On campus, the new school year is well underway, and there is a lot of novelty on my mind. New projects (especially Purdue’s selection as one of two finalists for the Arthur C. Clarke Center for Human Imagination), new assignments, and especially new students. But that’s not really how this entry started. It started with a discussion list.
A researcher on one of the discussion lists which I (BC) follow (this one happened to be within the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society, but you can find this in a variety of groups on a variety of topics) had initiated a thread about a particular research topic. Potentially interesting, but not really my specialty, so I only glanced through it. What really drew my attention, though, was some of the responses to this new thread. Several people were highly annoyed that someone had taken up the bandwidth of a thread to discuss a topic that wasn’t in their particular interest. In fact, some then complained that the thread was inappropriate for the list, because it wasn’t particularly interesting to them. You can probably guess what happened next. More comments about the complaints about the thread, and then a set of finger pointing at the software itself for not keeping unwanted discussions out of their mailboxes (I think that the “delete” key works especially well for that function), followed by a slew of “remove me from the list” emails. (Nothing is a bigger waste of bandwidth than a set of “remove me” postings to a discussion list.) To me, this sort of behavior (and it seems to be common across email and web-based discussions) is fascinating, because it seems to reflect different attitudes about willingness to be exposed to new material that isn’t exactly within one’s current focus of view. I thought about writing an entry on “Pushing and Pulling Sticky Balls: Accretions and Connections of Knowledge as Inertia,” and maybe I still will. But not today.
I think what became even more fascinating to me is this idea of tolerance for novelty, as a companion to or essential tension against desire for directed focus. Those who know me know that I do seem to tolerate and collect a fairly large range of novel connections, and seek out new connections between existing ideas. (It seems that one of the best ways of distinguishing those who “get” me and those who don’t is their response to one of my nonlinear connection interactions.) This shows up especially clearly in the process of recruiting students. GROUPER spends an unusual amount of effort in trying to identify students who like working across project areas, and in collaborative teams, as potential members. This fall is a special challenge: all but one of the students who were continuing members one year ago today are now elsewhere. (Three have taken permanent jobs—all accepted before depositing their PhD dissertation.) It’s a lot to place the burden of maintaining the culture of the lab on one PhD student, one MS student, and one undergraduate (only the MS student was part of the lab on September 15, 2010). We have three new potential graduate students and a new undergraduate, all wanting to start in the lab—more than the current population, and the single largest addition of students (in terms of percentage change in lab size) in the 20 years of GROUPER. So, what’s a professor and lab director to do?
I called out for pizza (well, actually, one of the students did) and told some stories.
Telling stories is a famous mechanism of developing and sustaining an entrepreneurial organizational culture—Hewlett-Packard was legendary for their “Bill and Dave” stories. So, I told some “Dr. C” stories of novelty and connection and the pictures in my head. (Again, that discussion can come later—it’s about a three-dimensional coordinate axis of sensory experience of the world, capability of processing the world from external or internal frames of reference, and overall cognitive capacity, which I tend to reference as “horsepower”.) It was interesting, and gratifying, that three of the GROUPERs made the connection to neurodiversity that had spawned my development of the coordinate space, even though I hadn’t mentioned it in that context. (That’s another hint that there is a possibility for a good match—not only do they “get” my connections, but they can make connections like the ones I make.)
In a little while, you’ll get to read the students’ perspectives on this “restocking” and story telling pizza party. Until then, what is my sense of the need to restock a lab without completely changing what is its essence? I continue to think about this process of novel discovery and focused activity as an essential balance affecting individuals, and teams, and organizations. It may even be an evolutionary requirement with a fundamental mathematical dynamic—similar balances can be seen in the behavior of ant colonies, balancing environmental exploration and resource exploitation. Maybe we’ll get to study that sometime, too. Obviously, there is no lack of topics for the blog, or for our projects and papers. Bear with us, though, if you’re waiting for updates here: there’s a lot to work on, and an ecosystem to innovate.