Search This Blog

May 13, 2019

The third spiral, or Why education is so interesting to study


Understanding education is key to understanding the story of our species. Like many of our animal cousins, we supplement the gifts received through genes with gifts passed on by our culture; we just do it a lot better. Education is the craft of weaving the biological with the social. We take the genetically determined ability to have a language and graft onto it the ability to write and read. We thank the genetic accident that lets us distinguish pitch and perceive rhythm, and turn into music. How do you make so much more out of what is given to us? The magical practice is called education. Culture is like the third spiral of DNA - it is closely bound with the two original ones, to the point that it is actually quite difficult to tell the boundaries between the genetic information and that transmitted through culture.

Tolkien’s mythology describes “the strange gift of mortality bestowed upon Men by Ilúvatar,” but not other intelligent species like elves and dwarfs. It is indeed strange to think of mortality as a gift rather than a curse, but it is definitely one of the most profound human conditions. The biological evolution has learned to pass a lot through the death barriers by reproducing biological copies. Because of sexual reproduction and random mutations, the copies are not exact, and sometimes are better-fitting than the originals. However, the third spiral of DNA can only be reproduced artificially, and with much higher chance of positive mutation. Education is thus the cultural enzyme that tells us which raw elements of chaotic human culture are to be expressed in every new generation, and which are to be suppressed. Hence, in school we study math rather than murder.

The fundamental human process is self-domestication, self-improvement as a species. Our long journey to freedom from violence and suffering is very slow and painful. However, in evolutionary terms, it is a wild success in a blink of an eye. How do you get from the total warfare and hunger to a relatively peaceful and prosperous world of 10 billion people in mere few thousand years, and without any noticeable edits in the genetic pool? How do we record more knowledge that anyone of us is capable of knowing? The answer to those questions is in our secret evolutionary weapon, education.

In any given society, there exists a set of practices based on selection of knowledge. They select certain kind of knowledge and deem it worthy to be curriculum. They also select certain social mechanisms to ensure that youngsters learn. The combination of the two creates a steady push for the human species to drift in a particular direction. Education provides directionality of human history as history of humans. Some believe it is the explicitly stated ideals, or the Universal Spirit, or the objective material forces, or god that provide the arch to human history. However, from the evolutionary point of view, the most powerful force is the slow wind that fills the sails of educational practices. It affects how the new generation will be a little bit different from the previous, intentionally so. Imagine a huge airship, the society, at the bottom of which is a small engine, education. The airship is at the mercy of huge economic and technological winds, however, the tiny engine pushes it in one direction; over decades, it wins.

Of course, kids will learn what they learn, with or without intentional education. A.V.Mudrik defined education as a relatively more manageable part of socialization. Yet again, even if the unmanageable part of socialization is bigger and stronger, the gentle boost provided by education is directional, not random. Education is nothing if not selection. A society has to decide which things are worth learning - both in content and in content and in social arrangements of educational institutions.

Do you want to know what a society wants in terms of redesigning human beings? - not what it says it wants, but what it actually wants?, - take a look at its educational system. For example California says it wants to prepare its workforce for 21 century jobs, especially in STEM. Yet it spends about average on K-12 schools, underpays its teachers, and tolerates significant shortages of STEM teachers for many years. It says it wants to educate in inclusive environments, and yet it tolerates both huge shortages of special education teachers, and many segregated classrooms. What it really wants is tax rates competitive for its businesses and population; and it wants them more than STEM workforce and inclusion. You can talk all about equality of opportunities, but be unwilling to provide quality schooling for all kids. You can talk about access to higher education, but unwilling to pay for mass university systems. I say unwilling, not unable, although in this context they are the same thing. To the extent we can assume there is a directionality of human history, the direction is the intent.

One can look at number of other policies: economic, social, healthcare, etc. to guess the direction. However, only education will tell you the prevailing anthropological project, the project of changing the human being.

Of course, the developmental direction of the California society is not created in one person’s head; it is a result of complex political dynamics. Indeed, there are significant policy efforts to reshape education in California to provide for equity, inclusion, STEM careers, and access to college. Within education, there are also competing interests and conflicting intentions. However, the point remains: if you want to know where a society is heading, take a look at its education, as it actually works, not how it is meant to work.

May 5, 2019

We are not that similar

There was an interesting discussion about generational misunderstanding in my Russian part of Fb. A teacher considered why a certain history documentary is inaccessible to contemporary students. The narrator uses tacit citations, allusions, and references that are well known to the generation that grew up in the late Soviet Union, but is alien to Russian adolescents today. Exactly the thing that makes the documentary interesting to us, makes it boring to them. It is the same language - they understand all the words; they just miss the connotations.

