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Dec 11, 2009

The Panopticon Project

This week, at the Secondary Coordinating Council meeting, we came up with a great idea. I called it the Panopticon Project. It is a bit of a joke. Panopticon is a kind of a prison building, where everyone is visible to the guards, and no one knows when one is being watched. Michelle Foucault, in Discipline and Punish has famously used it to illustrate the gentle oppression of the modern age. But to improve, we have to make things visible – not to the guards, but to each other.

We were just talking about the data on program quality, frustrated at how the data is not reliable, how it is hard to read, how hard is it to get the information across the academic turf boundaries, and how it always comes so late to do anything about it. So we thought it would be so great if you can just see instantly what is taught in every class (without reading a 20-page syllabus), and what students have learned. So, we came up with an idea that I think is going to work really well for us. It is simple, the technology is there, and it is fun.

Imagine that in every class, students are asked to complete a short survey "Ten things I have learned in this class," and the results of it become immediately available for viewing. The instructors will have to agree, of course, on what the ten main things are, and students will have to agree to be honest and objective. But this would provide a great snapshot of program design, expose gaps and overlaps, provide a glimpse of overall quality, and a constant feedback loop to program coordinators, administrators, and faculty. OK, let's just imagine a web page like this. I even piloted the technology (that's how excited I got!), so click on those two live links to see how it might look like (Sidorkin-007 :survey; results). Feel free to enter a few test answers, and see how the results update.

Secondary PTEP


Spring 10 (Instructor, section)

Summer 10

Fall 10

STEP 161


EDF 366

Sidorkin-007 :survey; results
Bartelheim-001:survey; results
Trainor-003:survey; results
Allen-002:survey; results
Allen-009:survey; results


ET 249


STEP 262


EDSE 360


PSY 349


STEP 363



EED 402 Kraver: survey; results
THEA 385 Schuttler: survey; results
FL 341
SOSC 341, etc…


EDRD 340


ET 349


STEP 464



Of course, we would have to overcome anxieties, our traditions of secrecy, and assume a certain amount of data contamination. However, it would allow us to learn quickly, and to change quickly. For example, in the next semester, we will realize that there needs to be a set of different questions we want to ask, or that we need to change some of our methods and assignments. If I see students learned about the law better in Wayne's class than in mine, I will come and ask him how he does it. I think a tiny bit of public pressure is also needed for us to work on constant improvements. The Council members Mary Schuttler and Jeri Kraver agreed to pilot it in the Spring semester, and I am hoping Social Foundations faculty would be able to pilot all EDF 366 and 370 courses as well.

I am sick and tired of bad data, of bad standards written by people who know nothing about the real life; I am tired of compliance for the sake of compliance; I can't waste anymore of my time on instruments and measures that are not that useful. I want us to move to the Google age.

Dec 4, 2009

Confessions of a micromanager

Micromanagement is a bad thing. How on earth did I end up editing a bunch of handbooks and surveys, and answering dozens of emails a day about technical bugs? - Surely NOT because I like to do everything myself, and not because I don't trust my colleagues and staff. Here is my story this semester:

Much of my summer prep work went into grant writing. I found myself late in August scrambling to change the data collection systems for our PTEP programs. Because I was scrambling, I did not really have time to talk to coordinators and staff about what has changed, and how the new processes work. Delegation of responsibilities requires time for discussion, and training people, especially if a new technology is involved. None of that happened. The result of it is that we had many organizational and technological glitches (if you discuss a change a lot, and test extensively, less of this happens). But remember, I did not inform and train other people to help with those glitches, so I ended up doing a lot of trouble shooting myself: no one knew how to help. This creates a vicious cycle: I run around and plug the holes, and therefore have no time to catch up on information and training. The end of the semester came unexpectedly (who knew, right?), and I find myself in the same position again: rewriting the handbooks for the next semester, no time to talk to others. Besides, a couple of unplanned problems came up, some very time consuming, others less so. But again, they always do come up and should be time-budgeted for.

Could this be avoided? I am not so sure. The cost of delaying the changes is also high. I think our new data collection system is a lot better than the old one; it will eventually become much better, when the kinks are worked out. It is almost completely paperless, gives us much better data much faster, and involves significantly less work for students, cooperating teachers, and supervisors. I also learned that if you delay a change for a semester, it ends up being delayed for three years. Why? - Because if you don't do it during Summer, you surely will miss December, and then something may come up in the next Summer. And those are really two windows of opportunity for implementing changes. However, in Summer, very few faculty are around. In December, they all run around looking exhausted, and will shoot without a warning if I call a meeting. The world we live in gives no time to improve things, because we're too busy doing things that need to be improved.

The lesson I've learned is that getting involved in just one too many projects may have a chain-reaction effect on a whole number of other projects. I also learned that one may become an involuntary micromanager. Just need to get a grip and start planning how to get from under this one.

For those of you who do not know, the new system is pretty simple. All PTEP programs (we still need to convert two more) collect the following data:

  1. Work Sample portfolio through; they all have rubrics that collect evaluation data. We also figured out a way for students to feed data back to iwebfolio, and scan and upload needed documents (mainly, the Diverse Field Experience, and the last lesson observation form).
  2. Standardized lesson observation form: those are short, make sense to us, and incorporate different content knowledge areas.
  3. On-line Final Evaluation modules for cooperating teachers and supervisors, AND Exit Surveys for graduates; both on

It is not surprising, given our numbers, that many technical and communication bugs need to be eliminated for this simple scheme to work. That's been my project for almost the entire semester.

