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Dec 17, 2018

How do you rest?

The last night’s rain unlocked a whole host of smells on campus. Fallen leaves brew slowly, giving off the fine drug my brain craves. Another autumn, even if took until mid-December. All the other autumns suddenly awake like ghosts. It is 14 Celsius; you heathens must convert. The light is low, cool, and bright, the shadows are sharp, the moss on the walls of Eureka hall is blissful.

One of the best part of the academia is its cyclicity. Just like farmers, we love seasons. The campus is bustling with people from August to December, and this week – it is suddenly quiet. Only the administrative types like me, with our silly defiant ties, and staff are left behind after the mini-rapture that is the winter break. The sudden noise and the sudden quiet are both exciting in their own way, no matter how much you knew.

Human minds need stimulation and rest is nothing but switching gears into doing something else. Gorillas like to watch birds, dogs like to chase squirrels, even though I have never seen a catch. It does not matter, it is entertainment. This week, I still need to read the RTP files, and follow up on a few lose ends. Next week, Svetlana and I will walk through the streets of San Francisco. We will let the dog lose on the beach. My brain will inevitably start churning some ideas for the next paper. I never learned to see writing as work; it is more of a hobby for me; perhaps just as useful.

How do you rest?

Dec 10, 2018

Practical polyphony

A friend of mine Dmitry Grigoriev had passed away a year ago, from a brain cancer. He was 43. Next week, a group of his friends and colleagues are doing a conference in Moscow honoring him. As I was thinking what to say, I though Dima was that rare person with a highly developed polyphonic mind.

The idea of polyphonic mind comes from Mikhail Bakhtin. In very basic terms, it is an ability to house a conversation among several opposing points of view within one’s mind. It is not just the trick of holding two opposing thoughts in your mind, no; it is the ability to have them engaged with each other in a dialogue. This kind of ability starts with giving credence to a point of view you may disagree with, the ability to ventriloquize the other, to speak on his or her behalf. That alone is very hard. So if you a liberal, try to think ad speak as a conservative, without making it a mockery. Dima could do that easily. He was politically somewhat more on the Left, but could pick up a nationalist or a liberal kind of reasoning on almost any subject, and make it sound convincing.

The next level of skill is to make those distinct voices sound like one complex melody. Those of you who know music, would recognize the perm instantly – it is when several distinct melodies form one polyphonic sound that is harmonious rather than cacophonous. Bakhtin took the analogy from music to show how it could be done in thought. His examples were Dostoevsky’s novels, where characters clash, disagree, and yet somehow, create one common narrative. Dima’s every paper and even a Facebook post was a little bit like that. Here is what Bakhtin wrote about Dostoevsky:

  • "Where others saw a single thought, he could find and feel two thoughts, a bifurcation. Where others saw one quality, he uncovered the presence of another, opposite quality. In his world, all that seems to be simple has become complex and heterogeneous. In every voice, he could hear two arguing voices, in every expression – a crack and a predisposition to turn into another, contrary expression; in every gesture, he detected confidence and uncertainty simultaneously; he perceived the deep ambiguity and polysemy of every phenomenon."
This kind of thinking is rare, but not that rare. For example, Bill Clinton is like that. He can could like both Al Gore and George Bush. He disagreed, but was always compassionate and understanding to the other side of the argument. He even encouraged Trump to run for President (Well, this one is perhaps taking it too far).

The polyphonic mind can appear flaky or void of principles. That is just fine with me; principals are highly opverrated. The ability to engage with others is a much more valuable skill than having stuck to some pre-determined principles. It also may appear less than productive. Polyphonic thinkers value the process of dialogue over the results of it, whether it is a decision, or a political victory. However, democracy is more procedural than outcome-driven, so people like that are invaluable for any democratic system. I which we had more people like Dima. Polyphony is a learned skill, although it probably has some personal pre-dispositions.

Nov 30, 2018

The unrealistic expectations of perfection

If you want to be constantly disappointed, expect perfection from people, or from yourself. Human beings, on average are messy, slow, prone to forgetting, misunderstanding each other, not nearly smart enough for the projects they undertake, and in general woefully ineffective. Human beings make mistakes all the time. Everyone know that, of course. Now, when humans get together in complex organizations, how do you think they do: better than individuals, worse, or about the same?

It is actually an interesting question. Any organization devotes much of its resources to compensating for weaknesses of its prime element, us. Organizations put in place procedures where people and machines check and recheck what people do, guide their work with policies and procedures, analyze the workflows, and ensure compliance with various rules. Every time I sign a paper in my office – it is to have one more pair of eyes to check if half dozen people before me did not miss something. That is what bureaucracies are: they are tools to prevent and correct human imperfections. So you would expect organizations do fewer errors than an average human being would.

Actually, no, because all this machinery to prevent human errors creates a new layer of opportunities for errors. For example, quality control procedures can slow down processes, and lend to failure through slowness. A rule that is meant to correct human error encounters a case that does not fit it, and makes a mistake by trying to do the right thing. Organizations are not perfect either. If you start digging, you will find evidence of some mess everywhere. Policies and procedures routinely contradict each other; some are routinely ignored or misunderstood. Some organizational aspects are over-regulated while others under-regulated. No one can keep track of all that is going on; the division of labor creates certain blind spots to larger systemic problems. And remember, the basic elements of the organization are still the same species of intelligent apes, who continue to err, sometimes multiplying several small errors into one giant screw-up. In my estimation, a large-size organization does a little worse than its typical member in terms of errors. Of course, good ones can be a bit better, and bad ones, accordingly, a little worse.

Funny, people who work in different industries tend to ascribe the institutional messiness to their own segment or even to their individual institutions (especially if they work there all their lives and have little opportunities to compare). A friend told me about the absurd world of a large (and actually very successful) corporation marveling at how this bag of screw-ups can actually function. Another friend is convinced that only universities can be that bad. People from different levels of government will blame the government on organizational discord. The military has its own brand of self-deprecating jokes about the stupidity of military organizations. The “well-oiled machine” is a fantasy; it does not exist anywhere where an organization is large enough.

This does not mean we have to take all imperfections as fait accompli. There are always ways to improve, to streamline, and to simplify. Just don’t get mad. You should not get mad at a dog for its inability to talk, should you? In the same logic, do not get mad at an organization that is confusing, messy, and imperfect. That is the nature of the beast, not just its flaw. A good strategy is to be patient and persistent, fix what you can, and not lose sight of the mission.

Nov 26, 2018

Campus closures to come

Northern and coastal universities have adopted to an occasional snowstorm or hurricane closures. Sac State never closes, but it did just fine with the smoke emergency. However, not one university is prepared for a possible longer closure; let us say for three weeks or more. Such closures could happen because of a bad flue pandemic (which is bound to happen), a longer natural disaster like a volcano or an earthquake, or another disaster with significant damage to campus. To get a taste of such a thing, read about the Katrina’s impact on Tulane University. The difficulty is to keep students on track, and let them get needed academic credit. Just imagine an impact of massive tuition refunds on the university finances, and the impact of a lost semester on tens of thousands of students.

The main problem is that not all instructors are capable of teaching out their courses in an online environment. Although the technology for it exists, is tried and ubiquitous, most higher ed. faculty would have a great difficulty to adjusting to on-line teaching. The easiest thing would be to create some sort of a crash-course on online teaching that can be quickly accessed. Just a list of student assignments and assessments that could substitute f2f equivalents would be helpful. Faculty members are smart, and they will figure it out with a little help.

The issue of access and equity is also very important. Universities should focus on providing emergency access to internet and to computers for the neediest students. We have hundreds of laptops in various classes and carts, but have no procedure for quickly loaning them to students. Universities could stockpile some portable routers or they can buy access to a larger network, like Xfinity. We could have agreements with public libraries and shopping malls to lend internet access to students during prolonged closures. All of this could take time and effort.

Educational organizations in general invest very little in emergency preparedness, which is understandable. How do you justify spending precious time and resources on something that is so rare, and may never happen at all? This is one of those rare occasions where having a large system like CSU may help. Each campus alone cannot do it, but the System may need to spend some time and resources in drafting a prolonged campus closure plan. Even a plan of actions for a university administration is better than nothing.

Nov 5, 2018

University is a kibbutz

I like when people come to me with an idea or a solution to a problem: here is what’s wrong and here is what we should do. I like it less when people come with the first part of the pair: here is what is really wrong, end of sentence. The implied second part is – “and it is your job to figure out a solution.” This second approach makes some sense where the problem might be new, and I may not be aware of it. At least they are giving me some new information. That is totally fine and welcome. Sometimes though folks bring to me the same issue repeatedly, and we both know a good solution escapes us. The reluctance to engage in the next step – into finding solutions – always strikes me as childish and egocentric, especially in the university setting.

Universities embrace shared governance, where faculty and staff will have a say in most decision-making. It is very difficult to draw a line between those who lead and those led. One has to learn to be in both positions. It is not like in business, where material interests of top managers and employees might be vastly different. On campuses, managers do not really get stock options, and there are no dividends. When people disagree, it is most likely because they have different opinions about reaching the same goal. It is really, really difficult to operate here without some level of trust in the other side’s benevolence and competence.