We have watched recently Sharp Objects - a great Netflix miniseries. I was wondering if anyone could understand much of it without some knowledge of American small town life, and without living in the US for decades. What one critic described as “honey-coated but often barbed dialogue” is delightfully hard to comprehend. I enjoyed it greatly, but am also wondering how many layers of meaning escaped me because I did not grow up in America, and missed some 30 years of mass culture and everyday banter. I do well in all kinds of professional conversations, but will miss certain nuances when Americans quip over a beer. When I listen to British BBC Radio 4, I don’t get perhaps every fifth joke, just because their context is not as familiar to me.

One of the greatest communication sins is to assume that your interlocutor is the same as you, that his or her cultural contexts are the same. It is easier to avoid when you deal with a foreigner, whose accent screams at you “I am different and may not know what you know.” It is much more difficult to avoid when dealing with a different generation. For example, some older folks who grew up in the 60-s and 70-s will drop an F-bomb in a formal conversation, because that was a signal of liberation from the formality of old institutions, and was a call for solidarity against the oppressive System. Yet today’s 30-something may hear nothing but mucho bullying. Are they too sensitive, too sheltered? No, they just have a different set of cultural references, and it is just too easy to miss. The same goes for regional differences: what is a friendly chat in New York City, will be considered an open conflict in the parts of the Midwest and South.

It would probably be best if we learned to treat everyone as a foreigner who may have learned our language, but will never be exactly the same as us. What we sometimes think are “wrong” reactions may speak not as much of moral deficiency, as a subtle cultural difference. Multiculturalism is easy when the other is very different. It become incrementally hard as the degree of difference diminishes. Intimacy is greatly overrated and sometimes trumps respect. It is hard to be generous and hospitable to thy neighbor, hence… but you get the reference.

Apr 22, 2019

The Third Kind of Intelligence

A recent HBO documentary Future of Work shows how computers and humans are intelligent in different ways. For example the world-class chess play is hard for humans, but easy for computers. Yet a task like picking up an apple off a table without crashing it, is still very hard for a computer. Similarly, organizations can be thought of as another, third kind of intelligence, different from that of an individual human and of a computer. Theirs is the intelligence of the third kind. Certain things are easy for humans or computers, but hard for organizations, and vice versa.

Take memory, for example. Humans are very good at marking important memories with emotional markers, and wiping out everything else. Computers never forget anything, as long as they have enough storage and a retrieval system. Organizations remember routine, repeatable processes very well. In general, you will get consistent, more or less efficient treatment when asking for travel reimbursement. Your paycheck will generally come on time. At universities, classes will be scheduled, and grades given to students, degrees conferred, and faculty evaluated. However, organizations are bad at learning new things. For example, a university decided that all event announcements will be access-friendly, and offer accommodations. Yet it is not happening, because there is no routine yet to make sure it happens. Just a commitment, a decision to do something work for individual human being, but not for an organization. It needs to establish a routine, otherwise nothing will happen. The trick needed is something like this: OK, where all events come to be announced? Well, there are newsletters sent by Communications. That’s the one control point where we can enforce the new procedure. So, someone has to be told in writing, that from now on it is an extra check, an extra requirement. And by the way, the deadline for announcements has to be pushed back, for we need a week to schedule a captioner or an interpreter.

Organizations rely on written policies as a special kind of memory, but those are very imperfect, often contradictory, hard to find, and slow to update. Moreover, these little proсedural tweaks tend to accumulate over time, making organizations slow and inefficient. Every little procedure makes sense, taken altogether, they may become too much.

Organizations, just like computers, are very bad at forgetting. Once a policy and procedure is established and institutionalized, it keeps going even if the original impetus is forgotten. One example I wrote about is the catalog; there are many more. Individual humans are much more adaptable. Once a routine becomes obsolete, they are able to ignore it, and eventually forget. Computers can be rebooted, and all the software junk wiped out, but this doesn't happen with organizations. They have deep structural memories, which is both a blessing and a curse.

Organizations are both dumber and smarter than humans and computers that comprise them. They are incredible for coordinating specialized efforts of multiple individuals and machines for a large and complex task. Nothing of importance can be achieved without organizations. However, many of their species are denied the gift of mortality, which can also be understood as the gift of reset. Forgetting and death are friends of the human and machine intelligence. They both prevent clogging and excessive growth. Organizations are immortal like gods, and like gods they suffer from knowing too much, and failing to adapt.

Apr 8, 2019

How to tell a good journal from a bad one

It is not a trivial task. Beall’s list was imperfect and it does not actively exist anymore. No universally accepted rating of scholarly journals exists. However, scholars need to know which is a reputable journal, and which is not. A huge industry of predatory journals sprung up across the world. It does an amazing job camouflaging its crap depositories as legitimate publications. In the past, pay-to-publish journals were overwhelmingly predatory, but now the rise of open-access movement has made the criterion obsolete. In addition, there are too many weak journals, put together by well-meaning scholars but never achieving the level of acceptable quality. Because of the low number of submissions, they have to water down their acceptance standards.

Some universities and even single departments engage in sophisticated procedures for whitelisting and blacklisting journals. Those do work to some extent, but they cost much and may ignite internal conflicts. I want to offer some advice to junior scholars and their T&P committees for a quick and dirty check with resources readily available.

