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Mar 30, 2007

Time Management and Sorry

This is going to be short one. I am really behind on many things, which makes me think about my poor time management skills. Or, rather, about what the heck is time management.

The truth is, people like me do not really have a lot of control over what needs to be done and when it needs to be done. Things just come our way out of the left field, at whatever rate they please. What time management means, is, really, a strategy of prioritizing. Then it is a matter of putting some things off, while doing other things really quickly, so we can concentrate on things that have to be done no matter what. One cannot do all things equally well and in a timely manner. However, people on the other end of all these tasks may not share my sense of priorities, so they rightfully perceive some of my actions they really are concerned about as shoddy work, or lack of time management skills. And they are right, of course. I just made another big scheduling error, and keep putting off things like grading my student papers, filing PES taxes, developing out new database, etc., etc. Of course, there are things I was able to do more or less on time, and more or less competently. Yet no one sees everything I do, but everyone around me sees a little thing, and it just possible that the only thing they see is the one I had to postpone or do a quick and dirty job on.

I am not at all complaining about lack of time. That is the silliest complaint; there is no such a thing as little time or being too busy. It’s all about deciding what to do and what not to do. The problem that I have not resolved is how to communicate to people in a respectful and meaningful way these priority decisions. How do you tell someone: sorry, your question will have to wait? Or how do I explain people that I did a poor job on something because it was not really a crucial task for me at the moment?

Again, this is not whining, just a reflection on a systemic problem of an organization that has a lot of centralized decisions and processes. Management books, of course, recommend delegating responsibilities, but it does not always work, simply because of the human resources limits. No matter ho much I want my work to be transparent, how do I really explain the interplay of pressures and priorities to everyone? There is a chance, everyone won’t be that interested anyway. And then, how much time do I want to invest in communications? Perhaps I should put a webcam looking into my monitor, so people can watch what I do all day? Perhaps they can help me better if they really do know?

Anyway, it’s been a tough week, and I was hitting some walls and spinning some wheels. If I screwed up your particular part of the puzzle, I am sorry.

Mar 23, 2007

The Lake Wobegon Effect

Here is what Wikipedia says:

The Lake Wobegon effect is the human tendency to overestimate one's achievements and capabilities in relation to others. It is named for the fictional town of Lake Wobegon from the radio series A Prairie Home Companion, where, according to Garrison Keillor, "all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average". In a similar way, a large majority of people claim to be above average; this phenomenon has been observed among drivers, CEOs, stock market analysts, college students, police officers and state education officials, among others. Experiments and surveys have repeatedly shown that most people believe that they possess attributes that are better or more desirable than average.

While my wonderful colleagues were enjoying the Spring break, I spent last three days solid looking through their peer evaluations for annual review. Thanks God, UNC does it together with merit review; my previous institution thought it necessary to do two separate reviews. At any rate, t is extremely slow, frustrating, and taxing work, perhaps the lest favorite of my duties.

The taxing part does not bother me. It is the relational tensions that get me. Let’s face it, no one likes to be evaluated by others, unless the results are congratulatory. No one really likes to evaluate others. As a new School Director, what stake do I have in being harsh on my colleagues? None, for I neither want to make enemies within this actually very friendly group, nor will such harshness make any difference in terms of improving the School. So, everyone in my School is above average, and I just go along with that, with minor variations. I am trying to do my best to make this process constructive, and include some recommendations, but where the rubber meets the road, that is in actual numbers, I am not doing anything drastic.

However, this institution’s long-term survival depends, in part, on its ability to raise its standing, to attract good faculty and good students, and generally to get better. To do this, we need to produce higher quality scholarship, and generally move closer to institutions with a stronger research mission.

The Lake Wobegon practices are clearly against the long-term interests of the whole, although they maybe in the short-term interest of many individual members. How do you crack this paradox? It is certainly not unique to higher education, but more or less describes the main tension of the entire social life. That’s the classic tragedy of the commons. Do I step forward and force everyone to do what’s best for them? Not likely. First, because I do not have nearly enough power to do so, and second, you cannot force people into a paradise against their will. If the expectations are to be raised and more efficiently enforced, this has to be a collective decision, one supported by the majority, if not by all.

