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Sep 24, 2017

The art of ignoration

Yes, it is an actual word. I ignore problems all day, every day. I did not learn it overnight. In mid-90s, Ivan Bobrovnikov, my friend and my boss at the time, gave me one of the lessons. Computers were very glitchy back then, and I would come to him for help. He said about one of them: how much does it bother you? Can you live with it? You can wait until the next MS pack comes in (count yourself lucky if you don’t know what that is), or until your computer dies. He was not brushing me off; he knew that time spent on fixing the little annoying problem will take away from my main work, keep me away from moving the business forward. IN the end, it is the skill of prioritization.

If you listened to Car Talk, you may have noticed, the Tappet Brothers sometimes say – go and fix this immediately, or you will die. However, sometimes they would say – just turn your radio up (or put a piece of the black tape over the warning light) and ignore it. The art is in distinguishing between the two, and I am still learning it.

Some problems I ignore because I do not know of any solution, or a solution in prohibitively expensive/ impractical. Other problems I ignore, because they are just too small, and will not make or break our success, or because they can be put off without much damage. Still others I ignore because someone else should worry about them. However, sometimes a problem may look small, but ever-widening circles of frustration and errors emanate from them. They are like splinters in the body of an organization; left untreated, they will fester and cause infection. So you have drill all the way down, to the street level to understand and address it. These choices are not always sound, but hey, it is art, and not science.

Some people develop excessive attention to processes, while forgetting the purpose. In worst case scenarios, it amounts to obstructionism: they will insist incessantly that all I’s are to be dotted and all t’s to be crossed, to the immediate effect that no business is concluded. For example, any kind of a written policy will always have bugs in it. That is just the nature of any regulation: it may never foresee all instances of application, and therefore is almost guaranteed to have unforeseen consequences. The true choice is between endlessly debating a policy and having none in the meanwhile, and adopting something imperfect, and then revising it on a regular basis. Here is an interesting example how the Finland’s government is developing a very consequential policy through a series of experiments, using the design thinking. Express-Test-Cycle.

As an aside, when I lived in Russia, I have seen an inordinate number of badly designed laws and regulations. It is not because Russians are inept; no, the lack of political mechanisms for looping feedback leads to bad regulations being frozen in time. People learn to work around regulations, because they do тещ believe in their ability to change them. Some institutions (like my former university, HSE) developed working feedback loops, and are doing much, much better. The Federal Government, on the other hand, is some of the worst. In part, this is because they have large businesses lobby, but none of the professional groups’ lobby.

Back to the art of ignoration: we all have to learn phrases “I can live with that,” and “good enough for now.” It does not mean giving up on continuous improvement, or lowering our expectations. Not at all; this is all about prioritization, about moving forward instead of spinning wheels, about valuing goals over processes. As my late mentor Lyudmila Novikova used to say: “Only cemeteries are perfectly orderly.”

Sep 18, 2017

Teaching to trust

Every year by November 1 I send a paper to the Philosophy of Education Society conference. It has been my academic home since 1995, and have become a part of my year. Every time at the end of September, it becomes apparent to mу that I have no idea how to do philosophy, and have no new ideas whatsoever. Or rather, I usually have a start of an argument, but cannot find the middle and the end of it. It is a very uncomfortable feeling of complete incompetence, and I have to say, it does not go away with time and experience. Why do people like me keep torturing ourselves? After all, deans can usually slide by without much publishing.

The answer is simple: it is in pursuit of a high. In some of the years, an idea eventually comes out of nowhere, and a paper materializes. That is a very exhilarating experience only other addicts can understand. Now, papers that gave me these highs – most of them were not too impressive to others, and many are rejected (PES is notoriously fickle). I am beyond caring, like all addicts are.

OK, so this weekend I was mulling over a paper on what education should do with the weaponized fake news phenomenon. The point is that the normal tools we have, like critical thinking, may not work anymore, for a variety of reasons. One is that human mind as such has flaws, and the proclivity for paranoia is one of them. Second, people who bought into right-wing (and some left-wing) paranoid theories, do not lack critical thinking. To the contrary, many fancy themselves scholars. They are very critical to any rational evidence. And finally, we are dealing with an unprecedented threat: sophisticated large-scale attacks, sponsored by at least one foreign government, and boosted by social media. OK, so far so good. The rest of the argument does not work out, which it is maddening.