Here is my simple method, in two steps:

1. Go to www.scimagojr.com and look for the journal there. If it is in the first two quartiles, it is likely to be a good journal. If it is in quartiles 3 and 4, it is still likely to be a legit journal, although not that great. If the journal is not found there, go to step 2. Scimagojr feeds from the Scopus database (where you could also go directly, but it is not as user-friendly). It captures a great number of good journals, but not all of them. A number of good journals, especially in North America, just never bothered to be indexed there. It is especially true for those published directly by universities and scholarly societies. This is why you should go to step 2 if the journal is not found.

2. Find the name of the editor and the editorial board. If you do not know who that person is, go to scholar.google.com and see how many people cite the person and what is his or her h-index. In social sciences, it the number is lower than about 8-10, we are dealing with a junior scholar, who has not yet built a solid reputation in the field. The standards are different in different fields. By the way, here is the Sac State’s Hall of fame according to Google. There are some exceptions, like Harvard Education Review. It is edited by graduate students and is one of the top journals in the world. However, it is indexed by Scopus, so you would see it in step 1 above. There may be some other exceptions. As a general rule, no respectable scholar will lend her or his name to a crappy journal. After all the technology, all the indices, all tricks, the bottom line is still someone’s personal reputation that matters. And it works.

Neither of these two tests is perfect. If a journal fails both tests above, do not dismiss it, but you will need to do some more digging. The easiest thing to do is ask someone who you believe is an expert in the specific field. The problem with education and some other cross-disciplinary fields is that those are federations of various disciplines applied to a common phenomenon. Each of its sub-disciplines have different hierarchy of journals, and some of them are split into several traditions or approaches. This is why we should rely on some external evidence. While it is not perfect, it is better than nothing.

Apr 1, 2019

When is it time to quit?

Some people believe one should never quit, and try until one succeeds. That is a very stupid belief, because it leads people to waste their time, treasure, and efforts on non-productive things. Read or listen to this old Freakonomics podcast. However, when one deals with a whole organization, and its resources, such a belief borders on negligence. Every initiative, every project we have takes away resources from other possible projects and initiatives. In leadership, there should be no place for stubbornness, only place for cold and rational cost-benefit analysis.

It is very difficult to know when to quit, even with the coldest and most rational analysis. On Saturday, we held the 25th annual multicultural education conference – a very successful events with perhaps 900 attendees. However, when it started 25 years ago, I am sure it was a much humbler affair. People before us kept working at it, building and improving, and we are thankful for that. Some persistence is definitely warranted. In another example, we tried the competition for innovations in education for two years. The event was a lot of fun and definitely useful for those who participated. Nevertheless, we were not able to generate much publicity, or attract decent audience for the event. So we decided to quit, and focus on other things. I am still wondering if it was the right decisions, and perhaps we could build another good institution with more persistence.

In many cases, making the call is very difficult. How many years do you try to save a program that does not attract students anymore? You try to revise it, to provide more recruitment support. What if it still struggles? How many years can you afford to subsidize it at the expense of other programs? Remember, there is no exact science to this, no way to measure potential demand accurately. We tried the alumni reconnection events twice. Both times the events went just great, but attendance was underwhelming. At which point does the learning curve ends, and foolish stubbornness begins? Three years? Five? I am convinced we need to try the alumni events at least once or twice, for we are still learning important lessons. Ask me why am I so convinced, and I cannot provide a very rational explanation.

The best projects are those that die before starting. For example, we considered creating a development board in addition to our existing advisory board. We had several meetings and discussions, involving people serving on successful and less than successful development boards, and concluded it is not likely to work for us. We simply do not have a champion for that, and could not identify one. I am glad we quit quickly, before wasting a lot of time and effort. Quitting fast is sometimes the best strategy.

Sometimes an idea behind a project is so powerful that people follow it with an unbelievable persistence despite the abundance of evidence that it does no work. I have learned to appreciate the human propensity to keep doing the same thing while hoping to achieve a different result. We all need to check for that tendency. Just because we sunk a lot of time and energy into some idea, the idea is not automatically meritorious. There is a time to quit and stop throwing good money after bad.

Mar 23, 2019

The false starts and all that Zen

A very common, but largely invisible part of my work is pursuing opportunities for the College that turn out to be dead ends. One recent example: we were told about some decent office space available in another building. I had to go and look, negotiate with to different programs, complete a couple of forms, communicate with Academic Affairs a few times. All in all, perhaps 8-9 hours, maybe a little more of my time plus the time of several other people. The space turned out to be not that great – we were looking at the wrong floor plan. It does not have access to bathrooms in the evenings and has no windows. I can think of several other dead-end projects, some a little longer, others a little shorter. Probably up to 10 percent of my time is wasted that way. For faculty, the closest thing would be applying for a grant and getting a polite rejection letter. You spend all this time, come up with all ideas, write the narrative, estimate the budget, …. and nothing. Can’t even put it on your CV.