Here is how Lake Wobegon effect works in the Academe. First, you need to design evaluation criteria that are…. Let’s just say, flexible. If you lay out, oh, seven criteria, but do not say how many of them have to be met, one can think of a number between one and six. Next, do not be critical towards your colleagues, and nod-nod, wink-wink to their exaggerated claims. Let’s pretend a small local journal run by our friends is an international peer-refereed publication. Let’s list all the non-existent committees, oh, so what? Who is getting hurt here? And finally, convince yourself that because the monetary gains from merit pay are so small, the fight is not worth fighting. Live and let live.

One problem with the Lake Wobegon is that it creates disincentive for highly productive people to produce. Again, from the point of view of the whole group, it is a bad system, because the highly productive people are valuable asset of the group; they generate most publicity, help attract other productive folks, and generate incomes that can be shared by everyone. Of course, they also create envy and are hard to control. How do we learn to accept inequality when it benefits us all?

I actually agree with the merit pay argument. Merit pay does not work when many states are financially starving their state universities AND blaming them for being liberal, or for not teaching the right stuff. If we are to get more rigorous, this has to be done for reasons other than merit pay. So we are now up to two unlikely suggestions: raising the bar needs to be done collectively, and not for any monetary considerations. Can we do it?

Mar 9, 2007

The “B” Word, or How do you know what you say you know

I always encourage my students to use the “B” word in their speaking and writing – “Because.” When you act as a consumer or as a voter, your opinion is very important, and you don’t have to explain it to anyone. However, when you act as a member of a professional community, no one gives a rat’s ass about your opinion, unless you can actually show that it is based on something. You can provide empirical evidence, or a good argument, but you need to have the “B” word there somewhere. Your opinion or belief means nothing if you cannot convince other people that it is somehow better than other people’s opinions. And not all kinds of convincing will do; only those the community accepted as reasonable.

That’s my usual routine speech. What I am not telling my students is that their professors do not necessarily do this in their own professional community. Many university conversations, especially those involving difference in opinion, very often degenerate into proving one’s point by insinuating that one has the authority over the matter and thus one’s opinion should not be questioned. The implication is always “trust me, I know.” Well, another mantra for my students is this: “Don’t trust anyone without questioning; especially don’t trust me.”

How do you know what you know? And don’t tell me you know this with your guts, or this is your philosophy, or that you had this long experience in the field. As a philosopher, I am especially offended by statements of beliefs without any justifications. If you think a naked belief is philosophy, you’re sadly mistaken. Sorry, I don’t buy crap, and I won’t buy it from you, whoever you are. Now, people also imply that if you do not believe their opinion, you somehow question their truthfulness or integrity or their qualifications. This is a subtle psychological manipulation, a form of relational violence. OK, I like and respect you, but why should I believe every opinion you might have? And if I don’t believe what you just said to be true, why should it affect our personal relationships? After all, we deal with professional matters, and must obey the rules of rational professional discourse.

For example, some people can call a certain position on program revision a deep commitment to the values of liberal education, while others call the same position a cynical turf grab. Who is to say who is right? Just renaming the position does not change its substance. Or, some say cooperating teachers won’t like this or that configuration of our field experience, while others say they won’t mind. Who is right? Can you ever know every teacher’s preference? Can we base our decision making on gut feelings, or even on conversations with a few teachers? How representative was your sample? How did you frame the question? Was your instrument valid and reliable; are your findings generalizable? As researchers, we all know how important these questions are. As members of this community, we routinely ignore them. All in exchange for feeling good and righteous, for that fleeting sense of having authority no one dares to question. It’s like this: “I just gave you the shakiest piece of data, but if you disagree, you’re calling me a liar.”

In a professional community, we would need to agree ahead of time what sort of evidence and arguments will prove one side or the other correct. We would marshal logic, research, and other good evidence to support each position. We would openly agree that good data is missing (which is true for %90 percent of decisions we make), and figure out the likely outcomes of decisions given the imperfect body of evidence and reasoning. Instead, people dress their frivolous opinions contaminated by personal interest in colorful garb of rhetoric. It’s all about concern for students; it’s what best for them. It’s because of the state or national standards. Oh, this is what any educator with any values would have supported. It’s for justice. But how do you know what you know? How do you think this is best for students? All these questions are rarely asked, because people get caught in the rhetorical battles, and respond to rhetoric with more sophisticated rhetoric. Hence battles without substance, where egos have overshadowed the issues and concessions are not an option. I like to cut to the chase and lay it out on the table, which is not always wise, and gets me in trouble sometimes. But I’ll take the risk, because there is nothing more torturous than a conversation where real motives are never discloused.