Do you get these obsessive thoughts about someone else around you doing the wrong thing, doing it all wrong, wrong, wrong, and the need to tell everyone how wrong, wrong, wrong these people are? Well, perhaps less coffee and a little more meditation can put the restless mind to ease. If you really want to help run this place, see the complexity, consider all sides, and start working on some practical solutions. Be ready to pull your weight implementing them. Get obsessed about solutions; this is a good kind of obsession. Because any university is a collective enterprise, like a kibbutz or a collective farm. There is no one omnipotent up there, who just does not want to listen. It is just us, and limits of our own imagination.

Oct 29, 2018

Supplying hope for the evil

It is hard to blame Trump for the synagogue shooting itself, but he is rightfully blamed for contributing to the atmosphere of hate. How did he do that, exactly? Crazy alt-right conspiracy theories have been simmering on the fringes of the society for decades. They have been isolated from the mainstream, and thus losing followers and energy. That is until Donald Trump came to power. The crazies are now hopeful and energized, because the course of history does not seem inevitable anymore. If Trump is possible, what else is possible? - Their thinking goes. It is not only what he says, but also what he is that gives them hope. The very possibility of such a man at the help of power inspires their fantastic imagination, makes them dream bolder, and act.

He is not in a hurry to discourage the sick hopes. Donald Trump has made an art form out of dog whistling. He chuckles at a suggestion that Soros should be locked up. And the Pittsburgh shooter was motivated by the wild theory that Soros is funding the migrant caravan; all of it a larger conspiracy of Jews against the Western civilization. Donald Trump struck a deal with the most evil forces out there, and now claims no responsibility for their actions. He is like Ivan Karamozov who did not physically kill his father, but was responsible for the murder. I doubt Trump had read Dostoyevsky, or any of the Faust stories. His moral compromises contribute to violence; it is just as simple as that. Failure to reject racism and xenophobia is a sin for regular people; it is a crime for those in power. If you a President, you may not flirt with evil.

Oct 22, 2018

Making an effort to trust

In his famous 1993 book Making democracy work, Robert Putnam found that a democratic society needs a certain level of trust. American politics look fractured right now, but still most people believe that after all ballots will be properly counted, and that whoever loses the elections will step down without much fuss. No one had any doubts that the new Supreme Court Justice, no matter how much disliked, will assume his seat at the court and will stay there until he retires. It is easy to take these things for granted, unless you know about a number of other countries where such assumptions do not hold. The difference is not in how smart people are, but in how much they are able to trust the institutions. This is why conspiracy theories are so corrosive to democracies: every one of them diminishes the stock of social capital that makes democracy possible.

Paradoxically, democratic systems are also designed to maintain certain level of distrust, hence the idea of checks and balances. Trust is not the only game; it is a part of the balance between suspicion and trust. Conspiratorial thinking swings the system too far towards suspicion by casting doubt not on the politicians of parties, but onto the system itself.

The same is true for smaller polities like universities. The shared governance is designed for faculty and administration to keep an eye on each other, and yet it cannot function without some level of basic mutual trust. Conspiratorial thinking is destructive here, too and it makes fair and effective governance much more difficult.

How do you know if you went too far towards conspiratorial thinking? There is a simple test: If you assume that your counterpart is either evil or stupid, you have ventured too far. I know people who are evil or stupid or both. However, here, on a public university grounds, we are very unlikely to encounter either. Therefore, if the other party does something that looks suspicious, it always pays to assume some level of competence, as well as good intentions. Now, other people can be wrong or misguided, they can fail to see some consequences or aspects of the problem – that is not only possible but common. However, “they” cannot be complete idiots, nor are they doing it out of sheer self-interest, self-aggrandizing, or any number of bad intentions. The flip side of the “evil or stupid” test is this: if you believe “they” are in error, you’re still within the limits of democratic framework. People who err can therefore be persuaded. If they are either evil, or stupid – you are probably gone off the rails. Evil should be destroyed, and stupid should be removed from power and left alone. It does not make much sense to talk to either

I know all about the hermeneutics of suspicion and the postmodernism: been there, done that. These delightful critical tools can be very helpful in uncovering deeply entrenched injustices and absurdities. They just don’t work very well in the everyday governance of an institution where most people share the same values.

Oct 15, 2018

California’s misguided regulations of higher education

Here is where California’s legislators got it wrong. The education code prohibits “supplanting” state-funded courses with self-funded continuing education courses. The intent of the regulation is clear – legislators did not want state universities to force students into more expensive self-support programs. They also do not want the state systems to reduce state offerings and start chasing easy money from commercial ventures.

However, the approach is wrong for a number of reasons. First, look at the experiences of other states, where self-funded activities of public universities are less regulated and more encouraged. Nothing like what California worries about has materialized there. Public universities desperate to sustain their revenues cannot afford to cut stateside enrollments. Even if they could financially, the strong public service ethos compels them to use the state-provided resources to help as many students as they can. They effectively regulate themselves. Higher education has become a highly competitive market, and in fact, continuing education tuition rates tend to keep close to regular state-site rates. In other words, public universities have no incentive to supplant at any appreciable scale. When a program makes sense only on the self-funded side, students do not care about the difference as long as they receive affordable quality education.

Continuing education (a.k.a. extended studies) tends to provide access to hard-to-reach populations, such as working adults, residents of remote areas, as well as those with limited physical mobility. If we have a program that works for them only, why should we offer the same program on-campus, on the state-funded basis? This seems to be a silly arbitrary requirement. Continuing Ed also tends to drive enrollments in the stateside programs as well through co-advertising effect. Students are free to chose either a traditional on-campus format, or off-campus, remote, online or hybrid models. People always know what they want.

The result of the misguided fears by California legislators is that the state’s public universities are losing the entire segment of on-line and remote location programming to private and out-of-state public institutions. Why should Arizona State consider California one of its primary market for online programming? UC and CSU are no longer monopolies, especially in the graduate and post-baccalaureate segments, so they should not be regulated as monopolies. In addition, the state-funded offerings simply cannot accommodate all eligible students. The rule actually limits access instead of safeguarding it.

The non-supplanting rule is only one example. In general, the slow wheels of CA bureaucracy make public universities very sluggish and unable to react to changing demand. However, if were to look for structural bottlenecks, the non-supplanting rule seems to be the first obvious one to remove.

The State discourages its universities from becoming more entrepreneurial, and fosters dependency on public funds. However, California is unable to fund its public higher education fully. We are still not back at the pre-Great Recession levels. The choice is very simple: you can either regulate, but then continue to fund fully, or you can limit the budget growth, but let universities make up the difference with continuing education revenues: defund or regulate, but not both; it is that simple.

Oct 8, 2018

Fall in the Central Valley

In these parts, autumn is timid and gradual. For me, it also hides within a distinct feeling of spring. In the Central Valley, summer is a harsh season to survive, with its stubborn heat, with not a drop of rain in four months. Fall brings relief of moisture and cooler days. In my northern instincts, relief connotes spring. My sense of seasons is confused, and yet delighted at its own confusion. One moment, a deciduous tree broadcasts nostalgia, evokes the memories of other, more drastic autumns elsewhere. I wonder if the tree is like me, a transplant. The next thing I see is a patch of outrageous green, happily radiating spring-like exuberance. It is just coming to life.

Both fall and spring are transitional; they call for rearrangements, for reshuffling of feelings, for switching mind’s gears. The light is different, the wind is different, the sounds take on another quality, the changing dawn and dusk creep on you. It is time for some habits and routines to be abandoned, for others to begin. I returned to writing a paper started a few weeks ago, and realize I don’t like it anymore. It will join the graveyard of abandoned projects hidden in my files under a self-deceptive folder “In progress.” It goes back decades; nothing ever comes back from it.

There is no progress in seasons, no linear time, no beginning and end. Instead, they are a set of endless cycles: sun goes up and down, up and down, up and down. Fall turns into winter, winter turns into spring, and on and on and on. The seasons make a mockery of human life, which has a distinct beginning, and an irreversible end. Someone has noticed the mockery millennia ago, and smiled back at the world. From then on, we keep smiling, counting days and summers, oddly pleased that they will go on after we end.

Oct 1, 2018

Nimble, humble, and simple: Strategic planning and the questioned wisdom of KPI

Conventional wisdom encourages one to create specific measurable outcomes or benchmarks in any strategic plan. For example, we are trying to increase the 4-year and 6-year graduation rates for our undergrads. The almost instinctive thing to do is to put some aspirational numbers. We are doing better than other colleges, but are still at 18% for a 4-year rate. So, let us put say 67% on the year 2025 cohort. However, this is pure guessing. We have no idea if there is a natural plateau in the rate of the graduation rate growth. Perhaps it will be stuck at 30% for a long time. We have no idea if there is a limit for an institution like ours, where many students are intentionally part-timers. As all educators know, in our business demography is destiny. A university that for some reason will admit more middle-class students with more family resources will see an increase the graduation rate. If it admits poorer and URM students, the rates may go down no matter what you do. If the State suffers another financial crisis and cuts funding, we will have to cut sections, and fewer students graduate on time. The aspirational numbers looks good while you are planning, because they encourage ambition and a can-do attitude. If the numbers go up, we all feel like we accomplished something – the victory always has seven mothers. If they go down (often entirely due to external causes), we feel bitter and resort to finding excuses. Failure is always an orphan. Why cannot we accept the essential unpredictability of the universe?

