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.

3.5 A Bestiary of Commitment Devices

Devices that help us keep commitments

As described in a prior post, we are good at making commitments to our future selves — to exercise, lose weight, revise our CVs, work on promotion, or undertake other faculty development activities — but poor at honoring these commitments.  When these broken commitments concern faculty development, they impede it.  What can be done?  So-called ‘commitment devices’ may help us honor our own commitments, often by exploiting what others might think about us if we break our commitments.

Although no device has yet been specifically developed to reinforce commitment to faculty development, many existing devices, websites, or smartphone applications (http://blog.beeminder.com/competitors/). Their common features are:

  • Commitment to a specified goal
  • Regular reporting of progress towards the goal
  • Reinforcement, positive or negative depending on the progress report

Many apps reinforce by providing messages of praise or access to some reward, such as a joke or game. Others place more ‘skin in the game.’ In some cases the reinforcement is social: public exposure of one’s progress (or lack thereof) [coach.me (https://www.coach.me), HabitRPG (https://habitrpg.com)]. Friends can praise or criticize the user depending on the progress. BetterMe (http://www.bettermeapp.co) goes one step farther: public humiliation. It automatically shames the user on FaceBook if the goal is not met. In other cases the reinforcement is monetary: like StikK (described in a previous post or here), Beeminder (https://www.beeminder.com) and 21Habit (http://www.21habit.com) charge for unmet goals. Write or Die (http://writeordie.com), intended to eliminate writers’ block, deletes text if writing is insufficient. Aherk (http://aherk.com) automatically publishes an embarrassing photo to FaceBook if the goal is unmet. HabitRPG and Carrot both ‘torture’ an avatar if the user fails, and Carrot delivers verbal abuse directly to the user. The thesis of Pavlok (http://pavlok.com) is that, something like in Quitters, Inc., the user will self-administer electrical shocks of increasing severity in response to failure.

The comedian Jerry Seinfeld has popularized a commitment device that plays upon another Achilles heel of System 1: loss aversion (https://shakeout.wordpress.com/?s=seinfeld). We hate losing what we have. Seinfeld places a red X on a 365-day wall calendar for each day he writes a joke. Once he creates a chain of red Xs, the prospect of breaking the chain and losing it keeps him writing day after day. Electronic versions such as Commit, Chains, and Don’t Break the Chain are available.

A problem with many of these commitment devices is that they rely on the user to report progress accurately. To help users or their social network remember to report, FollowUp.cc (https://followup.cc) can be set to badger a target until a response is received. Human reporters do cheat or exaggerate, however. Some of these apps or sites can automatically capture the user’s progress without any need for a human to report. Beeminder, for example, can receive data from writing, fitness, coding, learning, and alarm clock apps, including https://www.zapier.com, which claims to be able to define an event in more than 300 apps and report it. BetterMe can interact with a smartphone’s GPS to document that the user (or the phone, at least) visits the gym or any other preset location.

A second problem is that the trigger of the smartphone, the arriving email/text signal, or the need to check email may interfere with the best of intentions and require a special commitment device to be overcome. In fact, the classical (literally) example of a commitment device overcame the Sirens of mythology, whose irresistible song lured sailors to their deaths. Knowing of this peril, Ulysses had his crew place wax in their ears so they could not hear the song. Wax has been updated for the 21st Century. Apps (e.g., SelfControl, http://selfcontrolapp.com, among others) can be programmed to deny access to email or designated websites for a pre-set interval while the user works towards a faculty development goal. Alternatively, RescueTime (https://www.rescuetime.com) can be configured to define and monitor ‘productive’ vs. ‘unproductive’ activities on a computer and automatically report the results to Beeminder.