Nov 21, 2009

Scarcity and decision-making

It is easy to be a leader in the times of abundance; it is less fun in the times of scarcity. For example, when we had few faculty members, there were plenty of classes to go around – for anyone who wanted an overload, or a summer class, or a convenient schedule. There was enough left for adjunct faculty, who provide an essential safety network for us without any meaningful commitments from us (I am not sure if everyone understands what an important part of our operations these people are). Of course, the abundance of opportunities created scarcity of people – we did not really have enough to serve on committees, to oversee classes, to pay close attention to curriculum. Now we have more people which is wonderful, but fewer classes. That brings an essential problem of all human groups: how do you divide goodies when we don't have enough for everyone?

It is my job to manage this process, somehow. What I really don't want to happen is for me to become a ruler who bestows favors to a few, at the expense of many. That would be an awful deal for everyone, including the few and the many. This is why we designed a set of rules, which are about as specific as can be expected. They can never cover all the circumstances, however, and are by necessity quite flexible. The Charter gives the Director much power in assigning classes. (The same could be found in the BOT policy manual: deans and directors are expected to play a large role in assigning work). This was something the initial Charter committee clearly understood, and that is what the faculty members voted for. It was clear to everyone that dividing up the goodies cannot be a matter of simple democratic voting. It does not work like that, because of the issues such as competency are involved. Those cannot be discussed publically without a lot of people being hurt. It is also impractical to subject hundreds of small decisions to the democratic deliberations.

OK, I am stuck with these powers I don't really want. I wish a computer could just do that, but no algorithm has been invented for these kinds of things. What can serve as system of checks and balances? What I figured out over the years is this: if I am asked how a decision was made, I have to have a rational explanation, consistent with the rules spelled out in the Charter. It does not matter that I am actually very rarely asked; it is simply an application of the defensibility criterion, a way of talking to myself, if you like. Can a reasonable person listen to my explanation, and if not agree, at least find it reasonable?

My colleagues vary to a great degree in what and how they are asking. Some will go to a great length to negotiate a two-day a week schedule, classes at only certain times, and maximum allowable overloads. Others are so shy, they never ask for anything, so I have to pry out of them what it is they want. Some will insist on seniority rights, even though they are not in the Charter. Others will argue fiercely for what they perceive is the best interest of their program or area. It is all good – I always say yes and will not question the reasons as long as the request does not conflict with someone else's interests. My practice is to try to follow the rules, to have a good story to back up a decision, to look for compromises, and never bring the conflicting parties face-to-face. I wish those little decisions could be transparent, but they cannot be: these stories are both exceedingly boring and potentially hurtful. What a paradox, but it is true.

Is this working? I think so, but then again, maybe I am wrong; please let me know if it does not work for you. Should we develop a more formal process? Should there be a committee overseeing staffing? We still have very few conflicts like that, which is quite surprising. We still have a lot of options in comparison to other institutions; we still were not force to make many hard choices. The situation of true scarcity may or may not confront us, but it is a good idea to think ahead – how would we handle it if it arises?

Nov 14, 2009

A week’s worth of life

I looked through my calendar, and ransacked my memory, with a single question in mind – was it worth it? Which portion of the week did I spend doing something good, which portion did I enjoy, and which was wasted or drudgery? Ah, I wish there was a calculus of life, and the minutes and hours were easy to separate into the good and bad baskets.

For example, on Monday, I spent an hour training Early Childhood students how to pass the PLACE test. Was it good? I enjoyed helping these students very much, because this is something they need, and I was actually able to help a little. But then, the test itself seems to be ill-conceived, and hardly meaningful. So, in the grander scheme of things, both the students, and I probably wasted our time. But then again, is watching a movie, or hiking a waste of one's life? If you go so far as to say something like that, what is life itself, if not enjoyable waste of time?

Then there are completely wasteful activities, which irritate us all, for they are neither enjoyable nor useful to anyone in particular. For example, we submitted all required paperwork for our new position in Colorado Springs, but someone from a higher office wanted me to submit the organizational chart of our School, with all the position numbers listed. Not just a list of faculty – they have that – no, an organization chart. As a result, I have to spend maybe another hour or two fishing for this information, playing with graphics, etc. – all of this, I am pretty sure, for no particular reason, just because someone has the power to require me to do so. But then again, maybe that person had a good reason to ask, and I just fail to imagine the reason? It's like that every time. We never know fully the value or significance of our actions, although we can certainly guess. But this impossibility of full knowledge is both frustrating, and what makes life so delicious.

It is about to snow. Svetlana and I have bought some food, some plum wine, and are going to hunker down, and survive the winter. She's buying some cookies, and I sit in the car and watch snowflakes fall down from the sky.

Snow falls, snow falls;
To the white stars in a blizzard
The geranium flowers reach
Beyond the window sash.

Snow falls, and all's in tumult
All around, the world takes flight:
The back door's unstable staircase
And a crossroads in the night.

Snow falls, snow falls,
as though it's not flakes
but in a patched coat
the sky descends to earth.

As though it is like a fool
From the uppermost landing
Stealthily, playing hide and seek,
The sky descends from the attic.

Because life does not wait,
Before you know it, it's Yuletide.
But a short span,
And look, there's the new year.

Snow falls, extremely thick    
And in synch, with the same steps,
In that tempo, with that sloth*
Or with that same quickness,
Time passes, perhaps?