Here is my idea for the next strategic plan. I know it is crazy, and some will laugh at it. We already have a vision – a not-too-specific place where we want to be. There is actually a whole philosophy about not-too-specific ideals. Let us convert the vision into a short list of priorities, so we can make the resource allocation decisions. I borrowed the idea from my fellow dean Lorenzo Smith. If a project or an opportunity comes along – we question whether it fits our priorities or not. If someone is asking for money, we can do the same. It is a useful instrument that helps us to stay focused and avoid spreading too thin.

And then we will develop a list of strategies we believe work to advance our vision. For example, we believe that increasing scholarly output and presenting it in a more coherent way will help with gaining public recognition. Each year we plan a project or implement a policy that supports this specific strategy. In other words, we commit to actually working on a strategy. Every year we look back and see – have we moved the needle on all the strategies? If not, why is that? Is this a bad strategy, or we just did not do enough, or did the wrong thing?

When you write a document of any kind – a policy, a plan, a procedure – it helps to imagine what kind of life the document will actually be playing in the life of an organization. Is it something that will be filed away and forgotten? If not, who is going to be reading it? When, under which circumstances? I was thinking about the idea of the strategic plan like that, imagining its life cycle. It becomes more and more clear to me that it has to be a short document that can be pinned to my wall, for example. It has the key directions for development, but probably no or very few target numbers. It has to be revisited and revised annually, if not more often. It cannot prevent us from ceasing an unexpected opportunity that comes along on its own. It has to cause no shame or denial if it does not work as expected. It has to be nimble, humble, and simple.

Sep 24, 2018

Living with mistakes: Charter schools and evidence

About 37% of all births in the US were unintended; they are mistakes. Should that fact affect the lives of people born by mistake? I hope that no one thinks that way. What about whole institutions? How many of them are here by mistake or by accident? For example, the US taxation system is here by accident, and is thoroughly irrational. In Ohio, I used to file four tax returns – federal, state, city and school district. Instead, one agency should collect all the money, and send it on to others. The Electoral College is another mistake, designed to prevent excesses of popular vote, but in practice, it allows the minority to impose its will on the majority of the country. However, legacy trumps rationality more often that one may think.

The story of charter school movement is a testimony of the persistence of an error. Social sciences contain one essential, unavoidable paradox: To evaluate effectiveness of any policy, one must implement, or at least massively experiment with it. However, when many people get involved in the experiment, it growth a thick crust of emotional attachments, opinions, ideological biases, ego and career investments, and material assets. Experiments, like children, take on their own lives. The fate of the pilot becomes invulnerable to social science evidence, unless it experiences a catastrophic failure. Charter schools have definitely not failed; they just did not manage to outperform traditional public schools on average, which was exactly the promise of the experiment. Hattie calculates the effect size at .09 SD, which is still positive, but miniscule. There is some evidence that charters may actually harm minority students. Yet because of the crust, we must now learn to live with charters for the foreseeable future. Unless we see a fundamental shift in all schooling, charters are here to stay.

The origin of the idea is not clear. It probably originates with libertarian ideas of Milton Friedman (1955), only made more politically palatable for the Democrats to sign up. Others (Kolderie, 2005) attribute the idea to Ray Budde, a University of Massachusetts professor. Regardless of the origin, the idea of choice in education was sufficiently appealing to both American political parties. And why wouldn’t it? There was no evidence to the contrary at that time. In the early 1990-s, people were hoping that freeing schools from bureaucratic constrains would make them more innovative, and more responsive to students’ needs and parents’ expectations. We do not have a reliable way of measuring innovativeness and responsiveness, but we can measure academic achievement. Even those studies showing modest impact of charter schools on educational achievement sound disappointed that greater results cannot be found. The promise was revolutionary, the results are, well, modest is any. The negative side effects have been fairly visible, most notably, on the finances of public districts. The negatives are not strong either. And then there is a more philosophical question: should parents have a right to chose a school even if their choices do not lead to better outcomes for children? After all, we want to choose our doctor without any need to prove she or he is any better than the other? This one is impossible to answer with evidence; it is a matter of values, beliefs, and preferences.

The most troubling part in the story for me is that we do not really know why the original idea has not worked. Why did not competition spark innovation and why did not innovation bring about better results? Is it because schools in general do not play a big role in children’s educational achievements? Is it because we do not invest in educational R&D and literally do not have any great innovations to play with? Has schooling reached some natural limits of effectiveness and are no longer improvable?

The 2017 EducationNext poll shows a sharp decline in charter school support among both Democrats and Republicans. I find it highly unlikely, however, that the movement will dwindle and wither away, for the reasons already stated. A responsible policy would be to figure out how to regulate charter schools, to minimize their side-effects, including some limits on proliferation. However, scaling the charters back is not plausible. The original idea included a promise of swift closures of school that did not perform. Well, it is just as difficult to close an underperforming charter, as it is to close a traditional public school. The cultural practices of schooling imply school stability as an essential identity building mechanism. Students who must often change schools are considered to be disadvantaged, because of the relationships they build with teachers are not easily replaceable. Regulating charter schools is not a simple task; partly because they were envisioned as free from most regulations, and partly because they serve a critical social function as any school does.

It would be unwise for any politician, to take a radical exclusionary position toward charters, and they rarely do. Depending on a state, there may be many thousands of people, including parents, teachers, board members, and supporters that feel invested in the movement. None of them will accept the statistical findings about the efficacy of charters in general as a reason to retreat and desist. The local argument is never about charter schools as an abstract, but about their own particular school, or a classroom teacher their child likes. Politics is an art of building coalitions; and it cannot be done by becoming more and more radical. Charters support more funding for public education, the values of equity and inclusion, the value of the good teaching preparation.

Now, we are a public university with a strong access and equity mission. Public school districts are our main, critical partners; this may never be in doubt. Building relationships with them is our priority. However, just like politicians, we cannot risk alienating a whole segment of K-12 education by taking a strong anti-charter stance. We would lose more than we gain.

(Some of this text has been published in the Journal of Transformative Leadership and Policy Studies 7/ 1).

Sep 16, 2018

Oops, we did it again: A manifesto of Multiculturalism 2.0

We scheduled a major event next week on the eve of Yom Kippur, and I have very little excuse. I have many Jewish friends (duh, I work in education), have made this very error before, and until recently, had both Jewish and Muslim calendars installed in my Outlook. Here is another oops: in our Fall retreat, we planned break-up groups by issues, completely forgetting that we only have two ASL interpreters, and thus rendering the choice impossible for our Deaf colleagues. Again, Deaf faculty have been at our College for decades, and yet somehow, inexplicably, we all forgot to check this one activity for the potential to exclude. I wish I could report these were the only two errors like this, or that I am the only one to make them. We all say offensive things to each other without thinking, exclude someone by forgetting, and impose a whole host of small indignities on each other.

It is easy to declare, and easy to believe in the idea of inclusive society. Well, maybe not so easy, but here in California’s Academia, we are well past that. Yet practicing the inclusivity is not so easy. It is not so much a problem of knowledge – we collectively actually know quite a bit about inclusive language, about inclusive practices. It is a matter of discipline, organization, procedure, of extra effort, and of habit. Some bigots may tell you that a fully inclusive society is impossible – too many things to remember, too many words to avoid. That is not true. It is within reach; we can actually see it. All we have to do is to learn a few things that annoy or offend the people we interact with every day – there are not too many of them, and they belong to not too many groups. So, we have gay, lesbian, and transgendered people, men and women, Latinx, African-American, several Asian groups, Deaf people, hard of hearing people, older and variously shaped people, limited mobility individuals, a few different religions, immigrants, etc. If I forget someone, it is probably a couple more categories. So, let us say 20 groups, and one needs to remember 10 things about each. That is only 200 facts – a really trivial task for an average human memory. Each of us remembers thousands of trivia facts that have very little relevance for anything. I can list forty Indo-European and twenty Turkic languages right now. Someone else can name a hundred football players of a sing a thousand tunes. The inclusive society is not limited by human memory; that is for sure.

The map of inclusion is complex not because of the sheer number of marginalized group. No, it is complex, because most of us are in both dominant and a dominated group, depending on who is next to us. The way we project power is not only by intention, but also by forgetting. We were taught to forget, and it is always hard to re-learn. We all are limited by the narrow conception of politeness we all learned as children. The taboo words and actions we learned were created for different times and for much less diverse and less inclusive societies. In the end, it is all a matter of learning, of will and persistence.

