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Apr 27, 2007

Gospriyomka and NCATE

When Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in 1985, one of the first things he did was establishing a highly centralized federal quality police. It was given an unpronounceable Russian abbreviation name Gospriyomka, which means simply “state inspection.” Its officers had the authority to inspect quality of any merchandise on the premised of any production unit, and deny its release. The Soviet economy had a horrendous production quality problem, and a significant portion of goods were shipped across the huge country only to be discarded as defective by on the receiving end. So, his idea was to stop the waste and at least save on shipping. Of course, it did not work, and could not work. Production stalled, because producers had to fix a lot of defective goods; consumers quickly realized that having bad quality goods was better than having no goods at all. This was one of the last convulsions of the planned economy. It became clear to most that the state has to abandon price control, privatize most of industries, and allow enterprises to compete, so the inefficient ones will go bankrupt and stop producing junk altogether. Of course, it is easier said than done. In the next fifteen years, the Russian economy experienced a tremendous collapse about twice as bad as the American Great Depression (in terms of real GDP contraction). Many of the problems still persists, although high oil prices bailed out the country out of the immediate danger of total economic collapse.

I remembered the Gospriyomka story as our NCATE and CRD (Colorado Reading Directorate) stories unfold. These are local skirmishes of the much larger accountability campaign raging across the educational field, and several other industries. No Child Left Behind is the major battle; ours are much smaller. I hope the analogy makes sense. First, both are well-intended at some level seem very reasonable. Indeed, who would be against improving quality of goods and services? Who would object the need for educational institutions to measure how well they teach and to be held accountable? The Soviet economy was in such an apparent trouble that any means of improvement were welcome. The same could be said about American education: its cost has been rising significantly over the last fifty years, while outcomes remain flat and lag behind other countries. Education is a sick man of American economy, so let’s do something, right? On a smaller scale, Colorado kids do not do that well on reading tests, so introducing some minimal standards to literacy instruction in teacher education cannot really hurt, can it? Considering it does not cost very much to the taxpayers, well the State should do something, or so the logic goes.

Gospriyomka failed not because it was a bad idea. It failed because it was a good idea within a bad economy. It’s like when your car is stuck in a deep mud, at some point it starts digging itself deeper and deeper. Ironically, the more powerful is your car, the deeper hole it digs for itself. If you’re traveling off-road, at some point you realize a simple boat is better than the most powerful 4-weel drive. This is exactly what happened to the Soviet economy: it did OK for a while, but it was simply not suited for consumer economy rigors. It can never produce good quality consumer goods (although it could produce a lot of tanks and missiles, some were not bad). The same thing is happening with American education: it was just fine when it was selective, and most people never graduated from high school. However, it is stuck deep in the mud when most of people now need to be at least somewhat educated. By the way, American education loses the global race not because it is exceptionally inept, but simply because it reached the mud pit first. Everyone else in the world is cheerfully speeding towards the same pit; they just don’t realize it yet.

I have thought long and hard about why NCATE reporting is such an arduous, elusive task. I considered my own ineptitude, other people’s ineptitude, and other theories; they all play small roles. However, there are deeper problems. Again, NCATE reporting is very reasonable in its intent. We do need to collect data and use it to improve our programs. NCATE have come a long way simplifying, streamlining, and making the process user-friendly. It’s the motivation that is all wrong. Our motivation is to comply and to be accredited, so we can accumulate kudos. In order to be effective, the culture of assessment should come from within, from genuine interest in improving the quality of our service. Two people may do exactly the same thing, but one does it much better than the other, because they operate in two different economies and hence have different motivation. Motivation is not a psychological phenomenon, not a personality trait; it is a function of the system.

