Tag Archives: filtering

The Sluice

4 May

There’s a thing I’ve found that a lot of people want in their lives but don’t have. Today I’m calling it the information sluice. Other times I’ve called it an epistemological entry vector and other, even sillier, names.

The idea is that in an age of change you need lots of data about your environment and your options, and these data have to be a kind of stream or flow rich in nutrients that is both constantly regenerating but also getting processed, evaluated, the good stuff noted, and pulled out, and built upon. Like an oyster filtering specks of food out of the ocean or a classic newspaper clipping service on a massive scale. Or the baleen of all the whales together, or some kind of moisture collector system perched on outcrops of rock in a romantic desert on the planet Dune, or, in my new way of looking at it, as if it were a sluice.

You can pan for gold painstakingly in the stream alone with your hole-y overalls and your one little pan that doubles as your complete set of table china, and you can might pick up a little gold dust. That’s the analog grammarian’s way of prospecting, maybe.

But you can also build a living channel to direct a big onrush of water to slowly wash the hillside away and you can create some filters in that sluice to net the fish, as it were. Put a weir in your sluice. And you can have some people watching and tending and regulating the flow and adjusting the filters, or the stakes in the weir, learning which size mesh to use, etc. That’s the Corpus Linguistics gold mining method. That’s gold prospecting at volume.

The bad part of this sluice metaphor is of course that in the real world this kind of mining destroys the earth. The good part of the metaphor, though, is that there’s a flow and it’s constant and refreshing and it generates a lot of dirt, but wondrous good stuff, if you tend it, and you’re attentive in your tending, comes out of that dirt. And you wouldn’t get that wondrous goodness by just sitting around camping or watching TV or panning in the old way, staying on the surface, that is. And of course this is not real earth we’re talking about but rather the hillside is of ideas, an inexhaustible mound, and the gold is not gold but the invaluable, discomfitting idea, the game changer, the second idea that adheres to a first and makes a connection, etc.

A workplace with a sluice has a group–or everyone–involved in the process of gathering and sorting and sharing info. This gathering could be conducting primary research, it could be reading other people’s research, it could be reading blogs, it could be site visits and talking to people, it could be taking notes at community meetings, it could be listening to feedback when you give a talk. It’s probably a smorgasbord that combines formal and informal kinds of knowing across disciplines, mixing the sublime and the ridiculous, and mixing now and then, because the good ideas are not going to be in the places you’d expect. You have to look where you don’t want to look. The ideas that change the way you think about things aren’t going to pop up comfortably pre-categorized within an existing system. They’ll misbelong, like jokers in the card deck, and they’ll have been discarded or ignored by people playing according to Hoyle.

A key part of all this is the conversation between the sluice-tenders. For one, no one person can filter as much as three or four or five, so more learn faster over all than their individual parts, if they share. For two, the other people serve as the necessary feedback on your own filtering: confirming whether your mesh is set correctly, etc. For three, it’s more fun when you learn with other people. This conversation and sharing requirement is important to talk about, because it’s hard. It’s relatively easy to have a one-person sluice. But it’s hard to build it up between several people, and it requires more investment in communication and willingness-to-be-affected-by-others than I think most people expect to make except in their personal relationships, if even there.

Which may explain why it it seems most people don’t experience work as a sluice-tending, weir-adjusting, gold-gathering process. Some people seem to want anything but a flow of new, possibly discomfiting data (although they probably wouldn’t mind if someone else managed the data and delivered them in safely wrapped packages like a lamb chop from the butcher’s). They are happy to simply camp by the creek (and maybe not even prospect at all). But many people do want the sluice, and often they feel alone in the wilderness, intuiting that there’s a limit to their pan-prospecting, but not knowing where to find the partners to aid in the construction of the torrent (and maybe even a little afraid of that torrent themselves).

But I suspect that sluices are on the way. I talk too much about what age it is. I’ve said it’s the Age of the Gums, the Age of the System. I’ll do it again and predict that this will be the Age of the Sluice. In a recent post I noted the trend in the business community to see people’s ideas as a thing to cultivate and grow and tend and respect, as a forester loves a forest of pine–that’s a pro-sluice mentality. At an IT Governance meeting on campus the other day I was delighted to hear a broad-based outcry for a kind of “marketplace of ideas,” through which everyone could know what everyone else was doing–that’s a pro-sluice idea, too (I’ll blog on this particular event later).

Before I leave you, three additional thoughts.

1. It’s Recursive. A weird thing about this sluice — when it really works, what comes out of it changes the people using it, and changes how it works itself. Or you might say, the person-sluice hybrid evolves. On a simple level you can see that happening when people adjust the filter mesh for better results. But this kind of double-loop learning has infinite possibilities for spiraling evolution into unknowable complexities. So we have to see the sluice as a thing to some degree turned back upon itself and always in the process of becoming something else. What would that something else be? A sluice that evolves into a sluice of sluices, a meta-sluice? A sluice that fills the mound of ideas back up, that discovers, evaluates and creates? A sluice that takes away its need to be there, like self-absorbing stitches? I am not sure. Let’s find out.

