team science part two

This follows an earlier post on team science, which considered the growing share of research problems that don’t seem solvable by lone researchers.

For universities this is unfortunate because our inherited structures of higher education, things like the nested hierarchies of colleges and departments, and rules for faculty promotion and tenure, assume that people’s research, scholarship, and creative activity is compartmentalized and easy to attribute to individuals.

As the frontiers of knowledge get more complicated and interdisciplinary, new research looks less and less like the model we’re set up for.

This week a joint UC-CSU project called CREDITS met at Lake Arrowhead to consider team science. Participants were half faculty and half administrators, and heard from experts in the ways research groups form, function, and sometimes unravel.


Such retreats are a privilege of jobs like mine, of course – the idea that you leave your daily routines to meet and hash out alternate approaches to the whole machinery is almost dizzyingly rarefied.

But my own purpose was very down to earth: as academic administrators we regularly need to evaluate the work of people in disciplines we don’t know much about, and traditionally we’ve done that by deferring to the opinions of other experts in the same field. So if an entomologist is up for some kind of recognition or promotion, you ask other entomologists if the candidate’s work appears in reputable bug journals.

Such expedients fail in a world of team science, where a breakthrough may be celebrated outside of the faculty member’s home discipline, and result from an effort with dozens, or sometimes thousands, of teammates. How do you know what’s worthwhile, if the seminal understanding in “ant routing” was appreciated less by other ant scientists but more by UPS dispatchers, management theorists, and environmentalists?

This question of appropriate attribution goes beyond trophies and certificates: in tenure cases it’s literally someone’s job at stake.

credits-1So that’s what I was watching for.

On the administrator track I saw presentations from Kyle Lewis, Dan Stokols, Maritza Salazar, and Renee Rottner, whose own work is itself interdisciplinary, serving as examples as well as guidance. They draw from sociology, psychology, mathematics, counseling, and management, among other fields. But what struck me about their research wasn’t just its varied source materials, but also the numerous ways it’s been applied.

That is, each has consulted to private businesses, philanthropy, and multiple branches of the military – pretty much anyone trying to organize collective action. Recognizing their work appropriately isn’t just a matter of checking for citations among other team-science thinkers, or bylines in the Quarterly Journal of Cooperation-ology. On the contrary, their contributions are important precisely because they transcend the boundaries of expertise, and are applied by people in other fields.

I think there are implications in that for higher ed, and that our tenure committees – or for that matter our graduate programs and department curriculum committees – might do a better job of recognizing significant contributions if they included people from other departments, or even from outside of colleges and universities altogether.

We include some external evaluators already, in things like tenure review and grant applications. So what I’m calling for isn’t a difference of paradigm so much as of emphasis. The cases I’ve participated in consider expertise the real litmus test, and use outside triangulation as a kind of corroboration after the fact.

Maybe it’s time we reverse that.


what filmmaking teaches

Before working in higher education I worked in film, as a writer and small-time producer. So when I concluded that such a background is excellent preparation for a particularly 21st century skill set, I dismissed it as personal bias. After all, movie making isn’t a new business.


But it has struck me more than once that the virtues of teamwork, ad hoc and project-based relationships, and personal expression are at a new premium.

NYT HollywoodThis was corroborated about a year ago in a New York Times article on Hollywood and the Future of Work, making me feel a little less parochial.

So having read that and thought about it I’ll go the rest of the way, and add that a background in filmmaking is also excellent preparation for academic administration in particular. Bear with me.

Faculty, advisors, and program leads are artists, whose individual areas of expertise are no more available to me than those of a cinematographer or gaffer. For a producer, just as for a campus administrator, about the best you can do is chart a clear course and then try to get people the equipment they need. For me, there was nothing jarring about joining an enterprise of shared governance, where the decision-making authority is distributed across the rank and file. Movies really can’t happen otherwise.

Now that I’m off the campus backlot altogether and in a statewide system office, my role is probably more like studio flunky than small-time producer, but even from here the analogy holds up eerily well. We have a slate of campuses, we study the numbers they return, we make visits when appropriate. And we report upstream to our real bosses, whether taxpayers or shareholders, and try to help them make sense of apparent chaos.

