14. Almost The End of Civilization As We Know It

Judicious application of forcing functions can yield faculty development.
The world as we know it almost ended on January 1, 2000.

When electronic coding became widespread in the 1900s, its capacity was extremely limited.  Programmers realized they could extend this capacity by coding the year with only two digits; e.g., 1951 as “51”.  This was all well and good until the year 2000, which in this system would be indistinguishable from 1900, 1800, etc.  Doomsayers predicted that when 2000 arrived, algorithms and error detection processes relying on this system would go so awry that airplanes would crash, power grids would fail, and civilization as we know it would end, etc.  Dogs and cats living together …mass hysteria![1] My institution stockpiled liquid nitrogen in the event refrigeration failed.  I myself laid in firewood and awaited midnight.

Of course, planes did not crash, power grids did not fail, and civilization as we know it did not end in 2000.  Governments and the private sector modified computer software to accommodate 4-digit coding of the year.  Fixing the Y2K bug, as it was called, cost more than $130 billion in the US alone.[2]

Forcing functions

In business-speak, the Y2K bug  was a “forcing function”.  Wikipedia defines this as “any task, activity or event that forces you to take action and produce a result”.[3]  For maximum efficacy, forcing functions need to include an irrevocable deadline or trigger, and dire consequences.  In some instances, the deadline and dire consequences can be created intentionally to force an action.  The fiscal cliff of 2013 is an example.[4]  Forcing functions are a form of commitment device.

Forcing functions are very useful in faculty development.  The ‘usual suspects’[5] include, for example:

  • The tenure clock
  • The potential wrath of Chairs, Chiefs, Deans, Provosts, Presidents, etc. if performance is insufficient
  • Deadlines for submission of promotion materials, grant applications, or meeting abstracts
  • Requirements for signatures, which force oversight by the signatories
  • Regulations that would automatically invalidate a search for a new faculty member unless conducted properly
  • Requirement for a balanced budget before a fiscal year begins
  • Peer reviewers

All can be anticipated.  All can provoke good behavior that ought to ensue spontaneously for its own benefit, but often doesn’t.  All can be improperly or counterproductively used.  For example, if the associated anxiety is too great, a forcing function can undermine the very activity it is intended to promote (cf. annual performance reviews).

As with “the boogeyman”[6], the credibility of these threats is more important than their reality.  At my institution, for example, our Appointments and Promotions Committee concurs with recommending department in the vast majority of promotions.  Nonetheless, the (unjustified) reputation of this committee for rejecting departmental recommendations suffices to keep departments honest in most cases.  Damaging such reputations, diminishing the dire consequences, and/or showing deadlines to be false[7] can undermine forcing functions, create moral hazard, and encourage abuse.  The moment a forcing function is shown to be ‘not really serious’, it ceases to force (cf. ‘the boy who cried wolf ‘[8] ).  This reality ought to discourage the enforcers from allowing exceptions, as “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.”[9]  But often it does not.  In the heat of the moment, the mind’s System 1 and present self will deal with the issue at hand and be oblivious to long-term consequences.

One noteworthy use of forcing functions is in achieving faculty diversity.

  • Medical schools, for example, undergo regular review by the Liaison Committee on Medical Education (LCME), and commit themselves either to meeting the LCME’s standards or remediation.  Standard IS-16[10] is:

An institution that offers a medical education program must have policies and practices to achieve appropriate diversity among its students, faculty, staff, and other members of its academic community, and must engage in ongoing, systematic, and focused efforts to attract and retain students, faculty, staff, and others from demographically diverse backgrounds.

Schools that lack the will to meet this standard spontaneously will nonetheless strive mightily to do so to avoid citation.

Another is in faculty quality control.

  • At some institutions, those external experts to be consulted on senior appointments and promotions are only suggested by the recommending unit, and must be approved by a senior dean or board (who may insist on other experts).  This practice keeps the recommending units from approaching prejudiced or weak critics, and the units themselves now avoid bad suggestions to keep from tarnishing their reputations in the eyes of the dean or board
  • Regular departmental reviews and standing visiting committees are a staple of many institutions, as are reappointment reviews for faculty on term appointments.

For forcing functions to work they must be recognized and remembered as such.  We are good at ignoring even the obvious, however; a subsequent post touches on this.  Even repeated reminders eventually lose traction.  Forcing functions may therefore best be deployed in combination with other tools in the faculty developer’s toolkit or others in the quiver of magic feathers.


Sometimes naming a thing permits it to be addressed directly.  Now that forcing functions are part of the faculty development vocabulary, let’s discuss them and optimize their use.

To-do list

 When you are not just before an imminent deadline, inventory and reflect on the forcing functions in your faculty development world. Are they effective in causing good behavior?

 When you are tempted to override a forcing function to deal with an immediate issue, pause and reflect (if you can) on the long-term consequences of this action; reconsider.  [I will be the first to admit that it is easier to suggest this than practice it.]

 As always, please consider sharing any innovative forcing function in the Comments field below.

[1] http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0087332/quotes

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Year_2000_problem

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Forcing_function

[4] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_fiscal_cliff

[5] http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0034583/quotes

[6] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bogeyman

[7] https://www.cartoonstock.com/directory/w/wrong_date.asp

[8] https://www.storyarts.org/library/aesops/stories/boy.html

[9] http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0084726/quotes

[10] http://www.lcme.org/connections/connections_2013-2014/IS-16_2013-2014.htm

[11] http://web.mit.edu/fnl/volume/184/hopkins.html

©Martin E. Feder 2015

15. The Dancing Fool Meets John Malkovich

No matter how much ‘they’ seem like ‘us’, ‘they’ aren’t; design academic assessment and faculty development programs and communications in anticipation of this reality.

The Dancing Fool – by Kilgore Trout

A flying saucer creature named Zog arrived on Earth to explain how wars could be prevented and how cancer could be cured. He brought the information from Margo, a planet where the natives conversed by means of farts and tap dancing.

Zog landed at night in Connecticut. He had no sooner touched down than he saw a house on fire. He rushed into the house, farting and tap dancing, warning the people about the terrible danger they were in. The head of the house brained Zog with a golf club.[1]

We faculty are people who form small academic units, which in turn form larger academic units, and so on up until entire universities and/or academic health centers.  The key word is ‘people’.  We have human minds dominated by System 1 thinking, whose primary cognitive bias is: what you see is all there is.  What we see most often is ourselves and the people with whom we share a common organizational culture, described by Kevin Grigsby[2] as:

‘…a shared pattern of basic assumptions shared by a social group about itself.  In an oft-cited, succinct, and easily understood definition of culture, Bower defines it as “the way we do things around here”.[3]  In defining the culture of the workplace, Peterson and Wilson explain that basic assumptions “form an unspoken or unwritten basis upon which people behave, communicate, and interact in the workplace”.[4]  Organizational culture describes these patterns of basic assumptions and related behavior within a defined social environment.[4]

So what?

What you see is all there is, and what you see is a mostly homogeneous group of highly-educated and carefully selected academic faculty with similar training.  Accordingly, says our System 1s, they share a common organizational culture.  And so, it follows, we can in principle communicate with all in a common language, design uniform career development systems and assessments, and expect them to behave in a common way.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

  • If you’ve seen one faculty member, you’ve seen one faculty member.
  • If you’ve seen one organizational culture, you’ve seen one organizational culture.
  • If you’ve seen one department/section/division/program/center/institute, you’ve seen one department/section/division/program/center/institute.
  • If you’ve seen one university/academic health center, you’ve seen one university/academic health center

Each of us views the world through the lens of our own experience and culture (see also a previous post),

Screen Shot 2015-07-10 at 10.10.51 AM.[5]

and most of us interact with others through this lens.[6]

The key implication is: when faculty members reach out to another faculty member/organizational culture/department/section/division/program/center/university/academic health center–no matter how good their intentions–their efforts at best are likely to be somewhat ineffective[7] and at worst will yield the same fate as that of unfortunate Zog from the planet Margo.  The same is true of the customary axes of diversity: gender, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, religion, etc. — and also of generations (Boomers, X, Millenials).  In addition:

  • Academic activities that receive great credit towards academic promotion in the home culture may receive little credit in foreign cultures
  • Cultures may seem competitors or adversaries to one another (but sometimes are not)
  • Customary manners, languages, and gestures of one culture may be offensive to others[8]
  • Those from foreign cultures may have constraints, taboos, and obligations that are invisible to outsiders.
  • Faculty from different academic cultures will dispute one another’s positions endlessly, when in reality they are simply agreeing that their cultures have different norms, assumptions, and customs.

Culture eats strategy for breakfast![9]

What’s to be done about this?  When seasoned travelers plan to visit a foreign culture, they inform themselves about local customs[10]. Lest we make dancing fools of ourselves, shouldn’t we do the same?

In the film Being John Malkovich,[11] the McGuffin[12] is that characters can enter John Malkovich’s head and see the world through John Malkovich’s eyes (before being rudely ejected onto the side of the New Jersey Turnpike, that is).  Few of us have the ability to intuit another’s culture without having seen the world through the other’s eyes, and (like Zog from the planet Margo) stumble into bad situations.  In my experience, the resulting cultural dissonance (and not resources, facilities, leadership, or opportunities) is the greatest cause of unhappiness in academic faculty.

