TITLE: Some Initial Thoughts on the Task of Administration AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: December 15, 2005 9:47 PM DESC: ----- BODY: I'm approaching the end of my first semester as head of my department. And a busy end to the semester it's been! As I have some time reflect on the last few months, I will have a few things to say about heading a department, the state of computer science and CS education, and the effect of moving to the Big Office Downstairs on my own computer science. For now, I have noticed a couple of things that surprised me a bit First, no matter how much I planned ahead about management style, I have found myself developing my style as I go. For example, I find myself regularly sending out long-ish e-mail "memos" to the faculty, and occasionally even to students. Often, these messages aim to jump start a discussion that will continue over time and perhaps culminate in faculty meetings. Other times, I write just to share what I've learned in the various meetings I attend. mimeograph machine I am not alone in this style. Last week, I went to a final public lecture by one of our retiring professors of mathematics, in which he reminisced on 42 years on the faculty here. This gentleman was department head in Mathematics through important years: he was head when the department developed its computer science curriculum and then its first majors, and he was head when Math made plans to spin us off into the the new Department of Computer Science I joined in 1992. In his talk, he told of his habit of writing memos of many pages for his colleagues, typing them up, duplicating them with an old-style mimeograph machine, and placing them in faculty mailboxes. I send my memos to faculty mailboxes, too, but of the electronic variety. And the only duplication I have to do is accomplished when I press the Send button to a faculty mailing list. How much more laborious it was to communicate this way back in the 1970s! Yet David went to the effort, because he, too, felt the worth in sharing information and ideas. In such communication, he empowered his faculty and made them an integral part of the department's progress. iBook I produce my messages on a more modern contraption. The only real cost I must pay is the time it takes me to write. But, as with this blog, the writing is valuable to me before anyone else even reads the result. I am usually writing to learn, to remember what I've heard and assimilate it into my working knowledge. These messages also serve as a written record, for me and for others, of what has happened. Let's just say this: If I'm ever nominated for the Supreme Court, there will be one heckuva paper trail for my opponents to follow! Second, it is hard to overestimate the importance of communication. As I have become involved in matters of evaluating faculty, handling student complaints, and negotiating with other departments on campus for space, money, and other resources, I have found myself spending a lot of energy on speaking and writing clearly and directly. I would have thought that I already had good habits in this regard, from all my years in the classroom. But the effects of ambiguity and miscommunication are more immediately obvious in supervisory activity with faculty and interactions with higher-level administrators. Within a few weeks I noticed that I was stopping and thinking before speaking, in an effort not to say something I would immediately have to explain or undo. How can I speak the truth in the department's best interest, both short- and long-term? Making clear points with as little ambiguity as possible is essential. This seems to work best as part of a rich relationship among people, so that honesty can be trusted as fair. When communication happens in an unconstrained context, there is simply to much room for confusion. (On a more technical note... I've noticed this concern for clarity and directness bleeding over into my programming. As I wrote code for my programming languages course this semester, I kept asking myself, "Does this code say what I want it to say?" The result was that I rewrote a lot of old code and crafted new code with greater care. I even occasionally used a comment -- gasp! -- when I used an idiom with which my students weren't familiar. I'm pleased with the results.) In addition to speaking clearly and directly, I have learned that I want to speak fairly. Consider the task of personnel evaluation. An evaluation of an employee's performance is a deeply personal event for the employee. Without some care, it is easy to write the evaluation in a way that focuses on negatives. And to the person being evaluated, even a balanced letter can feel more negative than it is -- the negative comments appear to be much bigger than they are in comparison to the positives. Our minds trick us with an inverted perspective. I've found that writing evaluations is a deeply personal event for me. "Personnel" are people. In my case, these folks are my friends and colleagues of many years. I want to write evaluations that clearly and fairly express the person's contribution to our department and the ways in which he or she might improve. Again, this works best in the rich context of a relationship. Maintaining good relationships is an essential element of the new administrator's success. the scales of justice Some have suggested that I should be more irascible, as a way to command attention, but that's not my style. I'd rather think of even the more contentious interactions as part of a long-term relationship. I realize that there will likely soon come a time when I have to be a hard guy and make a fast stand, but I'd rather save that approach for when it's really needed. By then, my usual demeanor will be what people expect, and my making stand is more likely to attract attention to the seriousness of the issue. Being fair is in everyone's best interest. I sometimes try to be a mediating force, to help folks see that they don't have to be mean to make their point -- indeed, that the best way to have one's point heard and taken seriously is to be direct but fair. This is not always easy, but I think it is worth the effort. It helps us to build strong relationships, and it pays off by letting the people I work with be partners in moving the department forward. -----