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Monday, November 29, 2010

Being killed by perfection

I recently talked to one of my cousins, who is a retired engineer. He was interested in what the world of higher education is like these days, and, as a part of our conversation, I talked to him about assessment. When I explained the basic principles to him, his response was, "Ah, TQM."

TQM, for those who don't know, stands for Total Quality Management. My understanding of the history may be faulty, but this was one of those ideas that came into American industry from Japan when we were falling behind them in terms of quality. The idea isn't new, of course. The general idea of set a goal, take an action, and measure how far the outcome is from the goal is as old as civilization. I suppose the novelty of the notion lies in the use of modern analytic tools and institutionalizing it to such a large degree.

My cousin said the process had run afoul in his company when it was transmuted by the slogan "Perfect the first time."

There is no such thing as perfection, so arriving at it the first time is nonsense. And, of course, this is not what a culture of continual improvement about. I don't even like the phrase "continual improvement" as it doesn't seem to allow even for normal statistical variation. The idea is to organize our activities and create structures so that improvement is a natural outcome of the process. We need to recognize that we can improve and to institute processes so this will, over the course of time, happen.

Part of this process might include setting up a "perfect" ideal of what our desired outcomes would be. But, I believe it was Voltaire who said, the perfect is not the enemy of the good. We can be good, but we can always strive to be better. Using the tools of assessment is a natural part of this process.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Math Task Force: On the Road

I look at my previous entries in this blog and see that I'd written about preparing to begin with the Math Task Force on September 16. It is now early November and we've had our second weekly meeting. Those outside of Higher Education might think that there has been some sort of a delay. The truth of the matter is that it has taken this long with everything going as well as possible. A while back I was in a meeting with a faculty member who was in the process of starting a new program. I told her that one I'd been involved in starting took 3 years to begin. She asked me what went wrong. I told her that nothing went wrong; it took that long with everything going perfectly.

There are two constraints that come together that make academic processes go so slowly. The first of these is inclusivity. We operate under a system of shared governance which means that any program or policy that is created will have to be reviewed and approved by representatives of the entire faculty. Including the appropriate representatives from the various sectors of the university is essential. The second of these is scheduling around classes. So many members of the university community teach that meetings must be scheduled around classes; the classes cannot be moved because students come first. Along with this is the fact that most of the folks who you would want on a committee are already on several committees because they are good workers, so we have to schedule around those committees too. The upshot of this is that it takes a while to schedule that first meeting and sometimes all subsequent meetings.

But, as I said earlier, we've already met twice and are meeting on a weekly basis. The conversation has begun. We say that a lot on the university campus, because so much of what we do is based on conversations among thoughtful people who care very much and have their own opinions. Meetings are a good site for these conversations as ours opinions can be given and the opinions of others can be heard. We then leave the meeting and consider what we've heard and whether we want to make those words our words. By this process a group opinion is born which is informed by the knowledge of all those present.

I've been thinking of the issue of mathematics as general education for a considerable time now. It is very affirming to hear many of the thoughts I've had coming independently from the mouths of others. It is also good to hear perspectives I've not considered before. It is a beautiful process.