PhD General Exam – A Model for Mentoring?

Earlier this year, I was asked to serve on the PhD committee for Alex Thayer at UW HCDE along with the co-chairs – Charlotte Lee and Jan Spyridakis, and Cecilia Aragon.  I eagerly accepted as a way to understand what the process for acquiring a PhD was all about.  My surprise in working through the process with my colleagues and with Alex is what an interesting model it is for the coaching and mentoring of design and business professionals along with entrepreneurs.

The formal process for the HCDE General Exam shows the timeline and steps.  I viewed the steps I participated in as:

  • The PhD candidate provides a short description of what they are interested in doing their dissertation on
  • A committee of appropriate faculty is formed with each faculty member given a subject area to focus on – theory, methods, society & systems, and media design & application
  • Each faculty member works with the student to refine a list of readings (approximately 20 article or chapter length articles) in the context of the research the student is interested in performing
  • Each faculty member provides a question in their assigned area to the department advisor who will provide the questions to the candidate to write a timed essay on
  • The candidate writes the questions
  • The committee members review the answer to their question (along with the answers to the other questions)
  • The committee member meets 1:1 with the candidate to discuss the answer before the oral exam where all committee members are present
  • An oral exam with all committee members where followup questions are asked completes the process.

Based on my experience and expertise, I was assigned the topic of Media Design and Application to work with Alex.

After receiving the description of what Alex was interested in researching – college student collaboration using eReaders, I discussed his research and past publications with him.  Based on this discussion, I thought he was too focused on one medium – text – and was heavily biased to the Amazon Kindle versus much richer multiple media platforms like the Apple iPad.  I also wanted to make sure that Alex had a richer understanding of collaboration.  Based on this assessment, I suggested the following readings:

  • Alexander, C. (1979). The Timeless Way of Building. Oxford University Press.
  • Bardzell, J. (2007). Creativity in Amateur Multimedia: Popular Culture, Critical Theory, and HCI. Human Technology, 3(1), 12-33.
  • Bardzell, J., Bardzell, S., Briggs, C., Makice, K., Ryan, W., and Weldon, M. (2006). Machinima prototyping: an approach to evaluation. In Proceedings of the 4th Nordic conference on Human-computer interaction: changing roles (NordiCHI ’06), ACM, New York, NY, USA, 433-436.
  • Cetina, K.K. (2001). Objectual Practice. In T.R. Schatzki, K.K. Cetina, and E. Von Savigny (Eds.), The Practice Turn in Contemporary Theory (pp. 175-188). Routledge.
  • Chan, M. and Liu, K.  (2004). Applying Semiotic Analysis to the Design and Modeling of Distributed Multimedia Systems.  In Proceedings of CSCWD (Selected papers). 437-447.
  • Fogg, B.J. (2002). Persuasive Technology: Using Computers to Change What We Think and Do. Morgan Kaufmann. Chapter 5.
  • Keen, P.G.W. (1979). Decision Support Systems and the Marginal Economics Of Effort. MIT Paper.
  • Manovich, L. (2002). The Language of New Media. MIT Press. Chapter 5.
  • McLuhan, M. (1994). Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. MIT Press. Part 1.
  • McLuhan, M. and McLuhan, E. (1992). Laws of Media: The New Science. University of Toronto Press: Toronto, ON. Chapter 3.
  • Mitchell, C. T. (1993). Redefining Design:  From Form to Experience. Chapters 5-6.
  • Nass, C. and Moon, Y. (2000). Machines and Mindlessness: Social Responses to Computers. Journal of Social Issues, 56(1), 81–103.
  • O’Connor, J. and Seymour, J. (1994). Introducing NLP: Psychological Skills for Understanding and Influencing People. The American Press. Chapter 2.
  • Rose, C. (1998). Accelerated Learning for the 21st Century: The Six-Step Plan to Unlock Your Master-Mind. Dell. Chapters 4, 12.
  • Ryan, P. (2001). Earthscore for Artists: A Systemic approach to collaboration. Retrieved 2011/08/01.
  • Schell, J. (2005). Understanding entertainment: story and gameplay are one. Comput. Ent. 3(1), 1-14.
  • Vines, B.W., Krumhansl, C.K., Wanderley, M.M., Dalca, I.M., and Levitin, D.J. (2010). Music to my eyes: Cross-modal interactions in the perception of emotions in musical performance. Cognition 118, 157-170.
  • Wright, P., Wallace, J., and McCarthy, J. (2008). Aesthetics and experience-centered design. ACM Transactions on Computer-Human Interaction15(4), 1-21.

