Tuesday, April 09, 2013


The Nerdy Jam Session

I spent the last few days on my first accreditation site visit.  I’ve been on the receiving end of three of the big ten-year versions -- lucky timing -- so it seemed like time to try being on the other side.

I won’t disclose any of the particulars of the discussion or the school, as a professional courtesy.  But the experience itself seems like fair game.

In all three of the regions in which I’ve been through self-studies -- North Central, Middle States, and NEASC -- the visiting teams consisted of five to ten people, each from different institutions.  Each person specializes in one or two of the standards for accreditation.  What I didn’t see until now was the dynamic within the team.

The team is ensconced in a hotel not too far from campus.  It receives the written self-study report about a month before the visit.  Newbies go through a training session on the standards themselves, how to handle awkward moments in interviews, and how to focus the report.  The team chair corrals the team via email, attends to the logistics, and sets the tone.

After a kickoff meeting of just the team, and a reception for the team hosted by people from the receiving college, we become a cross between a team of anthropologists and a bar band.  (“The Other” would be a great name for a band.  “Give it up for The Other!”  But I digress...)  On the anthropology side, we spend a few days talking to people, listening to both individuals and groups, digging through documents, and trying to piece together a coherent narrative to explain how these exotic creatures in a neighboring state do what they do.  That part, I expected.

I didn’t expect the bar band side.  That comes in the evenings, after the team retreats to the hotel and moves from consumption of information to production of information.  

In three days, the goal is to produce a thirty page document that covers every accreditation standard accurately.  That means group writing.

It’s the nerdiest jam session ever.  A cluster of academics sitting around some conference tables, laptops at the ready, trying to encourage each other to speed-write.  You find out quickly that some people handwrite and then type; some people outline; and some just improvise on the keyboard in hopes that something good will happen, and then fix it later.  (I’m in the third camp, for better or worse.  For me, the only way to write is to write.)  The deadline forces focus, which inevitably leads to a certain punchiness.  You also get to see people’s “process” up close, which is an anthropological experience in its own right.  

We also have to agree on a set of notable positives and challenges facing the institution.  Phrasing is key; given that this year’s report is supposed to help the receiving college set its priorities for the next few years, you don’t want to be too glib or vague.  There, too, getting eight trained academics to agree on word choice, when everyone is tired, is no small thing.  

Eventually, the team chair gets stuck with the unenviable task of harmonizing eight different writers’ voices into a single voice.  It’s probably for the best that the rest of us aren’t in the room when that happens.  (“What the hell are you doing to my semicolons?”)  

The contrast to every other form of writing I do is striking.  Most writing is done solo, whether for the office or the blog.  Sometimes we have committee pieces that we wordsmith collectively.  But this is more like parallel play.  It’s weirdly refreshing.

Soon the team will go its separate ways, never to be reconstituted.  The report will be its legacy.  I’ll have to wait for the next nerdy jam session.

This sounds distinctly like the writing sessions I had as a graduate student when I was serving on our orientation committee, which was responsible for designing a one-week curriculum for new TAs who would be teaching our first-year writing course. The first year I was on the committee, we were tasked with taking all the unwritten aspects of the program and getting them down on paper. It was a surprising amount of fun, but a lot of work to write collaboratively like this.
One of the best posts I've seen at CCCD. If only my freshmen could understand what you're talking about, I'd wish they could all read this.

When I was teaching upper-division comp courses ("professional writing"), I used to try to persuade classmates that about 90% of occupational writing is writing-by-committee. The horror was more than they could absorb, of course, even though each semester a few veterans would be lurking in any given class, assuring the studenty types that what I said was so.

This is a great description of the facts of life. Academic or corporate.
Nice piece--accords with my own experience in similar professional-assessment situations. However, your analogy brought to mind *this* great moment:

We're putting the band back together
What I want to know is how to get on a accreditation review team? Having been through two Middles States and then two different program mid and final reviews, I find the process fascinating. I guess my wig just isn't big enough yet.
There was a band in the mid-1990s called "The Other Two;" it was two of the members of New Order during their break-up.

Welcome to grant review panels.
In the spirit of your post today about California doing something right, finally, I would have to say that on the ACCJC site visit teams I've served on, I think our process has been better than what you described above.

In the teams I've served on for ACCJC team members need to respond to some fairly focused questions regarding the standards/areas of the self study for which they are responsible for reviewing before the team does an initial meeting. When the initial meeting occurs (a month or so before the site visit--and we would have gotten the institution's self study and evidence about a month before that initial meeting) folks can start to raise questions, concerns, or give praise. THEN, we've been asked to construct a list of specific people we will want to interview at the site visit, and additional evidence we will need based on our reading of the self study. And THEN, in the teams I've been on, the team chair has always required that members prewrite a draft of the evaluation of the self study prior to the site visit.

In this way, the site visit becomes an opportunity to validate evidence and meet with people asking questions which require a level of specificity and thoughtfullness that comes from having already tried to bang out in writing an assessment of strengths and weaknesses. I know that I personally ask much better questions if I've actually spent time writing and working on a document beforehand. I really can't personally imagine doing as good of a job asking questions and analyzing the evidence while on a site visit if I was trying to write my section of the report from the start while on the site visit. That's not to say that there's still not a lot of speed writing and team writing involved. But the difference is that it involves refining and shaping a document that you, as a group, have already been discussing and working on collaboratively via email and in person for a couple of months and which you're now completing as you cross check your assumptions from the self study that the institution wrote with your observed experiences, interviews, etc.

From what I've heard, this is a fairly new trend for the ACCJC and it's also true that the team chair sets the tone and the expectations for the pre-site visit work. But it is something to consider, perhaps, for your future visits and if you ever happen to be a chair on an accreditation visit: is it better to have a draft of your report including an initial assessment of your findings before you get there? Or is it better to try to bang the whole thing out in a week?
Eli mentioned grant review panels. They do have the bar band element.

I was struck at how similar DeanDad's description was to my experiences serving on an external review panel visting a large NSF-funded research center. We have piles of reports submitted beforehand, spend the day "working people" getting how things really work, and by night crafting a narrative that summarizes what we heard with what we read and figuring our what questions to ask people during our meetings the next day. After 3 days I was exhausted.
Thanks for providing this insight into the process in your region. The viewpoint of an external grant review panel brought a few thoughts to mind.

When writing a research grant or major paper, you generally keep your audience in mind and try to provide the sentence or three that the reviewer or reader will focus on. A self-study might not be written that way (I know ours appear to be written for the writers themselves), but it should know its audience.

Just being on a review panel helps you write better proposals. I expect you will find this exercise will help you with your next reaffirmation review.
In three days, the goal is to produce a thirty page document that covers every accreditation standard accurately. That means group writing.

Glyn Willmoth
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