Sometimes these electronic commitment devices fail anyway. At least in the realm of physical fitness, nothing yet surpasses a human personal trainer (http://nyti.ms/16RJidd) or coach. Is this true for career development? If so, options abound. One can contract with (e.g., https://www.taskrabbit.com; https://www.mturk.com/mturk/welcome ), recruit, or assign an individual to remind you to work on promotion until you do [some individuals will do this for free; they are called ‘parents’]. While athletic, performance, and ‘life’ coaches may already be familiar, there are academic career coaches too (https://www.aamc.org/newsroom/reporter/july2013/349868/leadership.html, http://www.facultydiversity.org, http://www.janetbickel.com). Not only can they reinforce commitment, they can provide expert advice. Such coaches are not inexpensive, but then again cost can be a substantial instrument of commitment.


√   Try applying ONE of the above to your faculty development efforts, whether on behalf of others or yourself.  Just one. [If you try more, your activation energy will be so great as to work against you.]  It might be helpful.  It might not be.  The only guarantee is: if you don’t try one, it will never help you.

©Martin E. Feder 2015

3. Happy New Year!

Why it’s easy to commit to faculty development activities, and difficult to follow through on these commitments

The future isn’t what it used to be.  Yogi Berra

Why we procrastinate

Happy New Year! Every day is New Years Day because every day we resolve to do better or commit to change. In academic-world, we resolve to work on promotion, improve our research and teaching, provide better mentorship, achieve better work-life balance, etc. And, at least for New Year’s resolutions, more than 90% fail[1].   Why? And what could we do to reduce that failure rate to, let’s say, 85%?

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.

First things first: why? The dominant portion of our minds focuses on the here and now: what you see is all there is. When our ‘System 2’ manages to claim the stage, it is quite adept at planning our future self, including making resolutions. But when the time comes to keep these resolutions, System 2 is no longer in control. At that time, as Yogi Berra stated, the future isn’t what it used to be.  Instead, we (or, more properly our System 1s) are enslaved by the ‘tyranny of the urgent’[2]

Your greatest danger is letting the urgent things crowd out the important.   …We live in constant tension between the urgent and the important. The problem is that the important task seldom must be done today or even this week: …these projects can wait.   But the urgent tasks call for instant action endless demands pressure every hour and day. …The momentary appeal of these tasks seems irresistible and important, and they our energy. But in the light of time’s perspective their deceptive prominence fades; with a sense of loss we recall the important task pushed aside. We realize we’ve become slaves to the tyranny of the urgent.

As explained, ‘the urgent’ is the descendant of ancestral threats or opportunities that could be ignored only at great cost. And today ‘the urgent’ sometimes really is urgent. If you are an academic physician, your patients suffer or die if you do not attend to them, as do research programs, funding streams, and education. Disappointing one’s dean, chair, or chief by failing to complete a promised task on time has consequences too. But putting off ‘the important’ until tomorrow each successive day is a recipe for academic disaster. Thoughtful deliberation, the province of System 2, is clearly able to schedule tasks in a reasonable way (and refuse impossible tasks) so as to optimize one’s activities. But System 2 ordinarily cannot resist System 1 as it enforces the tyranny of the urgent.

Commitment devices

So System 2 needs help! How? The author Stephen King knows. He tells the story[3] of one Richard Morrison, a heavy smoker who wants to stop and inadvertently but irrevocably signs on with “Quitters, Inc.”   As Morrison discovers to his chagrin, it is a ‘charitable’ foundation endowed by a mobster, Three Fingers Minelli, whose dying wish was to ‘get even’ with the tobacco-induced lung cancer that killed him. Quitters, Inc. has not a 12-step program, but a 10-step program — of increasingly intense punishments delivered to one’s family and self, from electric shocks to severe beatings to the breaking of arms and worse. As Morrison’s ‘counselor’ explains: “We don’t bother with propaganda here, Mr. Morrison. Questions of health or expense or social grace. We have no interest in why you want to stop smoking. We are pragmatists.”   And it works. As the counselor explains: “Forty per cent of our clients never have to be disciplined at all – and only ten per cent have more than three falls from grace.” 98% quit. And what of the other 2%, asks Morrison of the counselor?   The counselor opens one of the desk drawers and lays a silenced .45 on the desk.   He smiles into Morrison’s eyes. “But even the unregenerate two per cent never smoke again. We guarantee it.”