If you are producing coffeemakers in America, you would be ultimately concerned with people buying or not buying them. From that act of consumption, the motivation to improve and innovate would percolate up to the production process. In the Soviet economy, the act of purchase had no bearings of your production; you were forced to improve and innovate by purely administrative measures: your boss would tell you to do so; yelling was the most common form of motivation. Your immediate concern would be to please the boss, not to sell the coffeemaker. No matter how good your workers and your bosses are, a Soviet coffeemaker would always be inferior to the Japanese or American, or Turkish one. Gorbachev introduced Gospriyomka, which meant that the bosses would apply even more administrative pressures, because they were pressured themselves. So you increase the overall administrative stress, but guess what? Your coffeemakers still suck AND there are fewer of them.

So, at UNC, the President and the Provost both believe NCATE looks good on our list of accrediting agencies. In other states it is not an option at all, and you do not get state accreditation unless NCATE accredits you. Carter Hall applies pressure to the Dean, who in turns applies pressure to me, who in turn will cajole, threaten, bribe, and shame people into doing their assessment bits. Paradoxically, because of all of this flurry of activity, we do not really have the time or the reason to actually sit down, and talk about how we are doing and what data we really need to do a good job. We also don’t really know how good a job we are doing, because we don’t really believe in our own NCATE reports. We produce them to get accredited.

Of course, it is not NCATE’s fault entirely. There is also no meaningful market or informed consumers to apply different kinds of pressure. This is where governments should really step in and create an infrastructure for educational markets. All they need to do is two things:
1. Make it illegal to ask which college you went to in all job applications, so colleges stop selling their brand names, and will start selling actual quality of service.
2. Force all colleges to disclose publicly the educational value added, using the same simple formula (pre-test/post-test ratio by major and licensure area). This could be tricky, but doable, and this is where specialized professional organizations could come up with measurement tools.

If that happens, consumers will quickly figure out what quality they want for what amount of money, and education will cease to be a positional good.

Apr 20, 2007

Time density

Time is not like a constant stream; it varies greatly in density. Today, for example, Jenni, Jeanie, Eugene and I were able to formulate a long-term strategy for our off-campus offerings, and solved (imperfectly) some short-term scheduling problems. Besides, there were probably four or five other significant problems that I was able to figure out for myself, again, with great help from other people. So, it was a very-very busy and a very productive Friday; and example of very dense time. Yet some other days feel like walking through deep mud of vaguely unpleasant, irresolvable, and needless problems. The time is thin, watery, and slow. It is filled with people who misunderstand each other, with lost memos and forgotten commitments, with small errors that go unnoticed and cause large problems, with tasks no one wants to do, and no one is sure are needed at all.

How is that possible? How can we work so well together one day, and then things just sort of disintegrate? The machinery of social interaction clearly has different modes, some a lot more efficient and pleasant than others. One day we are capable of very effective communication, lucid thinking, and great ideas. The next day wounded egos, sheer incompetence and ill will take over, and nothing of substance gets done, or things slip backwards. This is not just my personal feelings; I don’t think anyone would seriously dispute the existence of “good days” and “bad days.” The difference between the two can be described as a difference between dense and thin time. Of course, this is oversimplification, because different time density can occur on the same day and be strangely mixed.

But why is that? Why does social time have different quality? My old Honda runs about the same every day. Its performance slightly deteriorates with time, but it won’t run much better, unless I put a new engine in it. If it breaks, you can fix a part, so it works better for a while, but you can always explain why. If human organizations were cars, they would run great for a while, then suddenly stumble and crawl without any visible reasons, then fix themselves and race better than new, then fall apart again. They would never completely stop, but you can’t effectively steer them either. That is not to say that driving skills are unimportant; they certainly are. Different managers will get the same organizations to perform better or worse, on average. However, no one can predict how fast each individual stretch of highway will be covered. Managing an organization is nothing like engineering. We do not really know how things work; we just tinker with these marvelous machines, hoping to get them to work.

