Tom Waits on collaboration

November 24, 2011

“How do you and your wife split songwriting chores?

It’s an adventure. You’ve got a flashlight, I’ve got the map. You hold the nail, I’ll swing the hammer. You wash, I’ll dry. If two people know the same thing, one of you is unnecessary. My wife has dreams and is telepathic and clairvoyant and female. I write from the news or what I see in my field of vision. I’m boots and hats and pocketknives. She’s filled with musical and lyrical surprises. She’s a joy to work with.”

From Tom Wait’s Library


5 essentials for that committee meeting

October 4, 2007


Congratulations. You now have five academics that have agreed to mentor you as work toward your degree. Although not usually the most socially adept barnacles on the rock, academics expect to occasionally find themselves dragged from their lab benches, their desks, and their comfy “thinking-chairs”, to work with you, as a group, to advise you on your path. Here are a few tips to make the meeting go smoothly.

Read the rest of this entry »

The cost of our freedom is self-evaluation

February 3, 2007

referee_no_good.jpgJohn over at Stranger Fruit has a little blurb that is important reading. For some background, consider that the American university is rather unique, in that money comes from the legislature with few strings attached. In turn for this “academic freedom” Society expects us to monitor ourselves through regular internal and external review (think of it as “trial by a jury of your peers”). And just as citizens have to occasionally drop everything and perform jury duty, academics have to perform “service”, with this self-evaluation being both important and onerous:

Contrary to the impressions of some, academics have to justify their existence and the annual self-evaluations have to be read, judged, and commented upon by their peers. And unfortunately, this year I am one of those peers. So, along with class preps, theses drafts and the normal stuff to take care of, I have to work my way through a bunch of my colleagues’ self-evaluations and the evaluations that their students wrote of them. All to generate an evaluation within two weeks. *sigh*

Bear in mind John will likely write an evaluation about each fellow faculty member, based on their self-reporting and those of her students–often grumpy, often deservedly so. These evaluations will need to be synthesized and summarized by all members of the evaluation committee. One product is a personalized report delivered to each member of the faculty, usually with some form of a grade, upon which little things like salary raises and promotions are based. And many faculty, ever sensitive to perceived inequities, will read those reports and wonder what grade everybody else got. And everybody knows who was on the evaluation committee that year….

Sigh indeed.

UPDATE 3Feb07–2:34PM: This post was extensively rewritten as the first version generally sucked.  😉

When creationists and evolutionary biologists work together

January 17, 2007

One key to changing minds is first finding common ground.

“We dare to imagine a world in which science and religion cooperate, minimizing our differences about how Creation got started to work together to reverse its degradation,” Rev. Richard Cizik, vice president for governmental affairs of the National Association of Evangelicals, said at the announcement in Washington, D.C.

Toward assembling a committee, Part 2

January 8, 2007

Small is good
Small can be good when it comes to collaborations.

If creativity is a two part process:

1) generating lots of ideas, and
2) recognizing and going with the best ones,

then we begin to see where committees and collaborations can go wrong. Large groups of people, by definition, are going to produce more ideas than small groups, but for a given problem faced, you will have a law of diminishing returns. You can’t continue to double the number of ideas by doubling the number of group members.

Optimum group size for creativity

Its the recognition of good ideas, though, that is the real problem. Granted, small numbers of people can act as a reality check on any one person’s vision. But big groups have trouble coming to any consensus, and when they do, it tends to favor the lowest common denominator or the status quo. Call it the “buddies leaving the bar and trying to decide what restaurant to go” effect. Or imagine your family going to rent a video for the evening.

So if we assume that the collection of good ideas is a product of their generation and recognition, we find that the optimum group size is 1) small and 2) particularly sensitive to the recognition curve. How do we apply this? When putting together a committee or a collaboration…

Think small groups: consider every new person, not just as another brain to pick, but as a possible hindrance in coming to a solution.