Morrison stops smoking.

Quitters, Inc. is a fictitious example of what psychologists call a ‘commitment device’. System 2, in consultation with one’s future self, puts in place something that keeps System 1 at bay and the tyranny of the urgent from thwarting long range plans. System 2 makes System 1 an “offer it can’t refuse”, so to speak. Not all commitment devices are as drastic as Quitters, Inc., however. In real life, commitment devices include:

  • Payroll deductions
  • Penalties for early withdrawal from an IRA
  • Asking a friend or a partner to dispose of desserts to avoid over-eating
  • Buying an expensive annual gym membership to encourage exercise
  • Taking a drug that makes an abused substance distasteful
  • Hiring a personal coach or trainer

and so on. In academia, the ‘tenure clock’ is sometimes an effective commitment device. So are deadlines, deans, chairs, and chiefs when they reinforce well thought-out plans.

In fact, we live in the golden age of commitment devices. Not only are they diverse and readily available, some of them cleverly exploit behavioral economics, social psychology, modern technology, and human nature for fun and profit.

StikK.com, for example. Users sign commitment contracts to achieve a goal, and then place stakes at risk. If the goal goes unachieved, the stakes go to a pre-designated charity.   Users can also designate a referee, a third party who decides if the goal has been achieved. Initially the designers worried that having the stakes go to charity would undermine the commitment. So users can also designate anti-charities. Here’s how this works. Suppose you want to incentivize your own submission of an NIH grant application. On stikK.com you put $1000 of your personal funds at risk ($100 if you are a student, or $1,000,000 if you are independently wealthy – whatever it takes). You have colleague agree to authorize return of the funds if and only if you submit the grant application by its due date. If you do not, the funds go to the anti-charity of your choice, whichever you find most personally distasteful, currently:

Americans United for Life

NARAL Pro-Choice America Foundation

Nature Conservancy

The National Center for Public Policy Research

Freedom to Marry

Institute for Marriage and Public Policy

Educational Fund to Stop Gun Violence

NRA Foundation

American Crossroads (Super PAC supporting Republican Party)

House Majority PAC (supporting House Democrats)

Stop Climate Chaos Coalition

[and, at least in principle, the New York Yankees fan club for Boston Red Sox fans, and the Green Bay Packers fan club for Chicago Bears fans]

As the site explains, “you’ll certainly work that much harder to ensure that your money never falls into the wrong hands.”

While it is unfortunate to end on a negative note, the mother of all commitment devices is being denied academic reappointment for failure to meet goals. Enough said!

Using System 1 against itself

One of the Achilles heels of System 1 is that it is exquisitely sensitive to what other people think or do. ‘Social framing’ is one of the major heuristics it uses to facilitate its work. Seeing other people carrying umbrellas invokes in your System 1 an irresistible urge to carry one too; after all, they must know something you don’t. System 1 strives for the approval of your peers; their disapproval, scorn, derision, shame, embarrassment before them, and public failure are deeply aversive.   System 1s will do practically anything to avoid public shaming. Clever allies of System 2 can exploit this tendency, as in commitment devices that make public one’s progress towards a goal. FitBit and other fitness-tracking devices do so, for example, when they are configured to report daily to a public social networking site. It is one thing to slack off on an exercise regime, but quite another for your device to reveal this automatically to your friends, family, and peers, to your embarrassment. The opposite is true: if your friends and family commend you for continued exercise, you will be that much more motivated.

The other Achilles heel of System 1 is that, while it is focusing on the here and now, its guard is down. In this instance, System 2 is free of its dominance and able to commit to anything. If the commitment is sufficiently binding, when tomorrow becomes today System 1 will be unable to evade it. Just ask Richard Morrison.

