Saturday, September 25, 2010

I Forgot What I Was Blogging About

So let me tell you about Dr. Roberts. He is the professor of my quantitative statistics class at Georgia Tech (translated, that breaks down to 'really hard math stuff'), and he is one heck of a pleasure to learn from. He shares with me both his first name (James) and an unfortunate habit of digression at the slightest provocation... conversational-shiny-object syndrome, as it were. In a lecture about, say, multinomials and they hypergeometric distribution (which he specifically said to mention to our friends and family, because "it'll make you sound really smart"), it's not uncommon for Dr. Roberts to branch off into stories about deer hunting, drunken job interviews, Agent Scully, and his grandmother. Odder yet, in the end, he always seems able to tie it all back into whatever statistics we were discussing. He even taught us a dance that illustrates the concept of the sampling distribution (and which, coincidentally, is very fun to do to the tune of the Beach Boys. Not so much fun with Kenny Chesney).

However, the mere fact that he's personally a fun character doesn't make the subject matter all that much easier (which can be intimidating, given this is just the first statistics class of about four to eleven total). On Thursday, during the fifth week of my doctoral education, I finally had my first lecture that I didn't understand at all. He stood there and talked, and it was undoubtedly brilliant stuff, and it definitely went in my ears because I did hear him... but then it all just slipped right back out again, so that the floor was piled high with brilliant concepts that had leaked out of my poor empty head. I think I almost slipped on a few on my way out the door. I suppose intelligent concepts are slick, kind of like oil.

What was frustrating was just how dumb I felt during it all. Like any good teacher, Doc Roberts likes to introduce complicated topics by building up to them with simpler concepts. In this case on Thursday, it just didn't work for me. Here's kind of what my brain heard: "Okay, class, here's a three-part process. Step one: What is two plus two? Four? Right, four. Good job. Now, remember that number. Step two: what is three times two? Six? That's right, six. Now, we have two numbers here, four and six, right? Let's move on to step three: So what happens if we multiply them together, then divide by the square root of negative one, and add a derivative arrived at through the mathematical formula for an orangutang?"

Obviously, I exaggerate... but that's kind of what it was like. Here's Simple Concept One, here's Simple Concept Two... and how we're going to put them together to create Complicated Concept 5,683,042. I'm absolutely not ragging on Dr. Roberts... he's a great teacher. It's my fault I wasn't smart enough to keep up with him. Luckily, on the train ride home that afternoon I was able to really dig into the notes and decipher what he was talking about. So to continue my analogy, after a lot of post-class work, I now understand Complicated Concept 5,683,042, and I have learned the mathematical formula for an orangutang.

And you can quote me on that.

Professors are an interesting bunch. Friday, for instance, I was invited to my first "Distinguished Speaker" event, which basically means that a professor from another university came to visit us and give us a lecture. I arrived prepared with a few questions I considered both basic and polite. I was not expecting the faculty in the room to proceed to critique and, in some cases, attempt to rip apart the visiting professor's research. Obviously the academic culture is one that is very open to criticism, so long as it's constructive. That's healthy, I think.

Our visitor's research was on creativity, collaboration, and competition in work groups. Although his studies had some limits (he was only able to look at teams of four, for instance, rather than bigger teams), his findings were enlightening, basically reporting that the level of competitiveness groups feel can dynamically change how much they choose to collaborate with each other, and through that, how creative they are. He also talked a bit about how men like to build teams to fight competitive battles, while women prefer to create close relationships with fewer people to fight their battles. I proposed that this might make women more effective than men in very small teams, on average. Our visitor liked my idea, but nobody really knows if I'm right or not. That's the fun thing about this university life as compared to the corporate world: in the corporate world, someone would pretend to have the answer and obnoxiously insist that we all agree with him. In the academic world, we (sometimes, at least) admit that we don't know, and then we try to figure it out.

Of course, if there's no practical implication for our work in the corporate, entrepreneurial, public, or volunteer worlds, there's no reason for us to do it beyond curiosity... which may be fun, but I'm not sure it's the best use of our time.

Speaking of time, get this: I read a study that shows that (1) if an employee does a nice thing for his employer, above and beyond his job description, and (2) if the manager thinks that the employee just did it to look good in front of his superiors, then (3) the manager is going to get very, very, very angry. In fact, according to this study, if you asked a random group of managers to think about a time when an employee did a nice thing for his employer, the most common emotional reaction to that nice things would be anger.

Does that make sense to you? It doesn't make sense to me. Maybe that's because I'm from the world of sales and marketing, where you expect a bit of schmoozing. But while I can remember many times when I determined that my employees were only being nice to suck up, I can't remember ever being angry about it. Amused, sure. Disappointed, maybe. Disgusted, occasionally. But never angry. And if you asked me to think of the last time someone went above and beyond to help the organization, anger certainly wouldn't be the first emotion to cross my mind.

I got in touch with the professor who conducted the study, and he was nice enough to talk to me about it. I learned that he is as confused as I am. It's nice to not be alone in bewilderment. Now another professor and I are talking about doing another study to try to get to the bottom of the issue. That would be nice, assuming I have time what with a couple of other things on my agenda right now, like... I don't know... the twins that are likely coming in a couple of weeks.

Oh, no, that reminds me... after Debby has the babies, she'll probably be too busy to make me those awesome sandwiches for lunch anymore. That's going to suck. I love those sandwiches.

By the way, does anybody have any recommendations on what to do if someone keeps stealing your workspace in lab? The gentlemanly side of me is at war with the get-the-hell-off-my-computer,-you-jerk side.


  1. Learning is a a really a balancing act. Or a two way street. I always sucked at metaphors.

    The point is, a successful learning experience for me would mean that I would need to have a decent professor, and at least a willingness to learn.

    Now, the exact definition for "decent" and the motivation for learning is very subjective. But if neither is willing to be flexible, then it's fairly certain to fail. I think that can apply to business as a whole as well. Maybe even organizations?

    And on the idea of those who suck up to superiors, I would honestly rather have somebody who sucks up to me rather than somebody who had no motivation. At least as a short term idea.

    But what if somebody is going above and beyond to impress their employer, and they find out later they may not get what they want? Wouldn't that backfire, causing trouble for all levels in the organization. Unless the manager makes it clear that simple schmoozing won't do anything.