Actually, Melanie Stefan, a lecturer at Edinburgh Medical School, has called publically for her peers to publish their failure resumes. Hers is quite funny, and one day I will publish mine (a much longer than hers). In my dean’s job, however, only a smaller portion of the false starts has to do with my personal and professional failures that can be overcome. In most cases, it is like the office space story – a small hiccup somewhere else lead to this waste of time. The imperfections in human communications, and glitches in the bureaucratic machinery constantly make our work less than efficient.

It is easy to pretend to be all Zen about it, or say that it is just the cost of doing business. In real life, no one likes to waste time on things that do not work out. The way I tend to do this is to forget as soon as I can, and move on. It is like paying your parking ticket: the faster you get it over with, the better off you are. Mulling over it, assigning blame only makes it last longer.

The false starts are sometimes described as educational experiences. In theory, one learns something from every one of them. In real life, it is not exactly so. The story with the office space has no lesson, for example. Should I have been doubly vigilant, and made sure it is the right work plan? Should I have though to ask about bathrooms? Would I track down the error about the floor plan, to fix a systemic problem? None of these actually makes sense. I’ve learned nothing, because there is nothing to learn. It is just the random noise of the universe, and there is more of it than we all like to believe. It is not sad or tragic, just mildly irritating.

People say that when I get much older, I will grow to enjoy every moment of life, with all the false starts, errors, and random events. Is there a way to learn the trick sooner? Does Zen actually work?

Mar 11, 2019

Leaders as superstitious pigeons

TED Radio Hour released a show on luck, fortune, and chance. One of the ideas  is that we routinely underestimate the influence of chance on our successes and failures. Human brain is a relentless pattern-seeking machine; it does not tolerate randomness very well, and is always in search for an explanation. We look up to successful people, trying to understand what unique personality traits or strategies have made them so successful. No one wants to hear that those people just go lucky. It is because if success can be explained, we can, I theory, repeat it. If it is mostly by chance, we cannot, and it is not very inspirational.

Among the management types, the joke is that all successes are the results of our leadership, and all the failures are the result of external circumstances beyond our control. The joke contains more than a grain of truth. I have never seen a leader to say – we are very successful, because we got lucky. Very rarely one says, we failed, because I screwed up. I have never heard: “things are bad, because we ran out of luck.”

My College is doing slightly better in terms of efficiency – we are producing more student FTE with a lower faculty workload. To be completely honest, I have no idea why that is the case. I can produce a dozen different theories, including the theory of my brilliant leadership, but all of it will be pure guessing. There are too many factors in play, and it is impossible to isolate any of them to establish causality or even a plausible correlational hypothesis. In reality, it is most likely to be a random fluctuation, the statistical blip that is always present in complex social systems. My former doctoral student Ivan Smirnov keeps marveling at the fact that social scientists routinely underestimate the possibility of chance in their experimental work. Unless you repeat treatment 50 or more times, you are never sure if your success was just a random event. Well, management is not even a true social science; it is a lot of “intuition,” and “beliefs.”

Appreciation of the universe’ randomness is healthy. It makes us a little humbler, and a little more compassionate. People’s misfortunes are often explained by random chance, just like successes. By the way, the last segment of the show explains that chance is not distributed randomly across the population. It is much easier to get lucky if you come from a more privileged background. The lottery of birth is still the most powerful predictor of success. We know that intellectually, but it is so difficult to accept on the intuitive, subconscious level. Our brains automatically link what we do with the success we have. It is an evolutionary adaptation, for evolution wants to us to repeat successful behavior. Yet, how much of the Skinner’s superstitious pigeon is in everything we do?

Mar 4, 2019

Dealing with incommensurability after police shooting

Congrats, you were not afraid of the word. Incommensurability is an old term meaning that two theories cannot be reconciled with each other. Lyotard took it a little further and shown how some discourses are just not compatible with each other and cannot be translated. I thought about this word ever since the OJ trial, when it became apparent to me and many others, that in America certain discourses are just incommensurable. People see the same story and weigh the same evidence, but come to opposite conclusions.

Take the case of Stephon Clark, an unarmed African-American young man killed by two police officers in March 2018. The officers, it was announced recently, will not be charged, because they truly believed he had a gun (it turned out to be a cell phone). Over this weekend, the two stories have become absolutely incompatible. On one side – the legal system has spoken, the two cops truly believed it was a gun, because they checked with each other, “are you hit?” Tragedy, yes, but no criminal intent or conduct. On the other side is the simple intuitive considerations of justice. Do you mean to tell me that it is OK to shoot someone’s son, brother, and father 20 times, including six times in the back; shoot him for nothing, and it is not anyone’s fault? The most striking consideration that may be lost on those living outside the US is this: the story keeps happening again and again, and again, for many years, in many different cities, and every time it is “a tragic mistake.” It rarely happens to Whites or Asians, and disproportionally more often to Black men.