What might be useful is a FitBit or Quitters, Inc. for academic performance and faculty development! Although none has yet been specifically developed towards this end, many existing devices, websites, or smartphone applications could be repurposed to serve faculty development.  The next post will describe some.

Today is the first day of the next year of your life. Happy New Year!
√  What are your career development resolutions?
√  More importantly, what will you do to keep them? A few of us can keep our System 1s under control, but most cannot without help. Human nature and technology have conspired to provide this help. Why not accept it?
√  What are the career development resolutions of those you mentor, train, and support?
√  Do something to help them keep their resolutions.  If necessary, act as their commitment device.

[1] http://www.statisticbrain.com/new-years-resolution-statistics/

[2] Tyranny of the Urgent! by Charles E. Hummel. http://amzn.com/087784092Xhttp://amzn.com/087784092X

[3] Quitters, Inc. Published in Night Shift, by Stephen King. Anchor Books. http://amzn.com/0307743640

©Martin E. Feder 2015

2. A Species of Very Little Mental Bandwidth

Inspiration for the title[1]

How the way our minds work impacts faculty development
 “A man’s got to know his limitations…”[2]

Faculty development would be easier if our brains were better. Ours is a species of very little mental bandwidth, however. According to Google[3] the average person receives 11 billion bits of information every moment. Of these, we can consciously process only 40.   The average person can hold at most 7 numbers in working memory[4]. The brain can’t effectively handle more than two complex, related activities at once.[5]

Even the brains of us academic faculty.   For example…

You are asked to take part in a test of visual acuity and quantitative skills. You view a film of six players, three dressed in purple and three dressed in orange, passing two basketballs amongst themselves. Your task: count the number of times a player dressed in purple passes the basketball. You think: this should be easy! After all, I have a doctorate and am an academic faculty member. So you watch. The players move randomly, in front and behind one another as they pass the ball back and forth. There’s one pass by a player in purple, and another. It’s challenging to count these, but you’ve completed far more difficult tasks in your life as a faculty member. The film ends. You’ve counted 15 purple passes. You are CORRECT!! No surprise. But then you are asked: Did you see the gorilla?   What gorilla???? A replay of the film reveals that, while you were busy counting the passes, an actor dressed in a gorilla suit strolled through the midst of the passing players, beat its chest, and walked off.

Fifty percent of people who take this test fail to see the gorilla[6]. Not just random people, but academics like us. I did not see it myself, despite years of training and experience in detailed data analysis. Try this special version!



But, you object, this would never happen in one’s field of expertise! Au contraire. See http://www.npr.org/blogs/health/2013/02/11/171409656/why-even-radiologists-can-miss-a-gorilla-hiding-in-plain-sight

Gotcha again!

If half the people like ourselves, people with excellent academic credentials, can’t see an actor in a gorilla suit, what else are we missing? In particular, how might this affect the provision and reception of faculty development?

How our academic brains REALLY work

We do have a way of coping of with the other 99.999996% of each moment’s information that Google says we can’t consciously process. Two brains would be better than one, but we each have only one. Within each brain, however, we have two systems. ‘System 2’ copes with the 40 bits, and ‘System 1’ with the 99.999996%. System 1 is remarkably fast and facile. Our ancestors relied on it to make near-instantaneous distinctions between predator and prey, friend/mate vs. foe, food vs. poison, and danger vs. haven. We rely on it still. Sometimes these jumps are fantastic feats of instantaneous insight from vanishingly little data.[7] By contrast, System 2 is the complex thought that requires our full attention; it is slow, laborious, and has limited capacity. Nonetheless, it suffices for peer-reviewed publication and successful grant applications.

