Artificially Intelligent—At the Intersection of Bots, Equity, and Innovation

This article was written in collaboration with my wife Elizabeth. We wrote this together and the ideas were generated during some of the great discussions we had during our evening 5k runs.

We all remember Prime Minister Trudeau’s famous response when asked about his gender equity promise for filling roles in the cabinet: “because it’s 2015.” And really, this call to action comes quite late in the historical span of modernity, but we’re glad someone at the highest levels of government in a developed nation has strongly proclaimed it. Most of us in Canada and likely around the world, were pleased to see Trudeau had staffed his cabinet with a significant amount of female leaders in important decision-making roles. And now, it’s 2017–a year that has been pivotal to say the least. Last Spring, Canada’s Minister of Science, Dr. Kirsty Duncan announced that universities in Canada are now required to improve their processes for hiring Canada Research Chairs and ensure those practices and review plans  are equitable, diverse and inclusive. The government of Canada’s announcement is a call to action to include more women and other underrepresented groups at these levels, and it’s essentially come down to ultimatum: research universities will simply not receive federal funding allocations for these programs unless they take equity, diversity, and inclusion seriously in their recruitment and review processes.

IMG_20161205_072820602When placed under the spotlight, the situation is a national embarrassment. Currently there is one woman Canada Excellence in Research Chair in this country and for women entrepreneurs the statistics are not much better. Women innovators in the industrial or entrepreneurial sphere are often left hanging without a financial net, largely as a result of a lack of overall support in business environments and major gaps in policy and funding. The good news is that change is happening now, and it’s affecting policies and practices at basic funding and policy levels. Federal and Provincial research granting agencies in Canada are actively responding to the call for more equitable and inclusive review practices within the majority their programs. The message is clear from the current Canadian government: get on board with your EDI policies and practices, or your boat won’t leave the harbour. But there’s always more work to be done.

The Robot Revolution

Combined with our pivotal political moment in history and on-going necessity for a level playing field for underrepresented groups, humans are situated at a crossroads of theory and praxis of human-machine interaction. The current intersection of human and machine certainly has critical implications for the academy, innovation, and our workplaces. It exposes the gaps to see what is possible, and we know the tools are here and must be harnessed for change. Even though we are literally living through mini “revolutions” each day as new technologies, platforms and code stream before our very eyes, humanity has been standing at this major intersection for a couple of centuries or more–at the very least, since the advent of non-human technologies that help humans process information and communicate ideas (cave paintings, the book, the typewriter, Herb Simon’s General Problem Solver). The human-AI link we need to critically assess now however, is how this convergence of the human-machine can work for women and underrepresented groups in the academy and entrepreneurial sectors in powerful ways. When it comes to creating more equitable spaces and providing women with the pay they deserve, we need to move beyond gloomy statements like “the robots are taking our jobs.” We must seek to understand how underrepresented and underpaid people can benefit from robots rather than running from them. And we must seek to understand why women in the academy, industry and other sectors haven’t been using the AI tools in dynamic ways all along. [Some are of course. As evidenced here. Two women business owners harnessed the power of technology to grow their client and customer base by sending emails from a fictional business partner named “Keith.” Client response to “Keith” seemed to do the trick in getting their customers and backers to take them seriously.]

Implicit Bias

In the psychology of decision making, a bias is usually defined as tendency to make decisions in a particular way. In many cases, the bias can he helpful and adaptive: we all have a bias to avoid painful situations. In other cases the bias can lead us to ignore information that would result in a better decision. An implicit bias refers to a bias that we are unaware of or the unconscious application of a bias that we are aware of. The construct has been investigated in how people apply stereotypes. For example, if you instinctively cross the street to avoid walking past a person of a different race or ethnic group, you are letting an implicit bias direct your behaviours. If you instinctively tend to doubt that a woman who takes a sick day is really sick, but tend to believe the same of a man, you are letting an implicit bias direct your behaviours. Implicit bias has been shown to also affect hiring decisions, teaching evaluations. Grants that are submitted by women scientists often receive lower scores and implicit bias is the most likely culprit.  Implicit bias is difficult to avoid because it is implicit. The effect occurs without us being aware of it happening. We can overcome these biases if we are able to be more aware that they are happening. But AI also offers a possible way to overcome these biases as well.