Perhaps, year after year,
People follow how snow falls
Or like words in a poem,
Perhaps time passes...

Snow falls, snow falls,
Snow falls, and all is tumult:
A whitened pedestrian,
Surprised plants,
The turn of an intersection...

Boris Pasternak, 1957, not sure whose translation

Nov 6, 2009


Sometime in the middle of this week, it suddenly became clear to me that I feel very tired. Not sure why this is the case; maybe because I did not get a real vacation for longer than a week in about 15 years? Maybe it is this weird virus that is going around? Not flu, but something like that. Does not make you very sick, but makes you tired?

I then realized that many people around me are in the same position – they look a bit tired, sound somewhat overworked. Not to mention that a lot of people are actually sick with all kinds of flus, colds, and bronchitis. Honestly, I felt some remorse for my endless pushes to do more, to do it better, and faster. There were several push-backs, when different people either told me to bug off, or to slow down, or to leave them alone. Sometimes, it was told directly (which I always appreciate), and sometimes indirectly (which is OK, too, but make sure I get the message, because I don't always get it). But something was going on for the last couple of months – maybe the solar flares, maybe the virus – which made many of us just tired. It also does not help when the economy collapses, and all you hear is bad news. Even though it is somewhet becoming better, people we know and don't know have a lot of troubles.

We came a long way since the Fall of 2006. We did a lot of changes, revisions, improvements, reorganizations. And it was always fun and not overwhelming – not to me anyway. Maybe we just hit a wall in terms of how much and how fast people can do and what level of change they can tolerate? But if it is true, how do you slow down? Our students can't wait: classes, curriculum revision, scheduling, reporting calendars are all going as usual. The relentless machinery of the university life is still churning its wheels. There are e-mails to answer, papers to grade, books to write.

But let's just agree to find some time for ourselves. Take a weekend as weekend – no work. Postpone a project that can be postponed. Take it easy for a while, will ya? I will try to do the same. For the next month, I therefore ban all e-mails marked as High Importance, with the goddamned red exclamation mark! There is nothing that important.

Oct 31, 2009

The structure of change

The world around us is changing fast, faster than ever before. Just a few things: the State budget is heading to a cliff; a perfect storm for teacher education is brewing; the technology revolution has really started to affect education. Yet our University like most others, does not seem to be able to change. We definitely improve our programs, and the organization is improving. But all of it is happening at such a slow pace that the world seems to be hurling past us. Whatever improvements we manage to accomplish are just nibbling at the edges; they are neither revolutionary, nor profound. Universities are sitting on a large stock of human capital: some of the most educated and creative minds in the nation. Yet they seem to unable to use those minds for fostering innovation. The rate of innovation in private business world is many times higher than in higher education. We all remember the first PC's with blue screens and no mouse. Some people may remember Gopher. We now have vastly superior computers plus iPhone, Kindle, iPod, plus Google, FaceBook, Wikipedia, and many others. Even old technologies like cars manage significant improvements every few years. They are safer, more efficient, and more comfortable now than just five years ago. Yet our classrooms look and feel just like they did in 1950-s, with only slight and uncertain improvements.

Part of this is the institutional culture. Whenever a faculty committee is asked to think about a new or revised program or procedure, it meets once a month for an hour each time. It always takes a year to design a change. And because we are used to collaboration, the committee will agree on something most acceptable to all – which virtually guarantees only minor changes. I just served on two of these: we spent a great deal of time, talked a lot of smart talk, but accomplished something very modest, none of it is game-changing.

The University bureaucracy is no faster either. We revise curriculum once a year, because of the arbitrary deadline the printer imposes on us to change catalogs. Memos can sit on various administrators' desks for months and months. And not just ordinary memos – a new and promising program we designed was just recently approved, although we submitted it in March. What is more important that bringing new programs and attracting new students to this campus? Apparently, there is. We think in terms of years; the world thinks in terms of days. Universities are really pathetic where it comes to change.

Innovation, like anything else, needs a special support structure. For example, our university has nothing like an R&D unit. No one is really expected to come up with new ideas, or support new ides as a part of his or her job. There is absolutely no process for submitting new ideas – no place to send them, and no one to consider their merits. There are no incentives for individual people or groups of faculty and staff to work on innovations. Why take the risk, if you need to play it safe to get tenure? There is no chance for any of us ever get rich and famous from a brilliant idea, because the University is vigilantly egalitarian and jealously hierarchical. We need to change that and provide specific, tangible rewards for groups of entrepreneurial faculty, as well as recognition and support.

Oct 16, 2009

Empowerment and discontent

All democratic systems of governance share a paradox. If you hold strong beliefs, you will be surprised and upset when your particular view does not emerge victorious. A fallacy is at work here: if I live in a democracy, things should go my way. But this is not true, of course. Democracy is about sharing the space with other people, who may also have strong beliefs, different from yours, and whose opinion may prevail.

It is the same with faculty governance at universities, only complicated by having a specific power-sharing agreement between faculty and administration. When things are not going your way, you may think this is because the administration is usurping faculty's power. However, administrators intervene in decision-making for different reasons: sometimes, they just want to pursue larger interest of the organization, and sometimes, they interfere against one group of faculty on behalf of another group. There may also be a selfish or egotistical interest of an administrator at work. The difficulty is to figure out which is which, considering that we normally cannot read each others' minds.

