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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.