An Engine for Equity at Work

AI and fast-evolving technologies can and should be used by women right now. We need to understand how they can be harnessed to create balanced workplaces, generate opportunity in business, and improve how we make decisions that directly affect women’s advancement and recognition in the academe. What promise or usefulness do AI tools hold for the development of balanced and inclusive forms of governance, review panel practices, opportunities for career advancement and recognition, and funding for start-ups? How can we use the power of these potent and disruptive technologies to improve processes and structures in the academy and elsewhere to make them more equitable and inclusive of all voices? There’s no denying that the tech space is changing things rapidly, but what is most useful to us now for correcting or improving imbalances or fixing inequitable, crumbling, and un-useful patriarchal structures. We need a map to navigate the  intersection of rapid tech development and human-machine interaction and use AI effectively to reduce cognitive and unconscious biases in our decision-making; to improve the way we conduct and promote academic research, innovation and governance for women and underrepresented groups of people.

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Some forward thinking companies are using the approach now. For example, several startups are using AI to prescreen candidates for possible interviews. In one case, the software (Talent Sonar) structured interviews and extracts candidate qualifications and removes candidate’s names and gender information from the report. These algorithms are designed to help remove implicit bias in hiring by focusing on the candidate’s attributes and workplace competencies without any reference to gender. Companies relying on these kinds of AI algorithms report a notable increase in hiring women. Artificial Intelligence, far from replacing workers, is actually helping to diversify and improve the modern workforce.

Academics have seen this change coming. Donna Haraway, in her Cyborg Manifesto re-conceptualizes modern feminist theory through a radical critique of the relationship between biology, gender, and cybernetics. For Haraway, a focus on the cybernetic–or the artificially intelligent–removes the reliance on gender in changing the way we think about power and how we make decisions about what a person has achieved, or is capable of doing. Can we, for example, start to aggressively incorporate AI methods for removing implicit or explicit bias from grant review panels–or more radically, remove humans from the process entirely? When governing boards place their votes for who will sit on the next Board of Trustees, or when university review committees adjudicate a female colleague’s tenure file in the academy, could this not be done via AI mechanisms or with an application that eliminates gender and uses keyword recognition for assessing the criteria? When we use AI to improve our decision making, we also have the ability to make it more equitable, diverse and inclusive. We can remove implicit or explicit cognitive biases based on gender or orientation, for example, when we are deciding who will be included in the next prestigious cohort of Canada Research Chairs.

AI can, and will continue to change the way human work is recognized in progressive ways: recognition of alternative work during parental leaves, improved governance and funding models, construction of equitable budgets and policy, and enhanced support for women entrepreneurs and innovators. AI is genderless. It is non-hierarchical. It has the power to be tossed like a dynamite stick to disrupt ancient academic structures that inherently favour patriarchal models for advancing up the tenure track. Equalization via AI gives women and underrepresented groups the power to be fully recognized and supported, from the seeds of their innovation (the academy) to the mobilization of those ideas in entrepreneurial spaces. The  robots are in fact still working for us–at least, for now.

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Mindful Leadership in the University

Last year I ran a session on “mindful leadership” at a conference for academic leaders in my university. I decided to write this article as a way to help me prepare for the session.

Academia, like many other sectors, is a complex work environment. Although universities vary in terms of their size and objectives, the average university in Canada and the US must simultaneously serve the interests of undergraduate education, graduate education, professional education, basic research, applied research, public policy research, and basic scholarship. A university receives its operating funds from tuition payments, governments, from research funding agencies, and from private donors. Faculty are at the center of this diverse institution, providing the engine of teaching, research, and service. As a result, faculty members may find themselves occasionally struggling to manage these different interests. This article looks at the challenges that faculty members face, paying particular attention to the leadership role that many faculty play. I then explore the possible ways in which mindfulness practice can have a benefit on faculty well-being and productivity.