One idea I have is that we must teach children to trust someone, that the ability to trust is a learned skill. The absolute majority of people will never be able understand the climate change data, so we cannot check its veracity. Some of us learned to trust the consensus of the scientific community, while others do not believe anything scientists are saying. In their total mistrust, they still trust some shady guy from a nutty publication, or to a Russian paid troll, but only implicitly. In their minds, they do not trust anyone…

Well, here is where I completely stumble. In trying to show what is teaching to trust, all my philosophical moves fail. So far, I tried Bourdieu, Freud, Voloshinov, Putnam, some critical thinking theorists, and St. John Chrysostom. Nothing works, and there is no guarantee it will, even if I spend the next five weekends looking. That’s the thrill, really. Life is so boring when you know for sure that you can.

Sep 11, 2017

Should we cancel an otherwise successful search, if the finalist pool lacks diversity?

This is not a hypothetical question; at least one of our faculty members answered “yes” to it; others probably think the same. The question is different from what and how much should have been done at the recruitment stage; it is important, but should be addressed separately. Whatever the cause, let us think about the moment when we have a finalist pool and it is what it is. On one hand, the move to start over seems to be extreme. Searches are very time consuming, there is a risk of losing the line completely if you postpone, and the next year things may turn out the same. In some programs, faculty are desperate for help now. On the other hand, we should probably walk the talk, if we indeed believe in our declared values and strategic plans. If we are not willing to take risks and pay the price for our values, what are we?

That is the dilemma I was thinking about most of the last week, and I am not sure I know how to solve it in general. Circumstances differ significantly. In some areas that are in general very hard to find qualified people, the answer may be no. In others, the answer mays be yes. I simply do not know if there is a clear-cut solution. What I know is that the question is legitimate, and it must be asked at the right time, not after the fact. Perhaps some of the search committees did do that, and I am simply not aware of it. Yet this is something we should discuss beyond the intimate world of a single search committee. Now, this is a matter of procedure and policy, and we need to figure out how to make it work.

The hardest part of our jobs is not answering difficult questions; it is noticing the times when they have to be asked. Errors of omission are by far more consequential than the errors of explicit decisions. The easy problems present themselves, the hard ones go unnoticed.

Sep 4, 2017

Longing for bigger ideas

I think we have a good plan for the next few year. It is in the Vision statement we crafted together over a few meetings during last Spring. I think we can relatively easy attain those goals. Is that it though? In my personal Weltanschauung, I need a bigger, almost unobtainable challenge. I think we should take a crack at innovating our way into cracking one of the big educational challenges. For example, no one has yet figured out how to make higher education affordable. We have tremendous dropout rates in state universities. The K-12 system remains mysteriously resistant to all attempts to improve it, especially in our efforts to reduce inequality. We have almost no idea boost future educators’ relational skills. These kinds of problems, larger than just us, the global, consequential ones.

I am not naïve about innovation in education. My colleagues and I found a way to talk about it in Ohio and Colorado. At RIC, we had a nice small group, called TEIL – the Teacher Education Innovation Lab. At HSE, I headed a research lab on educational innovations. While some good things came out of these things, radical innovation in education is devilishly difficult, especially if you know something about history of education. Almost everything has been tried already; most educational reforms and movements ultimately fail to bring results they hoped for. The more I know about education, the more I am in awe of its mysteries. We are missing something important about the thing everyone knows so intimately. In addition, to be completely honest, everyone in the world has ran out of ideas. Accountability, technology, choice – those are just the three recent big failures; there is a dozen older and smaller ones. There is still plenty to do in a way of gradual, systematic improvements; no mystery about those. However, no one in the last 150 years who promised radical improvements could deliver. And we do not know why. I can go on and on about why this might be the case. In Moscow, I think we came up with at least six or seven hypotheses about why education seems to be immune to innovation. None of them have been proven or disproven. One is that significant change in education is impossible, because education is like human nature, runs against biological limits. The other one is that perhaps we had not have any good ideas yet. I like the latter one, because I want to believe it.

Anyway, let’s try to set up some sort of a group to talk about big things in education. Somewhere it is safe to talk crazy ideas without looking ridiculous. Perhaps every other week, at some bad time like Friday afternoon, and we will take turns pitching questions or unlikely proposals. Any takers? Let me know. You don't have to be in California; we can have an on-line extension. Something in my life is missing without it.