To Do

Always remember:  Although ‘they’ may look like you, smell like you, have the same academic degrees as you, belong to the same organization as you, seem to have the same academic values as you, etc., your major cognitive bias is to assume they ARE like you.  Find a way to avoid this cognitive error until proven otherwise, lest it lead you astray.

√  Never judge people until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes (American proverb)

√  If, like Zog from the planet Margo, you choose to communicate through farting and tap-dancing, always wear a helmet.

[1] Vonnegut, K. 1973. Breakfast of Champions. Delacorte Press. http://amzn.com/0385334206

[2] Grigsby, K. 2009. Organizational culture and its consequences. Pages 115-126 in Cole, TR, Goodrich, TJ, Gritz, ER (eds), Faculty Health in Academic Medicine: Physicians, Scientists, and the Pressures of Success. Humana Press. http://amzn.com/1603274502

[3] Bower, JL. 1966. The Will to Manage: Corporate Success Through Programmed Management. McGraw-Hill.

[4] Peterson, M, and Wilson, JF. 2002. The culture-work-health model and work stress. American Journal of Health Behavior 26: 16-24.

[5] http://www.condenaststore.com/-sp/The-New-Yorker-Cover-View-of-the-World-from-9th-Avenue-March-29-1976-Prints_i8553097_.htm





[6] Academic humor can be telling; see for example http://www.wolfescape.com/Humour/MedJokes.htm

[7] I am torn here between respecting Gary Larsen’s request (http://www.creators.com/a-note-from-gary-larson.html) and displaying his pertinent cartoon. Suggest you search for “What we say to dogs. What they hear” online.

[8] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/gayle-cotton/cross-cultural-gestures_b_3437653.html  http://www.buzzfeed.com/gabrielakruschewsky/simple-gestures-that-might-be-highly-misunderstood-abroad#.qsKJBE9BmE

[9] Footnote 62 in Bock, Laszlo. 2015. Work Rules! Insights from Inside Google That Will Transform How You Live and Lead, Twelve. http://amzn.com/1455554790


[10] http://www.kwintessential.co.uk/resources/country-profiles.html

[11] Being John Malkovich. 1999. Polygram USA Video. http://amzn.com/6305807086

[12] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/MacGuffin

©Martin E. Feder 2015

12. Decannomics poster (from AAMC-GFA Professional Development Conference)

The following links to a poster presented at the Association of American Medical Colleges Group on Faculty Affairs Professional Development Conference, June 25-28, 2015, Caribe Hilton, San Juan, PR

Click HERE to view poster

At the conference was a 1-minute teaser:



Over the years we’ve improved faculty development programming considerably.
However, while you can LEAD  faculty to programs and resources, you CAN’T make them develop.
Or CAN you?
There’s a craft and a science for getting faculty to do what’s in their own best interest.
This craft and science is drawn from behavioral economics, psychology, sales and advertising, improvisational comedy, and many other sources.
Yogi Berra said:  90% of the game is half mental.  I propose that, with respect to faculty affairs, he’s spot on.
If you’d like to explore what’s ABOVE THE DOTTED LINE — THE ‘HALF MENTAL’ PORTION, come by  poster #39 or grab me in between the sessions.

13. Yes, And…

‘Yes, And…’, an element of improvisational comedy, is an effective alternative to negative feedback in academia.
“Peer review” both helps and harms

‘Higher’ academics work in a culture of creative destruction. We cherish our critical skills, our high standards, and our intolerance of mediocrity. Our systems of peer review more often reject than they accept. We tell ourselves that this academic winnowing is justified because it improves our scholarship, teaching, and institutional stature[1], and we pride ourselves on contributing to it. It is said that even God could not get promoted these days (just google ‘why God would not get tenure’).

This system accomplishes academic quality control. But it neither contributes to a positive mental attitude in the junior faculty on whom our futures rely and we strive to develop, nor allows them to do their best work. If they were children, we would collectively be indicted for child abuse. Is it any wonder that junior faculty avoid opportunities for criticism? Moreover, this system trains junior faculty to perpetuate it. As WH Auden wrote[2]:

“I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.”

Is there an alternative?   Yes, and…

Seriously.   “Yes, and…” is an alternative.

“Yes, and…” is an element of improvisational comedy in which each actor in a group actively listens to the contributions of others, and then in turn strives to build upon them (and not contradict or disrupt them)[3]. Leonard and Yorton [3] (p. 24-25) offer the following example:

Someone might say, for instance, “Wow, I’ve never seen so many stars in the sky.”

The actor sharing the scene has only one responsibility at this point: to agree with this and add something new. So that could be something like: “I know. Things look so different up here on the moon.”

That simple statement affirms what the first actor offered and added another idea (i.e., they’re far away from the city – so far that they are actually on the moon). In turn, this affirmation gives the first actor some information to build on and open up a great many possibilities for this scene.

If the second actor had negated the first actor’s offering with something like, “I can’t see a single star …it’s broad daylight,” the budding scene would have stopped in its tracks.

How might faculty development and academic culture benefit from Yes, And?

Leonard and Yorton say of Yes, And… ([3], p. 24-25) [my emphasis added]:

These two words form the bedrock of all improvisation. Creative breakthroughs occur in environments where ideas are not just fully explored, but heightened and stretched to levels that might seem absurd at first. This is where the best comedy comes from, and that’s where invention is realized. It’s a mantra to apply at every level of your work. Work cultures that embrace Yes, And are more inventive, quicker to solve problems, and more likely to have engaged employees than organizations where ideas are judged, criticized, and rejected too quickly. With Yes, And, you don’t have to act on every idea, but you do have to give every idea a chance to be acted on. This simple idea has amazing power and potency to improve interpersonal communication, negotiation, and conflict resolution. In application, these two words are ground zero to creativity and innovation.

Uri Alon uses “Yes, and…” in research[4]:

…saying “Yes, and” made my lab very creative. Students started playing off of each others’ ideas, and we made surprising discoveries in the interface between physics and biology. For example, we were stuck for a year trying to understand the intricate biochemical networks inside our cells, and … we had a playful conversation where my student Shai Shen Orr said, “Let’s just draw this on a piece of paper, this network,” and instead of saying, “But we’ve done that so many times and it doesn’t work,” I said, “Yes, and let’s use a very big piece of paper,” and then Ron Milo said, “Let’s use a gigantic architect’s blueprint kind of paper, and I know where to print it,” and we printed out the network and looked at it, and that’s where we made our most important discovery, that this complicated network is just made of a handful of simple, repeating interaction patterns like motifs in a stained glass window. We call them network motifs, and they’re the elementary circuits that help us understand the logic of the way cells make decisions in all organisms, including our body.

At my institution, we used it just the other day in a career development session with 8 junior clinical faculty in their second year. Their challenge is to form a goal comprising some unspecified combination of patient care, education, and scholarly activity, and parlay this into promotion. When the participants entered the room, the walls were papered with one-sentence summaries of the goals that the previous year’s cohort of associate professors reached to get promoted. These were extremely diverse – so much so that, when the participants added their own goal statements to the wall, it was obvious that these statements (and the faculty participants’ aspirations) fit in. An example of these statements:

I WILL BE PROMOTED TO ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR BY becoming a leader in creating and utilizing healthcare technology and informatics to deter obesity

Next, the participants were challenged: “Well, this is a worthy but lofty goal, and it will take some years to reach it. But what is ONE THING you can do today or this week, to reach it?” And so the exercise began with a response from each participant in turn, for example:

I will google ‘healthcare technology’ and ‘informatics’ and ‘obesity’

Yes, and I will actually read one of the papers I find

Yes, and I will discuss it with my colleague, Dr. Jones

Yes, and I and Dr. Jones and few more people will start meeting weekly for coffee and to discuss more

Yes, and I’ll pick the most promising combination and see if it works on my own diet.

Yes, and I’ll meet with my mentor and see how I could begin a small-scale trial

Yes, and I’ll ask my Section Chief for advice and support

Yes, and I’ll begin the trial

Yes, and I’ll present the preliminary results to my colleague who is an expert on this, Dr. Kimura, to see if I can get her interested.

Yes, and I’ll give a presentation to my Section

Yes, and I’ll call my colleague Dr. Escabeche at the medical center on the other side of town and see if I can give an informal talk there.

Yes, and I’ll give a poster at the meeting of the National Society on Healthcare Technology, Informatics, and Obesity

Yes, and so on

Spontaneously, this group of second-year assistant professors

  • Formulated a whole series of small steps towards the goal, each building upon the preceding steps
  • Supported the feasibility of each step
  • Provided confidence and reassurance to the individual whose goal this is
  • In so doing, said nothing critical or negative

and were able to do this repeatedly for every participant in the room.   In 3 minutes these second-year professors became their own faculty developers.


Academic quality control is essential, but is self-defeating if it stifles the very activity it is intended to improve. Work-arounds include teaching faculty to fail productively, managing the antipathy to receiving feedback, gamification (in a subsequent post), and Yes, And.

