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Oct 27, 2006

The Academe and other Soviet states

At one of many meetings last week, we discussed equity in faculty workloads, and how hard it is sometimes to motivate faculty to do something they don’t want to do. My comment that, in the Academe, we live in a Soviet-style economy, brought some laughs. However, I was almost serious.

Now, I do not attach any value judgment to the words Soviet economy. It was quite inefficient, and associated with political repression, but it worked for a while and I grew up within it. The truth is, most of the humanity for most of its history has survived without market economies, and still does. Now, markets are very efficient, although not necessarily just, they have their own share of social problems. If you think about it, market economy has not spread to the entire social fabric of even the most developed industrial nations, and is unlikely to do so. Many areas are still dominated by non-market forms of exchange. For example, relationships within families, volunteerism, much of civil society, clubs, associations, etc. are non-market economies. And oh, yes, I forgot the world of education.

Education is one of the largest industries in America. Every fifth American is a student, the rest of, it seems, are some sort of teachers. This is not a surprise: the economy as a whole depends on constant supply of more and more educated workforce. The problem with the educated workforce that it tends to die rather regularly, and takes all the knowledge to its grave. So we need a constant, massive work of moving all that knowledge from old brains into the new ones. Books and other media help, because it does not have to be direct transfer, but every new generation still needs to learn a lot of stuff. Now, this large and growing industry is in stark contrast with the rest of the economy; specifically, it does not operate on market principles.

The world of education is essentially, pre-capitalist, like Ancient Rome or Egypt, or feudal Europe, or Soviet Union. You may think this is a good or a bad thing, depending on your persuasion, but it is hard to deny that fact. K-12 and higher education present two different types of non-market economies, with their significant differences. But both are not responsive to competition, and lack market discipline. So, yes, it is hard to make people do things they don’t want to do, because you can’t fire them, and because the company (the university) is unlikely to go belly up if they don’t.

Just because this is a non-market economy, does not mean it is not an economy at all. Nor does it mean it can work well, or be efficient. After all, think about Egyptians who organized these massive projects without much of a coercion. How did they make all these people to work without monetary incentives? There are still rules, regularities, patterns, and constrains. For example, university faculty do much more when they do something that is interesting to them. They will do less if a task is unconnected to their interests, or boring, or both. Again, you may think it is a good thing of a bad thing, but to be more efficient, universities need to take this into consideration. Another example, university faculty will be more productive if they feel others pull their fair share of the common weight – this point was made several times at the meeting mentioned at the beginning. However, there is always a perception that someone else does not do enough, and here I am stuck with all this work, and what am stupid, or what. Now, part of this perception is probably true, but a big part of this perception is due to simple lack of information. We simply do not know what everyone else is doing. And when we do, past conflicts or perceptions often cloud our judgments so perceive others as working less than they actually do.

It is impossible to reach the exact match between people’s effort and their compensation, both monetary and psychic. Faculty evaluation mechanisms will never be perfect, or even close to being perfect. However, it would help if we somehow, magically knew who is doing what at all times. As I was working with many of the projects our School’s faculty are involved with, I suddenly came to a realization: they don’t know what the other group is doing, and how much effort the other people make. Of course, if you’re involved with one of these projects, you will assume naturally that others maybe slacking. The truth is, everyone or nearly everyone works rather well, some in groups, some in isolation, but no one, including me, knows everything about other people’s work. How do we make this happen? The sense of being treated fairly is perhaps the best incentive for good work in places like a university. Non-market economies are relational economies; their currency is good will, respect, pleasure from interacting with other people, sense of duty and sense of challenge, excitement, curiosity, pride, rivalry, etc., etc.

All we need to do is to make sure more people experience this sense of fairness and pleasure more often. Err, how about fairness coefficient? OK, forget about the coefficient, but perhaps a show and tell at the next faculty meeting will help.