It can be fun in its way, but it’ll never be like life on the set.

Image credits:, New York Times

team science part one

web meeting

Increasingly I find myself joining or convening teams online, for some focused discussion that may take half an hour to an hour. In a world of laptops, smart phones, and tablets, all webcam enabled, I’m getting new insights into my friends’ living rooms, bedrooms, and airline preferences.

I’m also learning that for a given task and ad hoc group of people, two or three of these short meetings, spaced about a week apart, can be more effective than conference calls or traveling to a single longer meeting.

But with longer and more complicated projects, the collaboration is harder to optimize. And what we’re seeing with the development of knowledge – a core business of higher education – is that the projects are all getting longer and more complicated.

That is, we face a dwindling number of pressing research questions that can be answered by a solitary faculty member. Instead, the new premium is on interdisciplinary teams, say in combinations of chemists, political scientists, economists, and engineers, pulling together to compare competing energy policies. Or cognitive scientists, educators, psychologists, social workers, nutritionists, and pediatricians figuring out the critical components of the first year of human life.


These are questions that universities are well positioned to take on. We have the carrying capacity, the troves of smart people from different walks of life and ways of knowing. They are each expert in some field of inquiry.

What hardly any of my colleagues and I are expert in is how to work together toward a common goal. We may have developed our share of common sense and interpersonal skills, but colleges and universities aren’t especially known for either. Until recently we were mostly collections of cranky soloists, with a lot to learn from the emerging field of team science.

Last year the National Academies Press published Enhancing the Effectiveness of Team Science, a sobering look at the challenges inherent in group research at scale. For higher education I think a few of the NAP findings and recommendations stand out.

The writers open with advice for the teams themselves, calling for intentional selection and then targeted professional development for each member, taking into account each one’s specific personality and expertise. In a separate recommendation they call for research and professional development just for the team leaders. And for geographically distributed teams that use virtual meetings – a growing part of my own job – they advise additional team-building exercises and some room for local autonomy.

They close with a set of recommendations for funders to appropriately incentivize and support team science. And in between is this recommendation leveled at higher ed:

Recommendation 6: Universities and disciplinary associations should proactively develop and evaluate broad principles and more specific criteria for allocating credit for team-based work to assist promotion and tenure committees in reviewing candidates.


In other words, we shouldn’t be surprised to find ourselves among idiosyncratic loners if our system favors them.

I’ve seen universities try different things to overcome the centrifugal force of disciplines and departments. Some are structural, like creating centers for multi-faceted inquiry into a particular complicated problem, like the Institute for Palliative Care at CSU San Marcos, or the tradition at CSU Channel Islands of coordinating annual searches across departments to create research cohorts. Others are mostly rhetorical but still effective, intentional messaging from the top and written promotion policies that value teamwork.

For the last few months I’ve been advising a team-science project called CREDITS, which is itself a large-scale collaboration. It originated as a partnership between California’s more selective and research-focused UC system and the CSU system of regional comprehensives, where I work. We’ve had in-person meetings and conference calls, and reviewed applications from faculty to join an upcoming retreat.

We asked applicants about their experience in team science, and what they found challenging. Two answers have stuck with me:

From a UC geneticist who works with government agencies, mathematicians, and attorneys: “The main obstacle to collaborative projects, in my view, is that a project is not necessarily at the same level on all the participants’ priority list, and this can result in frustrating delays.”

From a researcher in international coastal flooding: “This work is inherently interdisciplinary. As a coastal engineer, I work closely with other engineers, ecologists as well as economists and risk analysts to quantify the risk reduction value of coastal ecosystems and enhance their consideration within coastal planning and policy-making. The foremost challenge was understanding the language of another discipline, communicating my ideas and work to experts in other fields, and reaching a consensus on research goals, outcomes and process.”

I’ve thought of these two submissions more than once in just the last week, in places I didn’t expect.

To raise their graduation rates, all 23 California State Universities are trying to improve the student experience, an effort that creates new connections among faculty, front-line advisers, and a surprising number of back offices, all struggling with mismatched priorities and murky reporting relationships. Last Thursday I spoke to a doctoral student at San Diego State about her research into exactly what that’s like, and what steps administrators can take to make such collaborations easier. I’ll share her findings with you when they’re ready.

