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Power, responsibility, maps and plans: some lessons from being a Chair

Empty chair

I've reached the end of my first week of not Chairing the School of Computing & Information Systems here at Athabasca University, which is now in the capable hands of the very wonderful Ali Dewan.

Along with quite a few people that I know, I am amazed that I stuck it out for over 3 years. I was a most reluctant Chair in the first place, because I'd been in middle management roles before and knew much of what to expect. It's really not my kind of thing at all. Ideologically and temperamentally I loathe hierarchies but I'd rather be at the top or at the bottom if I have to be in one at all. However, with the help of some cajoling, I eventually convinced myself that being a Chair is essentially much the same as being a teacher, which is an activity that I both enjoy and can mostly do reasonably well. Like a teacher (at least one that does the job well), the job of a Chair is to help nurture a learning community, and to make it possible for those in that community to achieve what they most want to achieve with as few obstacles as possible. Like teaching, it is not at all about telling, but about listening, supporting, and helping others to orchestrate the process for themselves, not so much about leadership as followership, about being a supportive friend. It's a bit about nudging and inspiring, too, of sharing the excitement of discovery and growth with other people. It's a bit about challenging people to be who they want to be, collectively and individually. It's a bit about solving problems, a bit about being a shoulder to cry on, a bit about being a punchbag for those needing to let off steam, an arbiter in disputes. It could be fun. And I could always give it up after a few months if it didn't work out. That was what I convinced myself.

On the bright side, I don't think that I broke anything vital. I did help a couple of good things to happen, and I think that most of my staff were reasonably happy and empowered, a few of them more than before. One or two were probably less happy. But, in the grand scheme of it all, I left things much the same as or a little better than I found them, despite often strenuous efforts to bring about far more exciting changes. My tenure as Chair was, on the whole, not great, but not terrible. I have been wondering a bit about why that happened, and what I could or should have done differently, which is what the next part of this post is about.

Authority vs influence, responsibility vs power

One of my most notable discoveries (more accurately, rediscoveries) is that authority and responsibility barely, if at all, correlate with power and influence. In fact, for a middle management role like this, the precise inverse is true. One of the strange paradoxes of being in a position of more responsibility and authority has been that, in many ways, I feel that I've actually had considerably less capacity to bring about change, or to control my own life, than I had as a plain old professor.  It's just possible that I may have overused the joke about a Chair being the one everyone gets to sit on, but it resonated with me. And this is not to contradict Uncle Ben's sage advice to Spiderman - it may be true that with great power comes great responsibility, but that doesn't mean that with great responsibility comes great power.

Partly the problem was just the myriad small but draining demands that had to be done throughout the course of a typical day (most of which were insufferably tedious and mostly mindless bureaucratic tasks that anyone else could do at least as well), as well as having to attend many more meetings, and to engage in a few much lengthier tasks like workload planning. It wore me down. I put a lot of things that were important to me, but that didn't contribute to my role, to one side because there were too few chunks of uninterrupted time to do them. Blogging and sharing on social media, for instance.

Partly it was because I felt that my role was primarily to support those that reported to me - I had to do their bidding much more than they had to do mine. Instead of doing what I would intrinsically wish to do, much of the time I was trying to do what those that I supervised required of me. This was not just a result of my own views on leadership. I think a lot of it would have affected most people in the same position.

Partly it was because I often felt (with a little external reinforcement) that I must shut up and/or toe the line because I represented the School or the Dean or the University. Being the 'face' of the school meant that I often felt obliged to try to represent the opinions and demands of others, even when I disagreed with them. Often, I had to present a collective agenda, or that of an individual higher up the foodchain, rather than my own, whether or not I found it dull, mistaken, or pointless. Also, being a Chair puts you in some sensitive situations where a wrong step can easily lead to litigation, grievance proceedings, or (worse) very unhappy people. I'm not naturally tactful or taciturn, to say the least, so this was tricky at times. I sometimes stayed quiet when I might otherwise have spoken out.