Here is my story: last spring, I ventured to revise the annual evaluation guidelines, mainly because of request by different faculty to clarify certain things. I was also concerned that there seems to be a lack of reliability in our evaluations. When I proposed the revision to the whole faculty, members of the Evaluations Committee asked to take the feedback from the faculty and prepare the proposal for the vote. However, they disagreed with the entire proposal, with the exception of one clause. So far so good, no harm done, and we have always found a way to disagree without any animosity. The committee said what it felt, with best of intentions. However, I became worrying about the integrity of the process. Intuitively, it did not felt right, because the proposal was meant for the whole faculty, and yet it got considered by a very small group. I started checking with the Robert's rules, and found that yes, indeed, a pending proposal cannot be amended without the proposer's consent. That makes sense, doesn't it?

In other words, this is not about my proposal – which is, I must say, represents a fairly minor change of a very minor part of our work. The change itself does not merit much airtime. This is about the integrity of faculty governance process. We cannot decide things by consensus at all times, although we should when possible. We cannot allow some of us to have the implied veto power over our decisions, even if it is presented (and honestly thought of) as consensus-seeking. We cannot act because of "anonymous faculty concerns," because it is not clear what the concerns are and how many people have them. Short of an actual vote, we would never know that.

Of course, the conditions of the voting process itself are also important, which is why Robert's rules have all of these subsidiary motions that allow an assembly not only to make decisions, but also decide how each decision will be made. We would really be better off if everyone knew at least the basic rules. That would put us all into a more equitable position, and allow people to argue for or against certain ideas, without the democratic discontent. The dictatorship of mutually agreed rules is the only alternative to a dictatorship of individuals.

Oct 10, 2009

The First Snow

This morning, I woke up to the unmistakably different light that fills the room after a snowy night. You don't have to look down on the ground to know – it was snowing. In Western Siberia where I grew up, the first snow is a bigger deal. We have long, rainy and cold autumns, and the first snow ends it all, usually abruptly and irreversibly. Snow paints over the messy and imperfect picture of the last year, and primes the canvas for something new. The world is white like a sheet of paper waiting for a poem to be written on it. I love snow, and the first snow especially. It is nostalgic, poignant, and hopeful. We went to Boulder, and walked on Pearl Street. The leaves were caught in the early snow, still green but down on the brick pavement. They smelled like freshly pickled cucumbers, maybe because the salt on the street. We ate a little sushi and had some hot sake befitting the weather. Then we went to the Borders on 29th street; I read The New Yorker, while Svetlana browsed art books and journals.

What makes a good day, a day worth living? Is it what we are able to accomplish? Or is it what we were able to experience and to enjoy? With our jobs, there isn't really a border between work and leisure anymore. What I read in The New Yorker may show up as an idea useful for my job. At work, my experiences are often as enjoyable as today. We don't work to live anymore, nor do we live to work, I hope. The art of living well has something to do with finding pleasure and beauty in both work and leisure. I am certainly still have to master it, so don't ask me for advice on how. But some people – very few – find something enjoyable and entertaining in almost anything they do. Every day is the first snow day to them. That is what we all should try to achieve.

Oct 1, 2009

How to save UNC

We are less than two years away from the financial cliff, created by convergence of the Colorado TABOR law and the recession. While the Feds have bailed us out this year and the next year, in the year 2010/11, we can lose $14 million of our $44 million, according to President Norton. This is not a time for gradual measures or slow change. We need to learn radical thinking very fast, so we have the time to prepare.

Here is how we can make up for lost state subsidies. The most disruptive competitive strategy is to cut the cost of your commodity or service. It allows stealing many customers from your competition. If we charge students only half of current tuition, a well-publicized campaign could recruit 8000 new freshmen and transfers, who would otherwise go to other universities. It would bring about $20 million dollars.

How can we add 8000 students to the campus that can barely accommodate 12000 students? When students come to campus, they pay for the college experience as much as they pay for actual teaching services. But this can be made an optional service. We will make a deal with a special category of students (let's call them riders): you get to pay only half of regular tuition, and get your degree, under one condition: you cannot come to classes. Dozens of regular on-campus students (let's say "cameramen" and "camerawomen") will be hired to take their regular classes with digital cameras, film every class, and then upload the films on a server on the same day. The riders will organize in groups, following one of these student workers, watch every class, do all the assignments, and participate in a limited way through the Blackboard. The riders would have to be self-directed learners, but their experience would not be much different from a regular on-campus student that does not say much in class. Our faculty won't have to deal with technology at all, but will be paid extra to grade the extra assignments and answer the riders' questions. Or they will be given a choice to hire an adjunct to help with those activities. This is not exactly on-line teaching, because faculty won't need to learn new skills or redesign their courses, but not exactly face-to-face experience either. It might actually be not only cheaper, but better than a typical on-line course. We learn from observing others as much as we learn from participating in activities. The "cameramen" would also act as peer advisers to their rider group, helping to figure out classes and homework, and maybe even film an occasional homecoming or a dorm party.

If we do something like that, there is no time for pilots, or trying it small scale. We need the economy of scale – developing and testing of technological solutions, financial arrangements, and practical procedures would be expensive. The cost can only be justified by going all the way right away. We cannot have several administrative groups and Senate committees studying the issue for a few month, and different units figuring out their parts. We'd need a direct and urgent conversation with the campus community; we need a wide-spread buy-in. We also need a coordinating center with a small team of faculty, administrators and IT types entirely dedicated to the project, with adequate resources. We need a leap of faith. There is no better time for innovation that a good crisis. No crisis should be wasted.