A little later the same day, I was in a meeting on the redesign of the CSU’s statewide web site. For decades it’s been organized entirely from our perspective, each department getting some dominion over pages to maintain. The redesign leadership is heroically shifting all that to a team approach, aiming for a visitor-centered site organized not by what we do, but by what visitors want to know about us.

Created with Nokia Smart Cam

Curiously, both of these were research-driven discussions, and both involved people across a mix of “disciplines” or ways of knowing, all rummaging around for a common way to talk to each other.

There is a lot at stake as we all try to get better at this – for the health of our planet, for mitigating coastal floods, and for simply getting more people through college, precisely to take on all those other problems.

But I wonder if we’re doing enough in higher education for this, or if the proficiencies of teamwork deserve more attention in the undergraduate curriculum.

Like the faculty who applied to the CREDITS retreat, my colleagues and I are too often stymied not by gaps in our specialized learning, but by under-developed tools for getting along with each other. We seem ignorant of things people outside of academia have already figured out.

The retreat is next month, and I’ll report back then.

Image credits:,

the sidewalk

Commencement-14Multiple projects around the country are trying to develop consistent ways to describe and measure college learning. (I know, “now you’re trying?” Cut us some slack. We’re busy.)

We used to do this more regularly. For the first eight of our nine centuries in business, colleges and universities awarded most degrees only after written and oral exit exams, which were culminating and comprehensive. But then in the early 20th century we had to back away from that model, because burgeoning enrollment made it too hard. And really, aren’t commencement ceremonies already long enough?

So now instead we just tally the credit hours on a transcript, and if you have the right number and kind then you graduate, whether or not you can remember anything you took. It served us well enough on the fly, as we absorbed millions of newcomers with land grant universities, the GI Bill, and new programs in agriculture, business, and health.

But as the growth spurt enters post-adolescence, we’re finding a couple of serious drawbacks to the corner-cutting:

  1.  It’s hard to argue for continued resources for higher education when we can explain the benefits only in terms of time served, and not learning demonstrated. Doubts get voiced. And remember, we consume a lot of resources: federal financial aid, state institutional support, the sacrifice of families and other supporters, the lost wages of enrolled students. That’s an awful lot to hang on “trust us.”
  2. Focusing on inputs (courses) rather than outcomes (gains in personal ability) entails this pernicious assumption that our students are all alike.

That second one may not be obvious, unless you’ve recently taught on a college campus. Students in a given class are more diverse than ever — not just demographically, but also in terms of learning styles, cultural expectations, and prior experience with school. Yet the homogeneous curriculum grinds along, three hours a week for fifteen hours, whether it suits everyone or not.

DSCN9607-Denver-International-Airport-concourseThe particularly vivid case of this goes by various names but for this post I’ll call it “remediation.” It’s how we remedy students who come in not ready for college-level math and/or English. Picture those disciplines as moving sidewalks. States spend a lot of money trying to get every student in sync with the beginning of the sidewalk, and we will send the same people back over and over until they’re at just the right spot to join everyone else.

The majority in that group never earn a degree; they just get tired of running in circles and give up. This is doubly distressing when you realize it’s the beginning of the sidewalk screwing them up, but the other end we really care about.

So then why are we prepared to kill off so many potential graduates, just for failing to get in step with the beginning of the moving sidewalk?

Well, because our 20th century delivery of college education works only when everyone moves at the same pace, and from the same starting point. Effectively, we’re hawking one-size-fits all network TV in an age of Netflix.

The disjunction has become clearer to me during California’s involvement in the AAC&U project called “Faculty Collaboratives.” It has been taking stock of nationally developed frameworks designed to define learning in the bachelor’s degree. Its aim is to propagate the best of these frameworks to the broader faculty, most of whom are too busy with teaching and knowledge production to fret about big-picture higher ed organization.

But we need them to. We need broad and expert involvement in the culling of these “proficiency frameworks,” or we won’t get meaningful conceptions of “critical thinking,” “good writing,” “quantitative reasoning,” etc.