Challenges of Leadership in the University Setting

Although most work environments have similar challenges and issues (being pulled in different directions, time management, etc.) this article focuses on the challenges that faculty members face when working at and leading the average, mid-sized university. The specific challenges will vary in terms of what role or roles a person is serving in, but let’s first look at challenges that might be common to most faculty members.

Shifting Tasks

“Email is a wonderful thing for people whose role in life is to be on top of things. But not for me; my role is to be on the bottom of things. What I do takes long hours of studying and uninterruptible concentration.” — Donald Knuth

I love this quote from Donald Knuth, a professor of computer science, because it encapsulates the main challenge that so many of us have. We want to be on top of things (teaching, Twitter, emails from students, cutting-edge research) but we also want to be on the bottom: digging deeply into a problem and finding a solution.

The average faculty member has, at a minimum, 2–3 very different kinds of jobs. We’re teachers, researchers/scholars, and we also help to run the university. Within these broadly-defined categories, we divide our teaching time between graduate and undergraduate teaching and mentorship. Research involves investigation, applying for grants, reading, investigation, analysis, writing, dissemination. And running the university can make us managers, chairs, deans, and provosts and as such we’re responsible for hiring research staff, hiring other faculty members, and managing budgets.

These three categories require different sets of skills and shifting between them can be a source of stress. In addition, the act of shifting between them will not always go smoothly and this may result in a loss of effectiveness and productivity as the concerns from one category, task, or role bleed into another. Being mindful of the demands of the current task at hand is crucial.

For example, I find it especially difficult to transition after 2–3 hours of leading a seminar or lecture, and I like to have some time to unwind. But many times, I need to schedule a meeting in the afternoon and find that I have only a short amount of time to go from “lecture mode” into “meeting mode. I am still thinking about my lecture when the meeting begins. Even among leaders that have little or no direct teaching requirements, it is common to have to switch from and to very different topics. One day you might start the day answering emails (with multiple topics), a morning meeting on hiring negotiations, a meeting about undergraduate planning, then an hour with your PhD student on a very specific and complex analysis of data for her dissertation research, followed by phone call from the national news outlet asking about the research of your faculty members. Shifting between these tasks can reduce your effectiveness. The cognitive psychology literature refers to this as “set shifting” or “task-shifting”, and research has supported the idea that there is always a cost to shift (Arrington & Logan 2004; Monsell, 2003). These cost will eventually affect how well you do your job and also how you deal with stress. It’s difficult to turn your full attention to helping your student with an analysis when you are also thinking about your department’s budget.

The primary challenge in this area is to be able to work on the task at hand and to be mindful of distractions. Of course they will occur, but through practice, it may be possible to both minimize their impact and also reduce the stress and anxiety associated with the distractions.

Shared Governance

One aspect of academia that sets it apart from many corporate environments is the notion of “shared governance”. Though this term is common (and has been criticized as being somewhat empty,) the general concept is that a university derives its authority from a governing board, but that faculty are also vested in the institutional decision-making process. This means that most universities have a faculty senate that sets academic policy, dean’s level committees that review budgets and programs, and departmental committees that make decisions about promotion and tenure, hiring, and course assignments.

From a leadership perspective, this can mean that as a chair or dean you are always managing personnel, balancing the needs of faculty, students, budgets, senior administrators, and the public image of your university. There may not be a clear answer to the question of “who is the boss?”. Sometimes faculty are asked to assume leadership roles for a set time, and will need to shift from a collegial relationship to a managerial one (then back to a collegial one) for the same people. That is, one day you are colleagues and the next you are his or her supervisor.

The challenge here is to understand that you may be manager, colleague, and friend at the same time. In this case, it’s very helpful to be mindful of how you interact with your colleagues such that your relationship aligns with the appropriate role.

