Why I teach

About a year ago, I started teaching for Armstrong Interactive Media Studies after several discussions with co-directors Glenn Platt and Peg Faimon. Read on their website for a better description, but AIMS (aims.muohio.edu) is a cross disciplinary center that incorporates digital trends and innovations disrupting traditional disciplines, and emphasizes a team-based, hands-on approach.

They had me at disrupting.

I’m an Assistant VP in IT here at Miami and have plenty to do to manage clients, staff, projects, budgets, and services. I decided to start teaching just as my wife was in her second trimester with twins. I was also in my last year of grad school at the time. You get the point: my docket was full. My salary is good, and we live pretty simply, so it wasn’t about the money. I’m pretty sure it was a whim. Let’s see what this is about.

My courses are basically a consulting gig for senior/graduate level students as a capstone experience to help companies solve real business problems. There are marketing, finance, graphic design, communication, computer science, and sometimes an East Asian languages or some such major in the class. Diversity of thought and backgrounds….just like the real world that they will soon be facing.

My first project was with P&G working with their data warehouse and developing a business intelligence app for the iPad for their top 300 executives. There is a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) in place so that I can’t say much more than this. The second semester was a follow up of sorts for this arena which also led to a summer graduate level class. This semester, we are helping an established print based publisher innovate and transition their business model to a digital freemium one and working to expand their demographics as well. Next semester, I’m supposed to be working with the Entrepreneurship Institute (www.fsb.muohio.edu/institute) which is rated #15 in undergraduate programs in the US and also teaching a class in “innovation and disruptive thinking.” The last one excites me a lot.

This experience has been extremely rewarding to me in several different ways. Of course, it is posited that the last stage of actually learning something is teaching in that subject. It’s fun to be able to handle the random odd question that challenges your concept of a topic and lead a discussion around it. But there are some very tangible benefits of an administrator getting in the classroom. The biggest facets to me have been understanding the veil that says I should be in the front of the room, engaging in new activities and learning, and connecting with the core of the institution.

The first semester was a learning experience. Between client  scope vagaries and some class members who were particularly challenging, I didn’t feel “in charge” at first. I realized that there is a very illusory veil that says I should be in front of the room and that a group should pay attention to me. On matters of consulting, I absolutely know what I’m doing and know how to work through ambiguity. But, little things matter. When a piece of technology in the room won’t behave (clearly I’m redirecting fault here) or when I can’t seem to get a student to pay attention, those things tend to undermine. As academic technology is a part of my portfolio at Miami, I suddenly understood directly–not empathetically– some of the irate or even pleading phone calls I’ve received over the years about classroom technology issues. If I’m in IT with some passable amount of tech street cred and I feel like I’m publicly flopping, how must a non-tech savvy faculty member feel?

I recovered in a couple of weeks, but I became keenly aware of this thin veil. I learned how to approach things and how to give the class the power to solve the problems and ask questions using their expertise without ceding my role as the responsible guide for the class. Most importantly, I learned how to think about designing technology and innovating so that we minimize, as much as possible, potential for techno-snafus for students, faculty, and staff.

As I reflected over the past year and a half of teaching, I realized the variety of things to which I was exposed that I would NEVER get to do in my day job. I’m an administrator which means I sit in a lot of meetings, but I don’t get to get my hands dirty. I’m strategically involved in a lot, but tactically I’m removed. It was refreshing to dig in and work with databases, iPad development, marketing, social media strategy, etc. To those who know me: don’t worry, I wasn’t coding…that’s not my thing. But, I got a fundamental understanding of some things that I knew only at a surface level before the classes.

As part of spring semester 2011, we discovered a field called sentiment analysis. Before this class, I had no idea this field existed. Basically you look at words and decide if it’s positive, negative or neutral. It is a fascinating look into human behavior that blends psychology, statistics, language, and a healthy dose of computer science. More interesting yet is how one can apply this. This past summer, I taught a class that produced an app that measured social media feeds against criteria to give a sense of positive, negative, or neutral and magnitude of impact.

People are pouring money left and right into social media. But how do you know if you’re getting any results or if those results are good or bad? Well, if you measure the feeds, apply sentiment analysis heuristics, you can do an decent job of figuring out sentiment and magnitude of impact. Enough about the specifics, maybe I’ll write something in more detail about this later. The point is that I continually get to learn and discover new things and apply them to novel problems that are real world. I can’t even begin to impress upon you how revitalizing this is to me.

Now I’m trying to work this type of practice into my regular job work teams, and communities of practice come to mind as a great vehicle for this type of activity. (Great, now I have another idea for a post.) I want to give people working for me a chance to break out of their mold and see things differently in a way that won’t detract from their main jobs. Allow intellectual curiosity to flourish. They may decide a new direction suits them; they may just be able to think a little differently from a broadened perspective; or they may just be slightly refreshed, but all in all I think most people would appreciate this opportunity.

Finally, teaching connects me to the reason we’re all here: student success. I’m taking a vital part in student’s lives. As I see it, this capstone is maybe the last safe place where grades are on the line and not jobs. There is a normal panic if the ideation phase is protracted (and it usually is) which cuts into production time or if their is ambiguity with a client who gives less than clear cut deliverables. Many students have no idea how to deal with this and struggle with not having a syllabus that breaks down week by week what’s expected. Maybe your world is different, but I rarely have explicit steps given to me to meet goals. I want them to experience that feeling and then know how to work their way out of it. Better yet, I’d rather they understand the beginning feelings of this panic, and know how to avoid it completely. That’s part of my role as a guide.

Interacting with students is great, and it is a privilege  to see them take the final steps completing their academic career at Miami and transition into the next phase, whether that is grad school or industry. There have been a few who have emailed back and said that the class was helpful or who I’ve worked with to polish their resume/cover letter for their first job. Those interactions and experiences are bright spots that help focus me on those days when the administrivia and bureaucracy that are so common in my work day wear away at me.

Professionally, it gives me some credibility when faculty find out I teach. Knowledge is the currency of the university environment, and for once I get to be part of the core mission instead of the “overhead” of running a modern university. Strategic overhead, but overhead nonetheless. There is always the awkward week or so at the beginning of the semester where I get “Dr. Howard.” I don’t have a PhD, and for a while I took great pains to explain that I was “not an academic.” However, as I’ve progressed, I just tell people that I don’t have a PhD and “Robert” is just fine. I am an academic…just one without a PhD.

Teaching is a significant commitment that takes time out of my day (I make up the time to my “real” job), and it impacts my family time as well; however, teaching has been one of the richest experiences I’ve had in the workplace in a long time. I believe I’m more effective in nearly ever aspect of my job by understanding what the clients’ goals are. This tends to be easier on the administrative part of the university, but teaching has been my gateway into better understanding the academic side. So, to all you administrators out there: find some time in your schedule to get in the classroom and connect fundamentally with the reason we are all here. I promise the experience and interactions will give you more than you give.

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