Wednesday, March 25, 2015


What Work Looks Like

This week I had the chance to reunite with an old friend who has landed in a new role at a different college.  She mentioned that she had to get specific presidential permission to look at Twitter on her work computer, since it was generally assumed to be unrelated to work.  

My jaw dropped.  Twitter is an amazing scholarly resource, and a terrific way to keep up with what’s going on in higher education around the country.  Without it, I would never have met Tressie McMillan Cottom, Anne Kress, Paul LeBlanc, or Amy Laitinen.  It’s also a self-updating annotated bibliography.  Heck, just last week I learned through Twitter about Senator Moore’s bill (in MA) to establish a statewide OER repository for public higher education in Massachusetts.  Traditional channels hadn’t picked up on that at all.  As a source of ideas and referrals to sources, it’s outstanding.

But if you don’t already know, you might think that Twitter is frivolous.  You might assume that time spent there is time taken away from work, rather than time spent keeping up with the wider industry.  To the uninitiated, it doesn’t look like work, so it’s easy to condemn or even forbid.  When that happens, the people involved literally don’t know the damage they’re doing.

I had a similar conversation recently with a student.  She lamented the conspicuous presence of other students playing cards on campus, and suggested that it detracted from efforts to create an academically serious atmosphere on campus.  I politely disagreed, suggesting that taking some time between bouts of studying to blow off steam is an essential part of the process.  Deny that opportunity, and productivity actually drops.

Creative work doesn’t look like other sorts of work.  It’s less linear. Externally -- and sometimes internally -- the line between work and non-work can be hard to see.  

Most of us know that in other contexts.  Sometimes problem-solving conversations have to veer off into seemingly unrelated topics, even silly ones, before solutions coalesce.  Sometimes great ideas come to you in the shower, or the gym, or while mowing the lawn.  Most good teachers know that a little bit of humor can help the serious part of the lesson get through and stick.  And we know now that the human connection that helps students succeed is based on rapport, and rapport doesn’t usually happen instantly.  Those seemingly-irrelevant conversations about other things lay the groundwork without which the more serious conversations either wouldn’t happen or wouldn’t work.

With experience, many of us gradually learn our own rhythms, and learn that disrespecting those rhythms for too long doesn’t actually lead anywhere good.  That’s why very few adults pull academic all-nighters.  We know better.  They don’t help.  

The external invisibility of people’s thoughts can lead to some truly stupid decisions made out of a desire to feel control.  You might as well ban jokes in the classroom, and congratulate yourself on your focus on academic rigor.  

Rote work conditions produce rote work.  If you want progress, you need to give people the time and space to develop ways to do things better.  And for heaven’s sake, let people communicate with their colleagues around the country, even if you don’t understand the platform with which they’re doing it.

Twitter has brought down dictators & done a lot of other good for the world so far. It's no longer a funny time-killer app/site.
Matt’s description of his friend needing to get presidential permission to look at Twitter on her work computer reminded me of what happened a few years back while I was working at Large Telecommunications Company.

A memo came down from management that said that we were not to use the company’s computers to browse to any non work-related Internet website for any reason whatsoever. We took this to mean not only that should we never do obviously inappropriate things such as surfing to porno websites, but we should also never go to the Internet to get a stock quote, to get the latest news, or even to take a look at the latest Dilbert cartoon. I suppose that the reason for this draconian restriction was twofold—one, to keep our noses to the grindstone, as well as to prevent bandwidth congestion from internet overuse.

We found this very chilling, since we never knew what our bosses might consider as being “non-work-related”. We were told that people who violated this directive could be fired. We regarded this directive as extremely draconian, but, hey, it’s the company’s computers. and they can be just as strict as they want to be regarding their use.

Fortunately, this overly draconian policy was later relaxed somewhat, and we were allowed to go and surf the Net so long as it did not interfere with getting our work done. It seems that the reason for the change in policy was that Large Telecommunications Company had recently gone on an acquisition binge and had bought another company, one which could not tolerate such a draconian internet usage policy.
Our IT director and I just did a presentation about how IT rules impact a college culture. At one point we asked participants to compare their college policy to a call center (can't do anything like twitter) vs. to a startup (can do whatever gets the work done). Amazing how many hands went up when we asked who worked at a call-center type college.
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