Do I want to be doing all this running around, planning, advertising, tweaking hundreds of classes, taking the risk without knowing if it is going to work? No, I don't. However, I also don't want to have a meeting about which colleague we are going to let go, which classes will have to double in size, and how many unpaid overloads we will are going to teach. You have to decide which of the two a lesser evil – working on something new is or firing friends?


Sep 26, 2009

Solar flares and chicken soup

I have absolutely no idea why this happens, and therefore choose to attribute it to solar flares. It maybe a particular influence of the planets, which is as good a theory as any. But it definitely happens in specific times, which have little to do with season. Sometimes it happens in the spring, and we think it's the cabin fever. In other times, we find another good explanation, like stress of such and such event. However, this is utterly inexplicable, so I will go with the solar flares.

Many different people would just get very nervous, and over-react. I am not only talking about things I refer to, however vaguely, in my last two blogs. In the last month, I had to deal with a dozen different, unconnected small crises. For some reason, students complained remarkably more than usual, completely uncharacteristic for the beginning of a semester. Several people got into conflicts, in some cases with no previous history of it. A simple question would result in people getting angry or upset. Rumors that are normally ignored, would suddenly gain currency. I must admit, my own actions do not seem terribly wise either, so I am not immune to the solar flares. Although speaking objectively, I could not have caused all of these little crises. It was just a difficult month, for me and for many people I know. Solar flares, definitely solar flares. My computer's hard drive fried, too.

But some people obviously are immune – they are happy, not noticing any tensions, and just going on about their business as usual. About others, I just don't know; please tell me so we can run some statistical analysis. Was the time from the end of August to now hard for you? Were you nervous? Anxious? Did people seem a little less sensible and pleasant than usual?

What are we supposed to learn from this? Simply put, we don't always know why something happens. Err, make it – we rarely know why something happens. We know very little about the social dynamics; there is no good theory, and little in a way of predicting and affecting it. We don't know how small events can sometimes cause large consequences, and why human groups sometimes become more anxious and agitated. The cure is very simple: like a seasonal flu, it will go away. When you are sick with flu, you may feel so bad; you think you're going to die. But we, of course, know that it will pass, and this is not really the end. In fact, you did not know about how influenza usually ends, you could really get scared and hurt yourself by applying drastic measures. Bu we know better: it's just feels yucky for a while, but it will go away. Chicken soup, some rest, and it will be over.

Sep 18, 2009

La Comédie humaine

La Comédie humaine is a collection of inter-related novels and short stories by Honoré de Balzac, a 19th century French novelist. It is actually not funny (the title probably refers to Dante's Divine Comedy), but is richly amusing in showing how people can behave in different circumstances. It's a parade of characters and stories. In the last couple of weeks, I felt like Balzac, wondering about the way people think, act, and make decisions. I was particularly interested in how a coincidence of smaller events, half-understood and half-misstated phrases, accumulated tensions, and undefined relationships can all conspire together to create drama. The world of humans is truly unpredictable, and prone to disruptions. Whatever peace, whatever community we create together, is always fragile and in need of defense, maintenance, and constant restoration. And when people become closer to each other, it does not necessarily mean their relationships necessarily improve or become stable. Rather, the opposite is true: it is easy to be civil and generous with a stranger, with whom you have no overlapping interest or common affairs, and whose actions you don't need to understand. Once you become closer, and interact for a longer period of time, the Other comes into your scrutiny, and you are forced to make conclusions about his motives. The Distant Other is easier to like than the Close Other. I was always struck by the radical and pointed challenge of "Love thy neighbor," as opposed to asking to love the stranger, the traveler, and the distant.

Most people judge too quickly, because by nature, humans are story-tellers. If we know a little, have an incomplete picture, our brains just go on autopilot to construct the missing pieces into a coherent story. We MUST make sense, otherwise we are miserable. That story then takes on a life of its own, especially if it is emotionally charger. Do you ever become caught in a vicious cycle when the more you think about something, the madder you get? It's because no new information is coming in, and your mind keeps refining the story it has created, making it more coherent, more logical, and nastier. Once constructed, it becomes a framework for interpreting all the consequent interactions with the Other. The new events tend to strengthen the old frameworks, because they already come into a coherent narrative. Suspending one's judgment is perhaps one of the most difficult skills to master, hence the other most radical advice ever give to humanity: "Do not judge." Why? Because the initial story that you make up might be just wrong; it may or may not be accurate. Of course, we need to judge, but we also need to learn to not judge, or change our minds. If I learned one thing on this job, it is how easy for a misunderstanding to perpetuate, multiply, grow, and create a conflict.

Sep 11, 2009

Evaluation Anxieties

For some reason, whenever we talk about the annual evaluation process, some people get anxious. I am not exactly sure why; for me this is just another project of constant improving processes and procedures. Perhaps the anxiety is there because of some history before me, maybe because in general, people do not like to be judged and evaluated. Maybe I failed to explain my intentions.

A simple efficiency is the only agenda I have. The level of rigor we have is just fine, which last year's results have shown. We have a well functioning system already, and I'd be happy to keep it as is. But last year, several faculty came to me with questions – what do you mean by this and that, and maybe we should clarify certain things, and they did not know something. So, last March, I dutifully pulled out the Evaluation guidelines file and started to write some definitions – what does it mean to have a paper in print or accepted, or in revision, etc. Then I read the whole document, and gradually found more and more things to clarify, so it is easier to read, and faster to evaluate. This is something I do all the time – if I see something can be done better, I will suggest another form or another process. Can you see me getting engrossed in the document? That's what happened. We have a growing School, and it just takes too much of faculty time and my time to look through thick dossiers, especially if they are poorly organized. Several people suggested that it is easier to read dossiers that are identically ordered, and where the most important information is summarized. Anyway, I felt like I am doing a good service to the School, and I was not quite ready to hear that at least some people think I am trying to impose something on them. Why would I want that?