How does System 1 cope with the seemingly massive demand upon it? It takes shortcuts. It jumps to conclusions. Nothing is wrong with a jump to a conclusion that saves one from a predatory lion or a venomous snake [or, these days, an onrushing automobile or a mugging]. Indeed, a careful prolonged consideration of alternatives [What’s the lion’s motivation? When did it last eat; is it hungry? Is it actually a lion, or someone dressed up in a lion suit? Will it be able to catch me, or is it sick or wounded?] could be fatal. But what if the jump places you in the path of an unseen onrushing wildebeest (or partner lion or invisible gorilla)? Not good! Jumps to conclusions can have both positive and negative consequences.

What are these jumps [or, technically, heuristics or frames]? An exhaustive list would consume many volumes. Most, according to Kahneman[8], are derivatives of a simple rule:


That is, the point of departure for System 1’s jumps to conclusions is the information that is currently available (rather than unseen or not in active memory). Our System 1 acts on what we see without or instead of considering alternative possibilities, and acts before System 2 can rein it in.   As scholars we understand the value of exhaustive research and contemplation of alternative explanations, but System 1 is not scholarly.   Rather, it rapidly constructs a coherent story:

  • The Dean is carrying an umbrella. The Department Chair is carrying an umbrella. Your System 1 says: Better take your umbrella, for rain is likely.
  • You arrive in an unfamiliar city during a foggy night. Your hotel room happens to overlook a park, which is what you see as you glance out the window in the morning. System 1 says: This is a city full of parks, and you dress accordingly. Imagine your surprise when exit the other side of the hotel into a densely urban environment.
  • You and your identical twin, with identical academic track records and abilities, compete for a job as a senior faculty member with rank open. Your application letter says ‘associate professor’, and your identical twin says ‘full professor’. The Systems 1 of you, your twin, and all who assess the applications say: your twin is more accomplished than you are. Your twin gets the job.[9]
  • You are advising a mentee on graduate programs. She tells you that her top choices are similar except that in the first 80% pass their preliminary or qualifying exams, and in the second 20% fail their exams? System 1 says the first is better. She takes your advice, and her entire life unfolds accordingly.

Each conclusion is, in a sense, reasonable, but each is also a cognitive error that System 2 could have avoided were System 1 not so quick and effective. The umbrellas were recent gifts to the Dean and Chair on a sunny day; a glance through another window would have revealed a park-less urban landscape; you and your twin have identical records and abilities; and 80% pass = 20% fail.

Can System 1 be put in its place so that System 2 can correct these errors? Evidently only with difficulty. A classic example is the Müller-Lyer illusion


in which the horizontal lines are the same length. Even when System 2 measures the lines to verify the equivalence, System 1 persists in its error.

What’s this got to do with faculty development?

System 1’s decisions to dress for a park, carry a gratuitous umbrella, or mismeasure the lines are largely inconsequential. The other decisions are not.   How System 1’s jumps to conclusions contribute to implicit bias and prejudice are well known. But they also bedevil faculty development in many ways, both bad and good.

The bad is easy to envision. As subsequent posts will explore, our System 1 can cause us to:

Unless such resistance of System 1 can be overcome, the provision of faculty development information and advice may have little impact.

What’s the good news, then? The cognitive errors that System 1 commits are highly repeatable and therefore often predictable; as Ariely[10] puts it, we are predictably irrational. If we can foresee these errors, we can avoid them, compensate for them, or even exploit them to our benefit as we develop faculty, including ourselves. If jumps to conclusions have predictable trajectories and stimuli, we can trigger them and aim them. If we know where invisible gorillas lurk, we can convert them to allies or avoid them as need be.


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.

To recap, our species’ limited mental bandwidth forces us to rely on System 1, which both jumps to conclusions and can overpower System 2’s attempts to reach conclusions judiciously. Jumps to conclusions cannot be avoided; they are part of human nature. A possible response to System 1’s drawbacks: if you can’t beat them, use them. As in the martial art jujutsu, use System 1’s overwhelming force and momentum against it and towards your own ends. In the original context, lions and other predators have done this for millennia: it’s called herding. The advertising and sales industry does so too, to great profit. So do political and military campaigns, and hedge funds. Governments and charitable organisms have begun to do this to benefit society, and the health professions to improve their practice. Can we do this to promote faculty development? Can we do this to ourselves?

