Last Friday I was invited to attend a Rotary Club meeting in Racine, WI. It was fun meeting the members, and learning about their history and charitable projects. If asked to join I’ll probably accept for a start date in 2014. The weird thing about membership, though, will be attending weekly meetings in the Racine Country Club. A stereotype of country clubs is that members are a bunch of old White guys sitting around trying to keep women and racial minorities out. I was the only person of color present (in a group of about 40), and there were just two female members in attendance. There were a lot of younger men at the meeting, however, and I enjoyed the general vibe of the group.

I was also the only person of color in the room when the chancellor and provost took me to the Kenosha Country Club at the end of my first week on the job last month. As we rolled up I joked, “are you sure they are going to let me in this place? I grew up in the South, you know, so I need to check!” They responded that the university would not have a membership if there were any exclusionary practices. After a nice lunch they informed me that I could be added to the membership list.

So what do you think, readers: should I join one or both country clubs, knowing that I’ll be one of the few faces — and maybe the ONLY face — of diversity?

A couple of weeks ago The Society Pages published “Colorblindness vs. Race-Consciousness — An American Ambivalence,” in which Meghan A. Burke begins with anti-stereotypical observations in her research: “Consider a setting: a racially diverse urban neighborhood where organizers and most residents take a tremendous amount of pride in their community’s racial diversity. But many still think the black kids in their community don’t learn the ‘right values’ and avoid the parts of the community they code as ‘ghetto.’ Or how about a rural community in Illinois, where some Tea Party organizers feel that Obama’s election was a step forward for race relations, support the Dream Act, and grew up taking pride in attending a black congregation.” I have to admit that I was a little worried about how I would be received on a recent trip to the Post Office in the small town of Somers, WI, next to my campus. Everyone was friendly, and the clerk was an African American man (!). I’ll have to keep Professor Burke’s article in mind as I venture out to additional rural areas of the state.

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’ve been a dean for one month now, and I’m happy to report that there were no big surprises in the first stage of my transition to full-time administration. I am attending a lot more meetings than I did as a department chair, and I have a wider variety of opportunities and challenges to engage, but nothing has been unexpected. Reading a big stack of books, attending multiple training sessions, and speaking with lots of folks about academic leadership was well worth it!

There have been minor surprises in the first month, however. On the positive side, the first month in the student apartment complex was quieter than I expected (and there are many students living around me!). Send vibes that this continues, please! On the negative side, it’s been a bit frustrating adapting to a Microsoft cloud computing campus after several years on a Google cloud computing campus. I’ll write more about that next week…

One of my tasks as a new dean is to work on the brand for the college. (This includes finding ways of motivating folks to think about how we can actively manage the college’s reputation without using “the B word” that many faculty members find distasteful!) A component of the overall U of Wisconsin-Parkside brand that we’ll also probably emphasize in the College of Social Sciences & Professional Studies is close student-faculty contact, with very few classes taught by graduate students. I wonder, though, if we should add graduate students to the brand? Many of these instructors are outstanding! Thinking back to my undergraduate days at Georgia Tech, for example, two of my three most memorable instructors were graduate students. The faculty member was unforgettable, in part, because every English literature course he taught was sure to involve discussions of sexual intrigue and violence…hence his nickname of “Sex and Death Corbin.” I did well in those and other humanities and social science courses without much effort, as I loved those areas for as long as I can remember. The two graduate students, on the other hand, really motivated me and helped me get through courses I didn’t like as much and typically struggled in: chemistry and calculus. Additionally, in an “It’s a Small World” development I reconnected last week with the Calculus graduate instructor after not being in contact since the class ended in 1987. Thanks for creating a great learning environment in which I earned my one and only A in calculus, Martha Abell! (She is now Interim Dean of the College of Science and Mathematics at Georgia Southern University.)

I am very grateful that I had the opportunity to teach as a graduate student in sociology at Indiana University. Some of my best classroom performances were in my first two years of graduate student teaching, as I was able to devote most of my waking hours to preparing for classes, whereas in the third year of graduate school teaching and in all of my years on the faculty at the U of Minnesota I also had research and service obligations that prevented an exclusive focus on teaching. Of course, advanced graduate students and faculty learn to balance the demands of teaching, research, and service, but I think that undergrad students can be well served in classes staffed by motivated young graduate students, who are typically mentored by award-winning faculty in a class on pedagogical strategies and/or in individual meetings. Let’s add these graduate students to university brands!