To Do

√  Yes, and the next time a colleague, mentee, or trainee needs criticism, try out ‘yes, and…’

√  Yes, and when you must deliver negative criticism, first review the literature on how to do so constructively.

√  Yes, and the next time you undertake peer review, ask yourself how you’d like to be treated if you were the peer under review.

√  Yes, and when you must participate in academic winnowing, view it as part of your obligation to help those being winnowed succeed in some way.

[1] The official University of Chicago statement, the Shils Report, states in part:

The function of appointive bodies is to bring to the academic staff of the University individuals who will perform at the highest level the functions of research, teaching, and training and the maintenance of the intellectual community of the University. A university which does not perform at this level will lose its standing in the world and therewith its power to attract outstanding faculty members and outstanding students. Its failure to attract them will in turn reduce the quality of its performance. Every appointment of a mediocre candidate makes it more difficult to bring outstanding students to the university. This is why scrupulous insistence on the most demanding criteria in the act of appointment is so decisive for the University.

[2] http://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/september-1-1939

[3] Leonard, K. and Yorton, T. 2015. Yes, And: How Improvisation Reverses “No, But” Thinking and Improves Creativity and Collaboration–Lessons from The Second City.  HarperCollins. http://amzn.com/0062248545

[4]https://www.ted.com/talks/uri_alon_why_truly_innovative_science_demands_a_leap_into_the_unknown?language=en ; see also http://wws.weizmann.ac.il/mcb/UriAlon/index.php?q=materials-nurturing-scientists

©Martin E. Feder 2015

11. Might what suits Barack Obama suit faculty development?

In faculty career development, choice itself is a challenge that behavioral tactics can help meet.
Did you ever have to make up your mind?

MICHAEL LEWIS: ““Assume that in 30 minutes you will stop being president. I will take your place. Prepare me. Teach me how to be president.”

BARACK OBAMA: “…You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits. I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make.” He mentioned research that shows the simple act of making decisions degrades one’s ability to make further decisions. It’s why shopping is so exhausting. “You need to focus your decision-making energy.”[1]

In his book Work Rules,[2] Laszlo Bock, the head of People Operations for Google, uses the above quote to advocate checklists[3] that eliminate the need to decide. Bock writes (p. 297):

By telling [people] what to do, we actually took one item off their to-do list. They had less to think about and focus instead on acting. …The results recently moved a manager to shoot a quick thank-you note: “…We really appreciate how easy you make this for us.”

Faculty development is a decision-rich environment. Faculty are pluripotent and must choose how to differentiate. Plan A, B, or C? Become an expert in your field – but exactly which field and how? The stakes are high. Faculty lore is rife with success stories about making the right moves, and horror stories of careers undone by poor judgment. Is it any wonder that a common complaint of faculty seeking academic promotion is: “Just tell us what to do and we’ll do it. We shouldn’t have to figure this out!”?[4]

This is a good problem to have, of course; it forces faculty to innovate, and innovation is the life-blood of thriving academic institutions. Faculty developers become overly prescriptive and stifle spontaneity at their peril. At UChicago our expectations are sufficiently flexible to accommodate a broad range of prior training, aspirations, interests, aptitudes, and circumstances. We promote on the basis of outstanding contributions to our missions and enhancement of our institutional stature. Promotion thus considers the magnitude and quality of these contributions and enhancements, but not the mission domain in which they occur. We have no rigid, one-size-fits-all criteria that are exclusionary because the job description precludes their achievement.

Besides, faculty think they are entitled to “academic freedom”, even when it complicates their lives and burdens them with choices.[5]

Evidently Barack Obama’s and Laszlo Bock’s solutions are not intended for academics. If so, how can faculty be helped to make decisions?   For that matter, why are the decisions of faculty development so difficult? Why are decisions in general so difficult?

Because that’s how our minds work. Our minds’ System 1 craves resources[6] and opportunities, and is highly averse to losing them. System 1 prefers no decision because a poor decision might (a) squander the resources and opportunities of alternatives not chosen, (b) cause regret at having chosen poorly, and (c) make one “look stupid” and hence risk professional stature. The professionals call this “decision paralysis” or “analysis paralysis” (for an excellent introduction click here)[7].

Aids to Decision-Making in Faculty Development (i.e., Magic Feathers)

How can we decide between having our cake and eating it? A Google search (on 8 June 2015) of “overcoming decision/choice/analysis paralysis” yields 10757 results. Evidently answers are not uncommon.[8] Some are applicable to academia; some aren’t.

Sheena Iyengar has literally written the book on the art of choosing.[9] Her principal recommendation[10] is, in any decision, to limit the number of possible choices. Her research has shown that consumers choose much more readily (versus not buying anything) when the variety of jams or shampoos, for example, is limited. A corollary of this recommendation is to structure the decision tree so that choices with fewer options precede choices with many options. When buying a car, first choose among transmissions (manual versus automatic, 2 choices) and last choose among colors (20 choices). When choosing a career goal focus in academic medicine, first choose among mission domains (scholarship versus education versus patient care, 3 choices) and last choose among highly specific diseases or topic or clinical subspecialties.

I’m no Sheena Iyengar, but here are my additions:

  1. When confronted with career development options, go with your passion. Go with your core values. Go with what gets you out of bed in the morning. It’s not just a data-driven business decision, amenable to a logical consideration of costs, benefits, resources, and risks. Career development is a long distance hike[11], a marathon and not a sprint. You will need motivation, drive, ‘fire in the belly’ to sustain it. Have your System 1 push you, not oppose you. If a potential option does not excite you, avoid it – no matter how sensible it may be. If you choose it, you will lack the motivation to do it well (or do it at all) and not enjoy what you are doing.


  1. Work backwards. Gilmore and Shea suggest a “history of the future”.[12] That is, imagine a future celebration of your success (promotion, a professional accomplishment, etc.) at a specific future time. Work out the events that immediately preceded the accomplishment, the events that preceded them, and so on until the present. This can be very helpful in working through the choices and planning options that result in the future success. Because you’re operating hypothetically and in the future, System 1’s vigilance against present threat is less likely to be activated and interfere with System 2. Moreover, because celebration of future success is the starting point, not a possible endpoint, you are that much more confident. Also, according to Sheena Iyengar, having a discrete destination or outcome in mind makes choosing easier in and of itself.10


  1. Approach goals by successive approximation, and flexibly. That is, take an educated guess at a best option and move forward tentatively in small steps. After each step, be ready to maintain course, reverse course, or move in an unanticipated direction as dictated by experience and/or newly-apparent knowledge and opportunities. Try out options for a month or two; if they are irretrievably problematic, abandon them and try another [this is the counterpart of the sales world’s no-risk 30-day free trial]. Because no step represents a major irrevocable commitment, System 1’s aversion to threat and loss is less likely to interfere. The academic career playbook does not mandate rigid, detailed, long-range plans, but allows for successive medium-range plans with frequent mid-course corrections. Be open to and watchful for unexpected opportunities.[13]


  1. System 1 can be your ally in that it is enormously susceptible to social facilitation. System 1 will go to great lengths to avoid looking weak or indecisive in front of others. Use this aversion. Tell others (peers, chairs/chiefs/deans/mentors/coaches) that you are suffering from decision paralysis, and ask their help in (a) setting and keeping decision deadlines, and (b) insisting on regular progress reports. Form a peer group to which all members report their decision-making and support one another.  If everyone else is doing something, your System 1 will often insist you do the same.


  1. If you are a Myers Briggs Personality Type aficionado, you know that strong Js will accept the first feasible option without awaiting a potentially better one, and strong Ps will comprehensively investigate all options, eliminating bad ones but choosing the best only with difficulty.[14] Each type has strengths and weaknesses that can be anticipated and exploited or countered – but first you need to discover your type.


  1. The only truly bad decision is not to advance in any direction in any way. Academic faculty are like some sharks in that they must keep moving forward to stay alive.



People are prone to decision paralysis.  A special challenge to academic faculty is that, because of their talents and accomplishments, they and their developers may believe themselves to be less prone to decision paralysis than other people.  Accordingly, they may be less ready to try the interventions suggested above.  “We have met the enemy and he is us.”[15]


√  The next time you (or someone you mentor) can’t decide which career development to pursue, try one, just one, of the tactics summarized here.

[1] Michael Lewis, “Obama’s Way,” Vanity Fair, October 2012. http://www.vanityfair.com/news/2012/10/michael-lewis-profile-barack-obama

[2] Bock, Laszlo. 2015. Work Rules! Insights from Inside Google That Will Transform How You Live and Lead, Twelve. http://amzn.com/1455554790

[3] Gawande, Atul. 2009. The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right. Holt, Henry & Co., Inc. http://amzn.com/0312430000

[4] Letters of reference from Mayo Clinic faculty suggest that 60 peer-reviewed publications (and nothing else) are sufficient for promotion to full professor there. While this is a model of a specific and unambiguous promotion, I would be surprised if it has been accurately characterized. Often, criteria are far less explicit, and ambiguous in their terseness. In fact, as James Madara (pers. Comm.) observed, “there’s an inverse relationship between the quality of an academic institution and the number of words in its promotion criteria.”

