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Dec 18, 2008

Ode to simplicity

Svetlana, Gleb, Prosha and I took a walk in the snow – a mile, maybe a mile and a half. It was one of those experiences that take you back in time. Cold air on my face, squeaking snow, and a white, colorless plain around us: I always miss the stark austerity of winter, the white and black, without color, without much detail. It puts me at ease, and resets my mind into a state of balance and clarity. My craving for simplicity comes from a similar source. I dislike unneeded complications, excess of detail, layers and additions. Things should be simple, elegant, and dependable.

Here is an example of an unnecessary complicated process. To place student teachers, we ask them where they want to go. Most just need a geographic area, but some want a specific building or even a specific teacher. We collect all this information from 300+ students (thank God, electronically), sort it, filter it, and send to individual school districts. A district HR person then sorts these requests, clears them with the district's authorities, and passes them on to building principals. Then each of the overworked, distracted principals will have to take these requests, think about matching them, then talk to each teacher, and send a confirmation to the district. The district then approves a match, and lets us know. We, in turn, create a confirmation letter and send it to our student.

What's wrong with this picture? - Almost everything. First, there are too many steps, which take a lot of time to complete. Second, there are bottlenecks for information flows. Marita, our student teaching coordinator cannot process all requests at the same time. Each district cannot do it fast either. Everyone tends to lose track of their requests. Building principals are tasked with an additional work which they tend to put off, because very often, other things are higher on their list. Is it working? Yes; we have never left a single student not placed somewhere. But it is not simple, not elegant, and not snow-like. The process takes too many steps, too many decisions, most of them unnecessary. It involves too many points of information transfer.

Essentially, two people should find each other – the host teacher and the student teacher. They are the primary players in this game. The only reason we won't allow students to find their own placement is that it is too intrusive for the life of schools. There are also three parties to give consent to the match: UNC, the building principal, and the district. In some cases, it is     just the principal and us. But it is clear that people who should just have the power of consent, are also involved in passing the information to each other. Moving information is not the same thing as giving approval, and it does not have to go together. And this confusion is what creates the friction in the system.

What we should do is use matchmaking software, where people look for each other by certain criteria: location, grade level, perhaps even teaching philosophy. The three parties approving the match can actually give their permission in advance. For example, a teacher needs to be cleared to post his or her profile. A UNC student can only select a host room under some criteria, known in advance. We do not have a stake in knowing too much about the process, and certainly don't gain anything by passing a lot of information.

Of course, there is some distance from an idea to reality. But once it's done, it is going to be so clean, so white, like snow. I am looking forward to it. Peace.

Dec 14, 2008

The grading season

It is this time of the year, when our kind spends hours and hours over student papers, portfolios, and exams. As I school director, I get to teach only one class, which brought me only 90 pages of single-spaced text to read. I am on page 52 out of 90 right now. But I remember times when my end of semester load included 4300 pages of undergraduate writing, to be read, commented on and graded in three of four days. People who don't do this kind of work, cannot imagine how hard it is to focus on student papers, to force oneself to understand the points, and to provide intelligent feedback. It is harder to remain compassionate, to avoid getting irritated by the same silly errors and platitudes, and to remain an even-handed and fair grader. At least this time, I am working on doctoral students' papers. Doc students are all competent writers, and good thinkers. Someone before me graded their awkward, badly written, choppy papers in high school and college, so I can enjoy the good writing and thinking they produce now. Writing and thinking are complex, slowly developing skills. If you ever doubt it, pull out your own freshman paper, and read it.

There does not seem to be any way to make grading more efficient or less time consuming. Not sure about others, but at the end of semester, I always feel guilty about not providing enough feedback before, not reading enough drafts, not spending enough time on students. Grading is exhausting, no matter what you do; there is never less of it, nor it ever gets done as thoroughly as one would wish.

It is also not very gratifying. Students who do well tend to ascribe their success to their own efforts and own smarts. Those who do poorly tend to blame us, and find our grading unfair, prejudiced, or sloppy. Neither group reads the comments produced by our hurting brains late at night. But we chose to avoid acknowledging this sad fact: grading is still teaching and we try to be helpful anyway. So friends and colleagues slaving over student papers, I am with you, I feel for you, and thank you for your hidden, unglamorous Sisyphean labor.

It is easier when you reflect on how much students actually progressed from when you first met them in class. Education is still a highly inexact, wasteful, and amateurish enterprise. Yet somehow it works, and people visibly learn something useful. It is less visible in the span of one class, but is very obvious when you compare, for example a freshman with a senior in college. Whatever we do with them must be somewhat effective. That's the mystery for today. The grades are due on Wednesday 5 PM. Happy grading.

Dec 6, 2008

The Year of the Bear

One of the highlights of my week was the gift wrapping party, organized by Susan and Jenni. A few early childhood students and some faculty first collected Christmas gift for children, and then wrapped them. Parents who lack the money for the holiday can just get these, so kids do not left without a gift. It felt great, and we had much fun. I must confess, a part of me immediately started to worry: not enough students are involved, and how can we make these important experiences available to more of the future teachers. Well, Susan set me straight – you cannot always focus on improvements; you must be able to appreciate what we are doing right.

And she is right, of course. Many people have some professional deformations. For example, school teachers tend to explain everything to everyone, sometimes the simplest things, and do it at length. Administrators like me tend to look for improvements, and therefore focus on problems to be solved. But it is also important to appreciate and acknowledge what we have accomplished, and continue doing right. There is the deep reason for the Thanksgiving Day to exist. It is a chance to appreciate what we have, so it is not all about complaining and improving. For example, it was just so gratifying to see over a hundred elementary and early childhood students at their student teaching orientation meeting. Sharp, cool, and prepared, they will become someone's favorite teacher, and change many lives. We just completed a complicated multi-stage program revision and transition – not without screw-up, but also without any major disasters. The first Early Childhood cohort will student-teach in the Spring. The first Secondary Postbac cohort will do the same. Our Longmont Reading cohort will wrap up this Summer; an LDE cohort will start in January. And all our existing programs are strong and growing. We just hired two more good people, and will try to hire two more. I am deeply grateful to all our faculty and staff for making all of this possible.

And then there is the gift-wrapping party. It is perhaps the most important of all developments. Our first step was to become a professional community that can work well together. The next challenge is to become a community that has a larger purpose beyond simply professional one. We are strong enough to take on more. We can give our students the best of all gifts – an opportunity and the ability to give. We also need to remember, that many people have very hard time right now, and for the time being, we are more or less safe from the recession. We still have jobs, and those are good, secure jobs. It's our turn to help. This is why I think we should focus on our nascent Bear Hug project, elect its governing board, create some plans, and generally get it moving.

Therefore, by the authority given to me or usurped, I declare 2009 the Year of the Bear, contrary to the Chinese calendar assigning it to Ox.

Nov 14, 2008

Reality Check

Just a couple of weeks ago, I was writing on problem solving, and mentioned a small problem we were able to solve, and the sense of satisfaction it brought. Well, guess what – it did not work. Once we asked more people involved in it, the solution turned out to be impractical. We had to develop another one later, and it turned out to be wrong also. Now we are on a third version, and the newest seems not as elegant as the first one, but it shows a better promise… We'll see.

The reality check comes in two forms: first, you have to run your solution by all people who are involved. They just see the aspects of the problem you do not necessarily see. The ability to overlook things is endemic to human beings. We don't want to ask ourselves a question that we suspect is not easy to answer. So, reality is other people. While not everyone is equally gifted in the solutions department, most people are great at imagining why something won't work. And it is a lot less expensive to imagine possible problems than encounter them in reality, and then fix. And because we all have different jobs and different experiences, involving more people helps to prevent many blunders.

The reality is also in trying it out, and being ready to adjust. We lived through many changes in the last two and half years, and this much is clear: any change needs tweaking after it is implemented. There is change fatigue, when you just want things to settle down. However, if problems keep coming up, they should be addressed. And then there is a level of a good-enough process. You can improve things endlessly, but at some point, the cost of change outweighs its potential benefits. If you can't fix it any more, it ain't that broke.

And finally, reality is the limitations we all have as people. The job interviews, which we had a plenty last two weeks, are a reminder. Every time we talk about a potential candidate and find some small flaws, I always think about myself, and my own flaws. I also think about my colleagues – it is great to work with all of them, and we have so much energy and fun, but it is not to say that they all are perfect. There is no such a thing as a perfect person, which really what makes people interesting. In every one of us, there are just certain limits that cannot be transcended. A very good solution may not work just because of the people who implement it.

Nov 6, 2008

The eventness of being

The eventness of being (событийность бытия) is a term invented by Mikhail Bakhtin, my favorite philosopher. It does sound rather highbrowed but it really isn't. If you have ever had goose bumps just from realizing that something is happening around you, you know what it means. Nothing makes life more real than its eventness, its ability to progress, to change. However you voted, you probably felt the significance of the event, when Obama walked on the stage on Tuesday night. Some felt joy, while others were disappointed and threatened. Yet if you did not feel the eventness of our existence, you're probably dead inside.