I am wondering that in the vision we developed, we somehow ignored our own imperfections, as if our ideal of a fully inclusive society is here already. That is obviously not true – the ideal may be here, but an every-day inclusive practice is not here yet. It would be great to spell out where we want to move next, and actually do it. It is a different idea of progress – not just to be famous and respected, not just to get more resources, and do better things, but also be someone else, evolve as a community of people, become an ideal we believe in.

Sep 10, 2018

Teaching is not a constitutional right

Years ago, in another state, I denied a man an institutional recommendation for a teaching license, which in effect, prevented him from ever working in schools. He already completed our program, with good grades and successful student teaching, paid tuition, and spent a year of his life. And only then did we discovered an old incident. About 10 years before we ever knew him, he savagely beat up his job supervisor. He was never convicted of a crime, just arrested; had no other criminal history. When asked to explain, he refused to talk about it. I told him something like this: “You have obviously not dealt with whatever the problem you had at that time, and your refusal to talk about it makes me worry that you may repeat something like that, without wanting to. Sorry, we cannot let you near children.” He was upset, considered legal actions against the university. Then a few years later wrote me a message saying I was right, and he does have psychological issues.

I probably had six or seven conversations like that with students at different stages of their preparation, trying to explain that desire alone is not enough to be a teacher. There is no right to teach; it is a professional privilege. If you are recommended, the university faculty vouch for you, stake their names and reputations on you. The grades are not enough – we have to be personally sure you will be OK, and will not harm anyone. This pertain not just to violence; some of the students I remember were just too timid, or their affect was somehow off the mark. We do have all those measurements and standards, but in the end, it is our collective professional opinion that matters.

I have never met a group of teacher educators that would take such decisions lightly. We do normally root for our students, and understand that no one is perfect. After graduation, there is a long road ahead for a new teacher, and not everyone will be successful. There is absolutely no reason to expel anyone without a substantial concern. Students always have a right to appeal, and the right to a due process. However, the question we ask is very simple: would I want my children or grandchildren to have a teacher like this? If the collective answer is “No,” than the only ethical thing to do is to say “No” to the student. Granted, we all may be mistaken for no one knows the future, no one is able to judge another person’s ability to change with any degree of accuracy. I wish we did have more objective instruments measuring professional fitness. But the lack of instruments does not relieve us from the ethical responsibility to protect children, so we must act.

There are many other careers available, many options in life. The desire or “love for children” is not enough. I may want to be a pilot, but have a bad depth perception. Would you want to fly with me, even if I really-really-really want to be a pilot? If it was my dream for the entire life? If I know the theory of flight? If I am a straight-A student? Well, how is it different with teachers?

Sep 4, 2018

On shameless self-promotion

I had a number of interesting conversations about whether faculty should promote their own work, and how to do that. On one hand, the ethos of Academia seems to include an assumption of dignified expectance that someone else will discover us and recognize our achievements. On the other hand, some people do promote their own achievements. It could have been a matter of individual choice, individual style, right?

Yes and no. Many individual choices taken as an aggregate almost always become something more systemic. It looks like women in academia tend to be much less likely to engage in self-promotion, much more hesitant to share their publications, awards, recognition on social media, much less likely to reach out to their universities and their societies to help with promotion. It is in part, because women have been socialized to be less assertive and more modest. In part, it is because our culture rebukes self-promoters, and women often face much higher informal sanctions than men do.

From the institutional point of view, self-promotion is a good all around. Academic book publishers are in a long-term decline, and most have no advertising budget. They rely on authors themselves. Journal articles have never been really promoted, but there are more journals now, and it is difficult to get noticed and cited, even when work is excellent. (My advice is to upload a free copy of your paper somewhere; most journals are OK with that. Google Scholar will eventually pick on the free copy, and free access copies are more likely to be cited). Our service and teaching achievements are even harder to get out there, because traditional mass media are not that interested in good stories. We live in the age of social media, where warm contacts are much more effective than traditional advertisement. Every time one of our faculty members gets noticed, Sac State and our college bask in his or her reflected glory. It helps our public image and invites potential partnerships. This is why we really try to help with such efforts, and will share any good stories on our social media and beyond. Yet we need to hear about the story first, and that is where many faculty members are hesitant to share, for the reasons I described. It is impolite to brag; more so for some people than for others.

The best thing we can do is create a culture where sharing is encouraged not just the dean but also by peers. Let your friends and colleagues know – it is totally fine to send a link to a new paper, to take a picture at a community event, to share news about a new amazing class activity you tried this semester. You are not going to be called an showoff behind your back. Your story contributes to a larger narrative of who we are as a college. We will like and share your posts, read your papers, help you promote yourself. You are not doing it for yourself – you are doing it for us all.

Is there a limit after which it becomes more annoying than useful? – Yes, probably, but it is a very small risk. It is better to be a little annoying, than completely obscure.

Aug 27, 2018

Seasonal, or The Ode to Teachers

Teachers get a little thrill just before the school year starts. No longer bound to agriculture, the teaching planet is still remarkably seasonal. Billions of years ago some random rock knocked Earth off its perfectly perpendicular axis, and here we are. Obliquity – I like the word; it implies a degree of imperfection, a flaw so fundamental it is not a flaw anymore. Equinox, solstice, the turning of leaves, the white Christmas – none of these would have existed if not for that unnamed rock.

California’s weather gave us little warning: well, it was a little cooler at the end of last week. In Siberia, the weather would still count as hot. The start of the school year is about imagining the new students, their lives, faces, idiosyncrasies and breakthroughs. It is thinking of new classes, new things to try. Seasons are all about repetition, yet human life is linear, and seasons are as much about difference as they are about sameness. Every birthday is the same and yet very different from the last one; the start of a school year is like that, except it is less personal and more communal.

One of the few good Soviet achievement was declaring September 1 (the universal first day of school in Russia) the national Day of Knowledge. The idea is credited to Fedor Bryukhovetsky, a famous school principal from Krasnodar. I collected data in his school when he was still alive, in about 1986 for my Russian dissertation. Here is a quote from my field notes:
“When I took over that school in February of 1943, in an almost completely destroyed city, there was nothing in it. Kids, parents and teachers began to bring whatever they could. We cooked ink out of elderberry... Kids were malnourished – skinny, with red eyes. The city gave us four hectares of dirt covered with thorny bushes. Teachers, kids and parents went there to uproot those bushes. Teachers and students both had bloody blisters on their palms. All the crops went to the Railroad Purveyance Department, and they had opened a cafeteria in our school. Every kid could buy a bowl of soup for four kopecks; this is how we fought malnutrition... As for relations between students and teachers, these were relations of a single impulse, of a single breath. Precisely there, on the fields of the supplementary farm, our community came to life... This very attitude towards shared work we always remembered, and tried to preserve in the future.”
Things are less dramatic now, but the essence of the profession is still the same: we connect our lives to our student lives in various ways. There is an invisible solidarity among all people on this oblique planet, who get a little thrill right about the start of the school year.

Aug 10, 2018

Do we really need standards or A case for neural networks in educator preparation

In every complex human profession, a preparation program is very broad. Teachers need to have hundreds of skill, big and small, know thousand things. Therefore, professional organizations create standards that are laundry lists of skills we designate as important. For example, California Teacher Performance Indicators is a 14 page document, with 6 domain and some 45 items just in general pedagogy, plus who knows how many subject-specific items. An element can be like this: “Maintain high expectations for learning with appropriate support for the full range of students in the classroom.” Or, let’s take NASP Standards for the Credentialing of School Psychologists; looks similar. Both organizations (and countless others) had tried to reduce the number of indicators for practical reasons, but instead they made them compound. For example, a school psychologist has to “ in collaboration with others, demonstrate skills to promote services that enhance learning, mental health, safety, and physical wellbeing through protective and adaptive factors and to implement effective crisis preparation, response, and recovery.” To figure out whether a student actually meets this standard, you need to observe his or her collaboration with others – not in general, but in the very specific act of promoting services that enhance learning. And then the same thing about promoting services than enhance mental health. Observe a completely different act of promoting safety, and you have to collaborate with someone while doing so. So it is literally hundreds of actual indicators you need not only observe, but observe long enough to gauge the level of sophistication. In other words, proving attainment of these standards is physically impossible. I understand the indent of the standard writers – you don’t want to leave gaping holes in preparation. Moreover, you do not want to be accused of being less rigorous than the last reiteration. However, I think they should start considering the actual lives of the documents they create, including the unintended consequences. Something is wrong with the very premise of standardizing complex professions. Weren’t we supposed to learn this from the epic failure of Frederic Taylor’s “Scientific management”?

Yet we are where we are. What an accredited program to do? Well, we design evaluation forms, which make sense at the end of the program, where we try to “cover” the bulk of the standard items. Our student teaching supervisor observes students 6 times per semester, for less than an hour. It is actually much higher than the national average of about 3-4 observations. School Psych do even more intense observations, and so does Counseling, Leadership and other professional programs. Still what is the chance that one would see something to show that the student teacher “Participates in school, district, or professional academic community learning events; uses professional learning to support student learning?” What if there were no community learning events? We actually did not observe it, it is all secondary information. And yet we have to meet every standard, or lose accreditation. In some areas, the loss of accreditation is a death warrant for a program.