[5] Daniel McFadden, an expert in how we make choices, says, “people appreciate having choices as long as they don’t have to make one.”   [Quote from Ariely, Dan. Arming the Donkeys podcast, 12/1/2008. https://itunes.apple.com/us/itunes-u/arming-the-donkeys/id420535283?mt=10#

[6] https://decannomics.com/2015/02/18/17/

[7] http://www.ted.com/talks/barry_schwartz_on_the_paradox_of_choice?language=en

[8] A brief random survey of the blogosphere yields the following consensus advice:

Set and keep a deadline for making the decision

Ask the opinion of others, and their help in forcing a decision

Eliminate the worst options, leaving a smaller number to choose among

Stop striving for a perfect solution; a good solution is good enough

Reduce anxiety by desensitization, practice, deciding in small steps









[9] Iyengar, Sheena. 2010. The Art of Choosing. Twelve. http://amzn.com/B0085RZDMK

[10] http://www.ted.com/talks/sheena_iyengar_choosing_what_to_choose

[11] Bickel, JA. Career development as a long distance hike. J Gen Intern Med 24(1):118–21 http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2607504/pdf/11606_2008_Article_834.pdf

[12] Gilmore, TN and Shea, GP. 1997. Organizational learning and the leadership skill of time travel. Journal of Management Development 16: 302-311. http://www.cfar.com/sites/default/files/resources/Time_Travel.pdf .   See also http://www.theoryofchange.org/wp-content/uploads/toco_library/pdf/Histories_of_the_Future.pdf

[13] As Bokonon wrote: “Peculiar travel suggestions are dancing lessons from God.” Vonnegut, K. 1963. Cat’s Cradle. Holt, Rinehart and Winston http://amzn.com/038533348X

[14] http://users.trytel.com/~jfalt/Ene-med/j-p.html

[15] http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Walt_Kelly

©Martin E. Feder 2015

10. What we got here is… failure to communicate

Source of title[1]

Faculty development is only as successful as faculty awareness of it and engagement with it; no effective communication, no faculty development.

The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.  Often attributed to George Bernard Shaw[2]

If a tree falls in the middle of a forest and nobody hears it, does it make a sound?

If a faculty development event or resource is advertised but nobody realizes it or is persuaded to exploit it, are faculty developed?

Krista Hoffmann-Longtin et al.[3] write:

Within this complex environment, it has become increasingly difficult for faculty developers to “cut through the clutter” to reach constituents with timely and pertinent information. As Mundy Bhavsar and Skinner (2008) note, “A constant challenge for faculty development centers is to inform faculty and other instructors on their campuses about their services and resources, and a further problem is to convince instructors to use those services” (p. 145). Brookfield (2007) went so far as to suggest that, for many faculty development offices, getting faculty to participate in our services “is a triumph in itself” (p. 67).

Why are faculty communications so problematic?

Our minds can handle only so much information. Each communication competes against all other information in an attention economy[4]. All else equal, the greater the information load, the lesser the chance that any given message will achieve notice. And, in academia, this situation is especially intractable for at least four reasons:

  • The information load is unusually high, and the institutions themselves complex and loosely-coupled[5].
  • Institutions are administratively balkanized, with multiple departments, sections, divisions, offices, schools, deans, institutes, centers, programs, and committees – each with its own set of communications.
  • Institutions’ finances lead them to rely on easy-to-use and inexpensive communications channels, such that difficulty of use and cost do not oppose overuse.
  • Those doing the communicating are typically inexpert in communicating (or believe that their personal communication preferences are shared by all). When their attempts to communicate fail, their response is more messages or duplicate messages, which in turn fail to communicate, and so on, thus creating a costly[6] death spiral of information overload.

Moreover, we are good at intending to exploit resources and programs but poor at actually following through. Communications that achieve notice but not commitment are little better than none at all. Our institutional characteristics, especially workloads and deadlines, exacerbate this difficulty.

What can be done about communication with faculty?

A first step might be to ask what’s known about communication with faculty, except that hardly anything is known (Krista Hoffmann-Longtin et al.3). Here are some non-evidence-based observations:

Communications analytics are within the grasp of faculty developers. Many electronic communications programs have easily-accessed analytics built in. We can observe directly, for example, how many and when emails are actually opened, how many result in an action being taken, how often and when electronic faculty development resources are accessed, etc. We can modify our communications accordingly. Outside the academy perhaps only 25% of emails are opened, and of those seldom >10% result in action[7]. My own surveys suggest far lower ‘open rates’ in faculty communications, and that emails unopened in the day of receipt are rarely opened thereafter as they are buried beneath more recent emails. On a more positive note, analytics can improve communication. Krista Hoffmann-Longtin et al.3 write:

we are now using Nielsen’s (2004) card sorting techniques to consider alternative ways to organize information. Card sorting is a usability technique to create information architecture, in other words “what goes where” (Nielsen, 2004). Faculty members and other frequent users are given a shuffled stack of index cards. Written on each card is one of the main items from our website. We ask each user to sort the cards in a way that makes sense to them. We complete this process with approximately fifteen different users, with a goal of developing a new site architecture that is more intuitive and easy to use.

If you’ve seen one faculty member, you’ve seen one faculty member.   One colleague is annoyed by an email considered irrelevant, whereas another is incensed by not receiving the exact same email. Faculty interests and communication preferences vary enormously. Companies such as Netflix, Google, and Facebook use analytics, big data, and machine learning to discern the preferences and interests of individuals, and to adjust the form and content of communications instantaneously in response. Hopefully these tools will become available to academic institutions and enable faculty automatically to individualize their communications.

All writings on this topic (and now this post too) point out that communication would be improved were we to eschew un-necessary communications, gratuitous ‘reply to all’s, excessive cross-posting, and routine thank-you and acknowledgement of receipt messages, and use informative SUBJECT: lines. That is, less is sometimes more. Such advice appears to have little impact, however.


…and wait!   THERE’S MORE!!!   By and large, print and electronic advertisements represent communications successes. Much can be learned from them and applied to faculty communications. One such lesson:


Stories engage, where ‘just the facts’ do not[8]. Here an actual study is repurposed; consider the two variants:

(a) Dear Dr. Facultymember:

At noon next Thursday you are invited to the faculty development session that Dr. Jane Smith attended before her recent promotion to associate professor. At this same session last year Jane learned how to parlay her professional connections into promotion. As a result, she reached out to Joe Black and Rita Red, who were residents with her and are now at UCSF and Harvard, respectively. This led to invitations to speak. Jane says: “My chair was really impressed by these talks on my CV, and enthusiastically endorsed my promotion. And the faculty development program helped me do this; it can help you too.”


(b) Dear Dr. Facultymember:

At noon next Thursday you are invited to the faculty development session on the role of networking in academic promotion. The session will explain best practices and review research on the potential value of social connections in generating a strong promotion case. Research shows that 25% of those recently promoted to associate professor used networking to facilitate promotion, and 90% of their chairs reported that the resultant activity was highly influential on the decision to endorse the promotions.

Which drives the greater attendance?


Dr. Elizabeth Travis at MD Anderson Medical Center has the following communications rules

1. Every invitation to a faculty development event is personalized (‘Dear Dr. Smith’, and not ‘Dear colleague’) and from her personally [she is a dean].   This nudges[9] attendance in ways that depersonalized emails from an assistant or an office might not. Mailing list programs to create these invitations are readily available; I use 1st MacMailer.

2. Every invitation claims that seating or attendance is limited to the first to apply. This creates the impression of scarcity and possibility of a lost opportunity, and plays upon loss aversion.

3. Every invitation requires an RSVP – essentially a commitment device.

4. Each RSVP receives a follow-up, again personalized and from a dean, before the event. The follow-up implies that the dean will personally be expecting attendance. Another commitment device.

5. Although not part of her playbook, sharing of the expected attendance list ought to reinforce attendance and recruit other attendees through social facilitation.  Google uses this tactic effectively.[11]

All communications strategies have an expiration date. Behavioral Economics 101 tells us that new things get noticed because they are new. They call it “news” for good reason. With time, even the novel becomes familiar and engagement deteriorates. A prudent communicator would plan for multiple successive campaigns, each selling ‘old wine in new bottles’.


We could achieve much more from existing faculty development resources and programs by improving faculty awareness and use of these resources and programs. Key to this is effective and persuasive communication. Two suggestions:


 Share your innovations, positive deviants[10], discoveries, tricks, what works – things like Liz Travis’s communication rules.   At the end of this post is a REPLY box. Don’t be shy.

  We need randomized clinical trials of faculty communications practices. What can be shown to work? Any takers?