The eventness of being is easier to notice and appreciate when we have time to prepare, like it was with the elections. It is actually happening, you think, because you had imagined something like this before. 9/11 was an event that was hard to miss, too, although no one was preparing for it. it is the magnitude and the visual images that made it so real and unforgettable. Yet we often ignore the eventness of being when events are smaller, and less dramatic. Many of us enjoy stability, and comfort of knowing what will happen tomorrow. This is probably built into our DNA. Yet there is another kind of pleasure in life that comes from the new, the unexpected. When the waves of events wash over your body and soul, try to feel the tiny vibrations of the changing world.

It is easier said than done, because we like to control our destiny. Many people take it too far, and get extremely uncomfortable when things go not as anticipated. I don't enjoy it, when things go wrong either. But I must admit that there is a part of me that marvels the unpredictability, even when things are going wrong. You learn something new about the world when things go wrong. And I always feel sorry for people who just cannot take anything unexpected. Because they don't see the eventness of being, they have to attribute the unexpected to human will: good things happened because someone did a good thing, and bad things are happening because someone is incompetent or ill-intended. This is the view of the world that is very hard to live with. Any small deviation from the norm will look like evidence of poor judgment or ill intent, and will require that the guilt is assigned to someone.

Contrary to what some people may believe, I don't have anyone particular in mind. These are ramifications on human nature; they apply to all of us, maybe in different degree. I am certainly not always in touch with the great vibe of the eventful world, although it is my habit to try. It is tempting to attribute successes to myself, and failures to someone else, even though my mind knows both are largely accidents.

Here is a very small event that sent chills down my spine. My daughter's department (she just started grad school) has a tradition: every Halloween, they gather around Bronisław Malinowski's grave and read their favorite passages from the great anthropologist's writings. I was just there, thinking about the eventness of being, about this guy who died in 1942, and was thinking about the "imponderabilia of everyday life." He discovered the participant observation method, by accident, of course. And - I don't quite know how to explain it – this all really happened, and here is his grave, and here are the people that read his work. The life is a flow of happenings; it is not a list of projects.

Oct 24, 2008

The Russian Method

The group of Russians just left UNC a couple of days ago; they were here for a conference on teacher education. The visit was a lot of fun; we went to different places and talked about our work. I got to translate 9 presentations, which again brought me to the problem of translation. If Russian psychology can be translated (Vygotsky and Leontyev, for example), its educational theory and practice remains almost completely unknown in the English-speaking world. Rooted in the same Progressive education ideas of the early 20-th century, Russian educational tradition then developed largely independent of the West, and produces both the most authoritarian forms of education, and some of the freest and most creative. The problem is what the Russian educators use a completely idiosyncratic terminology and conceptual frameworks that are hard to translate. I discovered it very early in my American career, because virtually nothing from my Russian publications could be used for my American dissertation. I had to start from scratch. The literal translation just does not make much sense. For example, English does not have a word for Russian vospitaniye. It is a term for the part of educational theory and practice that is not about knowledge and skills, but is about attitudes, dispositions, and character. Vospitanie is sometimes defined as helping a person to grow, and in a sense, wider than education. Another problem is that Russian theorists tend to use awful jargon, which does not make much sense in Russian either, and certainly does not help people understand the discoveries Russian practitioners made. So, OK here is my attempt to summarize the Russian method in a few lines:

  1. Transformation of peer culture into an educationally sound community. This is, of course, not a new idea; it was known to Jesuits for sure, and to many Progressives; it was and is used by Boy Scouts and many other children groups. The difference is that the Russians for the first time figured out a way of creating such peer communities without religious undertones, and make it inclusive. They also created a number of techniques that can be reproduced – the communities do not depend on a charismatic leader. Apparently, this works in both the K-12 and Higher Education world. The student communities can be integrated with the academic learning. Adults and children build relational network which them create additional motivation to learn.
  2. The next discovery did not come until late 50-s. An educational community needs a project, a goal larger than itself. It is hard to provide such a goal for children and adolescents, because they are largely excluded from production, nor do they need to sacrifice themselves in a war, or help others. If religion is out also, it is not easy to find a project that would require working together. A number of Russian educators stumbled upon the same idea: they used techniques borrowed from the Russian theater actor training tradition (Stanislavsky, Meyerhold, Mihail Chekhov), and from some cultural forms of Russian intelligentsia. They invented the so-called collective creative activity – something between improvisational theater, an elaborated game, or an invented celebration. It is hard to explain, and was not really explained well in the literature, but this strange activity provides enough social glue to hold these communities together. I suspect the exact configuration of the collective creative activity depends on the Russian cultural stereotypes and traditions, so it is not easily exportable.
  3. The Russians re-discovered group therapy methods. Basically, if you consistently discuss with kids the relational side of things, it helps to accelerate the community development. Again, over the years, these techniques were standardized to a point where almost any competent adult could do it.
  4. And finally, just in the recent decades, it became apparent that the method works better if weaker dozes, where communities are not as strong and tight, but still "good enough" to allow for the level of safety, engagement, and satisfaction to keep most children happy.

I am not sure if any of this makes any sense, but here it is. Is there a potential book here?

Oct 9, 2008

Problem Solving

I greatly value people's ability to solve problems. It brings me great pleasure to see how an unexpected solution emerges. There is a little bit of magic in it – just by thinking about some problem or difficulty in a different way, people are able to overcome the problem or difficulty. Just by thinking. When I see a new gadget or a piece of software, or just a simple thing like a tool or an office form, I always look at a clever idea, at an elegant solution. And when it is there, I feel a strong connection to the unknown to me person whose mind created something out of nothing; some value out of an idea. It is also makes my day or even a week, when I find such a solution, or am helping someone else to find it. The occasion for this was a really simple solution for one organizational problem; the nature of it is really unimportant. My colleague actually found it, and I was just able to contribute to it a little. It may still not work, but it just felt great. So, I am sharing my joy.

An elegant solution is not always possible. We live with some problems for years and years, and nothing seems to be working. Or we have only small, weak, unoriginal and temporary fixes. Or we employ ugly solutions which are too wasteful, or harmful, or just …ugly. And when I see people doing something without an attempt at originality, it irritates me. It also bugs me when I am unable to figure out a way out of a dead end, big or small. And it happens very often.

I am not sure if this makes any sense, but this looking for good ideas in other people's lives and in my own is what really makes me tick. It is addictive and not always productive, because it often makes sense just to leave things alone. Not every problem deserves solving. Not every known thing needs improvement. A hammer is a hammer, and yet my heart sings when I see a clever hammer design in a hardware store. Observing and experiencing creativity is the most profound and also a very strange pleasure.

Oleg Gazman, a wonderful Russian educator is credited with the motto "Every action must be creative, otherwise why bother?" Is this an overstatement? Perhaps; he was just placing a lot of emphasis on creativity, because it empowers children, gives them the sense of agency, and also ultimately helps them to learn and mature. I.P.Ivanov, S.A.Shmakov, O.A.Gazman and other founders of the Communard's Movement elevated creativity to the level of a moral value, not just a skill or preference. In their eyes, one must be a problem solver, and a creative thinker. It is not a choice, but an obligation. Creativity is, of course, is really an aesthetic, not an ethical ideal. Yet somehow it makes sense to me. That is where my search for creative ideas probably comes from: many of my teachers were connected to the movement. I am not making any value claims here, just trying to explain myself. It is not motivated by the ego, not at all. In fact, it is just as much fun to observe human creativity as it is to engage in it. I am not overly concerned with work efficiency (although it does enter my reasoning, for the obvious reasons). It is just the appreciation of the process. I just love to see those elegant solutions hatch and grow, and love to contribute. Creative work is double fun when it is collective. So, it was a good week.

Oct 3, 2008

The theory of set

In the first half of the 20s century, a great Georgian psychologist Dmitri Uznadze developed the theory of set. He and his followers measured how our actions are shaped not so much by stimuli as by readiness to act in a certain way. When we act, we unfold pre-written scripts. This is why different people can look at the same thing, and see completely different pictures. We all tend to screen information according to the pre-existing beliefs and attitudes, unconsciously. Sometimes these differences become so large that people do not understand how others see the world so differently, without lying, or being dumb.

I still remember the effect of the Simpson trials, where Black and White Americans realized they saw the same evidence in a strikingly different light, and came to the opposite conclusions. Political seasons usually lead to similar experiences. For example, how can the same woman, whose life is very much exposed to everyone, cause such a different reaction in different people? While conservatives tend to love Sarah Pailin, liberals are genuinely in disbelief that anyone can do that. These gaps in perceptions need to be explained, and when the gap is very large, only two explanations generally work: the other guys must be evil or stupid. So, liberals consider regular people who vote Republican stupid hicks, and the Republican leaders are just plain evil. Conservatives tend to do the same: the liberals are stupid, corrupt, or perverse, or all the above. Again, this is done not to just malign people; how else do you explain the differences in perception? The famous principle "agree to disagree" is a really difficult trick to pull off. It requires one to have no theory of other person's motives. Humans have a hard time being agnostic about each other's motives; it is almost unbearable for us to not know why people act the way they act. We need a theory of the other to stay sane; we are built to interpret other person's actions. This is actually, what most of our complex brains are designed for.