Yesterday I posted a note about scheduling time for reading. I need to also remember to make time for another favorite activity: going to the movies. Before joining the ranks of administration I would go see a movie at least twice a month, and usually weekly during the summer. Now I’m lucky If I can go more than two or three times a semester! Earlier this month I saw Pacific Rim; it was entertaining, but not as fun as the Sweded trailer. I’ll try to go see The Conjuring this weekend. Yesterday I asked folks to wish me luck in creating a schedule to do daily reading; please also send me good vibes about being able to occasionally get out to the movies!

I knew that the new job as a dean would be very time consuming, but one thing I did not anticipate was that my Instapaper account would be overflowing by the end of each week. (As explained on wikipedia, “Instapaper is a web service that saves articles for later reading on web browsers, Apple iOS and Android devices, and Amazon Kindle. After registering a free account, the service saves articles that users select with its ‘Read Later’ bookmarklet and presents them in a minimal, readable text layout.”) In the past I was able to read saved articles every two or three days, and did not have a specific plan for continuing that after the transistion to UW-P. That was a mistake, as I’ve been finding myself working on all sorts of tasks at all hours of the day. Starting today I’ll try to get into the habit of reading my saved articles on my iPad right after I have dinner. Wish me luck!

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!

The TV show Falling Skies depicts a United States of America struggling to fight off an alien invasion. Last night’s episode depicted an alternate reality where several of the main characters were on the faculty at Boston University. The character who actually was a BU professor before the invasion was shown as a department chair who was being considered as the next dean of his college. In several scenes he and the other characters were placed in what appeared to be a faculty lounge, and they engaged in both intellectual discussions as well as gossip. They appeared to be quite the collegial bunch! Maybe I should think about creating a social sciences and professional studies faculty lounge here at the U of Wisconsin-Parkside?

If you are a reader who is not a dean but you are thinking about becoming one, a question I’d pose is this: “do you like meetings?” If not, you may want to drop a deanship from the list of possibilities, as we attend a ton of them. I have to admit that I not only like meetings, I love them! Well, the ones that are productive anyway, which is usually the case for the vast majority, luckily. There is a certain energy generated by connecting with others to explore ideas and check off items from to-do lists!

Today I have my first “Chairs, Directors, and Dean Group” (CDDG) meeting, where the dean’s assistant and I will meet with all of the department and program heads. When an associate dean is selected s/he will be present at these meetings too. At today’s initial meeting I’ll also strongly suggest the formation of a “Council of Heads” (CoH), where the heads will meet monthly without the deans. While a department chair at the University of Minnesota I attended monthly meetings with the deans, and monthly meetings with just the other chairs, so I’ll try to replicate that structure here at UW-P. Both types of meetings can be valuable, as in the CoH meetings the heads can discuss requests from the dean group, create initiatives to present to the dean group, and share best practices about unit administration, and in CDDG meetings we will discuss dean group ideas, engage initiatives from central administration, and discuss CoH suggestions. I’ll also meet at least once a month with each head to hear unit concerns and ideas, and engage in two-way mentoring: I’ll learn as much from them as they do from me!

Interestingly, one type of meeting format that I do not like much is the retreat. I don’t know exactly why…maybe because too much is usually crammed into them, and the temptation is to try to solve everything in one shot vs. beginning an on-going conversation? So today’s initial CDDG gathering is a 3-hour mini-retreat where we have some action items to decide immediately, but it also includes many other kickoff processes that we’ll engage over the academic year. The meeting is on campus, which also decreases the chances of it being viewed as a special activity. I’ll probably have to do a “real” retreat sometime in the future, but I’m confident that the mini-retreat will kickstart productive CDDG meetings.

Speaking of kickstarting, one topic on today’s agenda is the possibility of launching a kickstarter campaign to fund an idea. Stay tuned for more 411!