Oct 23, 2006

Teaching as research

This weekend, I have attended the Annual National Academy of Education Conference, and graded papers from my class. The two activities presented somewhat a contrast. One of the presentations at the conference was on the evidence-based teaching in science. Most of its themes were somewhat familiar: do a pretest and a post-test, get frequent feedback from students to gauge what they know and what they don’t know, be clear on what you want them to learn, and do not assume they are learning until you know they are learning.

As I got back to my grading, I realized that even though I know all these principles about teaching, I do not necessarily follow them. For example, in my Social Foundations course, there is no finite list of key concepts and skills I want the students to learn. There are no clear criteria of what level of mastery of such concepts and skills are expected. The learning outcomes I use are rather a wish list, mostly to comply with some external standards. I do not know how much students have known before ever entering into my classroom, so I cannot really tell what they have learned in my class. Moreover, the set of activities I use in class seems “good” to me, because I believe they are effective. Now, do I know for sure how effective each one is? Not at all; these things are deemed to be good, because they feel successful, because students are engaged, not bored, and active. That is all good, but do I know for sure if they actually work, and if some other assignments and activities would not have been more effective. On top of all this, I am not sure how this course’s content fits into respective programs, and which parts of the course are actually necessary, and which are not. I don’t know if my course covers something students have already learned or will be learning in other courses, or what gaps in knowledge they might have, because my colleagues and I assume that the other course covers that stuff. Of course, my colleagues are all better teachers than I am, but I have a sneaking suspicion, that some of these questions might be unanswered in their courses as well.

Now, NCATE and other wonderful bodies try to force us to think about teaching in the same way we think about research. What is not clear to me is why don’t we do it automatically; after all, nearly all university instructors were at some point trained as researchers. The problem seems to be structural rather than personal. In research, there is a well-developed system of quality control, associated, mainly, with the peer review process, but also with the culture of evidence. Nothing like that exists in teaching. A Ph.D. diploma give one a license to teach whatever one likes and however one likes it. OK, not so extreme, but quality controls are extremely weak. To assess quality of each other’s teaching, we rely mainly on student feedback. Of course, students also do not rely on any kind of evidence to evaluate their instructors; their input, although mostly honest, is evidence-free and stems from personal impressions.
Accreditation is important, but it is a wholesale approach to quality. Once every few years, we try to show quality. It is not as effective as piece-meal quality controls. When I am thinking of the thought process that goes into writing a scholarly paper, I have to admit it is very different from one that goes into preparing a syllabus. In the first instance, my audience is my peers, and both my career and my reputation are at stake. A syllabus I develop is unlikely to be read by anyone except for the students, who are not in a position to judge its contents. The motivation to do a good job in thinking through a course is entirely ethical, which is to say ineffective. But most importantly, our courses are developed mainly outside of a conversation with peers, which encourages constant reinvention of bicycles, shoddy work, and inattention to evidence. We feel strongly about the quality of our courses (I have never met any professor who would admit that his or her courses could use some work), because we are the ones to develop and to evaluate them – a clear conflict of interest.

I wonder if it is possible to start a journal of college course syllabi, peer-reviewed, and with respectable editors. One would submit a course syllabus, with classroom activities and assignments, using research to back up whatever is in the course. Such syllabi would go through regular peer-review process, with its rejections, requests to edit, etc. Most importantly, contributors would be asked to provide empirical evidence to show course design’s effectiveness. Unlike other methods journals, this one would accept whole course designs only, not a specific method or curricular material. Because that would be true scholarship, these publications may actually count as real publications. That could make teaching efforts more public and more rigorously evaluated. Eventually, we could make a distinction between peer-reviewed and not reviewed courses, and build knowledge base so the massive reinvention of bicycles would stop.

Oct 14, 2006

Justice is good bureaucracy

Here is the essence of demographic projections by the Colorado Commission on Higher Education (Brian Prescott’s presentation at the Faculty to faculty Conference, 10/13/06). Migration of educated people to Colorado has slowed down significantly; we will have to find ways of training our own professionals. At the same time, Colorado high school will produce many more graduates from much more diverse backgrounds then before. Between 2002 and 20018, there will be 40% increase in high school graduates. For the West as a whole, high school graduates from the 2010 class will become majority minority. About half of high school graduates will be from families earning under $50,000. Another interesting trend is increase of the so-called “swirling” students; those who not just transfer, but attend more than two institutions. The traditional transfer pattern from a community college to a four-year institution will also become more and more common.