[1] Cool Hand Luke. Warner Brothers/Seven Arts, 1967. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0061512/quotes?ref_=tt_ql_3

[2] http://quoteinvestigator.com/2014/08/31/illusion/

[3] Hoffmann-Longtin, K., Palmer, M. M., Welch, J. L., Walvoord, E. C. and Dankoski, M. E. (2014), Just Ask: Using Faculty Input to Inform Communication Strategies. To Improve the Academy, 33: 37–56. doi:10.1002/tia2.20002   http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/enhanced/doi/10.1002/tia2.20002/

[4] Davenport, T. H., & Beck, J. C. (2001). The attention economy: Understanding the new currency of business. Boston, MA: Harvard Business Press.

[5] http://www.cfar.com/sites/default/files/resources/Leading_Planning_Ed.pdf

and http://www.cfar.com/sites/default/files/resources/Leading_Planning_AMC.pdf

[6] http://archpedi.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=1812612

[7] http://mailchimp.com/resources/research/email-marketing-benchmarks/ ,


[8] Wortmann, Craig. 2006. What’s Your Story? Using Stories to Ignite Performance and Be More Successful. Kaplan Publishing, Chicago. See also Craig’s blog: http://www.salesengine.com/blog/

[9] Richard H. Thaler, Cass R. Sunstein. Nudge: Improving decisions about health, wealth, and happiness. Yale University Press, New Haven, CT, 2008,

[10] http://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/atul-gawande-university-of-chicago-medical-school-commencement-address

[11] Page 301 in Bock, Laszlo. 2015. Work Rules! Insights from Inside Google That Will Transform How You Live and Lead, Twelve. http://amzn.com/1455554790

©Martin E. Feder 2015

9. THE MATRIX as a metaphor for academic institutions

Academia comprises two parallel universes; most of us know only one.

MORPHEUS: What is real? How do you define real? If you’re talking about what you feel, taste, smell, or see, then real is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain.[1]

Seen The Matrix?[2]

[SPOILER ALERT!!!]   If not, here’s the elevator version: It’s science fiction about a dystopian symbiotic society in which computers create a virtual environment (the Matrix) that keeps humans happy without their consent or even knowledge, in exchange for which humans’ bio-energy powers the computers. The protagonists believe that computers have enslaved humans and seek to liberate them. The action plays out in both the virtual and real worlds.

Academic institutions are kind of like this. The creative energy of the faculty – in scholarship, education, and practice – powers the institution. As faculty play in their institutional sandbox, their creations ideally can be rented or sold to underwrite their own costs and that of ‘the administration’. In exchange for this, ‘the administration’ (comprising institutional non-faculty and private, governmental, and philanthropic patrons) provides a virtual world in which the faculty happily carry on their creative activity.

MORPHEUS: [There is] the programmed reality of the Matrix. It has the same basic rules. Rules like gravity. What you must learn is that these rules are no different than the rules of a computer system. Some of them can be bent. Others can be broken. Understand?

The rules of faculty world:

  • Resources (money and space) are infinite; scarcities are only apparent or due only to others’ mismanagement of the resources.
  • Life is fair, and proceeds either spontaneously or by rules/norms the faculty devise (or claim to have devised or inherited).
  • Academia, the ‘life of the mind’, ‘academic freedom’, is the real world.

‘The administration’, by contrast, operates in what non-academics think is the real world, and must sustain the resources for the faculty world, satisfy creditors, fend off threats, manage risks, and devise strategies that will perpetuate the operation. Also, it must manage the faculty (also known as ‘herding cats’) when the creative process goes awry or the real world intrudes.

Who is ‘in charge’? Unlike in The Matrix, no one; it’s a symbiosis. ‘The administration’ can only survive if it maintains an adequate virtual reality for the faculty, and the faculty cannot create if their illusory world crumbles. (and, with it ‘the administration’). Although the faculty believe that ‘the administration’ has power, because the creativity of the faculty is the ultimate source of this power, prudent members of ‘the administration’ limit their exercise of power so that it does not disturb the creativity of the faculty.

[These are, of course, oversimplifications, the most serious of which is that there are as many faculty worlds as there are faculty, each with its own rules/culture, and with each world believing its is the only [right] one. Unless a colleague is a collaborator, the more intellectually distant the colleague the more likely the colleague is viewed as an unjustifiable sink for resources.]

In both The Matrix and the academy, the action occurs when the worlds collide. In the academy, the collisions often involve resources. In the reality of faculty world, because resources are infinite, because ‘money can always be found if the rationale is sufficient’, because there is a huge pot of money in the dean’s office, all scarcities are an artifact of administrative stupidity, incompetence and/or greed.   In fact, money spent on administration or administrators is money wasted.   Despite this, faculty “should not need to worry about resources” because “it is the job of ‘the administration’ [not the faculty] to provide all needed resources.”

CHAMBER MUSIC and the ambiance of wealth soak the restaurant around us as we watch a serrated knife saw through a thick, gorgeous steak. The meat is so perfect, charred on the outside, oozing red juice from the inside, that it could be a dream. A fork stabs the cube of meat and we FOLLOW it UP TO the face of Cypher.[3]

CYPHER:You know, I know that this steak doesn’t exist. I know when I put it in my mouth, the Matrix is telling my brain that it is juicy and delicious. After nine years, do you know what I’ve realized?

He shoves it in, eyes rolling up, savoring the tender beef melting in his mouth.

CYPHER: Ignorance is bliss.

[Lest this seem like a fool’s paradise, do remember that the players in the academic sandbox have produced the advances in knowledge that shape today’s world, and educated those who will shape tomorrow’s. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.]

These realities puzzle or frustrate ‘the administration’, which lives in a different world with its own realities and rules. Often, its fundamental error is to believe that a sufficiently good explanation or ‘business case’ can cause faculty world to set aside what it knows is real.

You may wonder: What’s all this got to do with faculty development?

Although success is possible in either faculty world or ‘the administration’, success is easier when one understands the realities of both worlds. [4] The worlds are not transitive, however. Those who begin and remain in ‘administration’ may never fully grasp the reality of the faculty. But the reverse is not true. We faculty can learn to comprehend the realities of ‘the administration’, and exploit them.     [Such learning is often called ‘executive leadership training’, and is available from many business schools and professional societies, from written and electronic resources, through interaction with ‘the administration’, and experientially. It often comprises management techniques and philosophy, social psychology, human resources management, rudimentary legal and financial training, negotiation, crisis and risk management, and so on.] Knowledge is power.[5]

Morpheus opens his hands. In the right is a red pill. In the left, a blue pill.[6]

MORPHEUS: This is your last chance. After this, there is no going back. You take the blue pill and the story ends. You wake in your bed and you believe whatever you want to believe.

The pills in his open hands are reflected in the glasses.

MORPHEUS: You take the red pill and you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes.

 MORPHEUS: Remember that all I am offering is the truth. Nothing more.

 But a warning to faculty readers reaching for the red pill: If you take it and learn of both worlds, you will forever after be frustrated in interactions with those who insist their world is the only one. Red pills are not for everyone.

[1] Quotations from the script are from http://www.imsdb.com/scripts/Matrix,-The.html . This quote: 0:50 in https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AGZiLMGdCE0

[2] Warner Brothers, 1999. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0133093/

[3] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z7BuQFUhsRM

[4] This entire post follows in the footsteps of Tom Gilmore, one of the founders of the appropriately-named CFAR. Tom’s writing predated The Matrix, and he wrote of ‘church’ and ‘state’. See http://www.cfar.com/sites/default/files/resources/Leading_Planning_Ed.pdf

and http://www.cfar.com/sites/default/files/resources/Leading_Planning_AMC.pdf

[5] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scientia_potentia_est

[6] 1:25 at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zE7PKRjrid4

©Martin E. Feder 2015

7. The Only Thing We Have To Fear

Fear of interaction with others impedes faculty development. It can be countered.

The only thing we have to fear is fear itself[1]. Franklin Delano Roosevelt

True Stories

Years ago, when I was an assistant professor, I was required to speak with THE DEAN[2] [a.k.a. He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named[3]] about the leadership of my department. THE DEAN, as we think we know, holds the power of academic life vs. death over faculty. Let me tell you: this was a high anxiety moment!!!   I really struggled to keep this appointment. Awash with stress hormones and with sympathetic nervous system fully engaged, I timidly crept over the threshold to THE DEAN’s office.   And then… [to be continued]

Just the other day I spoke with a distinguished professor. Earlier in his career he realized that a then more-distinguished colleague had the knowledge he needed to transform his research program. But he could not bring himself to speak with her. As he told me: “She was unapproachable.” And so he did not, and his research program languished, until… [to be continued]

Now that I am a dean, allegedly[4] with the power of life vs. death over academic promotion, faculty far more distinguished and important than me creep into my office and begin the conversation by apologizing for taking my time. More importantly, the faculty who could really benefit from my insights and experience never even talk with me in the first place… [to be continued]

Why we fear

This is the era of teams: team science, medical teams, collaborative grants, consortia, team education, social networks. Against this background isolated individuals cannot prevail. Nonetheless, individuals isolate themselves. If only we could counter this tendency to self-isolate, our colleagues and our institutions would be that much more effective.