I am fortunate too work with very smart, very good-natured people all around me. But groups are very different indeed from individuals. Several good people together may both tremendously increase each other’s creative potential, and the same group may completely cancel each other’s strength and become stuck. Paradoxically, the same group can alternate between the two modes in the course of a week or a day. What we don’t really know is how to increase a likelihood of the former outcome, and decrease that of the latter. Problems that go back many years, and seem intractable, will suddenly resolve themselves without much of an effort. Others that seem insignificant and easily solvable will become monsters that take a lot of time and energy to manage.

So here is my theory. The organizations remain the same, but they encounter different kinds of time. It’s like a vehicle that travels sometimes through the air, sometimes through water, and sometimes in airless space. Because the medium is different, they perform differently, depending on what is the ether through which they move. This week for me, was extremely rich in time textures. A lot of things went right, many things went wrong, and some things went nowhere at all. I know it sounds wacky. That was the intent.

Apr 13, 2007

The clouds glide by

When I get too busy, I slow down. This is probably a way of calming myself, and fighting anxiety. I will either read a book that has nothing to do with my work, or will try to figure out some quirky computer thing, or do something else totally irrelevant and low-priority. It really does help, perhaps because a different part of the brain is engaged. After such a exercise for a couple of hours, some creative solution inevitably come, new energies come from somewhere, and life generally looks a lot better. So today is such a day. I have been shamelessly wasting my work time on trying to translate Joseph Brodsky’s poem “The clouds glide by”; also listen to a song written by Elena Frolova on Brodsky’s lyrics.

Now, there is probably a better translation somewhere; and I probably have butchered English poetic expression horribly. Sorry, I still don’t know that well how this language sounds. One rule of a good translation: people can translate into their native language, but never from it. It is also a fall poem, and is out of season. But guess what? I don’t care, this is something I need to do to stay sane, OK? So there. Eugene (he is our Dean), if you are reading this and want to mark this day as vacation, go ahead. I am taking a day off (although I am sitting in my office and answering the goddamned e-mails).
The clouds glide by

Can you really hear when children sing in the grove,
those voices ringing, ringing over the dusky trees,
vanishing, gradually disappearing into the dusky air,
the heavens vanishing into the dusky air?

Among the trees, the shiny threads of rain intertwine
and quietly hum, quietly hum in the bleached grass blades.
Can you hear the voices, see red combs in children’s hair,
see the small palms raised to touch the wet leaves?

“The clouds glide; they glide by and vanish…”
children sing and sing in the bustle of black branches,
through leaves and blurred tree trunks, the voices rise
in the dusky air, one cannot hug and hold voices back.

Only wet leaves ride the wind, hurry back to groves,
flying away, as if to answer a secret autumn call.
“The clouds glide by…,” children sing in the darkness,
from the grass to treetops, nothing but pulsing, trembling voices.

The clouds glide by, your life glides by, glides by,
Learn to live with it, this death we carry within,
Among the black branches, clouds with voices, loving…
“The clouds glide by…, ”children sing about it all.

Can you really hear, when children sing in the grove,
the shiny threads of rain intertwine, voices ring,
near narrow treetops, in the new dusk, for an instant
do you see heavens fading again, yes, fading again?

The clouds glide by, they glide over the grove.
Water falls somewhere; time to cry and to sing by autumn fences,
to weep and weep, to look upwards, to be a child in the night,
to look upwards, just to weep and to sing, and to know no loss.

Water falls somewhere, along the autumn fences and vague tree rows,
Singing in the new dusk, just to weep and to sing, just to rake leaves.
Something higher than us. Something higher than us glides by and fades,
just to weep and to sing, just to weep and to sing, just to live.


Thanks to Bob King for providing great feedback. OK, I cheated, and rewrote based on his input.