Now, because of these gaps, and theories that explain them, it is very difficult to talk to each other. For example, if I want to point out a character flaw in Pailin that has nothing to do with her political view, my Democrat friends will ignore it, because it does not matter. Republican friends will ignore it, because I just talk like any other liberal. (By the way, what concerns me about Sarah Pailin is that slight motion of her lower lip when she is angry, like that of a child determined not to cry. If you don't know what I mean, turn off the sound, and watch her speak – the convention and the debate. I think it is more important than her inexperience, or lack of knowledge, or her religious beliefs; she's got some major issues with self-esteem, and is driven to success to compensate for it, not to achieve something. She should never hold power over other people; it is just too dangerous for her and others.) See, there is no room for details like that in the regular political discourse, because of the gaps.

This is not a political blog, so I also want to connect to our much smaller and much better world. We all face that challenge from time to time. Sometimes other person's actions are just so difficult to explain, especially if you and that person are facing the same set of facts. But remember Uznadze: we carry sets – complex, holistic tendencies to see and act in certain ways. While we may be looking at the same thing, we might see very different things. Then we tend to attribute evil intentions or stupidity to other people who might possess neither. The solution is to suspend judgment, and try to understand and give credit to other people. Agree to disagree does not work; try to develop a habit of inventing multiple explanations of other people's actions. This skill is essential for what Maxine Greene calls the moral imagination.

Sep 20, 2008

In Praise of Email

Yesterday, Friday 9/19/2008, I have sent 51 emails. The first one, at 9:30 AM, was to Vicky. She told me than Layne is out ill today, and in the afternoon, she might need my help covering the front office. I simply said, I am on my way, and will cover. The last one, at 11:37 PM, was an acknowledgement that I received the Russian visitor's flight itinerary, and wished them luck at the interview with the American Embassy.

Yesterday, I received exactly 70 emails, not counting those The Barracuda ate (No, not Sarah Pailin, the other one). First one was at 1: 12 AM from my editor. He is in the Netherlands, hence the odd timing. It was a short message, stating that if Svetlana agrees to do cover art for my book, she can just use a PDF format. The last one, at 10:42 PM, was from Lena, our Russian contact, with the aforementioned itinerary.

This is quite typical, and I am not complaining about the amount of emails. I am sure your inboxes are of similar sizes. Some of my colleagues, who coordinate large undergraduate programs, probably receive and send more. This is not a complaint, but a reflection on this wonderful tool of communication we have. Because it can be annoying and seem overwhelming, we forget how wonderful it really is.

It is very versatile. For example, yesterday, I issued two official requests to process payments for two people, and asked at least two staff members to perform specific tasks. I helped nominate two students for the Graduate Dean Excellence Citation Awards. I accepted a formal dinner invitation. I asked a Registrar person to investigate a technical solution with Ursa which potentially can really simplify our PTEP compliance procedures and perhaps improve testing data we receive. Two other school directors discussed two different issues with me: One has to do with staffing policy and a short-term solution, the other – with payments from school to school for cross-program teaching assignments. I made a goofy error while confirming a guest speaker for my class, and then corrected myself within three hours or so. A faculty senator and I had three exchanges about a possible motion I want the Senate to consider. Several people were involved in an on-going discussion about implications of another abrupt CDE policy change; I also sent an update to some people about it. Three messages were exchanged with a Loveland woman who adopted a couple of Russian orphans, so we set up a meeting to talk about them. I answered a few of student and potential inquiries. I've sent the Dean a list of faculty publications for 2008 he requested a week ago. There were two faculty inquiries about policies and program requirements. But this is not all – there were several equivalents of a water cooler chat: how are things, and did hear that, or seen this? Several e-mails were very brief and are either confirming something or asking to do something.

It is obvious to me that all of these things could not be done without this technology in the same amount of time. I am not sure if it is good or bad that we do so many things, but we certainly could not accomplished them all with a telephone, hard copy notes, and face-to-face meetings. Of course, I probably made a lot of errors, just because of the speed of communications. Perhaps some decisions would benefit from a more thoughtful deliberations. However, the overall efficiency of what we all do has to be much higher than what was going on 10 years ago. Just student inquiries alone probably save us hours and hours ever week. An e-mail is much faster than a phone call or a visit; it can also point to other information (I find myself inserting web links into almost every student or applicant inquiry).

Another great feature of email is that it keeps a written record of everything. It counteracts our forgetfulness and a tendency to edit our memories. In the world of mostly oral communication, people always forget, deny, or remember a conversation differently. This is one reason for many meetings – you want many witnesses to confirm what was said and agreed on. Email is not only versatile and fast, but it is also exact and retrievable (which also makes it subpoenable).

Of course it works only when there is a certain amount of trust. One should trust the technology is working, and the message is going to be delivered. The newest casualty of the anti-spam war, is, unfortunately, a chance that Barracuda will eat an important message, along with all the garbage it swallows. Email also needs an understanding that an e-mail should contain an explicit or explicit permission to forward to others, or add more people when you reply. You should also trust that the BCC field is for exceptions only, and not a rule. I am still not sure what the ethics of BCC are. I think it is only for those cases when it is understood other people have been or will be involved in the conversation, and your correspondent knows that, but you want the respondent to answer to you only. Anyway, I think most people have a very good intuitive grasp for these rules, and we all have learned a lot about it in the last 15 years or so. Long live email.

Sep 13, 2008

A Study of Human Nature

The most challenging and the most interesting part of my job is dealing with people, with their quirks and peculiarities. Sometimes I think this entire experience is one big experimental study of human nature. And I even did not have to go through the human subject review board!

Here is one finding: there is a big mismatch between the intellect and the emotion. Otherwise perfectly rational, very smart and competent people will suddenly exhibit irrational likes or dislikes, take childish actions, and otherwise behave as if their rational brain is turned off for a moment. A wonderful and much-loved teacher will suddenly through a fit in classroom, yell at students, and slam the door, leaving. Another great person will have an episode of flash rage, and do something, then regret it and deny ever having done it. Someone with a great potential will sometimes say things about which she has absolutely no idea, just to experience the sensation of being always right and always competent. A person will suspect being set up for failure. Another person will believe in a great conspiracy against him. An experienced faculty member will read a student's confidential e-mail to the whole class, and humiliate the author publicly. She will consider every student question as a way of undermining her authority. Two people who have not known each other will suddenly take dislike of each other without any reasons. A person will demand special treatment with an infantile egocentrism and blindness to the needs of the whole group. Of course, my very position makes me aware of more of these things than anyone else, just because information of such nature tends to flow towards me. Authority attracts anger like lantern attracts moths; with similar consequences. It is endlessly fascinating; and never gets old. It also helps to reflect on my own actions, and sometimes even see my own "brain-off" episodes coming (although not usually).

The atavistic, caveman parts of our brains are very much alive and strong. They interact uneasily with the more modern, sophisticated parts of the brain. The caveman then forces the rational brain to come up with very complicated and believable rationalizations. After all, when your rational brain comes on line again, it needs to integrate what you just did into the life story, and into the sense of a coherent self. I am not sure the self really exists; it does looks like a story that really makes little sense. You probably have seen some movies where the playwright had a hard time coming up with a plausible ending, and just shoehorns everything into an arbitrary, unbelievable ending. That's what we do about ourselves: we take all these random behaviors, and give them the reasons later:"Here is why I did it; I had every right to do it." It is too bad the culture does not allow for just simply irrational behaviors. I think the problem is not with the caveman brains we have, but with the constant pressure to hide their existence. I wish people would just say, "Sorry, it was a brain-off episode."

Unfortunately, different people will have different relationships with their caveman brains. Some acknowledge it, and learn to live with it. Others don't acknowledge, but still have ways of controlling it most of the time. And then some people just have no idea about how irrational their behavior really is, how much it hurts them and others. They are so busy rationalizing their own actions that no time is left for actually doing something good. The need to rationalize all of our actions actually enslaves us to the caveman brains, makes the truly irrational actions indistinguishable from regular, rational actions.

Sep 6, 2008

On Academic Ethics

Last night (yes, Friday night), I met with my doctoral class, EDF 670, Introduction to Research Literature. We had four guest speakers – faculty from our college, to whom I am very grateful. The class is focused on helping doc students to write their literature review chapter. However, as the evening progressed, the conversation came to ethical questions. Who do you include and who do you exclude from your lit review? What do you read and what do you skim? How do you deal with disagreements on your committee? What do you stop taking all recommendations and assert your ownership over your own dissertation project? Can you approach a scholar you don't know? The conversation just made me reflect on how important the ethical considerations are in doctoral education. The professional norms are more important than legal and policy frameworks. Of course, there is a plenty of abuse and just bad behavior, but a doctoral degree still means a specific moral commitment to seeking truth with evidence and rational argument, to scholarly egalitarianism, and to integrity of scholarship craft. Training a doctoral student is intensely personal, and a largely altruistic job.