One thing is certain: Any magic feather must have its contours aligned with how our minds actually work.


 If you have never done so, take a moment to educate yourself about behavioral economics. The World Bank report[11] is a concise introduction. More lengthy works are by Ariely[10], Kahneman[8], and Thaler and Sunstein[12].

 And ask yourself: If these insights apply to every other form of human endeavor, shouldn’t they also apply to faculty developers and developees?  And, if they do, how should your faculty development program change in response?

[1] After A.A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh (1926): “…a Bear of Very Little Brain”

[2] Magnum Force. Warner Bros.

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

[4] Miller, G. A. (1956). “The magical number seven, plus or minus two: Some limits on our capacity for processing information”. Psychological Review 63 (2): 81–97

[5] http://news.sciencemag.org/2010/04/multitasking-splits-brain

[6] http://www.theinvisiblegorilla.com

[7] http://gladwell.com/blink/

[8] Kahneman, Daniel. Thinking Fast and Slow. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. http://amzn.com/0374275637

[9] This phenomenon, known as anchoring, is also exploited by realtors and car salespeople, who know that a high asking price influences perception of value. Or consider the following dialogue (http://www.imdb.com/character/ch0030046/quotes) from John Le Carre’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0080297/):

George Smiley: Ever bought a fake picture, Toby?

Toby Esterhase: I sold a couple once.

George Smiley: The more you pay for it, the less inclined you are to doubt its authenticity.

[10] Ariely, Dan. 2008. Predictably Irrational. HarperCollins.


[12] Thaler, R.H. and C.R. Sunstein. 2009. Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness.   Penguin Books. http://amzn.com/014311526X

©Martin E. Feder 2015

1. Hearts and Minds, and Magic Feathers

Inspiration for the title [1]

Why psychological obstacles (rather than knowledge) may be a major impediment to faculty development, and a class of potential solutions
Ninety percent of the game is half mental.   Yogi Berra

Faculty development comprises academic, professional, and personal growth.  It includes advancement in academic rank, but also every other aspect of what faculty do.  This blog is for both those who facilitate faculty development and those who benefit from it.

Why do we academic faculty not develop more readily? What can we do about this?

Surely we academic faculty are not lacking in ability, training, selection, or motivation. Academic faculty at leading American universities and academic health centers are the product of intense training and quality control. We are among the most intelligent, capable, and motivated of people. If any group ought need little help in advancing in their profession, it is us.

Surely it is not lack of information on how to advance. Most academic institutions have robust faculty development programs, whose heart is provision of knowledge: inform faculty about promotion criteria, policies, best practices, skills, opportunities, resources, and their own progress towards goals.   In other words, if you give them knowledge they will develop. Typically these faculty development programs involve five ‘partners’: (1) criteria and policies that establish expectations and timelines; (2) central offices that provide information; (3) units (e.g., departments, divisions, sections, etc.) that advise, but more importantly review and assess; (4) one or more mentors, who are mainly advisory; and (5) the faculty members themselves, who presumably benefit from the other partners and avidly consume advice. [Samples of typical faculty development materials, which are not the subject of this blog, are available here and here.] Senior faculty, who have already advanced and presumably ‘know the ropes’, are key information providers. In most instances, therefore, improvement of faculty development seems to involve more or better information provision. This does make sense if information provision is the limiting factor.

But while the faculty being developed clearly appreciate the efforts made on their behalf and most academic institutions invest in faculty development, the efforts never seem quite enough. Why?

Let’s ask. I have: “What’s holding you back?” We tell ourselves:

  • Insufficient mentorship
  • Obscure or irrelevant promotion criteria
  • Limited resources
  • Obviously there is a secret formula, because others less worthy than ourselves have advanced. If only we knew this formula…   It must be that we are not part of the club or the ‘in group’.
  • Limited time
  • Unsupportive supervisors (chairs, chiefs, senior faculty)

And so on.