To cope, we pretend. Instead of actually observing some behavior, we hope that someone somewhere in one of the classes possibly about professional learning communities. Of course, as the supervisor, I had never observed that one little thing, but I will check the little box of hope. Yes, we have 40 or 99 items evaluation forms, of which I can only really tell about 10 with certainty. They have to be more holistic (which is exactly what our colleagues did), but still retain plausible coverage of the standard items. The time is precious, and even if I did not observe all the items, I will check them all, for we are required to collect the assessment data. As a result, the granular data if of very little use. In theory, we should make program development decisions based on the data. For example, one semester, we should see – oh, look this semester we scored lower on “Plan instruction that promotes a range of communication strategies and activity modes between teacher and student and among students that encourage student participation in learning.” We ought to do something! Nah, nothing like this ever happens. The data is flat and boring. The forms can be very effective pedagogical instruments, a chance to talk to the future teacher or psychologist about how they do. As data source they are fairly weak. We rarely learn something about our programs from the compliance data that we did not know otherwise.

I think we should give up on the idea of standards altogether. Professional organizations can concentrate their intellectual resources on development of good observation protocols, evaluation instruments, and tests. Just cut the middle construct. Instead of asking what a good teacher or counsellor is, ask what a good one looks like. It is a big shift, if you think about it. How does a very perceptive professional actually recognize competence in others? There are probably telltale signs of both a potentially good teacher, a struggling teacher, or a hopeless teacher. Eye contact, body posture, speech patterns, their kids’ behavioral clues, the kinds of interactions, the ability to pause, the kind of measured display of emotion. Why pretend that we came to these signs through some theory? I think if we commit due attention to the act of recognition, analyze and distill it, we could come up with much better instruments, and much better data. We should concentrate on what is visible, and which signs are more meaningful.

This is where we should try to use the neural network approach, the first realistic application of artificial intelligence. I’ll skip the explanation on how it works – read Wikipedia for that. Fundamentally, the process is this: ask several master teachers to rank video clips of beginner teachers. Don’t ask why; we are studying master teachers’ perceptions, not the beginner teachers’ behavior. The neural network can actually detect what is in common among the good ones. The neural network will “learn” the traits which are basically patterns with a massive data set. The clips that rise to the top through collaboration of humans and the AI, will become the models to analyze and imitate. The neural networks are actually not that good at explaining why they selected particular cases. That is a feature that makes them uncomfortable for humans to use – they really work, but no one really knows how. They also can reproduce human prejudice, because the initial concepts come from humans. We have to be careful. Yet my point is - human intuition is also uncomfortably opaque. As a species, we evolved not to analyze, but to synthesize information. We process whole images, search for cues to reveal patterns. An ancient hunter did not have a checklist of hunting procedures when he taught his son. He presented the whole of his practice, and alerted his son to cues that others do not see.

Aug 5, 2018

Why do I remain optimistic in the Age of Trump?

A friend has recently asked me why am I remain optimistic about the American democracy. Indeed, there does not seem to be many reasons for optimism. The man elected to the highest office in the country cares very little about democracy. If you look through the entire body of his speeches and interviews, you will find almost nothing on democracy, democratic institutions, or the rule of law. He cares a great deal about the economy, trade, immigration, politics, and most certainly about his own legitimacy, just not about democracy. It never crosses his mind that democracy is important or that it needs defending. Obama, in contrast, talked about democratic institutions hundreds of times. To be exact, a search on Democratic Institutions yields 310 hits in his speeches. Moreover, President Trump has been very successful at controlling dissent within his own party, thus limiting one important check. He has been partially successful in delegitimizing the free press, his own national security agencies. His term in office is definitely one of the low points in the life of American democracy.

And yet the democratic system is working as designed; it creaks and groans like an old house in a storm, but it withstands. The system was designed with redundancies, exactly with someone like Trump in mind. This is the stress test, and checks and balanced are mainly in place. The Congress pushed back several times, as the media have done. Many states and cities keep pushing back, and within the Republican party there is some resistance even if not very public yet. While the Supreme Court is bound to become more conservative, it is very difficult to imagine it becoming irrelevant, of undermining its own power.

When Putin came to power in 2000, many Russians expressed doubts about sincerity of his democratic commitments. No one in Russia thought the weak democratic institutions could withstand the corrupting pressure from the very top. Those people were right; Putin was able to marginalize and weaken the very institutions he was elected to defend: first, the free press, then the parliament, then the Supreme Court, and last, the civil society. Russia is a dystopian warning of how weak democratic institutions can be hollowed out from the top within a few years. Weimar Republic is one example of erosion of democratic institutions during the early Nazi era. Similar processes had happened in several Latin American countries during their era of dictatorships.

Nothing like that is happening in the US, because the institutions are much stronger. The structure of American political system has been created for the times like these. Its multiple, robust separation of various powers make the Russian scenario almost impossible. While I appreciate the creativity of the Handmaid’s Tale, very few reasonable people believe it is likely become true. Even if the first layer of defense for some reason fails, we have police, National Guard, security forces, the armed forces, all of whom share a deep commitment to democracy, Hollywood conspiracy flicks notwithstanding. Americans are obsessed with dystopian visions of post-apocalyptic world. Let us not confuse our fears with reality.

The political science actually tells us that in the so-called “hybrid regimes,” greatly weakened democratic institutions have a tendency to come back to life. In the end, I am optimistic even about Russia. Its institutions - no matter how weak now - will come back to life, eventually. In the US, those institutions will barely flinch at the Trump’s relentless assault. I think it is important to keep in mind. It will take some work, but let us be clear: Donald Trump stand zero chance against American democracy.

Jul 30, 2018

What do deans do in the summer?

Summer has a different rhythm, and a different feel than the rest of the year. With faculty and students gone, it is a smaller group of people to interact with (AD’s, chairs and staff), and a different set of issues to weed through. During the year, our meetings are hurried for we need to make many decisions quickly. Summer is time for deeper, less hurried conversations. We try to think bigger and longer, debate lessons learned last year, and identify priorities for the next one. It is a different kind of work, and is as important as putting out fires during the year.

We plan the annual cycle of events, trying to think what is too much, and what is just right for us to handle. Summer is the time to ask hard questions – OK, we thought «A» was a great idea last year, we tried it. What’s the real return on investment? The difficult question is of course whether you let «A» live and grow, or to cut your losses and move our attention and resources onto something else. For example, we have done two cycles of the ReinventEd competition. The results are mixed: On one hand, we have a relatively small number of submissions, and did not produce a big PR splash yet; it costs us both money and staff time. On the other hand, the quality of projects submitted to us is actually quite high, and we are helping the grassroots innovators we intended to reach. If you think these are easy decisions, think again. Uncertainties abound.

One of the most important things to do is to plan for new projects. Just to give you some examples: The College has been asked to lower the cost of instruction, normally calculated as student-faculty ratio. Because we have so many professional programs with extensive field experiences, we are the most expensive college in the university in terms of the cost of instruction per FTES. Another example: after significant, time-consuming work on integrated teacher education programs (ITEPs), we see clearly a need for a universal configuration of our credentials programs into something that can overlap with undergraduate programs. Yet our credentials programs evolved as post-bac option and we cannot copy other states’ undergraduate credentials models for a long number of reasons.

We have several such dilemmas that need to be addressed through a multi-stage collective effort. The best-case scenario is when we are able to delegate a whole project to another group of people. For example, our faculty are remarkably creative and organized where it comes to academic program development. We are getting there in terms of recruitment. For things that are too big or too complex, we usually create a google doc and start meetings, organizing our thoughts and plans in some sorts of lists of issues and later plans of action. Google docs are an ideal instrument for collaborative project management, because they solved the version control issue. However, the most difficult and gratifying part if to turn a problem into a solution, and a solution into action. Technologies do not help here. What helps is the knowledge of the reality of our organization, and the managerial imagination. It is the ability to imagine how things can go wrong, and how they can go right; a form of collective art that we are long time away from actually mastering.

It is still a major challenge to keep multiple projects going at the same time, without dropping the ball on any of them. So, along with planning events and projects, we also need to plan how do we track them.

That’s what deans and other administrative types do in the Summer. And yes, there is also moving, renovations, workload adjustments, the never-ending procedure clean-up, and other minutia of Summer. Oh, I also have written a paper called The Baumol’s Cost Disease and the Trinitarian Pedagogy over two weekends.

Jul 2, 2018

Technology and democracy

Not much of a secret, NSA and FBI both have a technology that allows tracking cell phones even if they are turned off. According to Washington Post, it was one of the major contributors to eliminating Al Qaida leadership in Iraq. The Russian security services have that, as well, which helped them to win the second Chechen war. Again, I am not disclosing any state secrets here; the press have written about it extensively. And yet we were unable to find anyone in the law enforcement community who would agree to help us to use the technology to find a missing teenager. Moreover, all of them denied the very existence of such a technology, which was somewhat surprising to me.