This is hard. Russian has longer words, so it can use the multi-syllable words to create this peculiar chanting rhythm. In Brodsky’s original, it’s Anapest, the meter where two weak syllables are followed by a strong one. In English, the anapest is not only very difficult to reproduce, but it also sounds silly. Also, Russian has grammatical cases, and a free word order, while English depends on words order to express grammatical meaning. So, the first line in Russian reads, literally “Hear if, hear if you in the grove, children’s’ singing?” Because English word order is relatively locked, it takes a lot more skill to provide a variety of patterns; a skill I clearly lack. Also, because of its long poetic history, English has run out of good simple rhymes a long time ago; that is why rhyming sounds so silly. Russian, on the other hand, has an inexhaustible rhyming bank, because words can be changed with various particles. Although English has a much bigger number of available roots, Russian can produce many more word forms from a smaller number of roots.

Russian does not have articles, so children, groves, fences, and other objects Brodsky has in mind, are all somewhere between “the” and “a”, somewhere vaguely undefined. You would never know if he is there physically present listening to specific children singing or he has some abstract children in mind. The same thing can be said about tenses: Russian does not make a distinction between continuous present and simple present tense. So, you cannot know a difference between “is singing” and “sings,” unless the speaker intentionally uses another way of specifying this distinction. And of course, poets like to keep it vague. Much of Russian poetic expression is derived from this grammatical vagueness of the language itself. English is a lot more specific about the definite/indefinite status of its nouns, and is enormously more precise about the timing of any event. Yet English poets seems to be much more concerned about the sound, about alliterations, internal rhyming, half-rhyming, etc.

As a more or less bilingual person, I always struggle with the limits and possibilities that both languages have. Certain things cannot be said economically in one of the languages. I don’t believe in the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis. All people think alike, and anything can be said in any language. However, certain things just sound much better in one language than in another. Here is a couple of examples: try to speak and write for a week without ever using such common words as “issue”, “sophisticated,” “challenge” or “proficient.” Yet all these words are lacking in Russian language. I mean, you can express the same ideas, using different words in different context, but just try avoiding use of these four words. I can give a long list of reverse examples, where a handy Russian word just does not have an equivalent in English.

I have learned to tolerate these linguistic limits, and to work around them. It strikes me that not only in speaking, but in the rest of out lives, we operate within a set of certain limits. Monolingual people often fail to perceive the profound weirdness of their only language, because they have nothing to compare it to. Similarly, people who used to working and living in similar cultural and social systems fail to recognize the implied limits of those systems, but also the unique opportunities the systems provide. Moreover, when exposed to another language or culture, many see difference in terms of hierarchy, and just have to say which one is better and which is worse. How do we get to understand difference without pecking order? One useful exercise is to translate a poem. Another is to see what can and what cannot be done in YOUR organization or culture, and what can and cannot be done if things were otherwise.

Apr 6, 2007

The ethics of rumoring

Rumor is essential to any community’s life. It’s the oldest and one of the most efficient means of group communication. People select the most important information and pass it on to the next person. The information spreads really quickly, because the channels of communication are horizontal, and because the information is selected, arranged, and made more interesting with each transmission. Rumors allow for both anonymous and named sources; they also serve as an instant, continuous measure of public opinion and provide valuable feedback to the group’s leadership.

Of course, information also is changed with each transmission. Each transmitter has his or her own agenda, and will put a spin on every message to achieve certain goals. So, the originator of the message does not control the message, like in the mass media. Rather, the message is controlled by multiple players; it mutates again and again. This fluidity is what makes them so appealing to people: everyone gets to be not only a passive recipient, but an empowered creator of the message. While no one likes to find out about a rumor where one figures in a bad light, we must admit that the limitations of the medium are the other side of its strengths. Rumors are also conveniently deniable, because no written record of them exists. It is also impossible to trace the rout of the rumor, so the authorship of alterations is always unclear; they have certain authority without having a real author. It is a profoundly democratic and profoundly unfair medium of communication.

People who argue against any rumors are sadly mistaken about the nature of the informational space. Information is always contested, and messages are distorted in every media; rumors are not exception in this regard. Mass media all do and have always done the same thing. It’s the multiplicity of media that makes the consumer of information free to chose which spin to believe, and how to play all messages against each other in the elusive search for truth. So, if you do not like a rumor, start another one, or counteract it through other kinds of media.