Finding time for research and scholarship

One of the most common complaints or concerns from faculty is that they wish they had more time for research. This is a challenge for faculty as well as leaders. Although a common workload assumes that a faculty member may spend 40% of his or her efforts on research, most faculty report spending most of their time in meetings. However, promotion and tenure is earned primarily through research productivity. Grants are awarded to research productive faculty. That is, most of those meetings are important, but do not lead to promotion and career advancement. This creates a conflict that can cause stress because although 40% is the nominal workload, it may not be enough to be productive. Other aspects of the job, like meetings related to teaching and service, may take up more than their fair share but often feel more immediate.

Academic leaders also need to consider these concerns from a different perspective. For example, as a department chair, I need to balance the needs of faculty to have adequate time for research with the needs of my department to be able to offer the right amount of undergraduate teaching. Being mindful of these concerns and how they come into conflict is an important aspect of university leadership.

Mindfulness and Leadership

I’ve listed three challenges for leaders in an academic setting: switching, shared governance, and finding time for research. There are more, one course, but let’s stick with these. I want to now explain what mindfulness practice is and how it might be cultivated and helpful for academic leaders. That is, how can mindfulness help with these challenges?

The challenge is to create the necessary cognitive space for thinking about research questions and working on research.

What is mindfulness?

A good starting point for this question is a definition that comes from Kabat-Zinn’s work. Mindfulness is an open and receptive attention to, and awareness of what is occurring in the present moment. For example, as I’m writing this article, I am mindful and aware of what I want to say, aware of the sound of the office fan, aware of the time, aware that I am attending to this task and not some other task. I’m also aware that my attention will slip sometimes and I think about some of the challenges I outlined above. Being mindful means acknowledging and being aware but not being critical or judgmental about my occasional wavering. Mindfulness can be defined as a trait or a state. When described as a state, mindfulness is something that is cultivated via mindfulness practice and meditation.

How can mindfulness be practiced?

The best way to practice mindfulness is just to begin right away. Mindfulness can be practiced alone, at home, with a group, or on meditation retreat.

If you are technologically inclined, the Canadian company Interaxon makes a small, portable EEG headband called MUSE that can help develop mindfulness.

The basic practice is one of developing attentional control and awareness by practicing mindfulness meditation. Many people begin with breathing-focused meditation in which you sit (in a chair or on a cushion) close your eyes, relax your shoulders and concentrate on your breath. Your breath is always there, and so you can readily notice how you breath in and out. You notice the moment where your in-breath stops and your out-breath begins. This is a basic and fundamental awareness of what is going on right now. The reason many people start with breathing-focused meditation is that when you notice that your mind begins to wander, you can pull your attention back to your breath. The pulling back is the subtle control that comes from awareness and this is at the heart of the practice.

Benefits of mindfulness to academic leaders

A primary benefit of mindfulness involves learning to be cognitively and emotionally present in the task at hand. This can help with task switching. For example, when you are meeting with a student, being mindful could mean that you bring your attention back to the topic of the meeting (rather than thinking about a paper you have been working on). When you are working on a manuscript, being mindful could mean keeping your attention on the topic of the paragraph and bringing it back from other competing interests. As a researcher and a scientist, there are also benefits as keeping an open mind about collected data and evidence which can help to avoid cognitive pitfalls. In medicine, as well as other fields, this is often taught explicitly as at the “default interventionist” approach in which the decision-maker strives to maintain awareness of her or her assessments and the available evidence in order to avoid heuristic errors (Kahneman, 2011). As a chair or a dean, being fully present could also manifest itself by learning to listen to ideas from many different faculty members and from students who are involved in the shared governance of academia.

Cognitive and clinical psychological research has generally supported the idea that both trait mindfulness and mindfulness meditation are associated with improved performance on several cognitive tasks that underlie the aforementioned challenges to academic leaders. For example, studies have shown benefits to attention (Jha, Krompinger, & Baime, 2007), working memory (Jha, Stanley, Kiyonaga, Wong, & Gelfand, 2010), cognitive flexibility (Greenberg, Reiner, & Meiran, 2012), and affect (Chambers, Lo, & Allen, 2007; Jha et al., 2010). And there have been noted benefits to emotional well-being and behaviour in the workplace as well. This work has shown benefits like stress reduction (Grossman et al., 2004), a reduction to emotional exhaustion (Hulsheger, Alberts, Feinholdt, & Lang, 2013), and increased job satisfaction (Hulsheger et al., 2013).