But rarely if ever do we consider that the problem lies within…  Could it be that the problem, the limiting factor, lies inside the head of the faculty member rather than outside, such that improved transmission of knowledge may be helpful but not sufficient?

Predictably Irrational[2]

My major premise here is not that academic faculty are misinformed or under-supported [although sometimes we are] or lacking in ability, but that we are human. Because we are human, our minds are subject to predictable human irrationality[2]. The recognition of this fact has revolutionized economics, for example. Can faculty development or self-development be affected by it as well?

If so, this is bad news, but also good news. The bad news is that rational argument (logic and data) and provision of knowledge, the mainstay of faculty development programs, which one would think would suffice to sustain the development of rational beings such as academic faculty are alleged to be, don’t always work as hoped and reach the point of diminishing returns. This is because the faculty member subjects aren’t rational beings no matter how intelligent or well trained they are. The good news, however, is that because the irrationality is predictable, it can be countered, exploited, and leveraged to enhance faculty development. Other fields – advertising, sales, social psychology, organizational development, improvisational theater, business entrepreneurship, motivational coaching, analytics, generational studies, and behavioral economics, among others – already have tools to do this well. We can use these tools too. In other words, to get faculty to advance, give them information but also mess with their heads.


POINTS: “Psychological problems are the biggest barriers.”[3] “We have met the enemy and he is us.”[4]

COUNTERPOINTS: “If you know your enemy and you know yourself you need not fear the results of a hundred battles.”[5] “Use the enemy’s own strength against him.”[6]

What are these tools, how do they work, and why do they work? Subsequent posts will address these questions, and are my principal focus. Story telling is the first of these tools, as Craig Wortmann advocates[7]. Taking a leaf from Craig’s playbook, here’s a story:

Dumbo[8] is a young elephant who’s lost his mother and is shunned because of his enormous ears. After several misadventures Dumbo and his mouse companion find themselves up in a tree, to which a flock of wise crows[9] reason Dumbo must have flown by flapping his ears. But how, asks Dumbo? The crows give Dumbo an ordinary tail feather, which they tell him is a magic feather that will let him fly. Dumbo believes, and flies to fame and fortune — until he drops the magic feather. Dumbo first concludes he can no longer fly. But then his mouse companion reveals that the magic feather was just an ordinary feather: Dumbo could always fly, and still can. And so Dumbo flies again, reunites with his mother, and lives happily ever after.

Most faculty development programs are mainly if not exclusively flight lessons. In many cases, however, magic feathers are also helpful and sometimes even necessary. This blog is about the feathers and why they work.


√  The first step in any 12-step program is to admit to a problem. Ask yourself, channeling Yogi Berra: Is ninety percent of the faculty development game half mental? If so, then ask yourself: What are the ‘mental’ obstacles to development, and does my faculty development program directly address these [or only the ‘information provision’ part]?

Congratulations! You have taken half of the first step.  And a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step (Lao-Tzu).

[1] Those familiar with the Vietnam and Watergate eras may recall an extended version of this phrase; for others, a good search engine will suffice.

[2] Ariely, Dan. 2008. Predictably Irrational. HarperCollins.

[3] Some Modest Advice for Graduate Students by Stephen C. Stearns. http://stearnslab.yale.edu/some-modest-advice-graduate-students See also: Bull. Ecol. Soc. Am, Volume 68, p.145-150, (1987)

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

[5] Sun Tzu, The Art of War http://www.artofwarquotes.com

[6] From the Thirty-Six Stratagems, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thirty-Six_Stratagems

[7] 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/

[8] Dumbo. 1941. A Walt Disney Production.

[9] Be advised: the crows are dated racial stereotypes.

©Martin E. Feder 2015