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.