In my experience working in two cultures, I have noticed that Russians are a lot more proficient in rumors than Americans. Because of the decades of alienation from state-controlled mass media, and lack of informational technologies, Russians have developed very efficient horizontal channels of communication. When I worked with Russian groups, all I needed to do is to say to one person: let’s get together tomorrow morning at 9. The whole group will show up, because every member feels an obligation to convey any relevant information to everyone else. In the same way, opinions, stories and explanations are easily spread. Americans will usually make a distinction between official information on a bulletin board and just something someone has said. Their trust for official channels is much greater; they are more likely to believe the official story and ignore the rumors. This is not to say that Americans do not enjoy a good rumor, especially if the official channels of information are suspect for one reason or another. The rumor mills kick in overdrive really fast in the situation of conflict or tension, especially involving authority.

There is still the ethics of rumor. Like any other human activity, rumor mills cannot operate without some norms. For example, a colleague came in this morning to confront me about something I have said about her to someone else. Of course, the quote was wrong and the intent of the statement was reversed. While I wanted to comfort and protect the person's dignity, the message came back as mean and degrading. There were at least two information transmissions here: one between myself and the third person, and another between the third person and the colleague. In both there could have been simple misunderstanding of the content of the message, or intentional change, or some of both. Because rumors are so powerful, and so secretive, most people are actually careful to guard the most affected and vulnerable people against potentially hurtful rumors. For example, you don’t just come to someone and say: “hey, I’ve heard your marriage is falling apart.” Or, “Say, I’ve heard you’ve got cancer.” This is what kids do in junior high, where they just learn the art and the ethics of rumor. Adults who care about each other create protective informational bubbles around each other, and will try to avoid hurting their neighbor.

I know that certain personal tidbits of information about me are circulating among my colleagues, but I also trust they won’t just bring it up in a conversation with me, unless someone is trying to manipulate or fight me. I have made some comments about my colleagues that I need to trust will not get to them. Those comments were made to solve a particular problem, or to vent, or to help someone to find a way of working together. The assumption is such comments are confidential. Confidential means the comments may be shared with most people, but not with the person in question. Rumors rely on trust and sensitivity. Taken out of context of a conversation, most things we say about each other can be damaging.

Another good rule is about crossing the media boundaries. A message that came through as a rumor cannot be directly converted into a mass e-mail confronting the messenger. Of course, if you’re in a middle of a war and there is no real community, those rules are ignored. However, in an everyday normal course of events, this is a violation of the ethics of rumoring. If you received a rumor damaging to your reputation, your first obligation is to trace and confront the source in person, just to find out of the message is correct. This is simply to acknowledge the nature of rumor: it is not designed to convey accurate information, but to tell a story. Any sort of mass media message (including e-mails) requires a fact-finding mission first. The gap between two media cannot be crossed arbitrarily and at will, because each medium follows different rules and assumptions. This is why no real journalist will publish something not confirmed on record. They all know a lot more than they can publish, precisely because rumors are a very different kind of media. It took hundreds of years for journalists to develop this ethics; in the age of electronic media everyone has to learn the same.

Rumors also cannot be used in important, formal decisions. Either good or bad things we hear about someone cannot be used to evaluate one’s performance, for example. For decisions like that, we need hard evidence produced with some rigor. So, one who engages in rumors should have an ability to ignore information gathered by them. They provide much needed background knowledge, but not the foreground knowledge. No one can be hired, fired, or evaluated on the basis of rumors.

Some people simply refuse to discuss someone in one’s absence, and refuse to engage in any kinds of rumor. I think this is unwise and too extreme. Getting along in complex groups is all but impossible without these sorts of discussions. How do you get along with someone difficult if you can never discuss your problem with any third person? It is also helpful that some of these discussions leak into the informational space, so their results can be shared. Rumors can be both healthy and damaging, but they can never go away. Therefore, we just need to work on ethics of rumors to minimize damage and maximize benefits.