That’s Perfectly Normal

That’s Perfectly Normal

Kay. C. Dee

I once announced to a psychologist that during that day’s session, we were going to play a game called “That’s Perfectly Normal.”  I would tell him something that I was thinking or feeling, and he would respond with “That’s Perfectly Normal!” and then describe why.  It was a reassuring (and entertaining) game, and I recently found myself playing the other side of this game with a colleague who has been leading a major curricular change effort.

In this short blog venue, I can’t fully describe the amount of energy, effort, collaboration, communication, and social/political capital that my colleague has invested in this change effort over the past two years.  As I am writing this post, their institution’s faculty assembly is preparing to vote on whether or not the change will be implemented.  As a change agent navigating their way through a great deal of peer judgement about their project, my colleague has been thinking and feeling a lot of Perfectly Normal things right now.  For example:

  • My change project is being held to standards that are far higher than are expected of any existing project.  I resent that.  Some of the people calling for additional assessments, information, and review processes sound hypocritical to me.
  • Others are using my change project as political leverage or a bargaining tool to try to achieve their own goals.  I am bewildered by this.  My project has nothing to do with Program X’s ability to hire an administrative assistant, or whether Program Y’s proposal for a second major is likely to be approved.  Why is my project being dragged into these discussions?
  • People with no expertise in the subject matter of my change are challenging my experiences in and mastery of that subject matter.  This makes me feel resentful and disrespected.
  • I’m being told that people who I thought supported me and the broad goals of my project are saying negative (and untrue!) things about me and my motivations for undertaking this project.  This is disappointing and painful.  I don’t want to get involved in gossip, but at the same time, I want people to think well of me and to understand my actual motives for this change.
  • People who aren’t aware of all the constraints I have been working under, and who have never championed a similar magnitude of change, are telling me that I should have handled things differently – and that if I had done so, I would not be experiencing the current level of consternation over the proposed change.  This frustrates me.  I think it’s meant to be helpful constructive criticism, but I guarantee that I did the best I could with what I had to work with.  At this point, I kind of just want these people to shut up!

Continue reading “That’s Perfectly Normal”

Ask Powerful Questions

Ask Powerful Questions

Ella Ingram

“A prudent question is one-half of wisdom” Francis Bacon, English philosopher and scientist

I recently attended a workshop focused on training academic leaders as coaches. During the workshop, I realized that a key skill of coaches is one that change agents also should have: how to ask powerful questions. Powerful questions are questions that go beyond. They go beyond trivialities and superficialities. They go beyond examining the current state and the current answers. They go beyond an immediate response. They go beyond our current thinking to imagine what could be. So, what are some powerful questions that change agents can ask of themselves and others? Try these on for size.

Identifying Obstacles

What are the barriers that are easy to see in this situation?

What are the barriers that are under the surface in this situation?

What is desirable about the current state of affairs?

Why hasn’t a change already occurred in this situation?

What’s one change that would open a path forward with respect to this problem?

Describing the Greater Good Continue reading “Ask Powerful Questions”

What could go wrong with my plan?

Steve Chenoweth

When you are asking an organization to deviate from “standard operating procedure” (SOP), plenty of prickly weeds await.  Anticipating these is crucial to success: hoping for the best while planning for the worst.

Picture1.pngThe stickiness surrounding SOP is a wonder to behold.  I used to work for “the phone company,” and we thought we were highly creative.  We researched new ideas in giant buildings that looked like what’s shown.  This one was designed by Eero Saarinen — wasn’t that a perfect setting?  Well, maybe. When asked why he made it so gray, Saarinen quipped, “Have you seen the people who work here?” We were part of a machine, and earth-shattering change would mess with that machine.

One creativity guru we hired brought along a large tub of hats, so we could role-play at will.  He observed that our organization was the only place he had been, where participants could go all day with nobody ever trying on a new hat!  You get the picture:  the sense that we were open to new ideas didn’t fit with our actual actions. If you stuck out your elbow, you would hit something important.

The people who work where you do will feel issues with your new idea which you never anticipated.  As much as you are in a mindset that your plan will work, they are in a mindset that what they do now works.  Their current process is how they solve problems.  You would like to open their eyes.  But perhaps it also helps if they open your eyes.  Here’s how:

  1. Invite people to meet with you who are happy as they are, asking them to brainstorm your possible plan for change.
  2. Open them up by playing “Edsel.” What’s that?  It’s a brainstorming game we play in MACH.  More about it, below.
  3. Enlist them in working on the most challenging problems they brought up. Surprisingly, people who can think of roadblocks often will help move them.

Continue reading “What could go wrong with my plan?”

Laying the Foundation for Change

Laying the Foundation for Change

By Julia Williams

For many of us, the term “graduate school” provokes specific, vivid associations.  Quoting the English novelist Charles Dickens—“ It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”—graduate school can seem like wish fulfillment (“I finally get to work on the stuff that really interests me!”) and death wish (“When will I finally be done working on the stuff that used to interest me!”) rolled into one.  What graduate school may not seem like is the perfect place to begin your development as a change agent.  In fact, I would argue graduate school is the right place to begin readying yourself for your eventual role as a change agent in whatever academic or professional context you find yourself in after your pick up your sheepskin and hood.[1]

On March 21, I joined three other Rose-Hulman colleagues for the Making Academic Change Happen (MACH) Professional Development Workshop at Purdue University.  Sponsored by the Purdue Graduate Student Government, the graduate student chapter of the American Society of Engineering Education, the Electrical and Computer Engineering Graduate Student Association, and the Material Science Engineering Graduate Student Association, the one day workshop was designed to introduce emerging STEM educators to the principles of change agency and to help them lay the foundation for their eventual role as change agents.  It may seem odd to view graduate school as the place to learn to make change.  The traditional focus for graduate education is on disciplinary expertise, delving deeply into one’s research area and preparing oneself for joining the ranks of professionals.  In many cases, however, your very presence as a newly minted PhD in an academic context signals that change is occurring.

As a member of the MACH facilitation team, I have designed and participated in several full MACH workshops and customized “mini-MACHs” meant to target individuals who are about to start new academic positions, e.g., hired to be the developer for a new curriculum, a new teaching center, a new STEM major.  At the moment these new hires arrive on their campuses, they embody the change they have been hired to create.  By readying themselves with the skills that can help them achieve the change they seek—by acquiring a change maker’s toolkit—they can increase the likelihood that they will succeed with their change initiative.

During the one-day MACH workshop at Purdue, attendees were introduced to several key foundational concepts regarding change, such as academic structures and cultures, emerging opportunities for change, and effective communication practices for change agents.  The atmosphere at the workshop was intense and supportive, and facilitators and attendees alike brought their formidable talents to this endeavor.  Because I am nearer to the end than the beginning of my academic career, I was heartened by the potential I saw in these colleagues.  The future of STEM education is in very good hands.

If you would like to learn more about the opportunities we have developed at Rose-Hulman for emerging STEM educators to lay a foundation for change, check out our previous on-campus workshops for graduate students.  We are in the process of planning for an emerging STEM educators MACH in the near future.

[1] Yes, some universities still place an actual sheepskin upon the shoulders of the graduating doctor, but then I digress.