The upshot of it is that, as a Chair, I was directly responsible both to my Dean and to the people I supervised (not to mention more or less directly to students, visitors, admins, tech staff, VPAs, etc, etc), and I consequently felt that I had very little control over my own life at all. Admittedly it was at least partly due to my very intentional approach to the role, but I think similar issues would emerge no matter what leadership style I had adopted. There's a surprising amount of liberty in being at the bottom of a hierarchy, at least when (like all academics) you are expected - nay, actually required - to be creative, self-starting, and largely autonomous in your work. Academic freedom is a wonderful thing, and some of it is subdued when you move a little way up the scale.

Some compensations 

There have been plentiful compensations, of course. I wouldn't have stayed this long if it had been uniformly awful. Being a Chair made some connections easier to make, within and beyond the university, and has helped me get to know my colleagues a lot better. And I have some great colleagues: it would have been much harder to manage had I not had such friendly, supportive, smart, creative, willing, and capable team to work with. I solved or at least made fair progress on a few problems, none huge but all annoying, and helped to lay the groundwork for some ongoing improvements. There were opportunities for creativity here and there. I will miss some of the ways I could help shape our values and systems simply thanks to being a Chair, rather than having to actually work at it. I'll miss being the default person people came to with interesting ideas. I'll miss the very small but not trivial stipend. I'll miss being involved by default in most decisions that affect the school. I'll miss the kudos. I'll miss being a formal hub in a network, albeit a small one.

Not quite like teaching

In most ways I was right about the job being much like teaching. Most of the skills, techniques, goals, and patterns are very similar, but there's one big difference that I had not thought enough about. On the whole, most actual teachers engage with learners over a fairly fixed period, or at least for a fixed project, and there is a clear beginning, middle, and end, with well defined rituals, rules, and processes to mark their passage. This is even true to an extent of more open forms of teaching like apprenticeship and mentorship. Although this in some ways relates to any kind of project, the fact that people, working together in a social group, are both the focus and the object of change, makes it fairly distinctive. I can't think of many other human activities that are particularly similar to teaching in this regard, apart from perhaps some team sports or, especially, performing arts.

To be a teacher without a specific purpose in mind is a surprisingly different kind of activity, like producing an improvised play that has no script, no plot, no beginning, and no end. Although a teacher is responsible to their students, much as I was responsible to my staff, the responsibility is tightly delimited in time and in scope, so it remains quite manageable, for the most part. In retrospect, I think I should have planned it better. I probably should have set more distinct goals, milestones, tasks, sub-projects, etc. I should have planned for a very clear and intentional end, and set much firmer boundaries. It would not have been easy, though, as many goals emerged over the years, a lot changed when we got our new (and much upgraded) administration, and a lot depended on serendipity and opportunism. I had, at first, no idea how long I would stick with the role. Until quite some time into it, I had only a limited idea about what changes I might even be allowed to accomplish (not much, as it happens, with no budget, a freeze on course development, diminishing staff numbers, need to fit faculty plans, etc). It might have been difficult to plan too far ahead, though it would have been really useful to have had a map showing the directions we might have gone and the limits of the territory. I think there may be useful lessons to be learned from this about support for self-directed lifelong learning.

Lessons for learning and teaching

A curse of institutional learning can be the many scales of rigid structure it provides, that too often take agency away from learners and limit support for diversity. However, it also supports an individual learner's agency to have a good map of the journey ahead, even if all that they are given is the equivalent of a bus route, showing only the fixed paths their learning will take. I have long grappled with the tensions and trade-offs between surfing the adjacent possible and following a planned learning path. I spent a lot of time in the late 1990s and early 2000s designing online systems that leveraged the crowd to allow learners to help one another to learn, but most of them only helped with finding what to do next, or to solve a current problem, not to chart a whole journey. Figuring out an effective way to plan ahead without sacrificing learner control was one of the big outstanding research problems left to be solved when I finished my PhD (in self-organized learning in networks) very many moons ago, and it still is. There are lots of ineffective ways that I and others have tried, of course. Obvious approaches like matching paths through collaborative filtering or similar techniques are a dead-end: there are way too many extraneous variables to confound it, way too much variation in start and end points to effectively cater for, even if you start with a huge dataset. This is not to mention the blind-leading-the-blind issues, the fact that learning changes people so past activity poorly predicts future behaviour, and the fact that there is often a narrative context that assumes specific prior activities have occurred and known future activities will follow. Using ontologies is even worse, because the knowledge map of a subject developed by subject experts is seldom if ever the best map for learning and may be among the worst. The most promising approaches I have seen, and that I had a doctoral student working on myself until he had to give up in the mid 2000s, mine the plans of many experts (e.g. by looking at syllabuses) to identify common paths and branches for a particular subject, combining them with whatever other information can be gleaned to come up with a good direction for a specific learner and learning need. However, there are plenty of issues with that, too, not least of which being the fact that institutional teaching assumes a very distinctive context, and suffers from a great many constraints (from having to be squashed into a standardized length to fitting preferred teaching patterns and schedules), that learners unhindered by such arbitrary concerns would neither want nor need. Many syllabuses are actually thoughtlessly copied from the same templates (e.g. from a professional association model syllabus), or textbooks, and may be awful in the same ways. And, again, narrative matters. If you took a chunk out of one of my courses and inserted it somewhere else it would often change its meaning and value utterly.