I understand that just because one unit somewhere in the FBI can use it, does not mean that every officer has access to it. This is not how it works. Ok, I get it, national security and all that. The question I have is very simple – who gets to decide which technology can be used only to kill terrorists, but not to find a missing child? In a democratic society, who gets to say which is less important? While the very existence of it can be plausibly denied, yes, I’d buy an argument that it not for civilian use. Now everyone who can read knows it exists, since at least 2013, although there were similar reports much earlier, right after Bob Woodward disclosed that there was some “secret weapon” in use in Iraq. The tech itself exists since 2004 or so.

This is not a new question. Many technologies have been first developed for military use, and only then became available for civilian use. GPS is just one of many examples. The Internet is, arguably, another. As far as I know, the conversion process has always been driven by private industry, trying to make a buck. Now, in this case, there is no private industry that would be plausibly benefiting from the technology. Law enforcement does not operate like a business, although I am sure they would love to have a tool like that. I think the government has to step in, the legislative branch specifically. Otherwise, in such cases technology transfer may not happen for a long time, simply because no driver on the civilian side. Parents of missing teenagers are not a huge political force, unfortunately. The military are using public funds to develop all these new technologies, and we all should benefit from them as soon as it is practically possible.

Jun 11, 2018

Promises and threats of relational technologies

Why has information technology failed to revolutionize education so far? The reason is as simple as it is unexpected: education turned out to be much more relational and much less informational than we all believed. Various thinkers suspected that to be the case for a long time. Vygotsky, for example, emphasized the social nature of learning. However, it was more of a theory. Now we know for sure –people are almost incapable of learning anything on-on-one with a machine; they need each other to learn anything of importance. Many smart people got excited about MOOCs around 2012, because MOOCs promised to change the economic fundamentals of higher education. Well, if you are still excited about MOOCs, you have not been paying much attention. Not one university has closed down because of the competition from Coursera or EdX, and it is not likely to happen. Students come to campuses for a relational experience with their peers and professors.

The next logical move would be to invest in technologies that somehow help with human relations, by either faking real human interactions, or helping teachers relate to more students, or relate stronger. That is a genuinely new path; no one has really explored what possibilities exist in relational technologies. For example, what if an AI can maintain realistic and sophisticated conversations with thousands of students, and every one of them would get personal attention and encouragement? After all, people are eager to be fooled. Even the relatively stupid machines we have today, like Siri or Alexa, get an affective response from at least some users. Computerized dolls and anthropomorphic robots incite affection as well. Just a little push may produce a reasonable artificial tutor who remembers where you are with your learning, and imitates collaboration within your zone of proximal development.

In addition, what we know about human attachment, may suggest ways of manipulating student attachments to make their teachers more important, more influential, more relatable, hence increasing their ability to motivate students to learn. Would it not be wonderful?

No, it will not. Whatever I was trying to imagine in the world of relational technology began to morph into monstrosity. The possibility of abuse offered by manufactured relations is enormous. I actually find it difficult to write about what can be done, for the fear that someone may actually try to do it. Messing with human relations just feels very creepy to me. In fact, various cults, malignant gurus, gangs, abusive teachers – all manipulate human relationality. Their tricks bind one person to another person in a strong attachment. Do I want such tools become widely available to educators? – Umm, not really.

The reason education is so slow to change and so repellant to innovation is that it deals with human nature. All attempts to make people kinder, eliminate envy, curb aggression and control love are slow, centuries long processes, resisting quick technological solutions. Well, education if one of those slow things. For a whole host of reasons, it is impossible to suddenly raise productivity. What people are able and willing to learn, and whom they can learn with – these are not easily changed. The human condition has something to do with our evolutionary path, with fundamentals of our social organization and economics.

May 27, 2018

How about gifts to students?

The world of gifts is complicated. Much of the anthropological theory derives from various accounts of gift. From Malinowski to Mauss, from Polanyi to Sahlins, all considered gift giving one of the central cultural phenomena. Last week I wrote about gifts to professors, but how about gifts in the other direction, from professors to students? It is clearly, a much more complicated, and multidimensional issue.

Bourdieu describes gift as an imposition of obligation. He states that, “[T]he initial act [of giving] is an attack on the freedom of the one who receives it. It is threatening: it obligates one to reciprocate and to reciprocate beyond the original gift…” (Practical Reason, 94). On one hand, teachers of all kinds view their work as at least partially a gift-giving to students. There is an assumption that most of us go above and beyond of just what the job requires. We do expect some gratitude from students, and are hurt when it is not shown. Your real estate agent expects a polite “thank you,” but not profound gratitude.

Consider a professor who gives up a couple of hours of his or her day to help a troubled student with understanding course materials. This seems fine, right? What if someone gives a student an expensive laptop? That would raise all kinds of questions, and at the very least look very weird: not a good idea. How about a professor who takes an entire class to a restaurant and paying the bill out of pocket? Well, it is still a bit weird, but maybe not so much? What about several faculty who invite graduating students to a party with tacos and burritos? – Well, that seems totally fine. Why is that? Because tacos are cheaper, or because they split the bill? I don’t know, it just feels right to me, but perhaps not to someone else.

I am trying to show here that there is an implicit cultural norm of gift proportionality, specific to our culture. Yet the norm seems to be ill-defined, and perhaps shifting. The norm does exist, and there is such a thing as a gift too big to be appropriate. Note, it is fairly easy for a professor to turn down a student gift, not s easy the other way around. To be in a position of saying, “Thanks, but I cannot accept this,” is to be in a position of power.

I am a bit worried that if we do not watch it, different faculty will start competing with other programs on generosity, and some will feel pressure to be more generous. Anthropologists know several cultures where competitive generosity got out of hand, including some Melanesian societies. I am thinking we need to both acknowledge the beauty of human generosity, and yet be careful to set some limits.

OK, how do we do that? I have no idea, actually. A written policy seems to be too intrusive, and too rigid. A conversation, perhaps? - how do you hold a conversation like that with two hundred people? This is an invitation to think together.

May 21, 2018

Student gifts, or How do we regulate Academia

Someone has recently asked me if we have a written policy on student-to-faculty gifts. My answer is this: politely decline all gifts of value other than a thankyou card. Suggest Instead giving to the College or the University. No fruit baskets, no champagne, no Starbucks gift cards. Here is a more detailed reasoning for the case by Lionel G. Standing. If you want a written policy, here it is. As your dean, I just wrote it down, effective immediately: no gifts from students.

More seriously, it is not that simple. Writing a good policy takes time and intellectual effort. With zero-gift policy, there are many nuances and exceptions. For example, you may have an international student from a country where introduction souvenirs are a sign of routine politeness. Your graduate student may also be your colleague and collaborator, older and wealthier than you are. A refusal to accept a gift may be a rude gesture in your own cultural background, etc., etc. To have a good written policy, we should consider all these and other exceptions, define what a gift is (is a ride to a conference a gift? A dog-sitting gig?), set a threshold for monetary value, get feedback from people, revise, vote to approve, publish, maintain version control, etc. It looks like an expensive proposition; we all could be doing something else, moving our College somewhere. So why do all that? We do not really have a problem with student gifts. The absolute majority of faculty have enough common sense to discourage students from gift giving. Spending that much time on a minor problem seems to be luxury we cannot afford. It is really a case of the Parkinson’s law of triviality, which deserves a special blog one day.

Another consideration is that written policies tend to weaken ethical controls. Academia is governed by both ethics and policies, which overlap and mingle in complex and not always predictable ways. Policies often provide an excuse to abandon ethical reasoning altogether. Let me give you an absurd example, so you understand the logic: Let’s say a hospital says to its doctors – no more than two free lunches a year paid by Big Pharma sales persons. OK, there are 22 major pharma conglomerates in the world. That’s 44 free lunches, which a doctor will intentionally schedule throughout the year. Instead of limiting the abuse, the policy presents the bribes as a benign and finite resource, which you would be foolish not to use. So you end up with more abuse than before, because of the way you tried to regulate it.

Another way is to engage in a conversation with the doctors and state that free lunches are not really OK, they are corruptive and unethical. This way, they will be worried about their reputation, and police the problem as a professional community. The ethical constraints are less clear, but can be as effective and less expensive to implement.

Here is what I am trying to do here. Next time a student gives you an envelope with something like a gift card in there, please think hard – how does she or he expect you to return the favor? What is the message you are sending by accepting or declining a gift?

May 13, 2018

Money loves quiet: CSU and the surplus

I heard the expression “money loves quiet” from a friend of mine. He meant that discussing money need a quiet, serious conversation; it should not be discussed loudly, with much emotions or naiveté. He is not entirely right, there are times and places for loud, emotional, political conversations. And yet, there are also times and places for quiet, realistic assessments and plans.

