Be Prepared

Posted: Jan 18 2016 by David Mogk

I just finished a three-year term as Department Head. I had high hopes and expectations that I could work for departmental development: curriculum revisions, young faculty professional development, alumni relations, expanded field and research opportunities for students, increased gifting to the department.....But nothing in my academic training prepared me for other realities. Interpersonal conflicts rudely intruded on a daily basis that required constant attention and interaction with the Human Resources and Affirmative Action offices. These fully consumed my tenure as Head: Bullying. Sexual assault. Incidents that involved alcohol abuse. Behaviors that violated the faculty code of conduct. Financial impropriety in management of budgets. A security breach of departmental records. Psychological breakdowns (anxiety, stress, depression, tears). Campus security called to defuse potentially violent encounters. The death of a student, a very promising, vibrant young woman, in a back-country skiing avalanche accident. The death of another student, a veteran who served in Iraq who was making great progress and was scheduled to graduate in his final semester, in a car accident. An attempted suicide. A different case of a consummated suicide. My days were dominated by notifications of incidents to authorities, documentation of circumstances, meetings (interminable meetings) with representatives of Human Resources, Affirmative Action, Office of Sponsored Programs, Business Office, Intellectual Property, Information Technology, multiple Deans, Student Services, and University Legal Counsel. I had responsibility to deal with these issues to try to keep the department functioning, but I was not prepared to have the the tools, knowledge or authority to effect the systemic changes need to adequately address and hopefully prevent future instances.

As academics, we are trained to create and communicate knowledge. But few of us have any formal training in allied skills required to successfully manage a department or program. Many of these skills are centered on interpersonal relations related to organizational behaviors, conflict management and resolution, consensus building, assigning appropriate rewards and consequences, emergency response, and probably a thousand other skills I don't even have a name for—but our colleagues in Psychology and Business Administration do indeed have expertise in these areas. And we would do well to learn the hard-earned lessons from these disciplines about how to manage human behaviors. Here's my point: know where to look for help on your campus to be prepared to handle these situations. When these incidents arise, they demand immediate and appropriate actions to insure the health and safety of those involved, and also, to follow the established protocols (if they exist) in anticipation of future actions that may be needed. You are not in this alone. Know where on campus (or in the community) to find the help you need so that you can help those around you.

In another part of my life I'm a soccer referee. I know the Laws of the Game inside and out. But that's not enough. I go to weekly referee clinics, watch FIFA game clips to learn how the pros make the call, and have regular on the field assessments of my performance by senior referees because during dynamic play, in the heat of the moment, when you blow your whistle you have to be very clear about the offense and what the outcome will be. In the chaos of an interpersonal crisis situation, you have to be prepared to be decisive, know the rules, and act in a manner that will do no harm in the moment or for future actions.

So, be proactive. Have an incident plan and a chain of communication in place. Establish a relationship with the cognizant officers on campus such as Human Resources, Affirmative Action, Dean of Students, Counseling and Psychological Services and possibly Deans and the Provost. Invite them to a department meeting to learn about their services and procedures. Once I figured out who to contact, crisis counselors and other institutional officers were very effective in their interactions with those impacted by events during investigations and other follow-on proceedings, working with care, sensitivity, and to protect the privacy of individuals involved. (You don't want those impacted to be victimized a second time by investigative processes. Sometimes the victims need a mechanism and encouragement to find their voice about a situation; in other cases, the situation was too traumatic to have to relive. But that's for the experts to assess). Know the warning signs for students in distress and be ready to respond to suicide prevention. Know when it's your responsibility to respond to situations, how and to whom to file incident reports, and how and when to protect personal (student and faculty) privacy. As instructors, we often have students confide personal issues that affect their performance in class. I don't think that we are expected to be social workers, but a certain amount of empathy and knowledge of where to direct students to get help may make a huge difference. Everyone is aware of active shooter incidents that have occurred now on many campuses. Have the Campus Security number on speed dial on your phone. Encourage faculty and students going into the field to have basic First Aid, or better yet, Wilderness First Responder training. (In my career, I've had to be first responder to a heart attack at the toe of the Nisqually Glacier at Mt. Rainier National Park, a student passed out and hit her head on a lab table, epileptic seizures, a fiery car crash, cases of hypothermia, and numerous sprained ankles and knees at field camp).

An ounce of prevention is always the best policy. Try to anticipate and be aware of emerging situations and try to defuse them in the first instance. But, stuff happens. And when it does, the outcomes will be much better if you are prepared to take immediate and appropriate actions.

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Reinforcing feedback loops power effective communities of practice

Posted: Jan 5 2016 by

Kim Kastens

A "Community of Practice" is a "group of people who share a concern or passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly" (Wegner-Trayner & Wegner-Trayner, 2015). Although this social structure has probably existed since hunter/gatherer days, it was first described and named by anthropologists in workplaces where apprentices were being inculcated into the skills and habits of mind of a craft or profession (Lave & Wenger, 1991). The community of practice (CoP) construct has since been applied to a wide range of groups, both inside and outside of workplaces, including in education. The attributes of entities labelled as CoP's vary, but important common factors seem to be:

  • Communities of practice are committed to a shared domain of interest, and value their individual and collective competence in this domain.
  • They engage in joint activities, share information, build relationships that enable them to learn from each other.
  • Individuals in the CoP care about their standing with each other.
  • The group collectively develops a shared repertoire of resources, which may include experiences, stories, tools, ways of addressing recurring problems (Wegner-Trayner & Wegner-Trayner, 2015).