2. This is what all those smart people do. You know those Ted talkers and Steve Jobses, people who are always popping up with wisdom and new ideas and opening your mind to something–they have found a way to have a flow of ideas pouring through, they are looking for good ones, and when they find them they hold them and start to layer others on as they come in. Doing it makes you better at doing it. This is how they are able to keep generating their Ted talks.

3. Having ideas is an artistic skill. Alan Kay says learning to have great ideas is a mastery skill like any other, like playing an instrument, say, and if you put in 4 – 5K hours, you’ll get there (this from a NITLE talk I summarized in a recent post). As he said, “A good idea is really improbable, but you won’t have any if you filter too early.” The trick is learning to adjust the filter and increasing the probability by accelerating the flow. The fine arts reference is meaningful–artists know all about this sluice idea. What does a painter do, sit around waiting for an idea to pop up and only then get out her paints (the gold-panning method)? Or does she paint a lot and consistently and every day, and discover in her flow and volume the nuggets that become the elemental matter of her personal periodical table? Ask Stephen King or Anthony Trollope: it’s the second option.

4. In another way the sluice is a replacement of school. Your formal education is kind of like a sluice that someone else filters, pointed at you. You wake up every day and have ideas dumped on you; isn’t that the general experience? That’s bad in ways–as in it’s a kind of teacher-centric focus on content that the progressive pedagogy movement has decried for a long time–but in others it’s not bad. Having the intuition or habit of what a flow of ideas is, learning to feel a passionate need for that flow, sense that that flow is related to your personal growth, that’s all good. For many these feelings are lost when they shift to work, and they desperately want to replace them, and I think that’s a salutary impulse. The trick is, of course, to see also that you need to be the sluice-tender, not just the passive recipient, because the thing you’re changing is your way of knowing, not the cumulative amount of knowing you do.

You are an Adulterated Oyster

13 Apr

I have been thinking again about academic support staff and what they should do in a time of systemic academic change. I offer you here 3 thoughts and 2 pragmatic suggestions.

Thought 1: Let’s move beyond the “interface,” the “factory,” and “established services.”

It’s hard to be an interface between a library / IT organization and an academic community nowadays, because both of these population pools are changing so much. You need stability to be a good interface; so we need a better concept. Another concept worth replacing is this idea that you are part of an hierarchical organization, or a “factory,” of work. Work with stovepipes and managers and top-down direction and a fixed suite of long-established services–all this assumes the people at the top know best what to do and that decisions made in the past still hold true. I think increasingly important today is what the people on the ground know about the moment in the moment. A factory by its nature is not particularly adaptable to the world around it (witness the hulks of brick buildings remaining from the Industrial Revolution), and you need adaptability in a time of change. So let’s drop the factory idea, too.

Thought 2: You are the community knowing itself.

If you’re not an interface, part of a factory, or a part of the provision of fixed, prefabricated services, what are you? I think you are the means by which the community knows itself. It can’t know what it needs until it knows who it is. We can’t help it unless we know who it is and what it needs. So help it figure it out. You are an organizer, an observer, an ethnograph, an epistemological vector (to quote myself) and you reflect back to the community what you hear, learn, see, think, do, discover, create. This is legitimate work. We’re growing and changing as a society, and we’re learning how to do things differently. A key thing about learning is that you watch yourself doing it. Academic support staff can be the way that that particular kind of necessary reflexivity happens in our community. It’s hard, it’s rewarding, it’s hard to explain, it’s a calling.

Thought 3: Think of yourself as an Adulterated Oyster.

What would be a good replacement concept for the factory or the interface? Well how about this. Think of yourself as an oyster with a kind of intake and output. But you don’t take in dirty water and give back purified water, you take in information about what the community is doing and needing, you take little actions designed to test out hypotheses and model solutions, and you give back information to help people know themselves and their options better. So you’re slightly adulterated–your goal is not just to filter the estuary but to engender a feedback loop that perhaps moves the estuary towards a certain channel (the channel of learning, you might say).

Pragmatic Idea 1: Publish your plan.

Instead of secret goals on a hidden performance review, why not write your own plan for yourself, publish it to the community, report on it. Say “here’s what I see happening, here’s what I think needs doing, and here’s what I plan to do.” Invite feedback. Let it be a plan that draws like an oyster from the community and like an adulterated oyster, reflects back meaning, improves.

To do this, have knowing and reporting activities in your plan. Tell the world how you will come to know it. But also make it a priority to tell people what you learn.

Also, aspire and grow. Oh, please, please, put your dreams in your plan. It is perhaps the height of professionalism (not the opposite) to use your intuition about what you’re good at and what you like to do to inform your activities.  And, plan in your plan to grow. Remaining static should not be allowed. If you’re not changing yourself as you’re changing the world around you, there’s probably a problem.

Pragmatic Idea 2: Create your own advisory committee.

Think of yourself as the executive director of yourself and report to a board of trustees. Identify community members who will sit on your committee, listen to and confirm your view of the world and its problems, ratify your proposed interventions, and speak on your behalf when you get in trouble. Have students. Have faculty. Maybe you can invite your boss, maybe not! It’s like your personal learning community. Just thinking about doing this seems to completely change people’s perspective from a kind of head-down, trudging-along attitude to a chin-up, looking-around-yourself perspective. Imagine if we all were on each other’s advisory committees? That would be neat.

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