Sunday, February 19, 2017

Taking stock of the good things

I spent some time last week working on several student complaints, and some of my colleagues felt sorry for me for doing this in my first couple of weeks on the job. I am thankful, but student complaints are unique learning opportunities that present a sharply focused view of the organization’s culture. Dealing with the unhappy ones presents the view from behind, so to speak. Like an army platoon’s speed is the speed of the last straggling soldier, the least happy students show what is possible, what works and what does not. I came out of these situations in high spirits. The system definitely works, and it works very well overall. Students are given second and third, and forth chances, they are treated fairly, the expectations remain high, and the rules are flexible enough to accommodate the diverse student body. The errors we make are minor and not systemic. Faculty and administrators spend a lot of time on individual students’ problems, and the solutions are reasonable. I feel really good about the College, and its faculty and staff.

Consider the phenomenon of the general complaint – the discourse of dissatisfaction that permeates any human society. The intensity of the general complaint is not related to the actual health of the organization. For example, at the university A people are nonchalant about half of all students skipping any given class. At the university B people are greatly upset about a discrepancy between a syllabus and a handbook. If you take the level of complaint into consideration, A is better than B, while in fact B is light years ahead of A. This is why it is unimportant how much people complain, but what do they complain about is important. There is a Russian proverb “For some, pears are too small, for others – borscht is too thin.” I am sure there is an English equivalent, but I cannot think of any right now. I hope it makes sense that the three student complaint cases made me rather happy. The College has figured out most of the structural problems that exist at any place like this. In professional preparation, we sometimes have to tell people “No, you cannot go forward,” which cannot please. That is inevitable; how we deal with it can vary greatly. There are also inherent issues with field placements, communication with field mentors – all colleges of our size have that, and such tensions have purely economic underpinnings. Yet some deal with them with more grace than others. We do a good job.

Of course, I am not blind and see the shortcomings, the bottlenecks, the weak spots. In fact, people tend to focus on the problems, because they are so immediate and pressing. We all get quickly used to the good things, which is why I value the “new eye” experience so much. To move forward, it is extremely important to keep the awareness of the tremendous achievements you have. To move a ship, one needs to take stock of the whole thing – the beauty, the structural integrity, - the integrative characteristics. One cannot just focus on the leaks and the rust spots. So, here are just some of the good things to appreciate: We live in one of the most affluent, advanced, democratic, and diverse parts of the world. Despite occasional budget cuts, public colleges still enjoy support of the public. We have thousands of successful, well-connected alums. We help teachers, principals, counsellors, school psychologists – they provide the backbone of todays’ economy, and these professions are not in danger of being outsourced or replaced by robots. So we own the future. We have a nice campus, with beautiful trees, modern technology and many amenities. I am not going to panic about the policy manual being outdated or the committee structure to be imperfect, or the assessment system being too cumbersome. Those may be annoying, but objectively small problems. We will plug all the holes as we go, no big deal. We have bigger fish to fry, and I am happy to report, looks like we’re totally ready for it.Taking stock of the good things

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