etc.

Today marks the end of an era: it’s the last day that iGoogle pages will be available. iGoogle is a personalized home page for web browsers, and I’ve used it ever since it was launched in 2008. I glance at it several times a day, to keep track of news, tweets, and Remember the Milk tasks. Tomorrow I’ll have to find a new source for keeping all of these items on one page. Two of the leading replacement contenders are Protopage and Netvibes, but I don’t love either option. Anyone have other suggestions?

In a past life I was an engineer. While getting my undergraduate degree in electrical engineering in the late 1980s at Georgia Tech I enjoyed my liberal arts classes much more thoroughly than my engineering classes. I know, that should have told me something back then…I analyzed those years as a component of my memoir. Today, though, I’m thinking about the importance of receiving a well-rounded education given all sorts of calls for a narrower focus on STEM education. Here on the UW-Parkside campus, for example, the building floors are labeled D1 and D2, and L1 – L3. I recently learned that the “D” in the D1 and D2 designation stands for “down.” It seems that while L1 is considered to be the main level with a busy pedestrian walkway, D1 is “down one floor,” and D2 is “down two floors.” That made perfect sense to designers and engineers in the 1960s, but maybe if they had consulted others they would have realized that this system is cumbersome. (“If D2 is down two floors, is L2 up two floors? Up 2 floors from L1? Wait, that would make it L3??”) Or maybe they should have been required to take more liberal arts classes…

Recently I’ve been thinking about two poorly designed items here on campus. The first concerns sets of trash bins next to the residence halls and apartments; in each pair one bin is for recycling, and the other is for garbage. The problem: they are both the same size and color (green), but the recycling bin has small stickers that are easy to miss. So what happens? You guessed it: the recycling bins usually have trash in them. I’m used to blue recycling bins with large signage. I wonder why that is not the norm here?

The second bad design: the bike racks look nice, but they are too narrow for the U-locks that are ubiquitous on all other college campuses I’ve been on that have “regular” bike racks. Here students have to use the much less secure chain lock, and frequently they just lock the front wheel, as that’s the only think that (partially) fits into the bike racks. Maybe bike thefts are rare here, but I miss normal bike racks!

Last week I wrote about task management tools. In one of the comments a reader suggested that I try trello. While I liked it, it doesn’t quite knock Remember the Milk (RTM) from the top spot, as RTM handles my specific functions more efficiently. I received a note that $25 is due on October 2 to renew my RTM Pro account, so if anyone has any other favorite task management systems let me know before then, please!

As a dean I have tons of tasks that need to be tracked; each day I create several new to-do items and complete existing entries. While at the U of Minnesota my main task management system was “Remember the Milk,” which allows a user to enter, edit, and complete tasks online or via smartphone and tablet apps. I liked it, aside from 2 issues: it costs $25 a year for the “pro” version (the free version limits the number of times per day you can synch tasks across devices), and the system has a bug where a task entered while in one time zone will get shifted up a day when you travel to a different time zone. When I moved to UW-Parkside I tried alternates: Outlook tasks, and Reminders for iOS devices. Both were unsatisfactory, so it’s back to Remember the Milk. Check it out if you need a good task management system!

As was the case at the University of Minnesota, here at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside I’ll be working with living-learning communities. The Dean of Students wanted me to have an initial meeting in the second or third week of classes, after the initial rush of orientation activities passed. She also suggested that I write a letter to introduce myself before the first face to face meeting. I’ll share the draft in a post today. I’m looking forward to meeting the students!

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Students in the Exploration Living-Learning Community:

My name is Walt Jacobs, and I am a professor here at UW-Parkside. I am also the Dean of the College of Social Sciences & Professional Studies, which means that I oversee everything in seven departments: Criminal Justice; Geography; History; International Studies; the Institute of Professional Educator Development (IPED); Politics, Philosophy, and Law; and Sociology and Anthropology.

Like you, this is my first year at UW-P. Also like you, I am living in University Housing! Before coming to UW-Parkside I was at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities for 14 years. Last year I helped start a Living-Learning Community (LLC) there, and I definitely want to continue working with them here at UW-Parkside, so this year I will be helping out with the Exploration LLC by attending some of the activities that the Office of Residence Life always schedules. I’d also like to do a few extra things this year with you, such as

  • Have dinner in Brickstone once a week.
  • Organize a once a month movie discussion after seeing an on-campus movie in the cinema.
  • Organize a once a month Open House where you’d have the opportunity to meet faculty and students in one of the seven departments in the College of Social Sciences & Professional Studies.

The Office of Residence Life has scheduled a meeting on XXXX in YYYY for me to meet with you to start the conversation about how we can work together over the year. I look forward to seeing you then!

In my last post I mentioned that an adjustment to my new role as a dean has been adapting to a Microsoft cloud computing campus after several years on a Google cloud computing campus. The main component of that transition has been getting used to Outlook mail, which has a lot more settings than Gmail. Additionally, the settings on my desktop client don’t carry over to the web-based client…and they are in different places on the dashboards (!). My wife has used Outlook for over 10 years and says that I will learn to love it. Maybe, but for now I prefer Google’s simpler approach and more streamlined design.