I went further and grouped the readings by themes:

  • Nature of Media
    • Understanding Media, Marshall McLuhan, part 1
    • Laws of Media, Marshall and Eric McLuhan, Chapter 3 “Laws of Media”
    • Chan and Liu, 2005, Applying Semiotic Analysis to the Design and Modeling of Distributed Multimedia Systems, pp 437-447.
    • “Music to My Eyes,” Daniel Levitin
    • “Story and Game Play are one,” Jesse Schell
    • “Objects of Socialability,” Karin Knorr Cetina, Chapter 12 in The Practice Turn in Contemporary Theory.
  • Perception and Learning
    • “Machines and Mindlessness,” Clifford Nass and Youngme Moon, Journal of Social Issues, 2000.
    • Chapter 2 Doors of Perception in Introducing NLP by Joseph O’Connor and John Seymour
    • Chapters 4 (The Six Step MASTER PLAN) and 12 (The Magic of Music) in Accelerated Learning by Colin Rose (print)
    • “Marginal Economics of Effort” Peter Keen, 1979.
  • Design
    • Timeless Way of Building by Chris Alexander (print)
    • “The Language of New Media,” Lev Manovich, pp. 212 – 281
    • “Creativity in Amateur Multimedia”, Jeffrey Bardzell
    • “Machinima Prototyping”, Jeffrey Bardzell, 2006.
    • Chapters 5 and 6 from Redefining Design:  From Form to Experience, C. Thomas Mitchell, 1993.
    • “Aesthetics and Experience Centered Design,” Wright, Wallace, McCarthy, ACM Transactions on Computer-Human Interaction 15(4): 1-21, 2008.
  • Application
    • “Earthscore for Artists: A Systemic approach to collaboration,” Paul Ryan, 2001.
    • “Computers as Persuasive Social Actors,” by BJ Fogg, Ubiquity, 2002.

As you can see by the list, I emphasized the work of authors who worked in media other than text like McLuhan, Ryan, Bardzell, Levitin, Schell and Manovich.  I was particularly hoping that through the Bardzell and Manovich readings that Alex would see a powerful way to organize the semantics of multiple media to aid in collaboration.

From the combination of my assessment and from the readings I generated the following question:

Using principles and frameworks from Marshall McLuhan, Lev Manovich, M. Chan, Jeffrey Bardzell and Paul Ryan, provide an overview that compares and contrasts the syntax, semantics, and semiotics for designing collaborative applications in different media like text, video, and interactive media and go into depth for the syntax, semantics and semiotics for one of the media other than text.

Alex did an excellent job answering the question and demonstrating his understanding of the readings.  I learned a lot from his perspective as he recombined the readings in the context of what he is interested in researching.

The oral exam was an opportunity for the committee as a whole to interact with Alex.  What a great learning experience for me to understand the readings and questions from the full time faculty in their assigned areas.

While I wasn’t fully conscious of it at the time, during the next couple of weeks after Alex’s oral exam I was mentoring my graduate students and entrepreneurs differently than before.  Prior to going through the general exam process, I would set up a meeting and come relatively unprepared and do “leadership jazz” in the moment.

Now I started asking for a couple of items ahead of time like their resume and their aspirations and any publications they might have.  Along with these items, I asked for what kinds of questions they were interested in asking of me.

Now before the meeting I could think through what might be missing that I could help with.  However, I would not make recommendations until we could have some time to understand their backgrounds and aspirations.  The first part of the meeting would be aimed at having them “tell me your story.”  In listening I could get a sense of their strengths and weaknesses and understand better what questions were the right ones to answer.  Then after the meeting I would suggest a set of readings that could help them with their missing knowledge.  However, the key thing is I would end this memo with a core question that would require them to read the material in their particular context.  I then suggested a follow on meeting where we could further explore their “answer” to the question.

An example of this process is the interaction with one of my fellow angel investors who asked if I would have the proverbial cup of coffee to help him think through his next startup in the medical technical arena.  I found out that he was the key engineer in a successful sonography product several years earlier and had done very well when the company was sold.  For the last year, he and his partner had self-funded the development and IP generation for a more portable and less costly product in the same arena.  While he is a very experienced engineer and inventor (he is good at value creation), he has not spent that much time understanding how to go to market and capture the value he has created.

His presenting question was asking me a fairly common question from entrepreneurs – how should I fund my new company?  Should I fund it myself, go to angel investors, take a development contract with a larger med tech firm, or go to VCs?  It is an easy question to ask but the answer is always very path dependent on where they are with the new venture and their previous experience.  So I asked a lot of questions and then shared with him a model that I’ve used for understanding the levers that affect capturing value.  I also pointed him to a couple of references:

At the end of our “cup of coffee,” I asked the entrepreneur “given what we’ve talked about this morning what is the answer you would come up with for how you should fund your next venture?”  I told him that I didn’t want to know the answer now, but rather would like he and his partner to give me a call in a week or two to go through what they recommended and why.

A couple of weeks later they both gave me a call and shared with me their recommendation for which path for funding they thought was best to move forward.  Their thinking was well grounded and indicated that they had clearly absorbed the material that I’d shared with them.  Now that they had thought things through, they were ready to hear a better proposal which combined in an interesting value engineering way a combination of approaches.  They were blown away.

I was excited that the in depth process of the PhD General Exam could also be used at a micro level to mentor my clients.  I was sharing this insight with a colleague and she started laughing “Skip, it’s called the Socratic Method.”  Ah yes, everything old is new again.

Then I went on to share what I was envisioning for augmenting this method with the “content in context” tool described in a previous post on Transactive Content.

She got very serious “Now that is something really new.  How much funding do you need to  get it built?  When can I write the check?”

Maybe it is time for me to start building this “content in context” tool.

This entry was posted in Content with Context, Human Centered Design, Knowledge Management, Learning, Teaching, Transactive Content, University, WUKID. Bookmark the permalink.

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