19 September 2014

She mentioned Height-Ashbury. 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?"

27 January 2013

Hiring Faculty For the Uninitiated

Our department has not hired any new tenure track faculty for nearly a decade. We have been waiting for retirements and the accompanying salaries, and then we were waiting for the economic downturn to turnaround. Finally, and almost despite the dire state of our State's retirement fund, we are hiring junior faculty.

The hiring process within academe has its own rhythm and rituals.  We do follow all legal requirements applicable to hiring, but those human resource practices are only a small part of the process. The hiring process is closely tied to the academic year, which determines the timing and time limits.

As with any open position, a job announcement is developed. Academic job announcements function as job descriptions.  Unlike a job description, the faculty announcement tends to be created for each faculty opening, as though to explicitly explain how each new faculty will fill a unique niche within that academic unit. I don't recall ever seeing a faculty job description developed by HR and then distributed. That just seems like a weird idea in academia.

The work of developing the job announcement falls to the Search Committee. A group of faculty are chosen by the Department Chair, in the case of a departmental faculty opening, or by the Dean in the case of Department Chair search.  The group of 4-6 faculty do a considerable amount of work.  After drafting the position announcement, they develop criteria by which to select the top candidates. After reviewing the cover letter and curriculum vitea of each applicant, they list the top tier of candidates.  We  had over 125 applications; that's a lot of reading. The search committee then conducted phone interviews with the top12 applicants. From that pool, they invited 6 to come for a visit.


Notice that I said candidate visit, not interview, but calling it a "visit" is rather euphemistic. The applicant comes to meet with faculty, students, the search committee, the department chair, and to give a formal presentation on his/her program of research.  For the candidate, it can be a grueling day or day and a half agenda that includes breakfast, lunch and dinner meetings with key and interested individuals. During the visit, the candidate will also be on the "buying" side while the faculty, implicitly or explicitly, "sell" the position, themselves, and the academic unit.

In the end, the search committee gathers the impressions from faculty and submits a recommendation to the Department Chair. Then the salary and non-benefit befits negotiations begin. In the ideal situation, the Department hires the faculty's favorite candidate. But, there is no guarantee that the ideal happens. Worst case scenario is that no new faculty are hired and the whole process starts over the next academic year.

As you can see, this is not a quick process. It is a process that exemplifies the historical independence and self-governance of faculty, at least in the US and UK. It is a process intended to be democratic and deserving of a secure future. It is a process that can generate excitement and enthusiasm among a stably stagnant faculty body. It is a process that is long over due in my academic unit and about which I am hopeful.