We don't have the same understanding with undergraduate and even Masters level students. Thos relationships are much less personal, and are guided by policy and law more than ethics. Some of it is understandable: we teach many more undergraduates than doctoral students. However, there is still an issue that needs to be addressed. NO faculty will sign her or his name on a dissertation project that is not good enough and can be an embarrassment. But many people will give a grade to an undergrad student without much evidence that the student has a good enough competency. We have quite a few students that "slip through the cracks." Every college professor probably had this experience, wondering how this or that student ever made it that far? In most cases, we let them through even further, wanting to avoid conflict. And after all, he has enough points to pass.

In a private e-mail, Dr. D.Raja Ganesan suggested to me that the names of professors should be printed on student transcripts, along with the title of the course, and the grade. I think it is an excellent idea, and can add a measure of personal responsibility to our actions as teachers. It will also encourage more university professors to care about their reputation as teachers, not just researchers. It will allow more interactions among professors about specific students, and may even help aligning curriculum and protect against the curricular drift. Because all student transcripts are available to all professors on-line, I imagine more conversations among professors like this: "So and so got an A in your class, but has problems with mine… How can I help her?" "So and so claims you never covered this concept in your class. This does not seem right, but I want to double check with you." "Was so and so absent a lot from your class, too?"

I bet it is very easy to implement now, with unified registration database. All we need is a faculty Senate discussion and a decision. In a mid-size university like ours, it will be the most interesting to try.

Aug 29, 2008

Till When?

I was trying to rent a van from UNC facilities, for the Nomadic conference in October. No problem, but they require each driver to take a 75 minutes class on van driving safety and state policies. Even though I drove a 15 passenger van for thousands of miles and hours, there is no waiver. Even though I can probably read the state policies myself, in just a few minutes, I'd have to go and listen to someone about them in person. Can you test me on policies? No. This whole thing irritated me somewhat, because it does sound like a waste of my time. There has to be a better way of ensuring safety and compliance than making everyone, regardless of experience, and of how we prefer to learn.

So, I was irritated until I realized that this is exactly what we make our students to do, only a lot more. No matter how much they already know and are able to do, there is no practical way for them to test out of a class. Even though some of them are like me; they prefer to read information quickly and try to apply it right away – we still want all to come to classroom and listen to our ramblings, our posturing, and our stories. The time spent in the holy union of buttocks with chairs is still the main measure of someone's education. We are just so used to this that the absurdity of the situation is hard to notice.

How long can we sit out in our narcissistic castles of education? In the age of Google Book and Google Scholar, the Wikipedia and the on-line research databases, we still measure education in credits – seat time, really, – and we insist on being paid for it on per-credit basis; and we want more and more, when information became so cheap it is really free. Whatever miniscule accountability measures we adopt are all on top of the seat-time machinery, not instead of it. I just don't think this is going to hold much longer.

We will probably rent the van from a private vendor, even though it is slightly more expensive. At least, they don't require me to learn what I already know, and to hear a lecture where a brief reading will do. Sooner or later, our students will make the same choice. Someone will force the legal changes undermining our monopoly on education. Someone will figure out a way of determining how much people already know, and how they can demonstrate their competency. Finally, someone will also figure out how to put control over learning into learner's hands, so they can chose how they want to learn, as long as learning takes place.

I am not sure when this is going to happen, and who will figure out all these things. I want to be one of them, for sure, not to watch our common ship slowly sink into oblivion. There should be a better way to teach and learn.

Aug 22, 2008

White Privilege

This week, we had a diversity workshop for college faculty on white privilege. By all accounts, it was very well done. The conversation was meaningful, and it felt right. The presenter Linda Black used a framework that originates with Peggy McIntosh's White Privilege concept. Most of us, college professors either knew the concept before, and if not, had no trouble grasping it. What remains unanswered though is what to do about it. One can say that as college faculty, we have an obligation to teach the White privilege to our students, so they understand how it works. However, it simply pushes the question one level down: once we manage to explain our students how the privilege works, what then? They will ask us what THEY should do about it.

The real problem is not with understanding that there exists the invisible privilege associated with one's race, class, sexual orientation, etc., but with what to do about it. This is a relatively new historical phenomenon. In the past, privilege was explicitly claimed by specific dress, language, behavior, or other visible markers. Now much of privilege exists by the means of not marking itself, and instead by marking everyone else. He is an African-American writer, we say, but she is simply a writer. These guys are Islamic terrorists, but Timothy McVeigh in is simply a terrorist. I do not wear "I am straight" sign on my forehead, but will silently assume we all know I am straight. Because the power is manifested by being "normal," buy being non-exotic, how do you refuse to exercise it? In other words, how does a White guy refuses to exercise the privilege, if it is exercised by doing nothing? How do you not do nothing?

One way to do control one's privilege is by watching one's behavior and language. His is what I and many of my colleagues do. It is surely important, and can be learned. However, let us be honest, these measure are not too effective. Just by bringing my White face into a conversation, I may change the power dynamics of a conversation. The same goes for gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, etc. We can control our behavior and language to some degree, but cannot control our skin color, gender, and sexual orientation. There is bias by behavior and bias by being; the former can be somewhat changed, the latter – I am not so sure.

What makes it more complicated, is that the White privilege is always contested, and sometimes very successfully. In certain settings and situations, women, and minorities will claim their own privileges. A small example: let's say the conversation changed to childbirth. Most (but not all) women will immediately reverse the power equation to imply that only they can produce any valid judgment about it, and men's opinions are not taken seriously. We all do that code switching hundreds of times a day; we manipulate contexts of social interactions to claim and exercise power. We claim many kinds of authority and privilege over each other, unconsciously. In these games, it is very difficult to distinguish the systemic kinds of privilege McIntosh is taking about, from other, less systemic, and more contextual power plays. I'd risk claiming that most people are incapable of making these distinctions on the go. A regular White guy who feels momentarily powerless will generalize this feeling into the entire issue of White privilege. The absolute majority of men, Whites, upper class, straight people – you name it – do not feel very powerful, and thus have a hard time recognizing the concept of the invisible privilege, even when they have a good intellectual grasp on it.

I am just trying to outline the real difficulty that anti-bias project faces. The solution seems to lie with some process of de-normalizing Whiteness, maleness and heterosexuality. While there is a lot of good thinking about these issues going on in scholarly communities, I don't think we are really there yet. In other words, the issue is not only with lack of efforts, but also with the lack of practical, manageable solutions. How do you make the normal questionable? Can there be no norm at all?

I imagine there could be a way to systematically analyze our institutional policies, documents, and practices for normativity or privilege (I am sorry for the jargon; not sure how else to say it without writing a long essay). But I don't know if such a process exists, or if there are instruments helping to do that. I am sure anyone can find a few examples where, for example the choice of textbooks or T&P documents, or illustrations may reinforce certain group privileges. Any social practice can be examined: who is likely to benefit? Who is likely to be left out? However, I am not sure if there is a more holistic and systematic way of assessing our institutional practices. Does anyone know? And if it does not exist, can we try to develop it? Something practical, manageable, with lists, criteria, ratings, that would allow to focus on the most important things, and be done in a reasonable time with reasonable effort? Not too complex to invite faking?

My hope is that our College Diversity committee would try to do something like that. We can always use more workshops; let's also focus on sensible self-examination.

Aug 15, 2008

Ten Profound Truths about the Japanese culture

Can one visit a country for a week or two and then claim any level of understanding its culture? Not really; it always annoys me when people make deep comments about the two countries I really know well – Russian and the U.S. – after doing the touristy things. So, to be fair, my brief visit to Japan taught me nothing about the Japanese culture or way of life. But the doing the superficial observations is such fun! So, let me embrace my shallowness, and talk about the small things.
  1. The Japanese have a thing about their toilets. First, there are a lot of them, unlike in major US or Russian cities. They are all free. Most toilets in decent places have seat warmers; some also have built-in bidets, which will wash and spray your bottom at a push of a button. Wasteful? Not at all. Like Europeans, the Japanese figure that if you wash only the certain parts of your body often and on demand, you're less likely to take many showers a day and conserve water. However, besides the luxurious warm toilets, they also have the squat toilets, if you prefer that. The trick is to figure out in which direction to sit on those, because they are located with your side to the door.
  2. You need a small towel with you at all times to wipe off the sweat from your face and neck. That and a hand fan are pretty much a necessity. You can get away with napkins, but you need to go to Starbucks to get napkins, because the Japanese has a prejudice against paper napkins, and you won't get them at most places, even where you buy ice cream.
  3. The Japanese overwhelmingly don't speak English, despite having studied it in school and college. Language instruction sucks everywhere, in case you're wondering. When you have no reason to learn a language, no school will help you do that.
  4. Everything costs about twice as much as you expect, which is a function of the weak dollar. However, fruits cost about ten times of what you expect. Why in such a warm and rich country do they have a shortage of fruit? I have no idea.
  5. Everything is about half of the American size: cars, fire trucks, benches, seats, meal portions. Overweight Japanese are a true rarity.
  6. Sushi in Kyoto on Shijo street, next to the river are to die for. That is the sushi heaven. Whatever you do, don't eat the sea urchin roe in the raw; it will make you puke. However, the rest of the food is delicious, not spicy, and looks quite healthy.
  7. My wife Svetlana thinks that the Japanese are the best people on Earth, and everyone else is a troglodyte in comparison. Of course, this is because she is an artist, and Japanese really do have a great sense of style, balance, and color. It is evident even for me, not a great designer. She claims that even a Japanese janitor or landscaper is a true artist, judging from the way they arrange and adorn little things. She says the subdued color schemes they use are unparalleled, maybe with Italy coming as close second. Japan is virtually kitsch-free. America is drowning in kitsch, Russia is the kitsch empire.
  8. The Japanese don't only drive, but also walk on the left. It is hard, but important to remember, or else you will run into people all the time.
  9. Japanese nod a lot; or rather, these are short bows. And they bow a lot, even when they say "No." They also say thank you and thank you very much and thank you oh so very-very much all the time, especially when they try to sell you something. However, they don't try to sell very hard, and their store clerks are not nearly as annoying as the American ones, and not nearly as rude as the Russian ones. All shops are air-conditioned (remember the sweat towel) which makes shopping there an enjoyable experience, except for the item #5. I am otherwise extremely annoyed and bored by shopping. But if it is 100 degrees with 100% humidity outside, that cute little Japanese shirt looks rather interesting.
  10. The Japanese are a lot like us.
These are the ten most profound truths about Japan I could produce.