Think small egos: you want folks who are interested in recognizing and promoting the best solution, not necessarily their solution.

Think early investment for big returns: the more important the task (i.e., overseeing your PhD) the more research you do. Who gets along with who? Who always wants to be included, and is sensitive to slights, real or imagined? What role will each play?

Think scheduling: Nothing beats a face to face conversation, and even instant messaging requires everybody to be at their computers with broadband access at the same time. Every new person you add to your group eats away at the ability to bring folks together. And that was the whole point, right?

Toward assembling a committee, Part 1

January 7, 2007

yecchYou want to see a professor wince? Randomly insert the word “committee” into a conversation. Just try it.

Truth is, most of us have a love-hate relationship with committees. Collaborations with colleagues are essential, and in your research, you will find that many of the most interesting questions can only be addressed when you bring people on board. But how do you put together committees toward generating something creative? Specifically, how many people do you assign to a task?

What you’re up against: An observation in the form of a stupid joke.
“What do faculty meetings and spackle have in common?”. Answer: They are amazingly efficient fillers. Put a bunch of faculty around a table for an hour, throw out any topic sentence, and wait. Someone will comment. Then someone will expand on that comment. Then someone will qualify it. Then someone will tell a lame joke who’s real intent is to slam the second commenter. Pretty soon, hours up!

A general principle: Creativity is a two-part process.
Its about generating a lot of ideas and then culling that list down to the good ones.

An insight: The Dumbness of Crowds arises from a creativity imbalance
Kathy Sierra gives plenty of examples as to how, if you are putting together a group of people to creatively solve a problem, more ain’t necessarily better. Why? I suspect its partly due to the Creativity Principle. We want to get lots of input, lots of ideas. But the process of recognizing the best ideas is hampered by the very group size that generated them in the first place. In part, we want to be nice: there are no “bad ideas”, everyone can contribute, that sort of thing. But as Sierra points out,

Art isn’t made by committee.

Great design isn’t made by consensus.

True wisdom isn’t captured from a crowd.

We leave this topic for now with an excellent example of design by committee, with a bit of a swipe at Microsoft (which is always fun).  In the meantime, any good committee horror stories?

Cultivating your 24-hour buddies

December 28, 2006

BuddyHollyOne of the most useful things for an academic is rapid honest criticism. Honest, because having a colleague delude you with praise into sending a manuscript off when its not ready wastes everybody’s time, and
Rapid because, well, we do want to get these manuscripts off our desk and into the arena. This is not to say that every manuscript doesn’t deserve a rest period sometime during its gestation–allowing it to sit in its folder and ferments a bit. But at some point, you’ve got to get that suckka off your desk. But it still needs that one critical read. Who ya gonna call?

Your 24-hour buddies, that’s who. These are the carefully selected cadre of colleagues whose work you enjoy and whose opinion you respect. They don’t have to do exactly what you do–in fact, its better that they have some distance from your research area (better to spot the jargon). These are your go-to guys and gals, when you want quick feedback. 24-hour feedback. What’s in it for them? The same deal: 24-h turnaround on a manuscript. This is a MARs pact: Mutual Assured Reviews.

To make this work smoothly–because we’re all incredibly busy, right;-)?–there are two ground rules:

1) Email one of your 24-hour buddies and ask for the 24-hour treatment. If she responds yes, you send her the manuscript right away.

2) Within 24 h she sends you a short email review. Now this is not an in-depth, nit-picky review. This is a read-it-in-one-sitting-composing-the-email-as-you-go review, in which your 24-h buddy tells you what she thinks the paper is about, the red-flags that caught her eye, and a journal or two where she thinks it would fit.

In short, its your last opportunity for a mid-course correction before you dive into the last-stage of spellcheck, citation check, and formatting for the journal. And it is a rare day in the week when you can’t carve out an hour, by moving things around, when a 24-h buddy comes a callin’.

And did I say that you get it the paper back in 24 hours?