Given these associated benefits, mindfulness meditation has the potential to facilitate academic leadership by reducing some of what can hurt good leadership (stress, switching costs, cognitive fatigue) and facilitating what might help (improvements in attentional control, better engagement with others).

Conclusions

As I mentioned at the outset, this article was written to help me organize my thoughts and ideas. This is an informal article, not a scientific one. Mindfulness is not a panacea or a secret weapon. Mindfulness will not make you a better leader or a better scientist. Mindful leaders may not always be the best leaders.

But the practice of mindfulness and the cultivation of a mindless state has been shown to reduce stress and improve some basic cognitive tasks that contribute to effective leadership. I find mindfulness meditation to be an important part of my day and an important part of by role as a professor, a teacher, a scientist, and an academic leader.

References

Arrington, C. M., & Logan, G. D. (2004). The Cost of a Voluntary Task Switch. Psychological Science, 15, 610–615.

Chambers, R., Lo, B. C. Y., & Allen, N. B. (2007). The Impact of Intensive Mindfulness Training on Attentional Control, Cognitive Style, and Affect. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 32, 303–322.

Greenberg J., Reiner K., Meiran N. (2012). “Mind the Trap”: mindfulness practice reduces cognitive rigidity. PLoS ONE 7(5): e36206.

Grossman, P., Niemann, L., Schmidt, S., & Walach, H. (2004). Mindfulness-based stress reduction and health benefits: A meta-analysis. Journal of psychosomatic research, 57(1), 35–43.

Hülsheger, U. R., Alberts, H. J. E. M., Feinholdt, A., Lang, J. W. B. (2013) Benefits of mindfulness at work: The role of mindfulness in emotion regulation, emotional exhaustion, and job satisfaction. Journal of Applied Psychology, 98,310–325.

Jha, A. P., Krompinger, J., & Baime, M. J. (2007). Mindfulness training modifies subsystems of attention. Cognitive, Affective & Behavioral Neuroscience, 7, 109–119. Jha, A. P., Stanley, E. A., Kiyonaga, A., Wong, L., & Gelfand, L. (2010). Examining the protective effects of mindfulness training on working memory capacity and affective experience. Emotion, 10, 54–64.

Kahneman, (2011). Thinking, fast and slow, New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Monsell, S. (2003). Task switching. Trends in cognitive sciences, 7(3), 134–140.

Does This Project Bring Me Joy?

 

I think I have too many research projects going on.

It’s great to be busy, but I’m officially overwhelmed in this area. As a university professor, some of my job is well defined and other parts not so much. My workload is divided into 40% research, 40% teaching, and 20% service. Within each of these, I have some say as to what I can take on. I can teach different classes and volunteer to serve on various committees. But the research component is mine. This is what I really do. This is supposed to be my passion.

So why do I feel overwhelmed in that area? I think I have too many projects going on. And I don’t mean that I have too many studies or am writing too many papers. I’m most certainly not doing that. I mean I have too many different kinds of projects. There are several projects on psychology and aging, projects on the brain electrophysiology and category learning, a project on meditation and wellbeing in lawyers, a project on patient compliance, a projects on distraction from smartphones, plus 4-5 other ideas in development, and at least 10 projects that are most charitable described as “half baked ideas that I had on the way home from a conference”.

Add to this many projects with students that may not quite be in my wheelhouse, but are close and that I’m supervising. And I’ll admit, I have difficulty keeping these things straight. I’m interested in things. But when I look at the list of things, I confess I have a tough time seeing a theme sometimes. And that’s a problem as it means I’m not really fully immersed in any one project. I cease to be an independent and curious scientist and become a mediocre project manager.

Put another way, sometimes I’m not really sure what I do anymore…

So what should I do about this, other than complain on my blog? I have to tidy up my research.