These are interesting times in California. The State has a record 9 billion dollar surplus, and yet the Governor is arguing for restraint, warning of future economic downturns. It cannot get more serious for CSU and UC systems, which may experience budget cuts despite the record surplus. Even if we do not, the most important serious conversation we need is on the long-term trend. Just look at this one picture by the Government Accountability Office; it is worth many words. The long-term trend nation-wide is to defund public higher education. Some states did I quickly and abruptly, some gradually. California may be unique in many ways, but nothing suggests a different long-term trend. It has little to do with politics, and everything to do with the economics of mass higher education. Simply put, not one country in the world has figured out how to provide quality higher education to the majority of its youth. If you’re curious, there is a wealth of info on the CSU Budget site.

Yes, there are times for students to go to the Capitol and demonstrate against tuition hikes, and for the Unions to demand wage increases, and for the System to lobby the legislature and the public. Then there is a sober analysis of what the public can and cannot afford and what we should do about the long-term trend. The answer is obvious: we must learn to diversify our revenue streams, and to reduce our expenses. I have never heard a quiet conversation that would dispute this simple thought. If any of you did, please let me know.

Our College is a tiny part of the giant CSU System, but the solutions are the same. We need to invest in building capacity for additional revenues. You can count all the realistic possibilities on the fingers of one hand: (1) Expand Continuing Education self-support programs, especially those online; (2) Enter the consulting business (service contracts); (3) Ramp up grant proposals; (3) Build capacity for fundraising, including a possible major gift; (4) Cut costs by streamlining processes and redesigning some very expensive programs, and closing down habitual money-losers; (5) build retail service business (e.g. diagnostic and tutoring services). All five actually require investments and time. As long as we have a relatively stable budget, we will make these investments. There is no money to waste. In fact, I think all academic units should be evaluated, in part, on their investment strategies, not just on their ability to maintain the status-quo relatively trouble-free.

One of the signs of maturity is the ability to distinguish between the loud political conversations and the quiet economic ones. Can you do that?

May 7, 2018

Prospective memory and the future-heavy world

One of Lisa Cantrell’s podcasts begins with a tragic story of a young father who forgot his sleeping baby in the backseat of his car. Lisa and her guest examine the so-called the prospective memory – remembering to perform a pre-planned action. It is, in a way a memory of the future. Apparently, humans are especially bad at it, because we have not evolved to plan for the future without environmental cues.

The podcast prompted me to think about the school year that is drawing to the end. The College’s leadership group collectively monitored over 80 new projects, not including the routine procedures like part-time pool applications and contracts, class scheduling, six distinct cycles of RTP, probably about a dozen staff searches and six faculty searches, etc. Each of us also kept track of our individual projects. For example I had 52 big enough to get on my to-do list, plus who knows how many that got done without writing them down, or completed straight out of inbox. Each branch chair has a similarly sized list, and every staff member does, too. Every faculty member keeps track of a host of class-related activities, preparing for classes, grading, individual students’ strengths and weaknesses, jokes already told to one group, but not to another, etc. When I regularly taught classes, I though teaching ninety students takes up about half of my total mental capacity. Faculty also keep tasks related to many other commitments – writing, researching, serving on committees, all the external engagements. It is a complicated world with many moving parts; nothing like our ancestors had to deal with. We live in a very future-heavy world. Our brains struggle to remember things that have not happen yet.

We create artificial cues to combat the weakness of prospective memory. In Lisa’s story, her guests suggest putting a diaper on the front seat. We make lists, calendars, routines, activate reminders, create tasks, and ask other people to remember. The gimmicks work to some degree, but I can easily name a dozen things that I initiated with a full commitment to execute, and then forgot to see through. None of it is as tragic as one in the story, but nothing to be proud if either. Every one of my colleagues forgets things. Despite our best efforts to manage projects, some get away from us. “Dropping the ball” is one of the most damaging causes of our failures. Why is that?

People have invented many things to keep themselves on track. The more sophisticated they are (for example, the Gantt charts), the more time-consuming they become. There is a point of diminishing returns, a threshold, after which one can spend so much time on planning and monitoring that no time will be left for actually implementing. Therefore, we trade the risk of forgetting for more time to do things. For example, Outlook has a handy Tasks feature for some thirty years, and very few people use it: too many clicks.

What can be done other than going through panic attacks themed “Did I forget something?” Obviously, I do not have a good solution, or else I would remember everything. However, it helps to identify at-risk projects, and plant some extra reminders for them. The at-risk projects are new; they are not built into any calendars or anyone’s established job routine yet. They may not have a clear and pre-planned chain of events, and depend on the initiative of one or two people. At-risk projects develop an ambiguity about whose court the ball is in. At-risk projects usually begin as great ideas, which is why the decision to go through is taken with too much enthusiasm, without considering the bandwidth capacity.

However, the main solution is to pay attention to Lisa’s point: human beings do not have a good prospective memory capacity. Understanding out limitations is as important as understanding our abilities.

Apr 30, 2018

Expert knowledge and faculty governance

An educated citizen should be able to see the limits of his or her knowledge, and defer to experts. That is, more or less, the outcome of a long debate about the role of specialized scientific knowledge in a democratic society. One common example is the climate change. Only a tiny minority of the voting public can actually understand the evidence. How does a demosratic make decisions as a democratic policy without understanding the science to support it? We allow the scientific community to govern itself so that the small group of scientist that do understand arrive at a consensus. It is not a perfect mechanism, because the majority of scientists have been mistaken on occasion. Yet it is definitely better than the alternative, where the public at large would decide based on its ignorance. The alternative is the sickening paranoia of climate change deniers and conspiracy theorists, who are simply unable to see beyond the limits of their own knowledge.

Last week, we discussed an interesting version of the same democracy vs. expert knowledge dilemma. As we are trying to create deeper pool of online courses and programs, faculty are quite reasonably concerned about the quality of those offerings. We do not want to gain a reputation of an online diploma mill. Yet in in many program areas, most faculty do not have enough experience and expertise in on-line teaching. So we end up with opinions like “This course cannot be taught on-line, because it is too intense.” The fact is, any course can be taught on-line, although in some cases it may be prohibitively expensive to design right (language learning, performance arts, micro-teaching, etc.). Other courses could converted on-line with minimal initial investment of time, and some are somewhere in between. I wrote about it last year, so won’t repeat.

Back to the governance. Universities have recognized the governance dilemma a long time ago. Quality Matters started 15 years ago, and CSU has put together a very robust peer review process based on the QM ideas. We created communities of experts that can be trusted to make the appropriate decision, so wider faculty bodies can rely on their expertise. However, the process is intended for fairly mature courses, it is takes six weeks, and requires some homework. I want to encourage more people to try the online teaching, and therefore want to have lower entrance barriers. It is another delicate balance between high standards and over-regulation.

Some people start on-line teaching gradually – first, they develop a rich course support in LMS. Then they may try one or two online activities within a regular f2f course. The next step might be a hybrid course, with a significant online component. Then they venture into the online course, and finally get ready for an online program. Others may jump straight into a fully online course and programs. In addition, of course, we have a number of people who have taught on-line successfully.

On-line teaching is not rocket science. If you understand basic pedagogy, you should be able to figure out eventually how to do it well on-line, especially if you learn early on the non-replication principle (do not try to replicate on-line everything you did in a f2f classroom). For our long-term survival, we need the skills of online teaching widely distributed among faculty, so we can serve more students, be more accessible, and have a plan B.

Apr 23, 2018

Shared governance: The joys and responsibilities

We have exactly three more weeks of instruction left. The semester is winding down, everyone is tired, and there is so much more grading to do. I just want to remind that we have some of the best jobs in the world. It is never boring, we make real difference in many students’ lives, and we get to decide many things for ourselves. University faculty can shape their own work lives, do what is interesting and meaningful to them. That is not the case in many industries, where organization cultures mat be much more hierarchical, and much less participatory.

The freedom always comes with responsibilities. One obvious responsibility we have is to serve the public. We are a public university, owned and to a large degree funded by the people of California, and we sought our jobs because we value the public service. There are two sides to this: one is pragmatic and another is ethical. Let’s assume that we decide to limit special education options (too expensive, too difficult) and the press got a wind of such a decision. How do you think the legislative session would go where the budget for the CSU system is discussed? This never happens, because we feel responsible for our mission. The ethical side is no less compelling: thousands of California kids are in desperate need of special education teachers. Do we have still have choice? Yes, we do, and we want to make the right choice. If I wanted the freedom to ignore the public needs, I would have chosen another career.

Another responsibility is to the campus and to the system. The 1966 AAUP Statement on Government of Colleges and Universities spells out a university presidents responsibility:

“As the chief planning officer of an institution, the president has a special obligation to innovate and initiate. The degree to which a president can envision new horizons for the institution, and can persuade others to see them and to work toward them, will often constitute the chief measure of the president’s administration.”