This is a problem I would dearly love to solve. Though I stand by my teaching approaches, one of the biggest perennial complaints about the tools and methods I tend to use is that it is easy to feel lost, especially if the helping hands of others are not around when needed. There are always at least a few students who would, as a matter of principle, rather be told what to do, how to do it, and where to go next. The majority would prefer to work in an environment that avoids the need for unnecessary decisions, such as where to upload a file, that have little to do with what they are trying to learn. My role (and that of my tutors, and the design of my courses) is to help them through all that, to relieve them of their dependency on being told what to do, and to help them at least understand why things are done the way they are done. However, that can result in quite inconsistent experiences if I or tutors let the ball slip for a moment. It can be hard for people who have been taught, often over decades, that teaching is telling, and that learning can reliably be accomplished by following a set of teacher-determined steps, to be set adrift to figure it out in their own ways.

It is made far worse by the looming threat of grades that, though eliminated in my teaching itself, still lie in wait at the end of the path as extrinsic targets. Students often find it hard to know in advance how they will meet the criteria, or even whether they have met them when they reach the end. I can and do tell them all of this, of course, usually repeatedly and in many ways and using many media, but the fact that at least some remain puzzled just proves the point: teaching is not telling. Again, a lot of manual social intervention is necessary. But that leads to the issue that following one of my courses demands a big leap of faith (mainly in me) that it will turn out OK in the end. It usually takes effort and time to build such trust, which is costly for all concerned, and is easily lost with a careless word or a missed message.  It would be really useful for my students to have a better map that allows them to plan detours and take more alternative transit options for themselves, especially with overlays to show recommended routes, warnings of steep hills and traffic, and real-time information about the whereabouts of people on their network and points of interest along the way. It would, of course, also be really handy to have a big 'you are here' label.  I would have really liked such a map when I started out as Chair.

Moving on

Leaving the Chair role behind still feels a little like stepping off a boat after a rough voyage, and either the land or my legs feel weird, I'm not sure which. As my balance returns, I am much looking forward to catching up with things I put to one side over the past 3 years. I'm happy to be getting back to doing more of what I do best, and I hope to be once more sharing more of my discoveries and cogitations in posts like this. It's easier to move around with your feet on the ground than when you are sitting on a chair.

 

Jon Dron

Jon Dron

professional learner
About me

I am a full professor and former Chair of the School of Computing & Information Systems, and a member of The Technology-Enhanced Knowledge Research Institute at Athabasca University. I am one of...

Comments

  • From the student prospective, I appreciate how approachable, open, and honest you were as the chair along with you continuing to be so with your reflection in this post. At all times I felt you were a strong advocate for students' interests and I don't expect this to change.

    Re: COMP266-like course design, as a student who strives to get 95%+, it can be daunting only receiving a mark at the end of the course as it can be difficult to determine how much effort to expend. Grade anxiety led me to put even more effort into this course when I tend to already put too many hours in for diminishing returns. (I ended up dropping it when I got a f/t job as I switched to a C++ course instead as it was immediately needed, but it's on my list to take this year.)

    It helps, however, that the course allows one to contact a tutor for feedback especially relating to project scope (and to know one is on the right track). And so while I love the autonomy (especially if I end up being able to do a work-based project for the course), this really strikes home the importance of letting go of grade seeking to embrace learning instead. High grades should be the result of learning and not the aim and your course design is slowly helping drive this home to me although I can be a slow learner and may need further lessons in this regard. ;)

    Thanks for all the work you do with your courses and your ability to self-reflect without letting your ego get in the way. I'm excited to read your future blog posts and see what you do next as you reshuffle your priorities and have extra time to reflect and work on what you are passionate about.