A Research Purge

There is a very popular book called “The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up“. I have not read this book, but I have read about this book (and let’s be honest that’s sometimes the best we can do). The essence of the approach is that you should not be hanging on to things that are not bringing you joy. Nostalgia is not joy. Lots of stuff getting in the way is not joy. And so you go though things, one category at a time, and look at each thing and say “does this item spark joy“? If the answer is no, you discard it. I like this idea.

If this works for a home or a room…physical space…then it should work for the mental space of my research projects. So I’m going to try this. I will go through each project and each sub project and say “Does this project bring me joy?” or “Is there joy in trying to discover this?” Honestly, if the answer is “no” or “maybe” why should I work on it? This may mean that I give up on some things and that some possible papers will not get published. But I will not be compelled to carry out research an writing if it is not bringing me joy. Why should I? I suspect I will be more effective as a scientist because I will (hopefully) focus my efforts on several core areas.

The Psychology of the Reset

Why do we like this? Why do people want to cleanse? To reset. To get back to basics? It seems to be a theme in so many pop-psych and self help books. Getting rid of things. A detox or a “digital detox. Getting back to something. I really wonder about this. And although I wonder why we behave this way, I’m not sure that I would not find joy in carrying out a research study on this…I must resist the urge to start another project.

I’m going to pare down. I still need to teach, and supervise, and serve on editorial boards, etc: that’s work. I’m not complaining. I like it. But I want to spend my research time working on projects that will spark joy. Investigating and discovering things that I’m genuinely curious about…curious enough to put in the hours and time to do the research well.

I’d be curious too, to know if others have tried this. Has it worked? Have you become an better scholar and scientists by decluttering your research space?

Thanks for reading and comments are welcome.

Inspiration in the Lab

I run a mid sized cognitive psychology lab: it’s me as the PI, 2 PhD students 3 master’s students and a handful of undergraduate honours students and RAs. We are a reasonably productive lab, but there are times when I think we could be doing more in terms of getting our work out and also coming up with innovative and creative ideas.

Lately I’ve been thinking of ways to break out of our routines. Research, in my opinion, should be a combination of repetition (writing, collecting data, running an analysis in R) but also innovation where we look at new techniques, new ideas, new explanations. How to balance these?  Also, I want to increase collaborative problem solving in my lab. Often a student has a data set and the most common process is the student and I working together, or me reviewing what she or he has done. But sometimes it would be great if we’re all aware of the challenges and promises of each other’s work. We have weekly lab meetings, but that’s not always enough.

What follows are some ideas I’d like to implement in the near future. I’d love to hear what works (and does not work) from other scientists.

An Afternoon of Code

We rely on software (PsychoPy, Python, R, and E-Prime) to collect behavioural data. We have several decent programs to run the experiments we want to run, but that is often a bottleneck, and all of us sometime struggle to translate ideas into code. One way to work on this might be to have a coding retreat or an afternoon of coding. We all agree to meet in my lab and we work on shared task or designing a paradigm that we’ve never used before. I’d put up a prize for the first student to solve the problem. As an example, I’m looking to get a version of the classic “weather prediction task“. We might agree to spend a day working on this, maybe each on our own program, but at the same time so we can share ideas.

Data Visualization and Analysis

Similar to the idea above, I am thinking of ways to improve our skills on R-Studio. One idea might be to have a set of data from the most recent study in our lab and we spend a day working together on R-Studio to explore different visualizations, techniques for parsing, etc. We each know different things and R allows for so much customization, but it would be helpful to be aware of each other’s skill set.

Writing at the Pub

Despite some of its limitations, I’ve been using Google Docs as a way to prepare manuscripts for publication. It’s not much worse than Word but really allows for better collaborative work and integrates smoothly with #Slack. With the addition of Paperpile, it’s a very competent document preparation system. So I thought about setting aside a few hours in the campus pub, bring our laptops, and all write together. Lab members that are working together on a paper can write simultaneously. Or we might pick one paper, and even grad students who are not authors per se would still be able to help with edits and idea. Maybe start with coffee/tea…then a beer or two.

