learning curve: month one in projects.

As I have observed relatively recently, communities of practice are groups of individuals bound together by characteristics, traits, rituals, and norms that 1) distinguish them from other communities, and 2) orient their members some sense of collective purpose. The process of integrating into a new community is complex, involving acclimation on a number of levels. Understanding a community’s context/culture and the interplay of its distinguishing characteristics is critical to successful integration into and interaction within it.

Which is the exact reason why starting a new job tends to involve a geometric, migraine-inducing learning curve. “Short-timer syndrome” is the well-known phenomenon wherein an individual who knows they will soon be out one door or another becomes increasingly useless/shiftless, often despite their best efforts to the contrary. I believe that the root of this syndrome lies as much in the loss of the short-timer’s organizational learning imperative as it does in the distracting and inevitable process of mental projection into one’s next context.

newtimer syndrome

Newtimer syndrome is the opposite of this phenomenon. When you start a job, you learn and orient so rapidly on so many levels, from intellectual to spatial to interpersonal, that your brain verges constantly on overload.

I have been at the Claremont Colleges Library for approximately four weeks, and, as anyone who has ever started a new position can attest (i.e., most people), the first month is a process of acculturation that appears simple on its surface, but is actually very complex. Simple in the straightforwardness of the tasks faced (e.g., become settled, start creating relationships with coworkers, begin to understand the organization), complex in the near-impossibility of processing, sorting, and retaining pertinent bits of the information deluge these tasks produce.

I adore this learning curve, and for many reasons. It throws you out of the climate you know and forces you to understand another from the dual perspective of insider and outsider. While the end goal is to reduce your outsider view as you come to understand how to operate successfully as an insider, the initial comparative perspective is immensely valuable in how you reflect upon and assess your new organization and its needs.

This concurrent learning/unlearning process is in many ways antithetical to what “settled” work becomes. The acclimation to any position, however dynamic it is in the day-to-day, includes the development of a certain sort of routine, an ongoing workflow, that shifts in predictable ways based on the time of year or project at hand. Determining this workflow out of the gates is anything but predictable, and it is the time in which you have paradoxically the most and the least control over your own productive trajectory.

cultural acclimation

Switching narrative gears, I’m happy to say that I adore my new job and its particular learning curve. I could rattle off a long rationale, but at the moment will limit myself to two reasons:

First: a fabulous, welcoming group of colleagues with a dedication to service and independent get-things-done attitude that has made my first days/weeks an engaging blur.

Second: the unique challenge of working at a library that serves seven liberal arts colleges grouped in a contiguous consortium and loosely wrapped around our building (Claremont McKenna, Harvey Mudd, Pomona, Pitzer, Scripps, Claremont Graduate University, and the Keck Graduate Institure, combined FTE +/- 6,000). Each campus has its own fiercely unique culture, curriculum, architecture, and library perspective.

organizational complexity

While Honnold/Mudd Library serves all of these campuses, we face a particular hurdle: we are ancillary to the research, teaching, and learning of each college, yet outside of their immediate bounds and with little integration in campus governance or decision-making at the operational or academic level. No college “owns” us, per se,  making the typical challenge of outreach and cultural connection that much harder and more important: bridge-building is critical in this environment.

This degree of organizational complexity is one of the many reasons I came to the Claremont Colleges. Fiercely unique cultures and curricula in a practical sense creates a situation in which a subject specialist in my library might work with five to seven separate history, chemistry, etc. departments, all with their own (but frequently cross-listed) degree tracks and core faculty. Also, it results in seven new student orientations, five writing centers (for the undergraduate colleges), seven instructional technology departments, and so forth. Systematic integration of information/research literacy instruction (and assessment thereof) across the curricula of these institutions is central to my role, meaning I am in the process of strategizing a programmatic approach… factored by seven. Luckily, I love nothing so much as a challenge.

inverse productivity

I have spent my career in large/public research universities, and, having acclimated to that context, am finding that as I experience the transition to a small/private environment its distinctions are thrown into sharp relief. There is an inverse relationship between institutional girth and the rate of actualization of almost any deliverable, particularly those that occur at a organization-wide level. Meaning that, whereas I have been working on large initiatives that required considerable committee and task force collaboration and vetting from formal groups of representative stakeholders, I now find myself in a project-oriented environment in which small teams go forth and do, taking concept to buy-in to roll-out on a rapid timeline.

In the first four weeks I have spent here, this has translated into getting an immensely satisfying run of fun/interesting things off the ground. All have started small, all will hopefully build toward ongoing initiatives and larger goals, all are means of testing unfamiliar waters, and all are methods for understand my new colleagues, students, and faculty.

Therefore, each of the next few posts I write will be dedicated to one of these exercises in productive acclimation: Stay tuned for project curve, part one: maker breaks.


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