    Jennifer Davies February 9, 2019 - 4:50pm

  • Thank you Jennifer! One of my tasks between now and the start of my sabbatical in July is to revise COMP266 so I really appreciate the comments. The new version will take the student control aspect even further (for instance more flexibility in providing evidence, the option to pick or create some of you own learning outcomes rather than those I chose) but I'm hoping that it will also offer a bit more structure for those (and only those) that need it. My current quandary is about the fact that I want to make use of version control tools to eliminate some of the need to manually provide evidence of the process, to provide more authentic and useful cooperative learning opportunities, to provide more really useful experience of how software developers really work, to avoid risks of lost work, and to build a hard-to-fake audit trail, but at the same time to avoid the steep learning curves and risks of disaster that tend to attend such tools. If you have any advice, I'm very open to suggestions!

    Jon Dron February 9, 2019 - 7:18pm

  • Oh interesting! Would you be able to ping me once the version is in? I'd love to be one of the first students to take it for drive. :)  I've gotten many AU courses approved by work for 2019 for reimbursement - COMP266 is currently 3rd on the list but I could take it later to wait for the revision. 

    I recall we once had a conversation about using version control tools like Git where you mentioned the added dififculties of rules concerning server locations, etc. I believe you were considering hosting your own Git server? I've only ever used Git with Bash and have no experience with other version control solutions.

    It would be quite interesting if instead of just posting on the forum to help other students that we could also review each other's code, create a branch and a pull request for our changes to be merged. And it would be neat to have the option for group projects (Group work would need to be optional as even if students had the same start date, some may aim to finish in 4 weeks, others 4 months).

    One option to help students get acquainted with git (or whatever you choose) would be to create a site listing students' project websites (perhaps with the TA being the owner). Students could then create a branch, add their url / description to the page, submit a pull request, etc. It could make for a simple/painless introduction for them.

    Time to tuck in the kid. We'll talk more later. :)

    Jennifer Davies February 9, 2019 - 8:34pm

  • I'll surely let you know, thanks Jennifer!

    Yes, the branching and pulling approach you suggest is pretty much exactly the cooperative pattern I have in mind, though collaborative group projects as such are mostly out of reach, thanks to self-pacing. I'd not want to prevent it if it occurred - I just couldn't require it. I also intend to provide some default bits of both client- and server-side code that people can simply drop in for stuff like AJAX etc, as well as to provide (largely optional) scaffolding to get started. It will make the 'fix the broken page' exercise way more straightforward, and all the stuff about reusing and repurposing code will be so much easier to track. Right now it is way too easy for students to forget to tell us which bits are theirs, which is bad whether they accidentally commit plagiarism or whether we miss the smart things they have done to improve it. As you know, the course very much applauds intelligent reuse but it's often hard to see the students' own contributions.

    Self-hosted Git is an option, as is use of the version control service provided by AWS (we have an arrangement with Amazon so I guess we might as well use it) but I'm still struggling with that: the server side is easy enough, but most client tools are too complex and/or flaky for beginners with other more important things to learn about. Finding something simple, learnable, and reliable enough, but with enough features to do the social thing, and that doesn't prevent high-fliers or those with existing experience from taking it further, is the big blocker at the moment.  Now that I have more time, I mean to spend a few days over coming weeks doing some deep investigation of the very many options. In an ideal world, as well as something foolproof, powerful, and easy, I'd like to find something with good social tool integration and Landing-like per-post/branch/project access control, but that might be tricky. If I had more time and resources I might build a plugin to do it, or to do it the other way round (embed Git, Mercurial, whatever in the Landing) but I fear I may have to make a compromise or two on that for now.

    Jon Dron February 10, 2019 - 10:59am

  • Jon,

    I really enjoyed your reflection on having been (yeah, past tense) the Chair. 

    Your experience was definitely consistent with mine time as Chair for a couple of years a couple of years ago.

    I am also very interested, as I think you know, in the same area of research. I wish you well on the next adventure, and hope we get a chance to collaborate.

    Gerald Ardito February 10, 2019 - 2:00pm

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