Our first step is to acknowledge the source of this self-isolation. We avoid threats, whether real or illusory. Threat makes us anxious, and anxiety is aversive. As previous posts have explored[5], our brains regard others with knowledge, insight, resources, and/or power that we lack as both assets and threats. Sometimes others are genuine threats; as Henry Kissinger wrote: “Even a paranoid can have enemies.”[6] But too often the threat is perception only; to interact with another risks rejection, could undermine one’s self-image/stature/expertise, and exposes vulnerabilities. Nothing is wrong with us when we feel this anxiety; it is because we are human and this is how human brains work.

Our second step is to reject implausible alternatives. For example, we tell ourselves: I don’t know with whom to interact. If only I did, I would interact quite readily. This might have been plausible back in the 20th Century, but these days academic networking software[7] and online bibliographic systems[8], if not Google[9] itself, make identifying potential interactors easy. [The abundance of potential interactors, however, poses its own mental challenge, “decision paralysis”, the topic of a post to come.]   Also, there are the usual suspects: too little time, too much trouble, etc.   Somehow we are able to make time and take the trouble to do things that are not threatening. Finally, we tell ourselves: Because we are academics at academic institutions, the normal threat-fear paradigm does not apply; hence it must be something else. Not so!

If “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself” – if “fear is the mind-killer[10]” – how do we alleviate fear of threat so that we can approach those who might benefit us?

It’s not as if this is a novel question. Just try a web search on

Fear of asking for help

Fear of asking a boy/girl/someone out

Fear of asking questions

The major advice online (other than that such fear is widespread) is the somewhat magical assertion: reading that the fear is unwarranted and various self-visualization exercises will usually be sufficient to dissipate the fear.

What actually works?

[…continued from above]   I survived my meeting with THE DEAN. In fact, after he was no longer THE DEAN, I worked with him on several projects and came to know him as a person. He was the nicest, least intimidating individual you’d ever encounter. My colleague who deemed his colleague “unapproachable” was required by his professional society to invite her to participate in a symposium. When he summoned up his courage and did so, she turned out to be the nicest and most approachable individual imaginable. She generously offered to help renovate my colleague’s research program. My colleague and I have both learned from experience that DEANS and distinguished colleagues are people too. As it is said, they all put on their pants one leg at a time, have no horns, and breathe no fire. Some are generous and kind; some are not. But this is not because they are deans or distinguished, but because they are people and people vary. In summary, through experience both my colleague and I have now been desensitized to fear of threat in interacting with academic authority and distinction.   [In the interest of full disclosure, tenure helps too.]

Magic feathers[11]

The question then becomes: How can we facilitate such experiential desensitization if we avoid interaction in the first place?

  • Previous posts[12] describe ‘commitment devices’.


  • Enlist, conspire with, and/or hire others – peers, superiors, mentors, and/or coaches – to force us to do what we cannot bring ourselves to do voluntarily.   For example, a group of peers can agree amongst themselves each to lunch with a previously unfamiliar ‘important’ or ‘distinguished’ colleague once a month, to encourage one another to follow through, and to report outcomes to the group. I have personally facilitated career development groups in which participants were explicitly assigned to ask for help on an escalating scale: first from a senior colleague, then from someone in another unit, and then from someone at another institution. This exercise succeeded, whereas voluntary help-asking on an individual basis had never occurred.


  • Cognitive behavioral therapy[13]. Although CBT is typically applied to clinically disabling behaviors, there is no reason why it cannot be applied to professionally/academically disabling fear of interaction.   Many self-help programs are variants of CBT. Ask your therapist is CBT is right for you. Or, if asking for such help from a person is too aversive, try a web search for “self-administered CBT”.


  • Do unto others[14]. We are all both faculty developers and faculty developees. As the former:

-Try to minimize your threat level to others. You may think you are not threatening to others but, as stated above, their perception of threat is in their minds and may have nothing to do with you. Thus, when others manage to overcome their anxiety and reach out to you, be as collegial as possible.

-In The Tipping Point[15], Malcolm Gladwell emphasizes the importance of Connectors, Mavens, and Salespeople, individuals with special talents, in disseminating information throughout social networks. If we are one (or more) of these, we have special roles to play in connecting prospective interactors.

-Actively facilitate interaction. It is often not sufficient only to offer help, advice, an introduction to a third party, access to a resource, etc. What is needed is active intervention. When a colleague needs interaction but will not interact spontaneously[16]:

-Make the introduction yourself

-Personally host the lunch, coffee, etc. at which the parties interact (or, if this is too much, at least schedule the meeting for them)

-Match-make: refer both parties to one another and arrange a meeting at which they connect

-Arrange ‘play dates’ for faculty

-Follow up. Never assume that a promise to interact will be honored spontaneously

-Hold their hands when they are afraid of crossing the street

But, you protest, all this should not be necessary for people who are (a) adults, and (b) academic faculty! Yes, it should not be necessary. But it often is.   Remember introductory chemistry. We need to add “activation energy” to overcome the inertia and repulsive forces among molecules to get them to react with one another. To overcome inertia and anxiety, interpersonal interactions often require activation energy too. We can facilitate our colleagues, and hence our institutions and ourselves, by supplying this energy. As in chemical reactions, some groupings of colleagues will not interact regardless. This means only that you haven’t found the right reactants yet (and not that don’t exist).

  • Initiate chain reactions. Each of us has limited activation energy to contribute. But if one of us can activate others, who can activate others, who can activate still others, and so on, the reaction will propagate.

Hopefully, we will be both the enactors and the objects of these interventions.


√  Have lunch with a colleague with whom you’ve not previously interacted. It won’t kill you. It’s just lunch.

√  Before the day is out, use your phone[17] to arrange an interaction of two colleagues by talking to them. Repeat as necessary.

[1] 1932 Inaugural address

[2] My colleague, Professor Eileen Dolan, reports the following response to a child’s query: “What’s an associate dean?”   The response: “You see, dear, nobody wants to associate with THE DEAN. So they pay someone to do this. This person is called an associate dean.”

[3] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lord_Voldemort

[4] Channeling Mark Twain, rumors of my powers are greatly exaggerated – although, as the remainder of this post makes clear, people believe these rumors anyway.

[5] https://decannomics.com/2015/02/18/17/


[6] http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/h/henryakis115118.html

[7] e.g.,   http://profiles.catalyst.harvard.edu     http://profiles.uchicago.edu/profiles/search/

[8] http://wokinfo.com http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/

[9] https://www.google.com

[10] http://www.goodreads.com/quotes/2-i-must-not-fear-fear-is-the-mind-killer-fear-is

[11] https://decannomics.com/2015/02/18/hearts-and-minds-and-magic-feathers/

[12] https://decannomics.com/2015/02/20/3-happy-new-year/


[13] http://www.helpguide.org/articles/anxiety/therapy-for-anxiety-disorders.htm

[14] Luke 6:31

[15] 2000. Little, Brown and Company   http://amzn.com/0316346624

[16] ETIQUETTE, by W.S. Gilbert

 The Ballyshannon foundered off the coast of Cariboo,

And down in fathoms many went the captain and the crew;

Down went the owners–greedy men whom hope of gain allured:

Oh, dry the starting tear, for they were heavily insured.


Besides the captain and the mate, the owners and the crew,

The passengers were also drowned, excepting only two:

Young PETER GRAY, who tasted teas for BAKER, CROOP, AND CO.,

And SOMERS, who from Eastern shores imported indigo.


These passengers, by reason of their clinging to a mast,

Upon a desert island were eventually cast.

They hunted for their meals, as ALEXANDER SELKIRK used,

But they couldn’t chat together–they had not been introduced.


For PETER GRAY, and SOMERS too, though certainly in trade,

Were properly particular about the friends they made;

And somehow thus they settled it without a word of mouth–

That GRAY should take the northern half while SOMERS took the



On PETER’S portion oysters grew–a delicacy rare,

But oysters were a delicacy PETER couldn’t bear.

On SOMERS’ side was turtle, on the shingle lying thick,

Which SOMERS couldn’t eat, because it always made him sick.


GRAY gnashed his teeth with envy as he saw a mighty store

Of turtle unmolested on his fellow-creature’s shore:

The oysters at his feet aside impatiently he shoved,

For turtle and his mother were the only things he loved.


And SOMERS sighed in sorrow as he settled in the south,

For the thought of PETER’S oysters brought the water to his

mouth. He longed to lay him down upon the shelly bed, and stuff:

He had often eaten oysters, but had never had enough.


How they wished an introduction to each other they had had

When on board The Ballyshannon! And it drove them nearly mad

To think how very friendly with each other they might get,

If it wasn’t for the arbitrary rule of etiquette!

[their story concludes at http://www.readbookonline.net/readOnLine/43558/ ]

[17] A device that was normally used in inter-faculty communication before Al Gore invented the internet.
©Martin E. Feder 2015

6. Yoda Is Dead!

The single all-knowledgeable mentor is a fable. Get over it.

We tell ourselves stories!

One of their more common tropes is how a single wise and knowledgeable mentor[1] is critical for success.