Our President was planning to do a town hall meeting today, and it would have been completely tone deaf if he did. He was wise enough to replace it with a series of political art performances, by a rapper called Consci8us, by a student theater and dance groups. Jacob Neusner, a Jewish theologian, has shown years ago that way to bridge the incommensurable discourses (such as Judaism and Christianity, in his case) is through story-telling. The mediation removes the need to agree with one or the other discourse, but allows relating to the other through one’s own life experiences. There was nothing one could have said on the substance of the case. To say, “The decision is correct, no one should be charged,” offends an entire community. To say, “They should have been charged,” questions the legal system. Instead, the President gave the opportunity for those voices frustrated by this and many similar decisions to speak in public. It is the best, the most responsible thing to do in his position.

And of course, there is another, more long-term way of dealing with the incommensurability of discourses. It has to do with changing the life experiences that make the two discourses so different in the first place. Many systemic reforms were discussed for years, but never seem to be implemented. Why do the police officers start (not end) a confrontation with a deadly weapon? Can they be asked to use tasers first, even if they believe there is a weapon present? If it gets to shooting, why are they not trained to stop after one shot and re-assess the situation? After all, many bullet shots are survivable, but not 20 of them. Is there any way to reduce the subconscious bias, when a Black man triggers such a sense of danger, while a similarly positioned White dude does not? I know it is hard, but has someone tried? We have some good techniques for anger control, for example, is there something out there for fear control? And of course, the big political issue is this: Cops are so jumpy, because they know how many handguns are out there. If they thought it would be a rare exception, they would be more able to control their own deadly fear. You do not need to take away all handguns, just significantly reduce free access to them to make that intuitive statistics work differently.

Feb 25, 2019

Faking understanding

I wish people would stop pleasing each other by pretending they understood something they really did not. After all, the party fooled now will get mad later, when it becomes apparent you did not understand. I wish people would stop being embarrassed at not understanding something. After all, it is your failure to explain rather than my stupidity that lead to misunderstanding.

Before I go too far on the self-righteous tirade, I do it, too. The temptation to oversell my own understanding of complex issues is sometimes just too strong. You look more competent when you get ideas quickly. You feel dumb where everyone in the rooms seems to understand what is going on, and you still trying to make some sense of it. So, half-understanding is presented as understanding; we nod knowingly, while the key ideas are still pretty fuzzy. It is also hard to tell your counterpart – dude, you are not making any sense, and I have no idea what you are talking about. There are many ways to say it politely, but the essence of the message stays the same. It is a hard one to give OR receive.

Understanding is even more difficult, when the truth cannot be told out loud, and one has to get by with hints. I tend to just say it while hoping people will forgive the directness for the sake of clarity. That kind of hope often goes unfulfilled. And certain things have to be communicated, but simply cannot be said.

Understanding is not a binary thing, where you either do or do not understand a message. While there is a feeling – yes, I go this – it does not really establish whether a person has understood or not. That feeling, like all feelings, can be easily manipulated. Time pressures, social norms, and psychological predisposition all can conspire to make understanding more difficult. The very nature of social interaction, its lubricant – mutual affirmation – sometimes gets in a way of actually understanding the complex issues at hand.

This is as much a note to self as it is a call for action. Let’s stop pretending we understand, let’s use the Navy’s “Repeat to Confirm” rule. I have not served there, but was told in the Navy, one has to repeat an order after hearing it, to make sure it is understood. In everyday situations, people use a milder form: “Here is what I hear you are saying.”

Feb 7, 2019

Kill the Catalog

Catalogs were the primitive foreshadows of websites before the websites. You would get a thick book with everything about a university in it. Most universities do not print them anymore, but they continue the existence as a separate section of a university’s website. It is a curious atavism, a testimony to the peculiar conservatism academic institutions. Look at Sac State’s catalog, for example. It has 21 sections, most of which really should be elsewhere on the university’s site, or they simply duplicate the information already provided elsewhere. For example, it has its own faculty directory (just names, without the contact information!!) in addition to the regular site’s directory. The President’s welcome is in the catalog, but it should be in the About section of the site, or on the President’s page. Who would go to the catalog to look for it? The same could be said about the Accreditation section – it should for sure be on the main site, normally under the About menu. But wait, the catalog has its own About the University section, with Mission and strategic planning – exactly the same as on the main site. It has yet another directory of the campus’ Leadership, with just phone numbers, but no e-mails or office locations. The catalog has two big sections called Campus Life, and Colleges. The information on them repeats the websites. Academic policies in the Catalog either cite or repeat what’s already in the University’s Policy Manual. The Bursar information on fees is exactly the same.

Just imagine how much time and effort is going into keeping the main website pages and the catalog pages in sync. Should I mention that despite best effort, such efforts are not always successful? Some program pages on the site contradict their twins in the Catalog’s parallel universe. This partially explains why we need so many advising resources for students. We confuse students with a chaotic information environment, and then hire people to explain what’s really going on. The question is – why are we doing the silly, costly, confusing thing?

