. It leaves us all with fewer and weaker cultural references. Weaker too in the sense of not understanding nor appreciating the distance, differences over time.

The big inventions (e.g., nuclear fission) and the small inventions (e.g.,gram stains) have collectively changed how we as humans live, especially those of us who live in wealthier, more developed countries. That change in living logistics comes with changes in culture, relationships, and expectations about the future. And, therein lies the rub...

22 August 2014

Readiness and Capable

In my role as the Director of a PhD program, one of my responsibilities is to over see the student admission process. In general, the admission process follows the standard formula.  Students submit an online application which includes transcripts, standardized scores, letters of reference, and a personal statement.

The entire packet is reviewed by a committee of faculty. We consider past performance, career goals, and the fit of applicant's research interests with the existing expertise of faculty. We do our best to be fair, meaning equitable and balanced. Assessing the capabilities of potential students to complete the program tends to be somewhat straightforward using the quantitative information in the packet. What tends to be more difficult to assess is the psychological and financial readiness of a potential student. We don't ask for financial information in the application packet, nor do we do conduct psychological readiness tests. We have to rely on the personal statement and what the potential student reveals about the desire to be in a doctoral program and what has lead to his or her decision to apply.

I wish I could say that Admissions Committees always make perfect decisions. But, nothing in life is perfect. We do tend to be pretty good at making the accept/deny admission decisions. We want our students to succeed by graduating and we would not intentionally accept an applicant who is not likely to finish.

We can make a decision error based on misjudging the applicant's capability to do the work; such students tend not to finish either at the Exam or the dissertation stages. We also can make an error based on misjudging the applicant's readiness for the 4-7 year intellectual and financial commitment of being a doctoral student. These students can drop out or merely fade away at any point in the program.

Ultimately, the Admissions Committee strives for decisions that become win-win's for the student and for the faculty how have foster the student through the program.

08 August 2014

Change and Differences

People have been asking, "so, how was your first year?"  I reply, "I'm glad my first year is over." Then I explain that although I think I did okay, I'm glad to be past finding a new doctor, new dentist, new hairdresser, new dry cleaner, new nearby gas station, and a new route to the airport. These are the little realities that come along with having moved across country for a new faculty position.

How was my first year in my new faculty role? That's really what others want to know. When pressed on the issue, I usually talk about the differences I noticed between institutions. Change always seems to highlight differences ~

Travel arrangements and reimbursements: do it yourself online versus having a secretary do it all a month in advance and on paper.

Budgeting: carry-over funds across fiscal years versus zero out accounts two months before the end of the fiscal year.

Student advising: ad hoc process of notifying students of availability versus putting advising hours in the online advising schedule.

Parking: one hanging tag with annual new little dates and a swipe card versus a radio frequency hanging tag that is replaced each year.

Student textbooks: university owned and run bookstore versus Barnes and Noble as the bookstore.

Graduate School: no coordination across program directors versus quarterly meetings of all graduate program directors from across campus.

Clearly, one side or other is not better, just different. But, it's coming to accept the differences, embracing the accompanying learning curve, and getting fluent in the new jargon that makes it no longer the first year.

As campus fills with the new students, new faculty, new enthusiasm, new anticipations, and new hopes, I feel ready to step from being the new faculty to being the old faculty.

06 September 2013

Moving Across Country

My absence for the blogosphere has ended. Happily.  As of August 1, I started a new position at University of North Carolina at Charlotte, as Director of a new PhD program in public health sciences. I'll write more about starting a new job in my next post. This week, I want to reflect on what it means to move across the country.

I had lived in Chicago for 16 years. The longest I had ever lived anywhere. Illinois was the 5th state I had lived in, after Texas, Oregon, Washington, and California. I had a home and a house, and felt settled and, in some ways, living on cruise control. Accepting a new position meant selling my house and buying a new house.  Going through each of those events felt nerve racking for a day or two.  Once I had a new address, the move began in earnest. 

Physically packing and unpacking, making the change of address on innumerable websties, waiting in lines to get new forms and licenses, all heightened my awareness of the federalism that is the United States. Federalism rarely surfaces in our daily lives. I hold a passport from the USA, not from the state I live in. Federalism surfaces in ways  that may be too obvious to actually notice. Consider who is listed on the ballots we mark; local, state and federal candidates.

When I give talks to international audiences, as I did in Italy last year and Ireland last month, I compare the United States to the European Union. Until you have live in more than one state, the comparison may seem peculiar. The reality is that federalism is alive and quite healthy in the United States. Witness the licensure laws. Each state governs my practice as a registered nurse. Yes, there is a national examination, but you are licensed  by the state, not the federal government. Each state has its own driving laws and collects fees for being licensed in that state. Each state dictates drinking age and selling of liquor.  Each state has its separate retirement system for its state employees, which includes me. The national retirement system, Social Security, barely provides income "security."

Federalism has deep, obvious as well as hidden public health implications.The breadth of those implications would take more than a 3 semester hour course to fully address. For me, the tension  between state and federal government, the ways that we as a nation acknowledge and deal with those tensions, and the subsequent range (some might say disparities) in availability of services and supports across this nation can serve an international model. The USA and the EU stand as exemplars as ways to achieve economies of scale while maintaining local autonomies.  Yes, it is a royal pain to get relicensed, but I'll suffer those very transitory inconveniences for the vast benefits of living in a healthy federalism.

In this light, from this perspective, what does it really mean to "move across the country?"