Internal Replications

I’ve also thought about spending some time designing and implementing replications of earlier work. We already do this to some degree, but I have many published studies from 10 or more years ago that might be worth revisiting. I thought of meeting once every few month with my team to look at these and pick one to replicate. Then we work as a team to try to replicate the study as if it were someone else’s work (not ours) and run a full study. This would be done along side the new/current work in our lab.

Chefs learn by repeating the basic techniques over and over again until they master them and can produce a simple dish perfectly each time. I can think of no reason not to employ the same technique in my lab. I think the repetitive, inward focused nature of a task like this might also lead to new insights as we rediscover what led up to design a task or experiment in a certain way.

Conclusion

I am planning on taking these ideas to my trainees at a one of our weekly lab in the next few weeks. My goal is to just try a few new things to break up the routine. I’d welcome any comments, ideas, or suggestions.

Taming My Distracted Mind

There is mounting evidence that digital devices, screens, smartphones are a real roadblock to productivity. The very tools that are supposed to make us more productive might be robbing us of that ability.

The Modern Worker

I’m a psychology professor at a large research institution. This means that although I do spend some time teaching in a large lecture hall, mostly I’m in my office writing, reading, doing email, attending meetings, and planning…that is, spending my time like many other modern workers. I’ve been at this for a while and I can still recall a time when not everyone had an email address, when research articles had to be printed, when submitting my work to a journal meant actually mailing four identical copies of the manuscript to the publisher. But nearly all of that is now done on line. I sit at my desk to do email, to read, to analyze data, to access research papers, to grade assignments, comment on student work …everything. And lately this has expanded to me writing and managing email at home, at breakfast on my phone, reading email in a faculty meeting on my phone, in bed on my phone…in the bathroom on my phone. An really…why am I doing my work in the bathroom?

What’s more, everything is being carried out on a device or a browser that is also used for recreation media consumption and social media. I read news, play games, and watch baseball games on my laptop. I watch sports on my laptop and tweet about the game at the the same time.

What this means is that my workstation is essentially also a playstation.

A Tired Mind

Lately I’m finding that a week of desk/computer work leaves my mind feeling like mush. Much more cognitive fatigue that there used to be. I’m less able to focus on my work. I can’t read the whole way through a paper. I’ll start and email and write two lines and then my attention wanders. It did not used to be this way, and it’s not just because I’m getting older (I’m a few weeks shy of 47). I think my work habits have begun to tire me out.

Meditation does help in this regard…I can meditate for 10–15 minutes with little difficulty. And running helps too: I can run for an hour without getting bored and feel refreshed (not tired)

But the minute I’m at my desk I slide right back into the habit of having 10 browser tabs open…each one vying for my attention.  No matter what I try, the second I sit down at my university office or home office to write, I lose my ability to concentrate on my work. It starts with email, and then 10 minutes of local news, maybe twitter….some more email. And back and forth and them I’m still working on the same email.

Some remedies

I’ve started taking steps this week to create some “digital distance” at work. Small habits to try to improve my work experience. None of this is scientific: I’m just trying to retrain. And I’m not so much interested in being more productive…just less tired.

  1. I’m printing more and screen reading less. This goes for articles, student work, and editing my own work. (don’t worry: I’m recycling the paper by printing on the back of other used paper!)
  2. This is big one: After many years of running everything through a browser and Gmail, I’m switching back to an actual email client (Spark Mail App for mac). That way, when I decide to do email, I’m ONLY doing email and not tempted to read FB, Twitter, news, etc. in another tab. Gmail or Outlook webmail was killing me for that because “hey you already have Chrome open, just leave a tab open for twitter”. So Chrome is closed when I’m responding to email.
  3. My lab and my graduate students are now on Slack (not email) so that when I’m doing project management, research planning, and advising, I can concentrate on that and nothing else. I close can Chrome and email
  4. I’ve turned all the notifications off on my smart phone, except texts/calls from my wife & kids, and their school.
  5. No posting to social media in the morning, because I’ll just be thinking about whether not there are hits. This is another big one. I’ll post something at breakfast or comment and then keep checking.I’ve already completely deactivated Facebook to make this even easier. My students and I are even carrying out a research study on this specific topic (more detail on that later..when the data are in).