When entering a dialogue, one has to allow a possibility of changing one’s mind. If certain beliefs are too deep seated, or too dear to you, an honorable thing would be to disclose that in advance, apologize and say it is non-negotiable. That would save everyone time and effort wasted on conversations with predefined outcomes. The very act of entering a conversation implicitly states willingness to change one’s mind; otherwise it is deceitful and dishonest. If everyone know there are irreconcilable differences, then it is just easier to see who has more power, and whose opinion shall prevail without the empty dialogues leading to nowhere. However, once a conversation begins, all participants must have a shared sense about what sort of reasons will be acknowledged as valid, what sorts of arguments all parties accept as convincing.

Mar 2, 2007

Notes from AACTE, or American Absurdities

I was at AACTE conference over the last weekend. One of the most intriguing general sessions was a critic of neo-liberal approach to education. The term is confusing, because it refers to free-market approaches, and such thinkers as Milton Friedman , the author of voucher proposal. In American political culture, that would be called conservative, but because we deal with a world-wide phenomena, it is referred to as neo-liberalism. So, it was a crowd of liberals bashing neo-liberalism, if that makes any sense. All presenters were equally frightened of the horrors market would cause in education.

At the very end, I raised my hand and asked the panel, why there are no neo-liberals among them; why not invite someone who represents the opposing point of view? The panelists were literally at loss to respond, because it might not even occur to them that such a thing is possible. That is deeply disturbing to me. Whatever one’s political beliefs, why not engage the opponent? AACTE represents an entire profession, so how can it be so mindlessly partisan? Why through all the chips on a particular wing of one political party? Is it a surprise no one is taking AACTE and the whole profession seriously in the Congress? We complain that no one is listening to us, but does it occur to anyone that this might be because we are not saying much of substance? Instead of developing balanced, thoughtful positions, the profession seems to relish its old-school liberal roots over the practicalities of the 21 century educational policy. Hence the paucity of new ideas coming from within our profession. We are good at criticizing everything, but not that good at finding any solutions.

Once again, I found myself at a very awkward place, not quite fitting in natural political divisions of this country. My social beliefs are very liberal; all my friends are liberal, and I share the liberals concern for justice and multiculturalism. However, it is very difficult for me to imagine that direct government intervention through taxation will solve any of the issues the liberals are worried about. I have a deep suspicion of unions and other monopolies. So, does it make me a conservative? I have a lot of criticism toward the voucher initiatives; they are not working and are not going to work. But is more of the same an answer to public education’s persistent problems? Not really; we do need to move towards more market-like self-regulating mechanisms.

I find composition of both main American parties absurd and unprincipled. What do religious conservatives have in common with free-market libertarians? What do prolife activists have in common with the right-to-bear-arms crowd? Why do they all cling to the unholy alliance called the Republican Party? Similarly, what do gay rights activists have in common with old-school trade unions? Why environmentalists go along with pro-choice movement? What do urban poor gain from alliance with Hollywood? The Democratic Party is just an absurd a collection of people who have very little in common. Both parties are defined in opposition to each other, and this is the whole reason for their existence.

Logically, if you are against government intervention in board rooms, you should also be against such intervention in people’s bedrooms. If you are for preserving the traditional cultural norms, you should also be for preserving traditional natural environment. If you’re against business monopolies, you should probably be against worker’s monopolies.

Public intellectuals who try to remain rational and coherent in their beliefs have a hard time fitting in. What was heartening to see is that Diane Ravitch received a standing ovation at AACTE, even though she admitted being surprised by it. She does not fit into one camp or another, mainly because her own core beliefs are consistent and independent of political parties. Not all is lost, and perhaps we can get from under the spell of traditional American politics; that is where real possibilities of progress are. And this is not limited to teacher education.