  • Ask Luke Skywalker about Yoda.
  • Ask Harry Potter about Professor Dumbledore.
  • Ask Rocky Balboa about Mickey Goldmill.
  • Ask Caine about Master Po.
  • Ask Michel Corleone about his father.
  • Ask Dr. Kildare about Dr. Gillespie.
  • Ask The Bride about Pai Mei.
  • Ask Odysseus’s son about Mentor himself.

Problem is: This is fiction. Just like Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, and the Easter Bunny. It’s not that mentors don’t provide valuable advice in real life. It’s not that mentors aren’t much appreciated. It’s not that mentors are unwanted. It’s not that mentorship programs don’t have real impacts.[2] It’s that a single, all-knowledgeable all-wise mentor is as much a fiction in the 21st Century as the general medical practitioner a la Marcus Welby, MD[3]. This doesn’t keep us from seeking out the singular mentor, however, or a huge cottage industry in the faculty development world from perpetuating the myth.

Mentees have multiple needs, which cannot be met by a single mentor

Kerry Ann Rockquemore[4] has a better idea. In her view, faculty seek not ‘mentorship’ but satisfaction of the following needs:

  • Professional development (time management, conflict resolution, project planning, grant writing, basic organizational and management skills).
  • Access to opportunities and networks (research collaborations, funding, etc.).
  • Emotional support (to deal with the stress and pressure of being a faculty member),
  • A sense of community (both intellectual and social).
  • Accountability (for research and writing).
  • Institutional/political sponsorship (someone to advocate their best interest behind closed doors).
  • Role models (who are navigating the academy in a way they aspire to).
  • Safe space (to discuss and process their experiences without being invalidated, questioned, devalued and/or disrespected).

And here is her take-home message: “…it is literally impossible (and in my opinion dangerously unhealthy) to have all these needs met by one person…”[5]   There is no guru[6].

Maybe in Star Wars Yoda could meet all Luke Skywalker’s needs. But Yoda is fiction. And Yoda is dead. We handicap ourselves in faculty development unless/until we put this fiction aside.

“Dangerously unhealthy”? Quite possibly so. Advice received exclusively from a single mentor is highly likely to be insufficient. If it isn’t, quite likely the mentee is en route to becoming a clone of the mentor and is not venturing sufficiently far out of the comfort zone.

Moreover, there is no single formula for meeting these needs. If you’ve seen one faculty member, you’ve seen one faculty member. Every one is different.

Reality-based mentoring

My take-home message is that successful mentorship programs need to be reality-based. That is, they must proceed from the knowledge that an individual competent to meet all the needs of a mentee will be exceedingly rare if not non-existent, that multiple ‘mentors’ if not a ‘mentor cloud’[7] will probably be needed, and that the first step in ‘mentorship’ should be to compare the needs of the mentee to the competencies in the mentor cloud. Each need should be linked to providers. If any needs are unmet, the cloud should be enlarged. Repeat as needed while the career of the mentee develops. A recent study[8] is consistent with this advice.

Fortunately, either we already know how to do this or we can adapt precedents from other fields. The professions and the trades have all specialized, and as we access them we readily move from one ‘consultant’ to another as our needs change.   Both Yoda and Marcus Welby, MD are dead. A successful primary care physician is adept at referral to specialists when needed.   Correspondingly I suggest, therefore, that every mentee should have a ‘mentor-in-chief’. The job of the mentor-in-chief would be primarily to direct the mentee to consult with appropriate members of the mentor team (or enlarge it) as needed.

Importantly, I use ‘mentor’ and ‘mentee’ advisedly, as words and precedent are powerful determinants of expectations, roles, and relationships. We receive and provide wisdom, advice, and support from/to those without such formal designations. One can be in charge of one’s own mentorship or provide/receive peer mentoring. The roles can include friend, conversational partner or sounding-board, therapist, expert/consultant, guru/sage, raconteur, historian, advocate, motivator/commitment device, and/or coach, among others.   Thus, it is prudent not to jump to conclusions when the words ‘mentor’ and ‘mentee’ are in play, but rather establish directly the expectations, roles, and relationships that all parties anticipate.

How, then, can we figure out who does what for whom?   Kerry Ann Rockquemore advocates a “mentoring map” and provides some related tools.[9] The Biological Sciences Division at The University of Chicago has developed a tool.[10] With these as inspiration, it should be possible for anyone to devise a suitable instrument. Numerous canned “mentorship contracts” are available online for reinforcing expectations and obligations; the drawback of some is that they are too generic to accommodate the specific roles than each individual needs to play.

Yoda was so 20th Century, if not “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.” That was then; get over it. Let’s tell ourselves a more realistic story. As the African proverb states: It takes a whole village to raise a child.[11] We have in academia a host of people who are eager to provide counsel and/or eager to receive it. Why not accept the generosity and needs of the many, and not just the one?

Rest in peace, Yoda!


√  When you ask to be “mentored”, first formulate a specific list of what you need and next ask each prospective “mentor” which of the listed items he/she is able to provide.

 If you are asked to “mentor”, first ask the prospective mentee to formulate a specific list of what is needed, agree to meet only those needs you are able to meet, and advise that additional ‘mentors’ be recruited to meet the unmet needs.

Postscript: the Kerry Ann Rockquemore “mentoring” playbook

April 19, 2010: There Is No Guru Reconsider the quest for the perfect mentor.

October 11, 2010: What’s Holding You Back?

October 3, 2011: Don’t Talk About Mentoring To get the guidance you need, replace your vague sense of unease with a specific list of needs.

October 17, 2011: Sink or Swim Colleges need to abandon the philosophy they use to justify doing little to help new faculty members.

November 2, 2011: Essay questions story-telling as effective mentoring Stories from a senior faculty member’s past may be more fun to tell than they are helpful to those trying to navigate academic careers.

November 14, 2011 Essay on mentoring and minority faculty members One key to helping minority faculty members is to recognize that some of their experiences are different from those faced by others, and to remember that some are not

November 28, 2011 Essay on need for tenured faculty members to have mentoring Post-tenure, faculty members still need help to be strategic about their careers

December 14, 2011 Essay on need for clear tenure and promotion guidelines The best mentoring colleges could provide junior faculty members would be to offer clear guidelines for tenure and promotion

July 15, 2013 Essay on starting off a mentoring relationship How senior professors can adopt the right mindset for mentoring, and can make their new colleagues feel welcome.

July 22, 2013 Essay calling for senior faculty to embrace new style of mentoring New faculty members are unlikely to find gurus, so it doesn’t help them to focus on that classic (if rare) type of mentoring.

July 29, 2013 Essay on the coaching style of mentoring Kerry Ann Rockquemore explains the differences between the two.

August 5, 2013 Essay on how to make new arrivals in an academic department feel welcome It’s about asking the right questions, learning to pronounce your new colleagues’ names and sharing unwritten rules.

August 12, 2013 Essay on how to be a good faculty mentor to junior professors Sums up the themes of her series.

Other blog posts by her are at Inside Higher Ed.

She leads the National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity.

[1] http://www.mentors.ca/mentorpairs.html ;  http://www.starwars.com

[2] Surprisingly, although we know that mentorship achieves certain things, we do not know how it works. In academic medicine, for example, programs including mentorship help retain faculty [Ries, Andrew MD, MPH; Wingard, Deborah PhD; Gamst, Anthony PhD; Larsen, Catherine MPH; Farrell, Elizabeth; Reznik, Vivian MD, MPH. 2012. Measuring Faculty Retention and Success in Academic Medicine. Academic Medicine 87: 1046-1051] and improve faculty satisfaction (many studies). We know the attributes of mentoring relationships subjectively characterized as “successful” vs. “unsuccessful” (Straus SE, Johnson MO, Marquez C, Feldman MD. 2013. Characteristics of Successful and Failed Mentoring Relationships: A Qualitative Study Across Two Academic Health Centers. Academic Medicine 88: 82-89). But no randomized controlled trial has ever tested whether any specific mentorship practice (or combinations thereof) affects an objective outcome, although the first is in progress (Rick McGee, pers. comm.)

[3] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marcus_Welby,_M.D. , a kindly general practitioner who’d seen it all and could cope with any medical circumstance

[4] https://www.insidehighered.com/users/kerry-ann-rockquemore


[6] https://www.insidehighered.com/advice/winning/winning14

[7] Rick McGee, personal communication. Also, according to Rick, the NIH has undergone a rapid change in expectations from ‘mentor’ to ‘mentor(s)’ http://www.feinberg.northwestern.edu/faculty-profiles/az/profile.html?xid=17545

[8] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3665769/pdf/nihms-449785.pdf

[9]http://www.facultydiversity.org/?gifts (be certain to view associated forms in “Download the Slides”;  DeCastro R, Sambuco D, Ubel PA, Stewart A, Jagsi R. 2013. Mentor Networks in Academic Medicine: Moving Beyond a Dyadic Conception of Mentoring for Junior Faculty Researchers. Academic Medicine ;88(4):488-496.

[10]  https://bsdacademicaffairs.uchicago.edu/sites/bsdacademicaffairs.uchicago.edu/files/uploads/SOMmentorshiptool.pdf

[11] http://www.afriprov.org/index.php/african-proverb-of-the-month/23-1998proverbs/137-november-1998-proverb.html
©Martin E. Feder 2015

5. Stories We Tell Ourselves

In faculty development, if it’s too good to be true it probably is.  Confusion is normal and even a sign of appropriate goals.