I’m curious if others are finding similar things. Do you think that your productivity has waned? Do you think that working all day on a screen is reducing your ability to concentrate? Have you taken steps to correct this or retrain your mind? I’d be interested in hearing.

The Fine Print in the Syllabus

The end of July brings the realization that that I’ll be teaching graduate and undergraduate courses again in the fall, and that I need to prepare readings, lectures, and an official course outline for each course. In addition to being distributed to students on the first day of class, these outlines are archived and publicly available on the web. For example, here is the outline for the summer distance course that I am teaching this year . Here is the outline from the last time I taught the Introduction to Cognition course. My graduate courses use a similar format, and here is the outline from last fall’s graduate seminar on cognition. As you can see, there is a lot of information about the course, but also a lot of slightly silly stuff directing them to websites about other policies.

Fine Print

Every year, when I send these course outlines to the department’s undergraduate coordinator, I am informed that I have used the wrong template or have forgotten something.

For example. Last year, I forgot this:

“Computer-marked multiple-choice tests and/or exams may be subject to submission for similarity review by software that will check for unusual coincidences in answer patterns that may indicate cheating.”

Do the students need to know this up front? Is it not enough that we tell them not to cheat? Can they file an appeal if they were caught cheating and did not know that I was going to check ?

Not So Fine Print

Every year the list of non academic information that is required gets longer and longer. For example, this year I forgot to include a mental health statement. According to the university, I need to include the following statement in all course outlines:

“If you or someone you know is experiencing emotional /mental distress, there are several resources here at Western to assist you.  Please visit:  http://www.uwo.ca/uwocom/mentalhealth/ for more information on these resources and on mental health.”

I think this is a very strange thing to have in a course outline. It has nothing to do with my class. Surely students already know about non academic services, like mental health services?  And why stop there, maybe I should also consider a referral to the student health services if they or someone they know is experiencing a pain in their foot? Or to the gym if they are experiencing weakness in the upper torso? Or to a cooking class if they are malnourished. We have not yet been asked to issue “trigger warnings”  but I know that’s probably coming…

What is the intent here? I’m not suggesting that student not be informed of all the options available to them in terms of university life. I just wonder how relevant it is to the course outline. I id not think this kind of information belongs in my course outline.

Is it about control?

I think much of this is about the university exerting top down control. Requiring a series of statements for each course outline is a subtle power play. Academics sometimes like feel immune to the “TPS report” mentality, but we get it, and it gets worse each year.

In 2003, when I began teaching at Western, I created a syllabus, handed it out, taught the class, turned in the grades. Now, 11 years later, I use information from an official template for the syllabus, I send it for “approval” by the undergraduate office (it might be sent back), I sent it to IT to be posted, I  teach the course, I approve alternative exam dates at the request of the academic counsellor, when I turn in the grades, these are checked also to make sure they are not too high or too low. Ten years ago we had a chair… Now we have a chair plus 2 1/2 associate chairs (I was one of them for 4 years). Ten years ago, departments ran nearly every aspect of their own graduate programs, Now we have a central authority that has control over how exams are run, the thesis, and even the specific offer of admission. The letter that we write to students to offer admission to our graduate program is from a template, and any changes must to be approved. This letter gets longer and more confusing each year. It’s our TPS report. One of many TPS reports.

University, Inc.

The university is a business. I know it, everyone knows it.

Every year, we are informed  that we need to meet targets for enrolment, to put “bums in seats”. We are required to continually be seeking external funding and grants, to teach courses that will have appeal to student registered in different programs, to attach more graduate students. We’ve been asked to “sex up” the title of a course to see if more people will sign up. We now need to report on “internationalization” activities. That’s a buzzword, folks. We’re doing buzzword reports.

I’m not naive, I know the pressures. I’m just disappointed. And worried that it’s getting worse each year.