This is a faculty decision, and there is simply no way for me to implement any of the changes. We do have faculty governance, remember, which is a democratic system. In fact, we will go through the proposal item by item, and discuss their respective merits. We are a community of scholars, and have always had open and honest conversations; our disagreements have never produced personal animosity in the past. We value rational argument and respect evidence. Whenever there is an objection, we will put each specific item to a vote, and use a secret ballot to decide, so there is no pressure of any kind. That is how we did it the last two times, and this is how we will do it again. If something passes, it passes, if not – so be it. I am certainly not about to lose my sleep over a few hours of work that may not turn out to be useful. We really have larger fish to fry, and cannot afford to spend too much time – and emotions – on this routine process.

Sep 4, 2009

How to tell a good meeting from a bad one

My calendar for this week shows 19 meetings, one of which I skipped, totaling about 17 hours. If we assume a 40 hour work week (mine is a bit longer), it is close to half of the work week, if you include a number of unscheduled ones. Some thoughts on meetings:
  • A lot of meetings are actually fun, when you get to meet people from other areas and units. Hanging out with a lot of smart people is one of the main benefits of our jobs.

  • A meeting can also be an opportunity to take a break, and just rest a little. They are never as intense as working alone.

  • Whoever is chairing it may or may not be effective at making it a social occasion, and put everyone at ease. But it is an important dimension of any meeting. We are social apes, and need to be comfortable with each other when there is a common task.
  • A meeting is useful when there is a specific, practical issue that needs to be resolved. When a committee is created without an urgent need, it produces bad meetings, where people are not sure why they are there, but are too embarrassed to ask.
  • Scheduling a meeting sometimes takes longer than the meeting itself. If only people used their calendars and kept them up to date, we won't have a problem, and would save hours and hours for more productive work. This is where technology really- really helps.

  • Getting people together to convey information to them is a complete and utter waste of time, unless the information is confidential. If you want to share information, write what you want to say, and send it to me, and stop wasting my time on useless meetings! Remember, writing was invented for these exact purposes. A meeting is only needed when you want active input from other people, when you want a discussion, or want to see their reactions. No conversation – no meeting. If you must talk rather than write, record a vide and send it to me.

  • I never take any paper with me other than doodling paper, because no meeting has ever resulted in more than half a page of actionable items. Those can be scribbled on the back of the doodling paper.
  • The best meetings have a small group of people; they last only half an hour, an each comes out of it with a list of things to do.

  • The best of the best meetings are those that solve a specific problem, and make everyone's lives easier.
  • The worst of the worst are meetings where people talk about generic problems, without ever hoping to solve them.
  • Larger group meetings are sometimes inevitable. They are very good for getting complex feedback, a reaction on a specific plan or proposal. Large groups of people are great at imagining how things can go wrong and what could be some unintended consequences. Groups over 10 are terrible at coming up with new ideas, and at working through a plan or a program of some sort. Why? Because the most banal ideas always win, and best proposals get ignored. Large meetings are for critical input, not for productive one.

  • As a colleague commented recently, I am a bottom line thinker. Therefore, I enjoy meetings that actually have the bottom line visible, so it can be discussed. A gathering where agendas of people are unclear is a fancy dance of power interests – sometimes interesting, but always pointless.

Aug 28, 2009

Administrative pests

In the last couple of weeks, I have been greatly irritated by various administrative pests we have in this Universities – forms, practices, and rules that eat more time and resources than they save and produce. I am probably becoming a pain in the butt for various departments and units for asking them to reconsider how they run their business. No, I am pretty sure of that.

Here is one example, just bear with me. To travel to a conference, a faculty member must submit the Travel Authorization form, along with a conference program. There can be up to five people signing this document: the traveler, School director, the Dean, SPARC or grant administrators, if these money are involved, and in some cases, VP for finance. These people must approve in advance things like the 2nd bag fee. The only reason we even have this form is that some 10 years ago there was an embarrassing case of travel abuse. But we are still so scared; every trip must be obsessively authorized in advance, and then the reimbursement is authorized yet again, just to confirm that the first authorization is still valid.

Then when you come back, you must submit all receipts, of course, and complete another form – it has to be signed by hand, by all the same people again, in sequence – by sending the hard copy from one office to the next. In up to seven moves through campus mail, at least two people handle these forms – the administrative assistant, and whoever is signing it. Each of them can be on vacation, or too busy. Each of them can put the forms in a wrong place and then forget about them. The traveler, who needs the money, will eventually come to Karon who originates this entire paper stream. Karon will start calling through the 3-7 offices, trying to find out where the papers are. All of this takes literally thousands of work hours every year, and costs hundreds of thousands of dollars, for no particular benefit. Remember some of the people involved are highly paid individuals, and administrative assistants, although they are not highly paid, still spend a lot of time on mindless activities instead of working with students, faculty, and keeping us on track.