Jul 30, 2008


A happy week was completely ruined by plagiarism cases I discovered in my graduate class. I don't really know why, but it always makes me very upset. Somehow, it always feels like I failed, too. No matter how many times I warn students, and how explicitly the policy is stated on my syllabus, it still feels yucky, like when you see someone stealing. I might be just grumpy today, but it really is unpleasant to be deceived. I am sure those of you who ever was deceived or robbed remember the feeling of being violated. It is not the stuff or money that you miss, but your own sense of… I don't know, cleanliness?

Why students do it, I am not entirely sure. I don't remember having any inclination or temptation of cheating when I was a student, so it is hard for me to relate. Partly, it just became very easy to do. The instant access to information means instant, effortless stealing opportunity. I don't believe for a minute that students now are less honest than before. In the past, it simply took too much effort to plagiarize. One had to go to a library, find a book, re-type some text. Plagiarism is usually a cope-out for people who are insecure, stressed, and overcommitted. Dishonest, too. But because they are also short on time, effort makes a lot of difference. Old plagiarism was less harmful, because simply retyping text made the offender learn something. Copying and pasting teaches one nothing except for the skill of copying and pasting.

Of course, professors can fight back, and that is what we should do. If we don't, we may as well just sell the diplomas; we are no better than snake oil sellers. As objective standardized tests are used less and less frequently, we must make sure the performance-based assessment is not compromised, or we will run into deep trouble. Unopposed, plagiarism will ruin higher education in no time, because no link between credentials and competence will remain. So, this is a call to arms.

As a first step, ask your students to submit a file even if you prefer to grade hard copies. We should try to check very paper for every class.

  • Open a blank file, go to Insert, Object, Text from file. Then select all files student submitted, and insert them all at once. You will get a huge, hundreds of pages file. Of course, you can do it with individual files, if they look suspicious.
  • Then go to ANY shell of Blackboard, Control Panel, and click on SafeAssign.
  • After that, click on Direct Submit, and then on Submit papers button.
  • Once you submit, give it several minutes to work its magic. It will produce a report that will begin with something like this:
  • Click on all instances of plagiarism (they are numbered in little green circles), and on Highlight All, and then manually recheck. Sometimes a student uses legitimate quotes, and the system does not know it. However, it also finds real instances, even if a few words are changed to conceal plagiarism. It is important to re-check manually though, to avoid false accusations.

Jul 17, 2008

On stupidity

Two nights ago, I was building a headboard for our bed; something I promised Svetlana to do for a very long time. Like most men, I have to look at the materials (nice pine boards) for some time, and make a mental plan, step by step, of how things should work. Then I started to work, and one thing was annoying. Because I have only one drill, I had to constantly pull out the drill bit, and put in the Phillips bit for screws, and then back. It's not essential to know the details; basically, in this particular project, you could not pre-drill all holes and then screw in all screws, not without spending another hour calculating fractions, and measuring everything very precisely.

Anyway, about half-way through, I realized just how stupid my plan was, and that there was a much easier solution: nail all the boards lightly just to keep them in place; then drill all the holes, every time putting the nail back into the hole to hold the construction, and then screw all in. I think everyone had that experience, the sudden acknowledgement of one's own stupidity. It does not have to be carpentry, of course. Sometimes you ask a question, and before you finish, you just realize well, this is a really stupid question, because the answer is quite obvious. The headboard project made me think about the nature of stupidity.

It is not mental retardation or low intellect; that is not what I have in mind at all. Rather, it is when regular, reasonably intelligent people do something stupid, as if the brain just checks out for a moment (sometimes for longer periods of time). It is obvious that everyone has those moments; some of us are better at hiding those, while others are great at denials, and will always find someone else to blame for their brain malfunctions. Teachers, for example, tend to attribute kids' stupid actions to immaturity; they routinely deny or ignore their own blunders. Stupidity is embarrassing, and it takes a great amount of trust to acknowledge and own up to it, especially when other people are involved. Notice, my example was extremely safe: it only cost me an extra hour or so of work, and did not hurt anyone. I could probably come up with a more relevant and recognizable one from work, but then it's too embarrassing, and involves others.

What bothers me is not the stupid things we all do on occasion, but the denial that we do them. For example, one can do the same dumb thing for years, simply because one denies that it is excessively stupid. Instead of acknowledging (even to oneself), and fixing the problem, one just continues doing it. This is not inertia, or lack of imagination, not that. A more subtle mechanism is in place: if you try to change certain process, you implicitly acknowledge that what you did before was, well, not that smart. The question that inevitably arises is, why did you put up with that all that time? Paradoxically, greater tolerance to stupidity is the main way of reducing its sway.

Embrace your inner idiot.

Jul 9, 2008

Virtual course

We had a great slowtalk with Elementary PTEP program this week. It is good to talk about the nitty-gritty of curriculum, and not about data, accountability, and other such boring stuff. One interesting issue we encountered is with curriculum strands. For example, we do not have a special class on classroom assessment. It would make sense to teach this content in several different classes, as a curricular strand or a theme. However, once you try to figure out how it works, the task is not simple. Do we hit the same skills and content in different classes? But then it might be redundant. Do we build a specific sequence of skills and content? But how do we make sure there is continuity, and that all instructors teach it? This is an interesting challenge, because we are used to think in terms of courses: there is specific content, outline, calendar, readings; one person is in charge of it; it has assignments, tests or other evaluations, and a grade. The strands or themes are hard to conceptualize and implement, because they encroach on faculty independence, and just require too much time for constant collaboration. There is no mechanism of enforcement.

Here is one possible solution. What if we use the same mental tools that we are used to, to manage the strands? In general, it is easier to think about a new problem, if you can cast in terms of an old problem. We can develop a virtual course called "Classroom Assessment." It will have a syllabus, content, readings, assignments, and tests, just like any other course. However, within it, there will be several sections: "You will learn this in EDEL 350, as a course within the course. It will be 20% of your course grade." And then the next section: "You will learn this in EDEL 445, and it will make 10% of your grade." The course will take three or four real courses to complete, and students themselves would carry records from previous evaluations from course to course. Instructors of each real course will then be more or less bound to the virtual course's syllabus, because students will expect it. Students will be able to see some coherence in the strand, so that assignments build on each other to reinforce and develop skills, and that their knowledge is gradually expanding. It will also avoid redundancy, where instructors use the same reading, or the same assignment, or just cover the same content.

Everyone likes to tweak what we teach and how we teach, hence the curricular drift. But if we have a virtual course syllabus, whoever is changing his or her portion of it, will be compelled to see if the change does not affect other parts of the syllabus (again, in terms of redundancy and connection).

Taking this idea a little further, course sequences (for example, the literacy sequence), should really be thought of in terms of one long course, with one super-syllabus. The same objective: to make sure readings, content, assignments, and tests build on each other, rather than overlap. And if they overlap, it is by choice, to reinforce certain concepts. What do you all think?

Jul 5, 2008

Summer reading

Summertime, and the living is easy. I don't know how other people spend their down time. I was reading (and also listening to podcasts) abound mind-enhancement drugs, child sexuality, the Iberian Celts, robots, beekeeping, and other such unrelated stuff. In between, I am reading Jude the Obscure by Thomas Harding, editing my manuscript, watching good and bad TV.
My mind delights in random ideas; I love to know about human creativity, and about people's profound weirdness. Not sure where this comes from; probably genetic, from my nomadic ancestors. This always happens to me between writing projects; my brain needs food. It does not have to be educational research or philosophy. Rather, it has to be something different, something from the fields I don't actually know much about. That is the only way I know how to think.