Fundamentally, the catalog is simply a part of a website that follows a different, stricter set of editing rules. Certain descriptions and policies may not be changed on the whim, without a proper chain of approval, and even then, they can only be changed once a year. I would say there are three kinds: (1) certain academic policies, such as admission requirements, degree requirements, the rules about dismissal, student rights, etc.; (2) program requirements, and (3) is course description. If the catalog is truly intended for students to use, we must admit that students do not care what rules we follow to update the information. Therefore, the special status of catalog pages should not be visible to the user at all – it is our inner workings. Any information published anywhere on our sites (or given out as paper handouts) is official, and will be taken as such should a dispute arise. We need to kill the catalog as a stand-alone user space, while certainly keeping it as a quality control mechanism.

As a first step, we should delete the parts of the catalog outside the three areas, and integrate the content with the existing sites and pages. In the second step, we should make sure these three things only appear in the catalog, and are in no way replicated elsewhere on our sites. The program sites should be allowed only to link back to the catalog or pipe the info. This needs a little technical problem-solving, so that the catalog’s content is “piped,” not simply linked, but it is a trivial problem to solve.

What is not trivial is finding the will and the resources to take the informational ecosystem of the university seriously. Perhaps we should ask students to audit what they see, because most of us faculty and administrators get used to the byzantine maze of the information on campus; we fail to see its problems. Perhaps we can hire a user experience expert to do this for us. We are now trying to rebuild the website, perhaps it is a good time to look at the catalog.

Feb 4, 2019

Limits to transparency

When I first turned to the Dark Side, and became an administrator, I thought I would be different, would be transparent. I’ve got nothing to hide, and the more people know how I make decisions, the better. You can probably sense a “but” coming: it is not that simple. I quickly found out that I had to deal with other people’s secrets. A whole lot of information is either formally protected, or embarrassing to someone, or just confidential for a whole set of other reasons.

That class of secrets is easy to understand. Yet there is a whole set of other information that in theory can be disclosed, but it would not do any good. One example is financial data. The problem with that is that it is very difficult to understand. Financial systems are dynamic – no one knows exactly how much of your balances is committed, and how much is not at any given time. All projections are inaccurate, because there are too many variables. For example, one large sick leave or a resignation will throw your budget off balance. Money is clear only in the hind side. Besides the accounting business uses a whole set of categories that are not intuitively easy to comprehend. Consider a simple question: why are we spending 200K more on temp faculty this year than in the last year? The answer actually involves page-long explanation, half of which is mainly a guess. To those who never deals with budgets, some numbers appear to be to small and others – too large. Any spreadsheet looks unfair to someone. I never had a good, productive conversation with faculty over a spreadsheet.

Other decisions are so narrowly constrained that they are not really decisions. For example, the university tells you – you can hire a new faculty member if the position fits into this set of conditions. We look at our many programs, and see there is exactly one that fits. There is no point in consulting with anyone; it won’t change anything. To pretend to consult is disgusting. I could probably write a blog and explain later the reasoning to the last detail, but – it is as boring as it is inconsequential. Excessive self-justification is boring, annoying, and narcissistic.

Here is a more nuanced example. Let’s say you have an idea, a new initiative or a new program. If you share it too early, it is too weak, underdeveloped, nothing to discuss. Undercooked ideas are easily rejected, because they are too vulnerable to criticism. If you share too late, you lose on the buyout. People feel offended a fully formed proposal is sprung on them as a surprise. You look heavy-handed and authoritarian. There is a sweet spot somewhere in between, and it changes from chairs to faculty, to staff to students. Transparency can be gradual.

And here is one funny exception: never disclose who picked the colors. People have different sensibilities, and in the aesthetic matters, a democratic process fails every time. There has to be a dictator, otherwise colors never get picked, and people’s feelings get hurt needlessly. But if you have to have a dictator, his or her identity may as well stay secret, so the person does not get any flak.

In general, more transparency is better for an organization, because it prevents the mistrust build-up. However, it is not a blanket rule that applies to everything. Just like in any relationship, some things are better off not said.

Jan 28, 2019

Innovation and the ego

In education, both K-12 and higher, too many innovations are driven by leaders’ egos, and not by the needs of their respective organizations. How it works is obvious: to jump to the next career level, or to maintain good graces of one’s employer, one needs to show something new. On a larger scale, any institution want to project a public image of innovation, not something stable and stale. The public is not interested in funding something that is good but boring; educators need a story to captivate the public collective imagination. In America, and much of the world, the idea of progress and innovation has firmly taken root. The pressure is really coming from outside, and it percolates through the system, from presidents to department chairs – everyone wants to distinguish oneself as an innovator, with a line on one’s resume to prove it.