It was also a bit of a pain to select my insurance and health benefits plans, as I was presented with a billion options. Well, maybe not a billion, but I had a lot more choices than when I signed up for benefits at the U of Minnesota in 1999. At that time there was a low- or no- cost option in each area that served as a default choice, but employees had other choices available for specialized needs. I would have loved such a curated approach here at UW-Parkside. Hopefully I will not have to wade into that sea of possibilities again anytime soon to change my coverages.

I keep up with many of my old U of Minnesota colleagues on Facebook. A few days ago College of Liberal Arts Assistant Dean for Student Services Chris Kearns posted an interesting analysis of how the choice between Apple iPad and Microsoft Surface tablets mirrors choices faced by those of us in Liberal Arts sectors of higher education today. With his permission, I’m reprinting the post here.

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I read a NY Times blog by Nick Bolton titled “Why the Surface RT Failed and the iPad Did Not.” Bolton says the key reason the Surface RT failed and the iPad succeeded hinges on Apple’s willingness to cater to consumer impatience by artfully limiting choice. The key to understanding today’s consumers, in other words, is recognizing that they don’t want to think, they want to consume. The Surface RT requires them to think about ports, SD slots, pens, and a host of other choices. With the iPad, they simply start using. The device, not the choices buyers have to make in order to use it, is the hero of the story.

Bolton wrote an earlier post on 19 June 2013, before it was clear the Surface would not sell well. It is titled: “Microsoft Surface Allows People to Create.” There he begins with these observations:

Did Microsoft just pull off the impossible? Creating a beautifully designed tablet computer that might compete with theApple iPad?

The iPad, for all its glory, suffers from one very distinct flaw: It’s very difficult to use for creation. The keyboard on the screen, although pretty to look at, is abysmal for typing anything over 140 characters. There isn’t a built-in pen for note-taking, either. Of course all of this is intentional by Apple. Although there are hundreds of third party products available, Apple doesn’t seem to want the iPad to be a creator, but more of a consumer.

Microsoft, and its new Surface tablet, wants to do both.

I had not thought much about the different corporate strategies of Microsoft and Apple. And like seemingly everyone, I love my iPad. But I’ve had to work hard with additional hardware and third party apps to pull it into the territory of being a creative tool. Apple wants me to consume, to remain a cog in the corporate wheel. MicroSoft is banking that I’ll also want to participate in creating.

When I look at the situation in higher education today, I see the arts and humanities — the traditional liberal arts in general — are in the same basic position with respect to the more job-oriented colleges as Microsoft is with Apple in this this iteration of the tablet wars. Liberal Arts colleges work to train adaptability experts capable of creative thinking in response to change. That self-directed thinking begins with the undergraduate career. A student majoring in the arts, humanities, or social sciences faces a host of choices in order to plan a pathway to degree and the world beyond graduation.

Most faculty and professionals working in the liberal arts see these choices and this level of choice as a competitive advantage. But as Microsoft is demonstrating, today’s consumers don’t want choice, they want immediate gratification. They want to remove their beautifully packaged toy and begin using it immediately. And if the professional literature of higher education teaches anything unambiguous about trends in undergraduate education it is that today’s students see higher education as a consumer product, not as an investment in the next generation.

I suspect this is why the liberal arts face such tough competition with business schools or colleges of engineering. A student choosing those routes believes, wrongly — but firmly — that they need to make one choice: They simply buy their degree and all of life’s problems are solved. The liberal arts delivers the message that life is more complicated than that, and it says that the specific content you learn at 18 is not likely to apply to the world in which you find yourself at 40, 50, or older. Indeed most of what I learned as a freshman in 1973 is irrelevant to what I do in my daily work life and personal life.

The skills that last across the changing years are those that teach us to think clearly, communicate persuasively, and continue learning and adapting. These are the skills that increase our ability to choose and to create. But creative choice is out of cultural fashion in a frightened age — which may be why I read the NY Times this morning on my iPad rather than a Surface.

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Thanks Chris!

Today is my first day as Founding Dean and Professor, College of Social Sciences and Professional Studies, University of Wisconsin-Parkside. Following a 13-hour drive (including stops) from Charlotte, NC yesterday I stayed overnight at a hotel in Racine, WI. Now I’m about to head to campus, and I’m wearing jeans, sneakers, and a t-shirt. “Wait,” you may be saying, “a dean has to dress more formally than that!” Normally I would agree, but the major task today is unpacking, first at the office, and then at my on-campus apartment. So, I shouldn’t wear anything that might get torn while throwing books and boxes around! Additionally, I just have three meetings scheduled, and they are both with people I’ve already met, so I think I can get away with being super casual on day 1…especially since the t-shirt is university-branded. Tomorrow will be the first dress up day.

This day next week will be my first day as Dean of the College of Social Sciences and Professional Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside. While I’m very much looking forward to joining the ranks of full-time administrators, I can’t escape years of socialization about the perils of administration: last week I closed an email to a departing department chair with “enjoy your freedom!” I should have said something like “enjoy your summer break, but in the fall you will be emailing me about wanting your chairship back!” Yes, that’s wishful thinking, I know. Few faculty members fall in love with the processes of administrative life, such as the loss of control of one’s calendar. While I enjoyed going to many meetings as a department chair, they will ramp up exponentially as a dean…27 are already on the books for July (!). Maybe I should be telling myself to enjoy this last week in my primary role as a faculty member? No, I’m ready to get started!