Among other things, the eclectic summer reading puts me in an optimistic mood. As a species, we are at the top of our creativity. We have enormous creative powers, and have not been using even a portion of it. And nothing makes us more creative than a decently sized crisis. The $4 a gallon gas created the buzz of new ideas; people drive less, carpool more, and share efficient driving tips. Americans have cut back 30 billion miles over the last six months. Another two dollars increase, and we will start building public transportation. Isn't that the best thing that happened to America in the long time? I am waiting for that plug-in hybrid, and till then, my 84 Honda Civic will do nicely. Uninterrupted prosperity is a recipe for complacency. Our little corner of the woods, higher education, has been remarkably stable and successful. Just watch what happens when this model unravels. We all will become very creative and innovative overnight. Life is good, and it is going to get better.

Jun 28, 2008


By Fyodor Ivanovich Tyutchev, 1830

Speak not, lie hidden, and conceal
the way you dream, the things you feel.
Deep in your spirit let them rise
akin to stars in crystal skies
that set before the night is blurred:
delight in them and speak no word.

How can a heart expression find?
How should another know your mind?
Will he discern what quickens you?
A thought once uttered is untrue.
Dimmed is the fountainhead when stirred:
drink at the source and speak no word.

Live in your inner self alone
within your soul a world has grown,
the magic of veiled thoughts that might
be blinded by the outer light,
drowned in the noise of day, unheard...
take in their song and speak no word.

/trans. by Vladimir Nabokov/

Молчи, скрывайся и таи
И чувства и мечты свои -
Пускай в душевной глубине
Встают и заходят оне
Безмолвно, как звезды в ночи,-
Любуйся ими - и молчи.

Как сердцу высказать себя?
Другому как понять тебя?
Поймёт ли он, чем ты живёшь?
Мысль изречённая есть ложь.
Взрывая, возмутишь ключи,-
Питайся ими - и молчи.

Лишь жить в себе самом умей -
Есть целый мир в душе твоей
Таинственно-волшебных дум;
Их оглушит наружный шум,
Дневные разгонят лучи,-
Внимай их пенью - и молчи!..

Jun 19, 2008

What is happening to public higher education?

As we are testing waters in various off-campus ventures, I get a sense that some rules of the game are changing. Mainly, it is the kinds of questions potential applicants are asking and the kinds of responses or non-responses we get from people. It is not a secret generally; see for example, Lloyd Armstrong's blog. Basically, higher education is entering the world of competition, something most of other industries have been operating in for a long time. We are not there yet. For example, our recent drop in enrollments did not get anyone worried about our job security, or the imminent bankruptcy. I remember from my days of working for a small company, it was a very different feeling. We knew that if this state contract is not awarded, or that client leaves us, we all lose our jobs, at any time. Or, compare this to American car manufacturers: SUV's and trucks are not selling, so they just closed down a lot of factories, and fired a lot of people. We are not there yet, and hopefully, not even close. But we are definitely on the road to operating in the same situation of competition.

Just a couple of examples: a school district we were trying to talk into opening an off-campus cohort in, invited us and another university to present on the same day. Or another example: a recently admitted student shares that he shopped around, and we won his business because we had someone on the phone to talk to. Our partner schools tell us: you are good, but another university pays more to cooperating teachers. And finally, we seem to be losing the enrollment race to CSU and CU, see the recent Tribune article by Chris Casey.

Of course, the situation is not dire yet; we will always have traditional students, even if in smaller droves; our education programs are first-rate, and we seem to be working on overdrive all the time. So, there is no real sense of losing business; not on personal level. However, I just think we and other similar universities are not ready for the world of competition, and it may come sooner and much more suddenly than we imagine.

We are not prepared because of the outdated organizational structures and culture. We are not flexible, we are slow to react, and we cannot count money. UNC, like any other university, has the commercial arm, the Extended Studies. ES is much more efficient simply because they have more organizational and financial flexibility. Ideally, the rest of the university should operate just like the Extended Studies, constantly monitoring revenues and expenses in each college, school, and individual program. While not every program has to break even, everyone's financial situation must be transparent. I really don't mind subsidizing another program, but I would like to be told about it, and to know that this is done for the good of the whole, not because no one is paying attention. Revenue streams must be traced to their originators, and the patter should have a right to use some of it to experiment, take risks, and invent new educational services.

A part of the problem is that there is a further division within the University, and an invisible wall separates the Academic Affairs and the Extended Studies. While legal rationale for this separation is clear (state funded versus cash funded), ideally, academic units, faculty and students don't have to know or care about the difference between the two. There is no justification for the absurd situation when our new growing Early Childhood program only costs us money, while our off-campus Postbac programs are the main source of our discretionary income. Those are both very good, and both require a lot of work, dedication, and creativity. Much of risk-taking is dampened by the perceived shortage of faculty, and incongruence of ES vs. on-campus policies and procedures. We are caught in the perpetual catch-22: we cannot grow, because we do not have faculty to grow; we do not have faculty, because we do not have funds to hire them. Almost all new initiatives are coming out of someone's hide, and those hides are not inexhaustible.

What would a business person do? Come up with a plan, and then borrow money or find an investor to make it happen. Then hire great people to work on it, and just get the project going. Use of credit is the life-line of all modern economy, and it was invented exactly to get out of the catch-22 situation. But of course, we are not allowed to do what everyone else is doing, because we are a university. We are not about money. Sometimes I think we are about the absence thereof.

Another example: at the end of the calendar year 2008, our School will have taught 51 credits of off-campus credit hours. That is an equivalent of two full-time instructors. However, we cannot hire two new instructors using Extended Studies funds, because such people would need to teach for ES only. But this simply won't work, because no one can teach all of these various courses; one need to be a specialist. We could hire someone on ES funds, but who would teach in both off-, and on-campus. What's the difference, after all? It would not have been cheaper; full-time faculty cost slightly more than either adjunct instruction or overloads to existing FT faculty. However, we can expect a full time faculty to work with us on curriculum, on new programs, take lead in developing new projects, serve of committees, write reports, etc.

There are other institutional barriers; I won't mention them all. It is probably too boring already. I am just worried about what is coming next. We might not see that bus closing in on us. As we can see, the economy experiences wide swings, and dramatic changes. Who knew five years ago people will be dumping their SUV's and your house would lose value? How do we know what the landscape of higher education will look like 5 years from now? Will there be enough for everyone? Which other players will enter the field and open their brick and mortar or virtual campuses next door? I think public universities like ours should start to transform themselves into more flexible organizations now while we still have time. There is other one legal mandate or a fiscal rule or another to stop us from changing. But then again, Colorado is a smaller state, with a smaller, friendlier government, and we can change all these rules if we really wanted. In 2006, Colorado ranked fifth in the nation on the "Best States for Business" rankings by Forbes. And I am confident we can do it, because we have the most educated and creative workforce among all industries. Another option is to wait and see.

Jun 13, 2008

Fall Offense Planning

I have written here before, that I divide all work into defense and offence. Defense is reacting to things that are coming my way: reports, requests for information, trouble students and trouble faculty, personnel issues, routine office management issues, things to sign, and things to check on, schedules, workloads, staffing, contracts, finances, responses to student inquiries, teaching. This actually adds to quite a bit, especially in Fall and Summer.

Offense is new projects, such as grant applications (we just submitted one), program revisions, attempts to expand out off-campus empire, thinking about where we want to be in the future, developing some efficiency tools (for example, the SIMS database, and I started on a new scheduling database), considering changes in policy (such as a new system of payments for consultants), looking for ways to save money, developing a plan of action or the year. Just lie a military offense, each academic year needs to have some preliminary planning work done: what should be accomplished, and then, narrow it down to what can be accomplished.

In the next academic year, we have a number of biggies. NCATE comes in November for a site visit. In October (tentatively, 10-17), the Russians are coming for the First International Teacher Education conference (See the Nomadic Conference blog for the original idea). If that happened, then we are to travel to Russia in May for a visit. If we like the whole thing, we can start planning another one, with a different country. If the Jordan Early Childhood grant is funded, Jordanians will come for a visit sometime in the Fall as well. Now, we absolutely must start another off-campus cohort in MAT/LDE next year, expand Secondary Postbac, reignite the Bridge Postbac program, and plant seeds for perhaps three more programs, hoping at least one of them will work (I am thinking, we can take MAT/Elementary off-campus to Denver, start an Early Childhood PTEP cohort in one of community colleges, and begin developing a quality Ed.D. on-line). The Elementary PTEP and Postbac assessment system overhaul needs to be completed next year; Secondary and K-12 also moved forward considerably. We need to keep ironing out the kinks of our PTEP tracking system (the checkpoint courses), and keep debugging curriculum (that seems to never end). Elementary transition should complete by the end of the year, so we need to see what bugs are there. Early Childhood program will mature to adulthood (it's a pun), so we need to review the lessons and adjust. We need to take a hard look at our annual budget, estimate PT costs, and see how much money we can really invest in professional development and curriculum development. I am also going to teach a new doctoral class in the Fall, and am still quite unsure about it.