What are practical implications for us? First, I don't believe we can seriously consider making our programs more selective. We should really think about sustainable growth without loss of quality. Second, we will have to accept large numbers of transfer students to be a part of life, and talk to community colleges about making transfers work. And third, we need to examine the institutional barriers to minority students’ success; at least those we have direct control over.

Let’s put pragmatics over philosophies. We can argue till the end of days what exact configuration of courses and field experiences is superior or inferior to another, slightly different configuration. This just does not lead anywhere, because no actual data can show dramatic differences in quality of teacher training due to slight changes in course delivery formats. There are thousands of teacher education programs around the country, and the difference among them is not in how much time passes between their methods and their student teaching. Good courses, significant field experience, amount of work and quality advising – this is what makes a difference. However, the practical side of things, such as simplicity of procedures, availability of reliable information, clarity of expectations; these practical things make a lot of difference to students, and deserve the same or more respect than philosophical disagreements. I would argue that the pragmatics make even more difference for minority students.

Some may dismiss the priority of pragmatics as simple yielding to convenience or even worse, as lowering our expectations of students. I disagree. For example, the “inconvenience” of looking for a place to stay for five weeks of the student teaching semester – is very important, as important as anything about our programs. The more poor and minority students we have, the more insurmountable barriers like these become. This is just one example, but we have whole sets of procedures designed, essentially, for programs half the size we have, and with a traditional, white and middle-class student in mind. This abstract student can attend numerous required meetings, he does not have a job or childcare issues, she has financial support from parents, etc., etc.

Justice in education is access; access is primarily good bureaucracy, and only then content. This is how I understand our challenge. We all need to think about the procedures in and around our programs, and think how they can be changed to accommodate more students and more diverse students. We need to make our programs much more flexible, much more open, and more accessible. This is something I cannot even begin to address alone; it will require constant collective effort.

Oct 6, 2006

Fall, foliage, and intrinsic motivation

I went outside for a few minutes and have something to report: The dark-skinned trees along the 20th Street are desperately beautiful; their outrageous arrangements of orange and gold can make one instantly drunk. Brunet pine trees stoically ignore the season, but that is just who they are. Breezy Colorado sun delicately touches pedestrians’ eyelids; the pedestrians are a bit shy, but look so pleased. And the smells, the smells sneak deep into my unconsciousness, bringing back random emotions, images, and sensations from the past that may or may not happen.

Now, how do I motivate myself to write an annual program report; a task I was putting off even without the intrusive competition of autumn? How does one justify doing something profoundly boring in the face of such overwhelming beauty? Thoroughly corrupted by years of philosophical thinking, I am turning the very specific question into a more abstract tone: what moves us to do things we don’t enjoys doing, and can probably get away with avoiding altogether?
Most of my motivation comes from explicit and implicit promises to other people; those I learned to like and respect. I suspect it is the same for most others: we do things that just need to be done in an effort to preserve relationships with other individuals, for whom those things are, for some reason, important. Promises move the world. Where direct administrative coercion fails (which is true everywhere except prisons, armies, mental hospitals, and totalitarian regimes), and where internal motivators are absent, it is the power of human relationships that gets things done. I’ll do the report; it will not be that good, and it definitely encroaches on my ability to enjoy Colorado fall. I do it for the teacher, so to speak.
We make a big mistake trying to pretend that school kids should have some internal motivation for learning. That is such an unfair assumption, and it helps no one. They should do boring things for their parents, teachers, friends, and other people they care about. Is it intrinsic or extrinsic motivation? Those psychologist that believe those two are different just completely miss the point of motivation. It can never be either one or the other. The distinction does not hold water. The interplay of duty and pleasure is much more complex. Ultimately, the two are always connected.
Enough of feet-dragging; back to the report.