When my children were young, they watched a television show called Mathnet[1]. A homage to the classic police procedural Dragnet, Mathnet sought both to popularize mathematics and demonstrate its applicability to the real world. My own favorite episode tasked the Mathnet detectives to unravel a scam[2].   They interviewed the victims, who purchased a worthless prediction of the future for an exorbitant sum from a scam artist, one Swami River. When asked why, the victims swore that the Swami successfully predicted the winner of athletic contests on four prior occasions. As the detectives discover, Swami River and his father (named Old Man River, of course) sent sample predictions for a team contest, half naming each team as the winner, to 64 potential victims. The 32 receiving ‘predictions’ that correctly named the winning team were sent a second round of ‘predictions’, again with half naming each team as the winner. Of those, the 16 receiving ‘predictions’ that correctly named the winning team were sent a third round, and so on until the 4 who received four consecutive correct ‘predictions’ were offered a final prediction – at great cost. Is it any surprise that the victims fell for the scam?

System 1 responds instinctively and rapidly to the information before it.

System 2 orchestrates rational but slow thought, and accommodates non-obvious information. It is often subordinate to System 1.

System 1 copes with more information than System 2 can. It does so by jumping to conclusions. These jumps have predictable rules and trajectories.

These features can be exploited to develop academic faculty.

Our minds’ System 1s fall victim to this same scam every day. System 1 constructs just so stories about the combinations of luck, skill, and judgment that lead to success or failure in the lives around us.[2.5] It conjures explanations. When life fires a shotgun at the wall, it paints targets around the pellet holes. After all, what you see is all there is. One can make good money off of this tendency, even legally. Success stories sell self-help, diet, and how to succeed in business books, for example. [But how often have the practices endorsed by these books been confirmed in randomized trials?]

Sometimes System 1 is right, if only by chance alone. A prudent brain, however, would base its plans and norm its expectations according to normal experiences, not the exceptions.  It would proceed from the basis of reality, not an illusion constructed by System 1.

The ‘secret formula’ scam

So how does this apply to faculty development?   The academic brain is no more immune to magical thinking than any other. We scam ourselves too. We see all around us colleagues with awesome achievements and attainments, evidently having followed the one true pathway and predicting the winning strategy time after time. If we only knew the secret formula, we might too. What might the secret formula be? As Uri Alon[3] puts it [with some modification],

the way science is taught and published, you’re liable to have the following schema of research. If A is the question, and B is the answer, then research is a direct path. …You publish a paper that reads A→B, which is a great way to communicate

Or, repurposing the story for faculty development

the way career development is depicted, you’re liable to have the following schema. If A is the first stage, and B is the next stage, and C is the next, then career development is a direct path from one stage to the next. …Your CV reads A→B→C…., which is a great way to communicate

What’s wrong with this? As Uri Alon puts it [with some modification], the problem is that if the next step on the direct path doesn’t work or is off pathway, it’s perceived as something utterly wrong and causes tremendous stress. Research in psychology shows that if you’re feeling fear and despair, your mind narrows down. Because we share in the collective fantasy that this is how science is done and how careers advance, not to do this is obviously a sign of failure. This failure is exacerbated when everyone around is lauded for the successes. And failure, in System 1’s eyes, undermines our confidence, our motivation, and our competence – all counterproductive for academic advancement.

As Swami River would tell us, however, the ‘one true pathway’ is an illusion our System 1 conjures and then believes.

What is real and normal? ‘The cloud’ and ‘the comfort zone’

As Uri Alon puts it [with some modification, by his kind permission]:

In the middle of my path, I was hopelessly stuck. Every direction that I tried led to a dead end. It seemed like my basic assumptions just stopped working. I felt like a pilot flying through the mist, and I lost all sense of direction. I stopped shaving. I couldn’t get out of bed in the morning. I felt unworthy of stepping across the gates of the university, because I wasn’t like Einstein or Newton or any other scientist whose results I had learned about, because in science, we just learn about the results, not the process. And so obviously, I couldn’t be a faculty member.

But I had enough support and I made it through and accomplished something. And I took the next step, and it happened again. I got stuck and I made it through. And I started thinking, maybe there’s a pattern here. I asked my colleagues, and they said, “Yeah, that’s exactly what happened to us, except nobody told us about it.” We’d all been trained as if it’s a series of logical steps between attempt and accomplishment, but academic advancement is nothing like that.

So I teach my mentees a different schema. If A is the first step and B is the next, you will reach a place linked with negative emotions where it seems like your basic assumptions have stopped making sense, like somebody yanked the carpet beneath your feet. And I call this place the cloud.

Now this cloud is an inherent part of academic advancement, an inherent part of our craft, because the cloud stands guard at the boundary between the known and the unknown, because in order to progress, at least one of your basic assumptions has to change, and that means that in science and academic medicine, we do something quite heroic. Every day, we try to bring ourselves to the boundary between the known and the unknown and face the cloud.

Now just knowing that word, the cloud, has been transformational in my group, because mentees come to me and say, “Uri, I’m in the cloud,” and I say, “Great, you must be feeling miserable.” (Laughter) But I’m kind of happy, because we might be close to the boundary between the known and the unknown, and we stand a chance of discovering something truly new, since the way our mind works, it’s just knowing that the cloud is normal, it’s essential, and in fact beautiful, we can join the Cloud Appreciation Society, and it detoxifies the feeling that something is deeply wrong.

And what I might ask you to remember is that next time you face a problem you can’t solve in work or in life, there’s a word for what you’re going to see: the cloud. And you can go through the cloud not alone but together with someone who is your source of support.

I add: Abutting ‘the cloud’ is ‘the comfort zone’. As professors, we strive to become masters of our academic domains, the people to whom others turn when they have a question, problem, or challenge. Inside this domain we are secure in our knowledge. Our System 1s’ anxiety is quiescent. Problem is: so is our academic growth. For best results we need to step out of our comfort zone and into our cloud. Being in the cloud is no guarantee of success, however. The incidence of accidents may increase, and monsters may lurk. If life were simple, someone would have written an instruction manual long ago.

Potential Implications

As Mark Twain was alleged to have said about the Bible, interesting if true. Suppose it is true. What are the implications?

  • The most reliable guides to negotiating the cloud may be people who have done so successfully. They typically are called mentors, but cloudwalkers might be a better term. Plural. [Yoda is dead. More on this in a subsequent post.]
  • People vary. Some are risk-averse; some are not. Some believe: Nothing ventured; nothing gained. Others believe: Fools rush in where angels fear to tread. The first step in intelligent management of this diversity is to acknowledge it. Most financial adviser/client relationships begin with a conversation about the client’s tolerance for risk, which may vary (e.g., http://njaes.rutgers.edu:8080/money/riskquiz/). Perhaps academic mentor/mentee relationships should do the same.
  • If the next step in an academic plan is obvious, it could be mundane or trivial – and thus maybe a cause for concern.
  • If the next step in an academic plan is risky, it poses risks that need be managed [sic, not ‘avoided’. ]
  • Financial planners tell us that overly risky and overly conservative plans are both recipes for disaster, the latter because inflation will typically devalue all assets. A prudent investor will diversify assets. A prudent academic will have contingency plans, Plans B, C, D… , in case things ‘go south’.
  • System 1 dislikes risk. Confusion, uncertainty, anxiety, and frustration are the normal states for pathbreakers, and not signs of failure. By contrast, the comfort zone promotes complacency; System 1 may well overlook the peril of insufficiently ambitious goals. A prudent plan will include management of emotional states (rather than avoiding them entirely by remaining within the comfort zone). Uri Alon [again] writes:

…in improvisation theater, they tell you from day one what’s going to happen to you when you get onstage. You’re going to fail miserably. You’re going to get stuck. And we would practice staying creative inside that stuck place. For example, we had an exercise where we all stood in a circle, and each person had to do the world’s worst tap dance, and everybody else applauded and cheered you on, supporting you onstage.

Question for mentors: Do we adequately help our mentees fail productively?

So: Take it from Swami River, if the story, the secret pathway to promotion, the charmed academic, etc. sounds too good to be true, it probably is.   Life is pain; anyone who tells you differently is selling you something[4]. But no pain, no gain[5]. And pain can be managed. Have a pain management plan or pain management support group. Ask a pain management specialist if your plan is right for you.

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mathnet

[2] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tj-XMRu_q4s

[2.5]In fact, Michael Gazzaniga has discovered a specific region in the left hemisphere of the brain that he calls the interpreter, which is responsible for such stories.https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Left_brain_interpreter

[3]https://www.ted.com/talks/uri_alon_why_truly_innovative_science_demands_a_leap_into_the_unknown?language=en ; see also http://wws.weizmann.ac.il/mcb/UriAlon/index.php?q=materials-nurturing-scientists

[4] http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0093779/quotes

[5] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/No_pain,_no_gain

©Martin E. Feder 2015

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