Now, these are too many projects to just keep working on them at the same time, so we need a plan, with some timeline, and specific tasks in each project. In other words, we need a script for the year. There is not a slightest chance for me to do most of it, so the play needs a cast, with specific roles assigned. Wait, I am mixing my metaphors here: started with military and ended with theater. But I guess it is the same idea; both involve what they call project management in business. In the last two years, I have tried to be more or less systematic about each individual project, but not about all of them. So, that's my Summer project, to spell out the big plan, and try to see how different parts interact with each other. Any help will be greatly appreciated.

Jun 6, 2008

The tasks of improvement

Some of the units at our university, which shall remain unnamed, cannot improve. They run into the same problems semester after semester, and heroically overcome those, every time. The people there work just as hard as anyone else, if not harder. They are always friendly, helpful, and get things done. And we end up talking to them quite a bit, because, well, there are problems; the same ones again and again.

How does t happen that people are so busy working, they don't have the time to figure out a way of doing their work better, more efficiently, with fewer errors? Not that I don't know how, for our little operation at STE has its own backlog of unsolved issues. We simply don't have time to get to them. But it bothers me when serious, chronic problems, all of which are solvable, get put off again and again. What bothers me is a day-to-day mentality, where things are done for the day, as if they are done for the last time. Next day brings the same exact problems, but we are just waiting for the day to end.

I don't want our School be among those units that will remain unnamed. We need to keep improving things, small and big, even just to keep ourselves moving. So, let's take a look at what we do, and make sure we spend our time and energy on doing more complex, more interesting work, and don't waste our lives stepping on the same rake every day. Here is my set of adages to help:

  • If you work too hard, it probably means you don't work too smart.
  • The best use of time is in thinking where all your time goes.
  • Thinking is noticing patterns, and everyone notices if you work without thinking.
  • The most interesting work is getting rid of uninteresting work.
  • When we try to ignore how stupid something is, we say "it's always been done that way."

May 29, 2008

The wheel reinvention factory

How long does it take to develop a course syllabus? For a course you taught for many times, it still takes a couple of days: to change the calendar, to tweak assignments and grading rubrics, to update reading lists, to order books, etc. If it is a new course, or a significantly revised one, it can take weeks. That is exactly what I did this week: revised a graduate course I taught once before. It is a labor-intensive process, and results of it are often imperfect. It took me at least five years to get my undergraduate Social Foundations class where I wanted it to be, and I had more time to play with curriculum back then. For this course, I do not have all the time in the world, and simply cannot invest two weeks in it. Considering I may or may not teach it in the future, this might not be a vise investment of time.

Of course when I see something takes too much time or effort, my brain starts churning. After all, every time we do it, we reinvent the wheel. The mental process of an instructor follows more or less the same patterns: What do I want them to learn? (Learning objectives). What kinds of activities and assignments can work to help them learn? What sources have the main concepts and fact? How can I make sure they learned what they need to learn? How to make grading system clear and fair? How to space all of this throughout the course in a logical manner? And finally, how to explain it all in a syllabus? Those are fairly common, repeatable questions, which from a semblance of an algorithm. Moreover, there are only a limited number of answers to each question, and each choice narrows the choices in the next step. For example, most courses' learning objectives include mastering certain concepts, and certain facts, as well as development of certain skills. While the number of concepts is unlimited, the skills are limited: those are skills of reasoning/thinking, and performance kinds of skills (how to present information, to speak, to show, etc.). The facts can also be broken down into, say, dates, names, statistics, cases. But then, if your course is heavy on concepts and their applications, there are only limited choices on how to help people learn concepts. For example, you can give a case, and show the concept at work. Or, you can define it. Then you always want people to use concepts in context different from the original example, so you can be sure students learned to use the concept. Then you can test how sophisticated is their use of a concept by asking to use it in a more difficult case, etc., etc. Class schedule narrows down the choice of activities. A 3-hour class cannot contain only lecture or only discussion; it must have some combination of various activities. Also, there are really a limited number of activities, and they are all good for a specific task. Let's see, there are lectures, demonstrations, large class discussions, small group discussions, debates, simulations and simulation games, skits, teaching segments… OK, probably about a dozen more. Still, not unlimited. Those can be classified by engagement level, and focus on content, by instructor-led vs. student-led. I am just giving some examples, so do not expect complete lists.

This really does look like an algorithm. Can a computer program take guesswork out of this, so I don't forget any important steps? For example, imagine smart software like this: You want to design a course?

  • Step One: Please enter the key concepts you want to teach (it looks for definitions, so you only need to pick one out; it also looks through Goggle Scholar to suggest key readings). OK, which skills from this list are the most important? Great. Which facts do you want students to know and understand: Enter names (it churns out an internet search on them), historical events (does the same). Will they need to know any demographic, economic or other facts? Or copy and paste appropriate profession standards, so we can analyze them for concepts, skills, and attitudes.
  • Step two: it tells you your course is overloaded with concepts and facts; please reduce to make it appropriate for sophomore level.
  • Step three: Identify your time budget: contact classroom hours, homework hours, grading hours. Here is a list of appropriate activities. Each takes so much time from classroom contact time, so much home work, and so much grading time. If you select one, it reduces the budget until you exhaust it all.
  • Step three: here is the recommended mix of activities and assignments, based on your schedule. And here is a list of suggested assessments; select from the list.
  • Step four: check your course, click here to print the syllabus. Click here to generate and edit classroom activities handouts.
  • After each class, rate activities and assignments, so the system learns which ones actually work, and which do not. Share the learning curve with other professors teaching the same course.

The point of automating tasks is that more time can be spent on actually creative, deep thinking about teaching. It is also to minimize omissions, miscalculations of time and effort, poor grading practices, repetitive activities, vagueness of objectives, mismatch between objectives and assignments, between what we teach and what we assess. This is no more complicated than the TurboTax; it uses the same level of algorithmic complexity.

Anyone wants to go in business with me? We can pitch this to a venture capital firm, raise 2-3 mln, and pay ourselves nice salaries for 5 years, waiting for this to succeed. Or fail.

May 23, 2008

The language regime

Over the last weekend, I attended my son's graduation. On Monday through Wednesday, I spent a lot of time on a grant application. On Thursday I drove by Windsor that was hit by a tornado, and saw the destruction on TV. I also got rid of weeds in our yard, cooked myself a meal, read a book, and answered a few e-mails. How do you put all these events next to each other? We are always forced to distinguish important from unimportant, to rank the events in our lives according to some obscure principle. But what is it? The tornado is of course, the biggest news story. Some 200 homes and businesses are damaged; one person died. Nothing can be more important than that at the moment. However, human brain is a peculiar thing, and the smallish, unimportant thoughts and concerns will pop in and crowd out the most important ones. The mind wonders in different direction, and does not seem to care what we acknowledge to be more or less important. We hide it of course. When a tornado hits the town next to you, you do not share with other people the concern about yard weeds, and how to get them out without killing your good plants. Sharing such a thought would appear to be callous and inconsiderate of others. I remember in the days following 9-11, all conversations not related to the tragedy dropped for a while, and comedy shows were cancelled for about a month. In fact, we always carefully censor topics of our conversations, bringing up what looks appropriate, and hiding silly, insignificant, or strange thoughts we have. The appearance of normalcy is heavily dependent on our ability to project an appropriate image through words.

This is how we operate, and not just in time of the disaster. Most people underestimate the degree to which we all self-censor our speech. This is one reason it is so difficult to figure out what people really think. In fact, we don't really want to know what others are thinking. A device that actually reads minds would have been a social disaster, because we all are so used to the barrier between thought and speech. We would be shocked and disappointed at the mixture of inappropriate, bizarre, random, and trivial thoughts in other people's minds – because we are not fully aware of the mess inside our own heads. I am writing this as a blogger; as someone who needs to constantly organize his thoughts for public consumption. But all of us edit our thoughts all the time, and this editing, in a larger sense, constitutes social norms. The inner censor is so strong, it can push the entire levels of thought completely under the level of awareness, which creates the subconscious. The most serious taboo thoughts are so unspeakable, they also become unthinkable (yeah, Freud again, but also Bourdieu and Voloshinov, if you're curious).

We also have mechanisms of thwarting the inner censor from time to time. It is very important to do so, because much of creativity stems from our ability to hold off the censorship. Humor is one such mechanism. When you say something everyone else thinks but does not dare to say, that's funny... up to a certain degree. And laughter is probably just a social signal to let people know they violated certain social norm, but not too much. So, laughter is the first warning, anger is the second warning. A mental illness diagnosis or a prison sentence is the third and final warning. These are the society's lines of defense against its members' chaotic brains.

I am thinking about language: which discourse is permissible, and which is not. I was recently told that at least some of my colleagues are offended by my use of "Jesus" as an emotional/humorous expression. I had no idea and am thankful to friends who let me know. And I am sorry if it offended anyone. However, I just watched the news, and don't believe the level of policing the language applied to our political candidates is healthy. They are now not only expected to heavily police their own speech, but also be responsible for things their supporters say. Where is the line that separates the good censor from the bad one?

