Category Archives: Collaborative work

Academic departments seen from a project management perspective

The proliferation of project-oriented work groups in the corporate and non-profit world stands in contrast to the organization of colleges and universities into academic departments. Good project management establishes clear channels for communication and coordination among members of the group. The project management plan takes into account the needs of all stakeholders, including users of any products resulting from the group’s work. Groups are composed of individuals whose skills complement one another’s. They are expected to take initiative and solve problems as they arise. The group uses digital tools to facilitate communication and share resources. The nature of a project is to have a definite endpoint. Along the way, benchmarks, preferably quantitative and open to the view of all stakeholders, measure whether the project is on track. The project plan includes plans for what to do when things get off track. The project manager is accountable for the group’s progress. Others outside the group are accountable for supporting the project. Reality is rarely so neat, but these anyhow are some of the ways project-oriented work is supposed to be carried out.

The academic department is a permanent organizational unit with objectives which remain stable for its lifetime, and recur on a regular basis. As anyone who has had to work out a scheduling conflict with a department chair, an academic department is designed with an indefinite time line in mind: there are no provisions whatever for adapting to the needs of students or faculty.

An academic department can function indefinitely with no leadership whatever. Students enroll in classes each semester. The chair must make sure there are enough sections, but no effort is required to recruit students. Classes are scheduled and apportioned to faculty. The deans require reports of various kinds. Standards, such as learning objectives and the mission statement, are established by the department itself, which collects data used to evaluate its performance. The chair must make sure the department stays under budget, but the budget is an artificial construct used to apportion resources to the department, which cannot run out of money. No collaboration is required. Input from faculty concerning major decisions can be obtained by email. There is no need for faculty to share syllabi or discuss pedagogy. There is no special requirement that faculty in the same department co-author books or papers. The department can function adequately even if faculty see each other only a few times each year. Senior faculty are at liberty to ignore junior faculty. There is an ample supply of new ones, should new hires leave the department for greener pastures or else fail to be granted tenure.

Nothing follows from any of this about whether academic departments should be transformed into project-oriented work groups or made to adopt practices in such work groups. For instance, it is probably nearly impossible to quantify teaching successes or good mentoring. Requirements of intellectual freedom are incompatible with direct oversight by administrators or faculty in other departments.

Academic departments should, nonetheless, be held to high standards of excellence. More in later postings about that.

Hannah J. Waters’s post on the duty to share


I started writing a response to your recent post about whether it is a duty to correct others in the domain of social media. The response grew and grew, so I decided to turn it into my own post. I hope that’s not a social media mistake similar to hijacking a thread on a mailing list. If that’s so, apologies, and in any case, thanks for such a provocative and insightful post.

I urge everyone to visit your blog at and to follow you on Twitter at @hannahjwaters.

As others have said, the person who refused to share was rude in the extreme. Instead of complaining that he didn’t want to give you his advice, he could have just given it, probably taking about the same amount of time. Or he might have posted a link or reference to a book. If he didn’t want to help, there’s nothing wrong with ignoring a request for more information.

Twitter is rife with misinformation. The idea that one ought to give a source for a quote or fact or check on whether it’s been reported correctly seems to have been forgotten completely. It’s a case of caveat lector: Twitter is a kind of massive bull session. I appreciate the presence of conscientious journalists such as Lizzie O’Leary (@Lizzieohreally), “budding Hildy Johnson.”

In fact, I think it is a duty to correct misinformation, at least some of the time. Here is the argument. Suppose someone has the goal of posting correct information on Twitter, the web, etc. There is a chance that this person will be wrong at some point, and would benefit from the help of others. So meeting the goal of posting correct information requires the help of others. But if someone refuses to help others, that person is making an exception for him or herself from the general practice of helping people. The person would benefit from accepting help and would probably accept it if offered, but refuses to act in kind, and if everyone did that, the aim of posting correct information would be defeated.

This is an excellent example of what philosophers call an “imperfect duty,” that is, a duty that requires someone to behave in a certain way some of the time, but not always, depending on how the person feels at the moment. It sounds like it might be an instance of the Golden Rule, but it isn’t. In the unlikely even that people want to hear more about this, I will be happy to share. 🙂

For instance, I take the NYC subway several times per day, most days. There is almost always someone who needs help carrying bags or a stroller up the stairs. I do help sometimes; sometimes I am just too rushed, or to tired, to really be of any help at all. Sometimes I don’t notice because I block out the chaos around me, so as to focus on making any progress at all through the station. Almost always, someone else helps the person. One time I will be that person and someone will stop to help me. So of course I am going to help someone now and again. So this is an imperfect duty because you are allowed from the point of view of duty to opt out if you don’t feel like following through. In contrast there are perfect duties such as not committing murder.

Visit (section 5) for more on this.

If I find a mistake in a Wikipedia article, or an ambiguous or unclear passage that would be excellent after a little editing, I will fix it. I think this is important because, like it or not, Wikipedia is the world’s encyclopedia. Most people do not have easy access to a library or any source of information that goes in depth. When I say “most people,” I mean most people in the entire world.