When we reimburse travel for routine things like field supervision trips, we must use two different accounts, because many years ago someone thought it would be interesting to see how much money student teaching really costs. They were never able to do that (we still don't know how much it costs), but we are stuck with the two accounts. Now, if you supervise several students for different field experiences, you must submit two different reimbursement forms to two different admin assistants.

And I can give you at least a dozen examples of pests: pointless paperwork, unnecessary irritations and hoops we make each other jump through. Why? - Because no one is really paying attention to these things. Faculty are very powerful on campus, but they don't see the underlying organizational grid, and just want to see things done. Administrators like me are highly compartmentalized, and can barely keep up with our own operations, partly because we're inundated with the pests. We are not in a position to address campus-wide systemic problems. And when we do, we get a cold shower from other administrators who suspect we are invading their turf. Administrative assistants see most of the pests, but they lack voice and power to demand change.

Amongst all the frustration, my week had a great highlight. After years of enforcing it, we were able to abolish the TB test requirement. After a letter from CDHE, and our own investigation, we realized that none of the largest school districts we work with require the test anymore. They all abandoned the requirement over the years, but forgot to tell us, and we forgot to ask. Every year, 11 hundred students or so line up with their $30 in hand to get a TB test, and bring us a copy. Each student does it 2-4 times over the PTEP program. Dead, abolished, nevermore! Nothing gives me more satisfaction than killing administrative pests like this. I can kill them all day, every day.

Aug 23, 2009

Doomsday scenarios

Chinghiz Aitmatov once made fun of Muscovites' obsession with weather forecasts. Considering that Moscow's climate is really mild, and nothing dramatic ever happens, it is a really funny quirk. Americans, similarly, love various end-of-days stories. Hollywood keeps pumping out movies about comets hitting the Earth, aliens invading, robots taking over, etc., etc. My son Gleb pointed out that Germans, Russians, and Japanese do not make apocalyptic movies, perhaps because they have major catastrophes in the living memory, and Americans have not.

The same tendency makes American media exaggerate the extent of various economic crises, like this one. Someone not familiar with this American obsession with crises may think the end of days is very near. In fact, we're talking about a relatively small recession, and a minor increase of public debt and unemployment. All the stimulus spending are nowhere near to what the U.S. had to spend during and right after the WWII, and the U.S. levels of debts are still lower than those of Japan, Germany, France, Italy, Canada, and 25 other countries.

At our recent leadership meeting, we discussed a (somewhat remote) possibility of a 10% budget cut. Of course, we should do that as good managers, but I just found it funny how dramatic our discussion sometimes becomes. Just like those Muscovites dropping everything to listen to a TV forecaster telling about 30% chances of light rain, as if their life depends on it. I think it is more of a subconscious wish for an adventure rather than an expression of actual fear.

In a very stable, very secure environment, small differences tend to become larger than life conflicts, petty differences take place of serious drama. People know they are in the middle of a storm in a tea cup. They long for a real challenge, a big adventure, and perhaps for the doomsday. Fortunately, or unfortunately, it is very unlikely to come, and we should not worry too much, even if it is tempting to worry.

Aug 12, 2009

The swine flu semester

There is a small chance that the swine flu will come back in the Fall, and we will have to close campus for some time. It would be great to have a plan B, so we don't panic, and students can complete their courses as scheduled. Here is a very short plan; I think it will work.

  1. Try to use Blackboard as a course supplement, if you do not do it yet. It could be as simple as putting your syllabus file up. But if you have a shelf and it is active, it will take you less time to get up to speed, and students will be used to having an active shell for your course. But you NEED to know the basic tools available in Blackboard – threaded discussion, announcements, e-mail, grade book, and chat room.
  2. If campus closes, send an e-mail to your students, reassuring them that things are going to work out. If you need a few days to rework the course, say so, and tell them when to check back for the new plan. Make sure the new plan is doable, equitable, and as rigorous as your regular class. There is nothing wrong with asking students if the new plan looks OK to them. In fact, they may have a lot of suggestions you have not thought about.
  3. Think of a plan B for your courses; even if it is very vague and all in your head. A vague plan is better than no plan. Some tips for developing one.
    1. One error common to on-line newbies is the attempt to mimic what is going on in f2f classroom in the on-line environment. For example, if you had a discussion, you try to do a chat room; if you normally have students work on projects, you ask them to do the same in the virtual world. A much better approach is to step back, think what your regular project or activity was trying to accomplish, and then create an equivalent from available on-line tools. For example, if you expect students to teach a mini-lesson to their own class, and then have others discuss and critique it – what does this accomplish? What do you want them to learn? Break it down by very specific elements. For example, students may be learning to explain math concepts to children. Ask them to write three ways of explaining what fractions are. Each should have a mental image or a manipulative. If the objective is to learn timing, have an assignment for students to tape themselves speaking (audio or video), then listen with stop-watch and reflect on their own timing. These are just examples. If you start slicing learning objectives thinly, every single one of them can be accomplished with an activity that does not require presence in the class. Just avoid the mimicking error. Here is a tool, somewhat helpful:
    2. If you're explaining and demonstrating a lot in class, consider either taping yourself and putting the video on YouTube, or using hundreds of teaching clips already existing there. Here is one:, on using the long division. Here is a 1st grade lesson in Social Studies, on Holidays: Here is one on numbers: You might think that you're so brilliant that no one else can explain it just the right way. That is probably true… However, check the YouTube first!
    3. Another most common error in on-line teaching is monotony. Instructors can't think of anything, so they ask students to read a chapter, comment on it, and then maybe comment on each other's comments. Then they read another chapter, and do the same over and over again. Instructional variety is important, and to avoid monotony, do the same thing as with error #1: slice your learning objectives a little thinner, and you will see many more possibilities. For example, instead of asking to "comment" or "reflect," consider "find a flaw in the argument," or "give your own example of the concept or theory," or "think of an exception to the rule," or "will this work in another setting?"
    4. Be careful with evaluation of student work, especially if you had to quickly redesign the class. It takes a long time to develop and calibrate a good instrument, and students know that as well. Remember, we're working mostly with teachers; they do learn something about teaching, and apply what they know to us. If there is a bottom line knowledge set or a product you must see for students to pass the class, just say so. For example, you can say: OK, we will change the grading policy because of the flu, and I am not yet sure how it will look, but you all need to know that I cannot pass you without an acceptable thematic unit; I cannot give you an A without an outstanding thematic unit… Or something like that. In a situation of changing plans, simple accumulation of points is not a good indicator of a grade; a clear understanding of the bottom line will works better.
  4. And if something like campus closure happens, remember, it is an opportunity to create a sense of community in our programs. It is the best time to show your human side, to be compassionate, and understanding. We are here not to enforce rules, but to help our students learn. Our authority comes from what we know and what we can do, not from the ability to give grades.
  5. The most difficult courses are those with field components, but again, there are always solutions. We can waive some field hours (within the state law limits), we can substitute some of them for meaningful virtual experiences, and we can always give students incompletes, if needed.