This would not be bad, if we collectively did not spend significant resources on ego-driven innovations. The cost could be direct, or indirect, but it can be significant. Among other things, ego-innovations contribute to the so-called “mission creep” phenomenon, where a university adds more and more projects, structures, units to its core mission, depleting the resources, and muddying the latter. Time and resources spent on frivolous innovations are not spent on university’s core mission – improving its programs and ensuring student success.

Examples are abound. The relatively recent craze for MOOCs prompted many most prestigious universities to join either Coursera or EdX, and pour many millions of dollars in developing these free public resources. They were supposed to revolutionize higher education, but didn’t. I have seen cases where massive restructurings, reshuffling faculty and programs into different configurations were sold as innovation. Those can be very costly in terms of time, but people are rarely more productive in new administrative structures. Neither they ever cut the actual cost. Unfortunately, most of educational technologies have been a flop. While computer-connected projectors were probably worth it (although they are just a tiny step up from transparencies), none of the smart boards and similar interactive technologies have been very effective. The various data analytics software platforms are still an open question. I keep my mind open, but right now would not bet a $100 that they will significantly affect academic outcomes.

William Baumol identified one of the reason for so many flops in 1967: All economic activities can be divided “into two types: technologically progressive activities in which innovations, capital accumulation, and economies of large scale all make for a cumulative rise in output per man hour and activities which, by their very nature, permit only sporadic increases in productivity.” [i] In other words, education is much more relational than it is informational. We do not yet have any significant breakthroughs in terms of relational technologies, and it is not clear whether they are possible or desirable. Education is not like manufacturing or transportation; its core activity remains heavily manual, and not automatable.

Innovation is good when it answers to clearly identified organizational challenges, and has reasonable chances of success. Online teaching is not cheaper than its f2f equivalent, but it allowed to significantly expand the student population by reaching out to remote, less mobile, and working populations. That is an economic as well as technological innovation that is still not fully realized. Universities and schools have a lot to gain from reducing transactional costs by digitizing their organizational transactions. Things like purchasing, hiring, student registration, troubleshooting, petitions, advising, etc. – those represent a great innovation field that has been barely touched. It is not something sexy you can sell to the public, but simplifying and automating the bureaucratic routines still has a large potential for cost reduction and making everyone a little happier. Many innovations are possible in designing programs that reflect today’s and tomorrow’s labor landscape.

Innovation in education is a risky game, which is why it cannot be played by leaders’ egos. We need a very critical approach to expensive innovations.

[i] William J. Baumol, "Macroeconomics of unbalanced growth: the anatomy of urban crisis." The American economic review 57, no. 3 (1967): 415-416.

Jan 22, 2019

What happens in two years

It has been two years since I came to Sacramento. An experienced nomad, I can tell you what normally happens at about two years mark. The honeymoon is over, and my colleagues can see my weaknesses as clearly as I can see theirs, and we learn to work around each other’s edges. In general, we only get to know someone when we can see one’s shortcomings. Some people feel disappointment when they discover that so and so is imperfect. I feel relief – humanity is disclosed through weakness, not through strengths. A person starts being an enigma when she or he becomes relatable, and we can relate to those who do not wear an impenetrable shell of perfection. Vulnerability is really the only way to connection.

I start to get inside jokes. Relationships need shared history, which becomes a set of references to be used not just for humor, but also for rich reasoning. If you are considering doing B, you can say, “Oh, well, I don’t want it to become another A,” and everyone involved will understand what that means. This is not only shorthand, but hopefully allows to make fewer mistakes. And yes, one needs about two years to build that common vocabulary and a common set of references.

Every organizations can be imagined as a complicated maze, with some hard walls that constitute its limits and boundaries, and a number of openings that allows things to be done. It takes at least a year or two to figure it out, mostly by trial and error. There is no user manual for Sac State, because 90% of rules are not written down. People just know – these things are easy, these things are hard, but possible, and these are completely impossible. It also takes a couple of years to figure it out” one year for basic outlines of the maze, two or more for the ability to find passages.

I am here to report that all those things did happen, I am happy here, and feeling energetic and productive. We have so much more to do. Thanks to all for being so kind, so talented, and so passionate about our mission.

Jan 14, 2019

The Sidorkin’s Law: Why is institutional data always wrong?

Institutional data has come a long way. I still remember the hard copies of IR annual books; they were the only way to get any kind of stats about your programs. They were also mostly wrong, by the way. Now we have many sophisticated real-time data portals, showing you everything you need to know about your organization. I used to think that certain number of errors in the reporting was just a temporary thing, something we will eventually overcome. However, I do not believe this anymore. The errors are built in, and they are not cause by data technology. The errors come from human-data interaction.

There are at least two different causes of the intrinsic errors. One has to do with Campbell’s Law, an under-appreciated phenomenon; I wrote about it a few years ago. If consequences of a quantitative indicator are high, the measurement tends to corrupt the very practice it intends to measure. For example, if in my College FTEF/FTES ratio looks high, I will be thinking of ways to record both indicators to make us look better. Trust me there are ways.