Our President identified priorities for us integrated teacher preparation programs and shortening time to graduation. That includes the integrated teacher preparation programs. Can we ignore those priorities? Well, in theory we can, but would we? Those are sound, rational ideas, and universities are committed to the pursuit of truth. If we do not support good ideas, all we gain is a reputation of a troubled, recalcitrant bunch. What I have learned from my 30+ years in Academia is this, reputation is the only currency. As a faculty group, we want to be known for creativity, for initiative, for new things we bring to the table, for being team players. There is never enough faculty lines, budgets, space, and anything else. It is only logical that units that support the university priorities get more, and those who do not get less. It is not any kind of vengeance, just good management.

There are times when faculty should say no, when there is a strong and plausible argument, when administrators might be making a mistake, or where faculty expertise in a specific field warrant a different approach.

Open dialogue is always the best way to engage in shared governance. It requires mutual trust, openness, and a commitment to listening. Most importantly, we do not have much of a value conflict. We all want to do our best to serve the State and its youth; we all are committed to justice and diversity. We have the best jobs in town, we get to hang out with lots of smart people, and we have much freedom that comes with responsibilities, naturally.

Apr 16, 2018

The world is so big

Did you know about the Sea Worm Festival in Lombok province in Indonesia? Did you know the men’s Chitrali cap in Pakistan sports a peacock plum? I actually met a woman from Lombok and a man from Chitral at a conference in Bangkok a week ago. It has people from 35 different countries, and was organized by a Sri Lankan company (whose vision is ”Revolutionizing the Asian Research Culture”), sponsored by the University of Northern Colorado, and a Lithuanian Vytautas Magnus University. That’s some globalization for you.

You may think the world is getting worse, but it is not so. The global GDP quadrupled over the last thirty years. Many parts of the world are raising millions of people out of poverty, making it possible for them to get education, to travel, to talk to each other. In the past, the world has been connected mainly along the North-South communication lines, where Europe and North America dominated the discourse, for better or worse. It was a simpler world. Now, increasingly, it is South-South communications, where the multitude of peoples come together to share their lively cultures, their experiences, their solutions to common problems.

For example, Thailand’s government has introduced a coupon scheme where its half a million teachers are free to choose any professional development they chose to pursue, from a list of approved courses. I know, that’s a lot of assumptions about the power of consumer choice, and anyone can see potential side-effects. But the sheer scope and audacity of the project impresses me. They are not asking Europeans or Americans for their opinion; they are just doing it.

The University of The Philippines Los Banos has its own original theory and practice they call Developmental Communications. It is somewhere between journalism and public relations, but focused on regional development. They have their own founding figures, the history of the movement, and their own theory. They do not care if no one else in the world does not believe it is even a thing. The little group seemed to be happy, self-sufficient, and interested in what they are doing.

These are just a few examples I caught. But there is a whole wide world out there, with hundred’s, thousands of such stories. Somehow, it is comforting to know. We will never run out of human diversity.

Apr 1, 2018

Seeing one’s own power

Power is a weird thing; when you don’t have it, you know it; once you get some, it suddenly becomes invisible. It is not something you alone have; you possess or lack power only with respect to other people. One minute you are disempowered and marginalized, and the next moment you are the powerful and may dominate others. But the psyche is not that fast; it cannot flip in and out of emotions. The psyche carries the wounds of powerlessness into other contexts, where it is out of place.

Universities are very unequal places. Professors wield significant power over their students. A strong dislike by a professor, justified or not, may cost a class, a degree, a year in someone’s life. University is a place often riddled with clashes of values. After all, good education is about changing someone’s mind. Therefore, certain exercise of pedagogical authority is not just permissible, it is often necessary. Yet this is also the danger. It is just so hard to see the boundary, where the exercise of authority for student’s sake slips into the exercise of authority for satisfaction of the professors’ own psychic needs. Education is a relational minefield. I wish I could tell that hundreds of faculty member I have known over the years walk on the mind field with equal grace. No, repeatedly I hear stories of professors getting angry at students, irate, treating some students harshly, because of disagreements, etc. Professors are only humans, and that is not always enough.

Academia has developed a special ethos to deal with the professors’ personal weakness. In general, culture is something that helps us remedy our own flaws. One of the key components of the ethos is the presumption of students’ innocence. Yes, students often carry with them all the prejudices and biases the larger world imbues them with. They may look like the perfect representatives of the world of injustice out there, which is especially difficult to handle when the professor has been a victim of that injustice. The point is – university is a different, parallel universe with its own set of rules. It is a world where students who place themselves into our care are innocent by default. They may be mistaken, but they are innocent, and as such must be protected. A student may be racist, sexist or ableist in his real life, but once he enters the university, he is treated as someone in error, not someone to judge. The very consent to be taught by us is the first step towards redemption. Treating him with moral disdain as anti-educational as it gets.

I wish protecting students from faculty was not a part of my job. Rarely and unfortunately, it is.

Mar 19, 2018

Over-promising is one sure way to fail

One certain way to ruin one’s reputation is to take on an impossible task, and then fail at it. The essential qualification of any contractor is the ability to tell what is possible and what is not. Say, if you want to have a floor made of thin glass, your contractor should tell you, no, sorry, you cannot do that.

The State Legislature is asking us, the teacher preparation industry to solve the problem of teacher shortage. Our culture is that of public service, and that is true for both state-supported and private institutions. Of course, we say, “Yes, we will do our best!” The Legislature hears something slightly different, “Yes we can do it!” The difference between what we say and what they hear is tremendous, but as it is often the case, it goes unnoticed. Then we fail at what they think they heard, year after year. They get frustrated and look elsewhere, trying to deregulate teacher preparation so that almost anyone can do it, school districts, private schools, county offices, and very soon - Starbucks shops. It still does not work, for poorly selected and ill-prepared teachers stay on the job for shorter and shorter gigs. The vicious cycle is the consequence of unclear, unarticulated response on our side and wishful thinking on their side.

Of course, the State wants to solve the problem without raising teacher salaries, and without investing a dime in teacher retention. Who wouldn’t want that? The State is willing to invest some in teacher recruitment, mistakenly believing that recruitment is the main source of the problem. However, retention is far more important, and it boils down to salaries and working conditions.

The labor economics, just like any market, works on the supply and demand balance. The reason plumbers are so expensive is that not enough people want to be become plumbers, so those who remain demand and get higher salaries. I am not an economist, but can probably find a friend who can calculate exactly at which salary point the State of California will not be short on special education and math teachers. They would come from other states, from other professions, from other segments of teachers. Credentialed, but not working teachers would come back. Is anyone interested in finding out what that salary level is? I don’t think so, not yet anyway. No one wants to hear the truth, for truth will require higher taxes.

OK, teacher preparation, don’t be a loser. The first step is to be honest about what you can and cannot do. And say it very clearly. CSU as a system has a really valuable know-how. We can prepare a fairly diverse and competent educator workforce, starting with regular students, on a massive scale. But we cannot attract many people to STEM and Special Education without achieving the economic balance.

Mar 12, 2018

Forgiveness is a skill

We tend to dress forgiveness in heavy ethical clothes. It is perhaps because all the world religions recognize the pragmatic importance of forgiveness, and tried to enforce it. No society, small or large, can function without the ability of its members to forgive each other and move on with their lives. Otherwise, with time, conflict would erode all social cohesion. I work in Academia where people work together sometimes for decades in tense, conflictual environments where benefits and hardships should be constantly renegotiated. Inevitably, small offenses happen, no matter how much people try to avoid them. Most of us – thank gods - are able to forgive and forget, start anew, and just continue to get along.

Yet sometimes I hear stories of very old grudges. I just feel very sorry for the person who cannot forgive. It is sad, really, to observe. It is really a failure of emotional self-regulation that hurts the person more than his or her old nemeses. An ancient grudge is like an obsessive thought or habit, a kind of addiction to re-running in one’s head the past injury. Reportedly, there is a Polish word “jouska,” that is a compulsive dialogue one is running within one’s head. I am sure such experiences cannot be pleasant. Such a person is addicted to indignation, to the need to remember, and to self-destructive fantasies of revenge. It is the addiction to the feeling of wounded self-righteousness. It is also an illusion of control over the relationship. Withdrawal of politeness and refusal to work together serve as a constant reminder of an unforgiven transgression.

Religious traditions usually include some sort of ritualistic apology. They are right; apology seems to be an important cultural mechanism for getting past conflicts. However, for old and trivial injuries, even the act of apology becomes silly. What do you say? I am really sorry ten years ago I did not let you teach the course you really wanted to teach? Apologies work when they are timely; with time, they become ridiculous. They also don’t work when the offender does not believe she or he did anything wrong. Holding a person at a distance will not change her or his mind. The opposite is true – the reputation for stubborn grudges will make you less credible, and make you look less reasonable. So it is a double loss – you feel bad and people respect you less.

Back to the skill thing: The ability to forgive can be learned. It is a form of self-therapy any reasonable person can figure out. I won’t go into various therapy schools here; any of them might work, for the inability to forgive is not a disease. It is simply a bad cognitive routine, a glitch in our emotional circuits. The initial and the most fundamental questions are these: Why am I so angry for so many years? What does this feeling do to me? Is the person I am angry at really so bad? After that, retraining one’s mind is a matter of time and persistence.