And we’ll remain stuck with the administrative structures we inherited, tending mostly to the sidewalk’s speed and starting point, instead of where it leads — and reinforcing tacit assumptions that our students would be a lot easier to teach if only they were all alike.


guilds, part three

1280px-Rembrandt_-_De_Staalmeesters-_het_college_van_staalmeesters_(waardijns)_van_het_Amsterdamse_lakenbereidersgilde_-_Google_Art_ProjectThird and last of this series, at least for a while. I’ve been ruminating on medieval guilds as a model for a formal affiliation of college educators, one that emphasizes allegiance to the broad profession of educating rather than to a specialized staff function or academic discipline (too narrow), or to the institution (too unrequited, in our time of  increasingly contingent faculty and short-term administrators).

Such guild-like affiliations would cut across job titles and campuses, creating a stable context in which we might learn, improve, and practice collectively.

The first and second posts on this topic argued that these would be appealing. This one will explain why I also think they’re inevitable.

The short answer is that payments are coming due for some expedient shortcuts that higher education took across the 20th century, in the name of explosive growth and access for more of our population. These were wins no matter how you look at them: an intentional, democratic, and historically unprecedented liberation of human intellectual potential.

But delivering all that learning affordably meant emulating the factory model that was scaling other kinds of enterprise: interchangeable courses offered to interchangeable students, homogenizing the delivery of varied and esoteric content.

Georges F  Doriot in classroom 1963
A Detroit college classroom in 1963. (Image credit

But our higher ed world is increasingly asked to deliver a different kind of learning, more responsive to diversity and individual learning styles. And in a parallel development, the content we used to sell at a reasonable markup is now ubiquitous and free. Increasingly our students’ futures depend not on what they know, but on how they go about applying it.

In my corner of the higher ed shop floor I operate a machine called transfer credit, and believe me you can hear the gears starting to strip.

We used to ask expensive labor (faculty) to tell us what to look for in transferable coursework. We would boil down their answers to a list of topics, and then hand it off to less expensive labor (staff) who’d then compare our lists to course catalogs from the colleges who sent us students, and look for curriculum matches.

This system served surprisingly well until very recently, and in its service around half of the public colleges and universities in California continue to mail each other hard copies of their course catalogs. It’s charming.

(Through the 1990s we even got those mailed to here at CSU headquarters, and we still display them, inexplicably, in a sixth-floor conference room we call the “library.” If you’d like to know what Modesto Junior College was like before the turn of the millennium then stop by.)

Here’s the problem this inherited system presents us with: we want only quality learning to transfer – engaged, variable, versatile, applicable – and lists of topics don’t tell us about quality. Over the past year, in one of the more obscure facets of my job, this new truth has made it impossible for us to answer a number of very important questions, about online oral communication courses, transferable math, faculty professional development, and the portability of high-impact practices.

All of these crucial educational efforts defy the language of course catalogs and transcripts. And adding to the published descriptions doesn’t help, because the ability of students to recall those lists of topics is so much less valuable to us now. Instead we want them confidently applying it, recombining it, innovating, working in teams of diverse backgrounds and expertise. Increasingly, you just kind of have to live it to know if it’s any good.


A professional society of women’s editors in the 19th century. (Image credit:

Policy is only language, made consequential; and lately the words fail.

This season the flash point is math. Our faculty senate convened a very broadly representative group to figure out how the state universities should re-calibrate our expectations for quantitative reasoning. Our inherited lists of algebra topics were serving us poorly, while what educators really care about are things like confidence with numbers, an ability to represent and work with unknown quantities, a facility with applying math reasoning across a range of disciplines … values that have been expressed by math teachers since Euclid, but which feel suddenly urgent.

In fact, they’re now deal breakers. If all our students learn is how to manipulate obscure formulas without applying them to messy real world problems, then they are sunk. It’s a cruel, big-data world out there. Our graduates have to enter it fearlessly. But find that in the “library.”

This isn’t a trivial problem. We need education to be good, and we also need to recognize good prior learning reliably.

This new context threatens our longstanding division of labor, in which the decisions about transfer credit are directed by one group but carried out by another. Instead it calls for some new kind of professional society, some ongoing interpersonal interaction, a return to what to me looks like guilds.

I don’t see how we can deliver the learning we need at large scale otherwise.