I've been lucky enough to be a part of several groups that I think have functioned as CoP's, and have had the opportunity to observe several others through colleagues, friends, and family. Three examples, to inform our later discussion: More

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The story behind "Last Call"

Posted: Nov 1 2015 by Kim Kastens

I recently had the chance to see a documentary called Last Call, which recounts the 1970's era effort to use the new field of systems dynamics to create a computational model capable of forecasting the future of human society on planet Earth. This is the project that led to the prescient and controversial book Limits to Growth. The documentary describes some of the virulent attacks on the team and their work, and then goes on to say that the World3 standard model has, in fact, held up well when compared with the actual developments from 1970 through 2014.

Donella Meadows is one of my heroines, and I have long thought that The Limits to Growth book was brilliant. So I enjoyed the movie very much. The film-makers got interviews with systems dynamics pioneer John Forester, authors Dennis Meadows and Jorgen Randers, plus archival footage of lead author Donella Meadows and the instigator of the project, Aurelio Peccei of the Club of Rome.

However, I have to say that I'm not sure the movie would make much sense or have much impact for a person who wasn't already somewhat familiar with The Limits to Growth (LtG) work. And being a "show me the data" sort of a person, I can't for the life of me understand why the film-makers chose not to show any of the data that compare the LtG scenarios with empirical observations from the 43 years since the book was published.

Some friends and I are gearing up for a community showing of the film, and so I offer here a synopsis of the story behind the story, as I see it. My commentary is in three acts: Act I: Meadows et al create their model and write their book. Act II: Economists and organizations dependent on growth of the economy attack viscously, and the public is left with the impression that the work has been completely discredited. Act III: other researchers compare the model output with data accumulated in the 30 or 40 years since the book was published. More

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Pitfalls of Metaphors: Does Warm Air Hold More Water?

Posted: Jan 15 2015 by Glenn Dolphin & Kim Kastens
Topics: Metacognition, Perception/Observation, Interpretation/Inference


The following is a guest post by Glenn Dolphin (aka "Flipper"), of the University of Calgary Department of Geosciences.

This discussion first appeared in the ESPRIT list server, a lively forum for discussion of earth science teaching, mostly at the secondary school level. When Flipper's ideas below came forth, there had been an extensive multi-person, multi-day discussion of whether it was useful or misleading to tell students, during their study of weather and climate, that "warm air holds more water vapor than cold air." Although this and synonymous statements are common in popular science treatments (for example, here and here), this form of explanation has been roundly criticized in other expositions for the public (for example, here and here).

A point of view held by several teachers could be summarized by one who wrote: "As I see it, declaring that air 'holds' water isn't nearly as awful as it's made out to be." I was reminded of my blog post and followup comments about Telling Lies to Children, asking where is the borderline between a pedagogically valuable simplification and a lie. Air "holding" water is not literally true; it is a metaphor in which air is compared to a container with a limited holding capacity. Metaphors can be valuable tools for helping the human mind come to grips with (another metaphor) an unfamiliar concept. But they also have pitfalls, as explored in the guest post below.

—–Kim Kastens–Earth & Mind co-editor

Guest blog post

In my research, I am looking at the metaphors we (experts, for the most part) use in science and their effect on how students (novices) understand them. We use many metaphors (selfish gene, black hole, big bang, electron cloud, tectonic plate). As experts, we may very well be able to use "hold" if we have a good physical understanding for the air/water system. However, people who don't, like our novice students, will generate meaning based on their own physical experiences of containers that hold things. This could then lead to difficulties in understanding, most likely because they will always start from this point, and not give other meanings a chance. More

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A Curriculum by Design Part II: Student Learning Outcomes and Program Assessment

Posted: Jan 20 2014 by David Mogk, Dept. Earth Sciences, Montana State University

In an earlier blogpost (A Curriculum by Design) I outlined the philosophy and process we used in the Department of Earth Sciences, Montana State University, to revise our undergraduate curriculum. This continuing contribution describes the process we used to identify student learning outcomes (SLOs) across the curriculum, and how these SLOs have been used to develop our department assessment plan (required in anticipation of our forthcoming institutional accreditation review).


Assessment is collecting data with a purpose. The Department of Earth Sciences completed an extensive review of student learning outcomes at the programmatic level for all courses offered by the department. Our assessment plan is designed to: a) provide faculty with an opportunity to reflect on course goals, methods and expected student learning outcomes, b) aggregate these course learning goals into an overall departmental matrix of student learning outcomes, c) provide formative feedback to improve teaching and learning in Earth Sciences courses, and d) for accountability, to demonstrate that the departmental and institutional vision and mission are being addressed and that the curriculum is consistent with contemporary professional standards in the geosciences. The resulting SLO Matrix (Excel 2007 (.xlsx) 122kB Jan16 14) provides a rapid, visual map of the "landscape" of our curriculum; you can readily see areas of emphasis, and areas that might need more attention in our curricular development. This exercise also provided our faculty the opportunity to reflect deeply on the concepts and skills they emphasize in their own courses, gave them some incentives to revise courses to respond to the SLO goals, and opened the door for more extensive curricular discussions between faculty (who generally were not aware of content/skills being taught in courses related to their own). More