July 19th, 2013
Just got back from San Juan, Puerto Rico. That’s a postcard stock shot of the hotel where the Summer Dean’s Institute of the Council of Graduate Schools held its annual meetings. Tough job but somebody’s … Actually, the humidity was pretty punishing. Hard to fully embrace the island when you feel the need to change your shirt every five minutes. I had never been to Puerto Rico. It’s a bit of a strange place, lots of wealth, lots of poverty—lots of air conditioning at full energy-challenging blast. There’s a whiff of corruption in the air, as in the Mexican-American border town from Orson Wells’ Touch of Evil. I found it fascinating but not necessarily desirable as a future destination. One night I went to a restaurant at which Bill Clinton had been served the night before. I now know what he eats these days: largely vegetarian, rice and beans, to be sure. His presence in the city helped to explain the legions of police we saw every ten metres. Just couldn’t figure out at first what that was all about.
San Juan’s questionable attractions aside, these summer meetings are always in cool [sic] places and I’m not complaining. I did forget my iPhone at home, though, and so felt singularly deprived of both my messaging and picture-taking capacities. Fortunately, CGS always plans well and there is a lot of healthy distraction to keep my fingers from twitching with iPhone withdrawal. What I learned on this summer business vacation trip was helpful. The overall theme this year seemed to be how to manage and communicate the graduate school message, internally and externally.
Plenary speaker Scott Jaschik, editor of the widely read Inside Higher Ed online publication, spoke to us in his typically droll, entertaining way about just how little the media/reporters know or care about graduate studies issues – unless some crisis occurs, of course. Therefore, it’s pretty hard to get their attention about anything positive. He did repeat the importance of never walking away from reporters (see Rob Ford) or saying no comment. That will bite you bad. Jaschik’s talk was followed by superb plenary speaker Stephen Allen who runs a prestigious California communications consultancy group. He was excellent, kept us enthralled with video clips of painfully humiliating or socially inept politicians/university presidents/elected and unelected officials. He echoed Jaschik’s comments but went further by drawing a set of key lessons: never give the media more than twelve words to a message, stick to your message, and never have more than four of them because no one will remember or care after that. Allen demonstrated his own messages pretty forcefully through a series of interactive examples which had the three hundred or so PhDs in the room looking and feeling pretty dumb—not an easy feat.
A third plenary speaker was a youngish Kirby Ferguson who also provided fabulous clips of work he has done online, all in the service of pointing out how creativity flows from skilful remixing of ideas and images. His talk inspired us to question not only our traditional use of the word ‘original’ but also what we expect from PhD dissertations which, he said, are in effect or should be fine examples of expert remixing. Thinking remix instead of original challenges us to think differently about the entire discourse of scholarly publication. Check out his web work by doing a Google search of his name. You will get to Everything is a Remix immediately.
Between these plenaries there were hot topic sessions and dean dialogue breakout groups. I know, it all sounds tedious if you’re not a dean but these are actually terrific networking opportunities. As is often the case, the Canadian deans don’t have quite as many complaints or things to whine about as our US counterparts from Harvard to small grad colleges. As with our banking system, we are simply better managed, better supported. We also drink more, but that’s another story. One of the smaller sessions was dedicated to MOOCS, the latest craze to sweep the big schools. We all came away from that group feeling even more confused than ever. It’s still not at all clear whether MOOCS are good, bad, or ugly, or whether they will pass away like a short and forgettable trend.
Overall the deans institute was terrific, confused sessions, humid air, and excessive show of police force notwithstanding. If you can’t take the heat you just stay in a plenary.