However, there is something Campbell did not know, because in 1979, there were no user-input databases at every organization. Let us call this the Sidorkin’s Law: Categorical scarcity leads to work-arounds that will corrupt data input. When designing a database, one cannot use a very large number of fields/categories. That would make the database unwieldy and unmanageable. It would be impossible to produce a useable report. The whole point of database is simplification, standardization of information. If you want to compare , say, two colleges, you have to make a call: let’s call student teaching something similar to nurses’ clinical practice, for example “supervised field experiences.” One can see how they are similar, but they are also vastly different. The need to measure and compare brings about emphasizing the similarities and ignoring the differences. However, life is always just a bit more complicated than any set of categories, and people learn to operate within the limits presented by the database designers. Considerations of convenience force us enter data in the fields and categories that were not initially intended.

For example, one of our program areas has struck a deal several years ago that when they teach larger classes, they can get an extra workload credit. However, the workload database did not have a specific category to reflect such an arrangement. Moreover, there was initially a rule that synchronized student credit hours with faculty workload, a very sensible one, by the way. Therefore, someone came up with a work-around: We record these units as Discipline-Based Research. No one remembers what it was intended for, but it was a convenient way to solve the data input problem. As a result, our overall instructional workload units looks smaller than they actually are. This is just one small example; I can name a dozen or so work-around fixes like this. Cumulatively, they can significantly affect the reports that come out in the end. This is why I always prefer to see the raw data, understand the sources and the formulas used in a report, and never trust pre-packaged reports.

On top of these two data corrupting influences, there is a whole thing about what the report data means. It deserves a special blog one day. For example, 4-year graduation rates can be dramatically different among various programs. Does it mean that one is doing a better job than the other is? Obviously not: programs that are more selective will have higher graduation rates, no matter how hard you work on student success.

There are many threats to data reliability, and even more to their pragmatic validity. We cannot afford to ignore the data, because it is better to see your world through some distorted funhouse mirrors than see nothing at all. It just helps to remember the mirrors are not that accurate, not because of imperfection, but by their very nature.

Jan 7, 2019

The lecture trap

Sometimes university instructors, especially the novices, get into the lecture trap. They somehow assume that lecturing is the “real” teaching, and the rest of the stuff is supplemental. Why do they assume so is easy to explain: First, this is how they were taught in college and even in graduate school, and second, how else do you cover so much material? It feels good to tell something to students. The magic act of telling transfers responsibility from the instructor to the students – I told you, and if you still don’t know, it is no longer my fault. If you have read the same thing, and failed to learn, it feels more like mine. Regardless of the reasoning, such instructors invest enormous amount of time and creativity into designing the right kinds of power point slides, and devote a lot of class time lecturing.

The problem with that – the genre is becoming increasingly difficult. There is a very small minority of instructors who do lectures really well. It comes naturally to them; they are quick, funny, charming, entertaining, can read the audience very well. These people can collect and release attention, they can build an almost magical rhythm, where fascinating problems are interrupted by jokes, and striking visuals. And then there is the rest of us. You have to be good enough to compete with thousands of professionally produced lectures put out there by the hundreds of top universities with huge budgets and professional film production assistance. Just look through the free MOOCs on either Coursera or EdX, or just browse YouTube. Can you beat that? Again, BOTH charisma and resources can make a lecture sing. Let us admit, we are not that well-resourced, and not that entertaining. Students are becoming more and more discerning, because the great lecturers are available to them at a click of a button. They will doze off at your merely adequate lectures, and blame you for it; not entirely without a cause.

It is much easier to engage students with other types of in-class activities. Consider games, simulations, quests, demos, structured discussions, short written exercises, case studies, skits, brainstorming sessions, problem analysis, debates, etc. I know what you are afraid of – that these are high-engagement, but low information-density activities. In other words, you are afraid the kids will get entertained, but learn very little. Well, you are a researcher, so do an experiment – lecture one section, and use methods that are more active in another, and show me material difference in either knowledge or skills. I bet you won’t find much, or your actively engaged students will do better. Of course, you still will have students read, and find a way to engage their readings. In addition, find those great lectures you cannot do yourself online, and ask them to watch those at home. You can even watch them in class together, where you can answer questions, and explain the difficult parts.

Yes, of course, one can screw up all those other methods, too. They all require preparation, and careful tuning from semester to semester. However, they are much harder to screw up and require less or the same prep time as lectures. Think of a semester-long course as a series of activities, where students do something in class every time. Insert mini-lecturers: what is about to happen, and what you all will learn or practice today. Then again, here is what you just learned, and a couple of things you still seem to be unsure about. Those will go a long way in establishing your expert authority – actually more than a long lecture which you are likely to mess up somewhere.

I don’t want to extol the virtues of hands-on instruction. I am just saying it is much less risky, and just as effective, or more effective than lectures. Students will still need you – your expertise and your wisdom, in shorter, more focused doses that is.