I like solving puzzles and thinking about writing and prose style, and I am curious about things generally—so why not share some information with someone if I have it, or increase my skills by shaping up Wikipedia prose?

If I had to start somewhere, it would be with the Huffington Post, which publishes uninformed tripe such as “A Kabbalistic View of Evolution,” the author of which does not seem to have even gone so far as having searched online for information about evolution. If he had done so, he probably would not have made many of the common mistakes about evolution that are corrected in many places online, such as UC Berkeley’s Understanding Evolution web site. It’s astonishing how many mistakes one person can make in such a short piece. Bloody hell. Which reminds me, I have to make sure the book reviews and articles at Evolution: Education and Outreach are moving along toward publication. Maybe someone will pick up an issue now and again. PS: our content will be free, after a one-year pay wall to non-subscribers.

Your critic’s response is instructive because it’s a good reminder that the wide net cast by social media brings in all kinds of people, some who won’t like you or what you are doing, and some who you won’t. An extra measure of tolerance is required as is a skin a little thicker than most people are used to having in their daily lives.

Your comment that the the Internet is becoming “a much more collective place” struck a nerve. There is a nice community of science bloggers and twitterers. I’d like to think I am contributing to that community. But there are some dangerous and alarming ways in which the Internet and the WWW in particular are closing down. Some parts of the Internet have always been the production of a collective. Usenet newsgroups and threaded mailing lists such as the TeX on OSX list, or the BibDesk users mailing list, are examples of this. It’s rare that a question goes unanswered for more than a day on these lists. Think of the arXiv repository.

In contrast, nowadays, .com sites are most frequently used: Facebook, Twitter, Google, flikr, Dropbox. What did people do before Google? They followed links from page to page or searched the news groups archive for a thread relevant to what he or she is interested in. The web and Internet generally were not navigable, unless one was prepared to rely on others’ choices about where to go. Yahoo! was a subject guide and index, its search engine being secondary. The .com sites exist for the purpose of accumulating capital for their owners, and if there is something useful to someone that comes out of the deal, all the better. The information these sites obtain from their users is enormously valuable, is not going to be shared with anyone, and no one knows what’s done with it.

I think that Malcom Gladwell has expressed similar thoughts in a recent New Yorker piece, but I haven’t read it.

It’s a phenomenon similar to the mass-production of organic food. I love Whole Foods, but it’s a corporate endeavor; to me, it’s the experience of going to a farmer’s market and eating what’s in season locally that’s important. Whole Foods has taken something I value and is now trying its best to sell it back to me at a profit. Facebook in particular seems to be creating a simulated WWW inside the the real WWW. “Finding someone online” has come to mean “looking for the person’s facebook page.”

I find it particularly alarming that the notion that Facebook or Twitter are reliable tools for conducting political mass action including coordinating protests or even military action seems to have been accepted by almost everyone with little or no suspicion. These corporations are beholden to no one. If it served Twitter or Facebook, either of these companies could easily make systematic changes to user data, or pass it along, or allow it to be monitored by anyone that will pay or otherwise contribute to the accumulation of capital.

Not so very long ago, there was quite literally a Federal case against Microsoft for restricting the user’s freedom to choose. The possession of user information and provision of services online by corporations does not seem to have provoked a similar reaction, among the general public, or on the part of government. Perhaps the reason for this is that there is no one who stands to make money from a successful lawsuit.

Perhaps is an exception. I don’t think is mining user data, but is refining the WordPress software, which reaps rewards for users such as myself who use it free of charge, and can change how it works in any way we want.

So I suppose my conclusion is, you really should consider it a duty to correct someone, or point to a resource if you think it might help other figure out something that someone said, or retweet a good tweet; and that giving away your knowledge and expertise for free is, paradoxically, valuable—not in monetary terms, but as a way of contributing to building an autonomous online community.

If there are any mistakes or ambiguities in this post I hope someone will let me know so I can correct them.

WikiWashed by WikiLeaks

“Greenwashing” is explained by the Greenwashing Index as “a company or organization spend[ing] more time and money claiming to be ‘green’ through advertising and marketing than actually implementing business practices that minimize environmental impact. It’s whitewashing, but with a green brush.” Hannah Klein Connolly offers a similar account of pinkwashing: “the activities of companies and groups that position themselves as leaders in the struggle to eradicate breast cancer while engaging in practices that may be contributing to rising rates of the disease.”

Taking greenwashing and pinkwashing as models, I define “Wikiwashing” as “representing a web site that is not a wiki as being a wiki.” What makes a web site a wiki is that anyone in the group of people primarily intended as the audience and user base of the wiki can edit the wiki web site. Ward Cunningham, a wiki pioneer, describes the wiki in the following manner:

A wiki is a body of ideas that a community is willing to know and  maintain. That community has every right to be cautiously selective  in what it will groom. This particular wiki [Cunningham’s] has been blessed with thoughtful, diligent, diverse and open-minded volunteers, who have  invested years learning what works here and what doesn’t. When volunteers tire and depart, others take their place. I remain amazed  that this works without mechanically enforced authority. Possibly it  works because there is no mechanically enforced authority. In any  event, I remain grateful to all volunteers, past, present and future.

Continue reading