It is my hope that we, in our School, will have a language regime that is teetering between common decency and certain tolerance. This is not just because I am particularly attach to certain expressions, or want to make my life easier, or impose my language regime onto others. No, it is simply a concern for the spaces of humor, creativity, and tolerance to remain open. We are a rowdy bunch, with many interesting, diverse personalities and beliefs, which is what makes me so happy to be here. To make our little community work, we must both be sensitive to each other's rules of discourse, and be very tolerant to those who violate them. Some of us find the casual usage of the word Jesus offensive; others are sensitive to verbal indications of sexism, racism, classism, and ableism. There are many other nuances, such as who is from where, who has been here longer, who went to which school, and who is a more productive scholar or better teacher. It is very easy to offend someone inadvertently. However, one can always refuse to be offended, and laugh instead. So, let's use the first warning signal often and generously, and hold off the second warning as much as we can.

May 1, 2008

Flexible but sticky

At the end of the academic year, I reflect on what worked and what did not, and if there is any pattern that separates the two kinds of projects. Unfortunately, my little self-analysis does not bring that many generalizations. No discernable pattern emerges. For example, projects that I thought were well thought out, and on which we worked really hard, did not materialize (for example the off-campus cohort in Alamosa), for reasons beyond our control. Others I considered to be risky, worked out just fine (both the checkpoint system and the new student teaching placement database). Where I did not expect any complications (our scanning project), such complications occurred. Things I thought really simple and doable (the study abroad in Siberia project) did not work. Most of our projects are still working themselves into something definite, the jury is still out. For example, we are yet to see if the massive revision of the Elementary program will bring real results. We don't know if our Secondary Postbac program will work or not. Some projects appeared from nowhere, they were simply opportunities: The Jordan Early Childhood grant project, or the Content Reading project, or the partnership with Association of Retired Educators. Many other things though worked out about as expected and did not create major surprises one way or another. We worked hard on NCTATE reports and State reauthorizations, and both went well so far. I wanted to sign a book contract, and it took longer than expected, but it happened. I worked on my last PES conference, and it went on as planned, more or less. Many of my colleagues did a lot of great things, and I am sure they all have had a successful year. But not everything worked as planned.

OK, this is getting tedious. But all I want to say is that there is not a lot of predictability in what we do, and good planning and good effort do not guarantee success, although make it much more likely. The world of a university like ours is not all that stable; it has much fuzziness, and changes fast. What shall we do in a world like this? My strategy is to diversify efforts. We should always pursue slightly more projects than we are able to maintain. This is simply because not all of them will succeed. However, it is also important to identify priorities, in which if one attempt fails, we should get back on our feet and just start over again; try something new. For example, there might be temporary defeats, but no failure in three areas (there are probably more; this is just an example):

  • We must work on improving curriculum and pedagogy. It does not work as fast as I would like, and perhaps it should go slowly, but we will be doing it until we all are dead. This is what business people call our core business, and everything depends on our ability to train teachers as good or better than anyone else in the world. Whatever else is going on, whatever budget crises or economic collapses, we need to do our thing well.
  • We must have a little extra money to have some sense of self-respect. Although we are relatively low-paid, we should always be able to travel to conferences, to have comfortable chairs, and working computers. If the civilization ends, and everyone goes back to the Stone Age, we should have decent stones to sit on. I just think it is important; small but important.
  • I think we should constantly work on fairness and morale. This includes evaluation processes, many big and small decisions, and the climate in which we work. Again, it does not just happen without constant, multi-year effort.

The challenge is to be opportunistic and adventurous, but still stick to the most fundamental concerns, and never lose sight of them.

Of course, this is a bit of wishful thinking. The reality is such that problems and successes come and go. Every day brings something different, and we all forget about something, we drop the ball, ignore that memo, etc. In truth, some of the projects (not listed above) did not work because we screwed up; OK, I screwed up. Flexible but sticky is just a phrase, perhaps it is my understanding of the ideal. This is how organizations should work, not necessarily how we work. My hope is that we will develop that style eventually. We will be highly mobile, creative, and opportunistic, but will cling doggedly to what is really important to us, and never let it go.

Apr 25, 2008

Colorado Tease

That is what they call the spring season here in Colorado: the Colorado tease. It may snow at night, only to go up to 60 the next day. The weather is not just changing quickly; the astonishing fact is that it keeps doing it for over a month: back and forth, back and forth. The atmospheric pressure is like a mad see-saw, sending people with blood pressure into emergency rooms, and taking the rest off balance. And of course, all is complicated by the expected cabin fever. It is a nervous time of year, doubly so in Colorado. I hear reports of otherwise mildly mannered professors blowing up in class and yelling at students. I learn of one or another intrigue brewing where should normally be none (no real reason). Moreover, I find myself off-balance and irritated about all the wrong, small things. Is it the weather? Are we all tired at the end of the school year? Is it the pressure swings?

What is the difference? One of the signs of maturity is the ability to observe yourself and people around you, and notice the changes, so you can adjust. I guess I am average at that; sometimes I notice things a bit late, and I don't always know how to deal with them. Some people are a lot better, but most are terrible at this. Most people I know pay no attention to the subtle shifts in the emotional pulse of a group to which they belong, nor are they able to monitor their own emotional tonus. Most people will attribute their own mood changes to good or evil actions of others. I am just wondering why it is, and how we all be educated people without such a basic survival skill.

(As I was typing the previous paragraph, I caught myself thinking that its tone is a bit too harsh, a bit arbitrary and perhaps tiny bit dogmatic. How can I claim that most people are quite ignorant of their own emotions? How do I actually know that? Is this the consequence of the same weird atmospheric phenomena, or actually a good point? Where does my authentic "deep" self end, and the untrustworthy and shifty emotional layer begins? Oh, well, I will stick to my claim here anyway; after all, this is not a peer-reviewed journal. So please ignore all of this as complete and utter nonsense.)

Hellenistic philosophers and Buddhists both call for control over one's emotions, but what they mean has nothing to do with suppression of one's emotions. Rather, they meant a way of knowing one's own emotional self, and then being able to detach oneself from destructive emotions, or at least reduce one's dependency on them. But I am not even talking about some spiritual discipline; I want basic, rudimentary awareness of the one's own and the collective emotional tone. And it is possible, because I know at least a few people who are extremely good at it; so good they put me to shame. This does not seem to be an in-born quality; I bet it is a skill, and a bit of an effort and attitude. It's the ability to say the right thing at the right time, to see when someone in trouble and reach out to that person. And especially important is the ability to see a whole group of people (colleagues or students) as if it was a single organism, a person who can be also in trouble, or in need to unwind, or something like that.

By the authority entrusted to me, I thereby declare the week of emotional literacy. Everyone at the School of Teacher Education must learn to pay attention to him or herself, to notice when you are angry or irritated, or happy and calm, and make a mental note of it. No, better yet, you must keep a journal. The, I order people to think about others in the same way: think who might need a friendly conversation, and offer it. I command people to stop worrying excessively, and to invent some sort of breathing technique, no matter how bizarre or ineffective. Then teach at least one other people the technique. All must report on their findings and experience to me next Friday. In writing. In triplicate. 10-20 pages. Single-spaced. 10 point font. Thanks in advance.

Apr 18, 2008


Mister blog, I am back. I took a trip to Russia where I attended a conference at my alma mater, the Novosibirsk Teachers' University. I then went to Roslavl in Western Russia to see my Mom, my brother, and his family.

Going home has to do with resurrection of old memories, bringing back old anxieties, but also reliving the good memories. It is fascinating to observe oneself; not just what cognitive memories still there, but also, how much your body remembers. I could not recall some names, but have an indelible map of our old building. Some episodes came back vividly, in full force, while others are completely gone. The narratives we construct about our own lives are so incomplete and fragmentary; the only way to remember your life is to go to the places where you have been in the past, and look for triggers of old memories.

But people in Russia are not really interested in my nostalgia. They have lived through some difficult and eventful years. Let's see, I missed two military coups, a depression twice as deep as the American Great Depression, and then unlikely economic recovery; they experienced chaotic democracy and returning authoritarianism, went from deepest national humiliation and dramatic population plunge to a new sense of national pride, and the relative stability of Putin's era. I had a very different experience of immigration. This chasm in experiences creates interesting disconnects. People who I have been friends for years suddenly do not find some of my jokes funny. Their language is now interspersed with words I find annoying and distasteful; they are probably equally irritated with my language that now has traces of the English syntax. For some reason, the English words that are flowing freely into Russian usage I find especially irritating. Less troublesome are the criminal slang expressions that have invaded mainstream. The Russians did not freeze in time when I left; they kept thinking and working, and acquired a whole new set of ideas and skills, new institutions and habits.

Coming home creates this very ambivalent and delicious feeling of familiarity mixed with estrangement. People and things are the same and yet not the same. The interplay of recognition and misrecognition, of being completely comfortable and accepted yet being alienated, separated by an invisible membrane. A classmate of mine, who was the social center of our little group, gave me a run-down on the entire cohort (we had about 25 people in it). One of our classmates is serving a prison term for contract killing, while others are successful businessmen. Most are still in education. None of the stories really surprised me, but none was also entirely predictable.

Coming home disturbs the familiar-unfamiliar continuum, and creates another class of feeling, which has to do not with re-experiencing the past, but with imagining yourself in an alternative life. What if we all stayed home?