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Thursday, November 3, 2011

The Problem with Hysteresis

hysteresis (hst-rss) The dependence of the state of a system on the history of its state.

Linda and I recently were allowed to give a brief presentation and take questions regarding SUSTAIN SLO to a group of faculty in a Cal Poly department that had initial reservations about our contacting students to attend information sessions regarding SUSTAIN. [We encountered the usual problem of many faculty/administration confusing our request to contact students with a request for approval of SUSTAIN.] The faculty were respectful to us and had some good (if the usual) questions. Linda was transparent and respectful -- as a person who is maybe a little too astute politically, I have an initial worry about admitting to others about the possibility of failure but I am slowly being healed of this.

After leaving the meeting, I followed up with an email to a friend in the department asking if we had covered the bases and if there was any additional information that was needed. Prior to receiving an answer form the friend, I got the email saying that the department would withhold its imprimatur for a year to see if SUSTAIN was successful. Later, I got a phone call from the friend saying that part of the discussion after Linda and I left focused on the our personalities and "history" at Cal Poly. I was characterized as always wanting to go off and do my own thing (not being a team player) and Linda was described as not really caring about GE, that as an engineer all she wanted to do was to get engineers out of the usual GE classes. The friend was a bit dispirited because the department was becoming a group of naysayers.

I learned about the term hysteresis in grad school and it revolved around the idea of a backward rigidity after an event. The application is often around labor hiring after a recession. After so many cutbacks, even when things improve in general, hiring does not bounce back to previous levels. My sense is that the hysteresis here is that part of our current state with SUSTAIN -- that portion over which we have so little control -- is tethered to these ideas about the individuals involved and our (perceived) history that has little to do with the particulars of the current initiative.

It seems as though the path to success is to have been invisible in the past -- but then being invisible could open someone up to not having sufficient experience. This "no win"-"no win" situation is just another issue to deal with.


  1. 1) I love knowing about this word now. 2) I am reflecting after having read your thoughts here that there is great cost (in the form of being judged by colleagues of anyone pushing forward to make change to a system. I know: this isn't rocket surgery to notice, but I am still sitting with it.

  2. Well, I am never to shed the baggage of the college of engineering. Alas. I have my own baggage which is far more interesting....if they would only stop seeing me as the college!

  3. Neal, i learned something else about our time there. John P thought we had asked them to be promotors of SUSTAIN. I thought were were there for information purposes. As promotors, they felt an entirely different desire to understand and endorse. For some reason, if we had asked to simply have access to their email list so that WE could promote...different.

    I learned that you and I should have briefed before going into the meeting. My bad. I learned this from Liz about a month ago.

  4. Here is an excerpt from the email (sent to many faculty teaching the major intro courses):

    "I am writing this email to ask your permission to send an email to the students in your introductory class for you major .... The purpose of the email is to inform current freshman in CAFES about the new SUSTAIN SLO learning initiative that will begin next quarter and run through the spring quarter. This initiative has been approved by the administration and we in SUSTAIN SLO are in the process of recruiting freshmen to be the first cohort of 100 students to participate in the program."

    The next email (excerpt) said:


    XXX will send it out on your behalf using the info below."

    I sent the blurb and then received the following email(excerpt):


    Having now seen more clearly you proposal for this program, I believe I should take this to the faculty in xxx and xxx as it constitutes a significant change in the curriculum for students in our program.

    I will discuss it with my faculty today and see what their position is on this matter."

    Followed by the next email (excerpted):
    "My faculty met today and while they are enthused about programs that offer special experiences to our students, they are not clear how this program will work, how it will impact their curriculum, progress towards degree and they would like more insight about the specific nature of projects that you have planned for this program. Given the nature of the limited material that you have prepared it does appear that this might impact some or all of the aforementioned issues. Additionally, there are questions about how this is related to the Center for Sustainability programs and activities.

    Our faculty meets at 11 AM on Tuesday, and I am inviting you to our meeting next Tuesday.

    My faculty are not supportive of distributing this to our students until they have a better understanding of the program, but they are open to potentially being supportive, if you can help them obtain a better understanding."

    We went to the meeting and then got the following email (again excerpted):
    "My faculty is very supportive of all the efforts relating to Sustainability and they certainly are open to creating special experiences for our students.

    At this time my faculty have asked that we revisit the status of the Sustain SLO program a year from now, after the effort has some traction and some aspects of the program have some clearer definition.
    As you may know we have just launched into a new major for our xxx students, so we would like to see our own program get some traction and have our students have a good understanding of how our program works, before we steer them into other academic tracks."

    I think that this confirms my hypothesis that, in spite of the clarity of the original email and the willingngess to meet and clarify, some faculty will still see/do what they want. What started out as a request for permission to send an email to their freshman did, in fact, get turned into the question of promotion -- which clearly did not come from us. I doubt any amount of briefing on our part can change how many faculty model our change process. There is only so much that we can do. I am just appreciative that all the other departments in the college very willingly allowed us to contact their students. This department was the only one that turned the process on its head.

    I realize that the nature of this response could be taken as (and, to a degree, is) a justification of my perceived model. I also lay out some of these details to help flesh out the archive of our process. Again, I was very pleased about the many successes in the college but for whatever reason I obsess about the one failure and what is says about me and the SUSTAIN (us).