Jul 30, 2009

The joy of planning

This week, I was able to do some preparations for the next year, which included scheduling, planning, thinking over our priorities and objectives. Why is this fun, exactly, I don't know, but it is. Part of it is the seasonal buzz we all get when sensing the beginning of a new school year. By "we" I mean people working in education. Each new school year brings its own energy to us. Each new school year is a chance to start from scratch, to meet new students, to rework that course, to do something different. Another part of it is the permission to let one's imagination loose. Planning is like writing fiction: it has to believable, but it does not have to be true. A plan is not a promise, it is only a pledge to try, intent to achieve. It feels both powerful and irresponsible, like a game.

Of course, in the next few days, I will have to turn on the critical side of my brain and scrutinize everything – can this be realistically achieved? Who is going to do it? When? What is more important? By the time I come with a draft to the School retreat, it will be a much more realistic document. And then we will do the same exercise together – from what we would like to do, to what we really have to do, and what we can possibly achieve. It is like working on a puzzle: different people's interests, strength, and commitments can be put together in one more or less coherent picture; it just takes some work, and some persistence. And because we are so different, so uniquely shaped, finding areas that lock together is its own special work/play. Nothing is more satisfying than seeing someone enjoy what one's doing and at the same time contribute to the common good. When we succeed in helping each other do that, we all are better off. When we try to make everyone the same, we fail. Appreciating of each other's profound weirdness is probably the strongest communal bond.

This playing with alternative realities is just interesting to experience. I am not sure if I am describing it well, but I which more people would take more time just imagining the future – the near future and the long shot.

Jul 24, 2009

The other kind of writing

In the last three weeks or so, Carolyn and I spent much of our time writing a grant application. It turned out to be for about 2.5 million in federal funds. We have submitted ten documents, the two biggest ones are 50 and 80 pages; the rest are much smaller. Carolyn did the majority of narrative writing, Harvey was essential in getting partner BOCES and a good external evaluator on board, I did most of the budgeting, and putting documents together. The little crew of GA's from the Dean's office found, analyzed, and presented data needed to qualify for the grant. After working on it, on and off, for three months or so, we turned it in on-line 40 minutes before the deadline.

My report: some of it quite interesting and creative. Designing the program was fun, writing some pieces, and even finding a creative solution for a very challenging budget (it has a 100% match). But much of it is pure drudgery – addressing some arcane regulations, going back and forth to various people, who do not respond, learning all the rules, and then redoing what have been done already, etc. One lesson for me – it would have been clearly impossible to do this for any one person alone. The second is the uncertainty: we have no idea whether it is going to be funded or not. Hence my advice to junior faculty: don't take a lead on a large federal grant until you're promoted. The expenditure of time and effort is so great, and the risk is so significant – it is not worth it, really. Wait for someone inviting you to be a junior partner, or go for smaller local grants. If you don't get the big one, there is nothing to show on your CV. Carolyn, Harvey and I can do it in our points of our careers, because we have tenure, and don't have to publish or perish. However, senior faculty should probably try it at least once or twice. The grants do not ring a lot of money to universities, despite a popular belief, but they certainly can help to have one's own project and obtain a certain amount of autonomy. The grant writing counts as scholarship for a good reason – it does require similar expertise, and similar efforts.

It was amusing to see how disorganized the Federal Government really is. The Department of Education has released the RFP very late – I believe 40 days before the deadline. It has changed the RFP several times since the issuing. The day before the deadline they said there will be another deadline, in case you were unable to beat this one. I called to verify a relatively important financial question, and was told by the program officer, "Not sure about that, we did not make a decision yet." The University's various departments were supportive and cooperative, although chronically understaffed and overworked, and hence not always fast or efficient.

It is a very different kind of writing though: much of it is showing endless compliance with the incredibly prescriptive rules. The application package alone is 95 pages of single-spaced stuff, with endless lists of requirements. The application checklist alone is 9 pages long. It includes requirements like this one, randomly picked:

(1) (F) Developing and implementing effective mechanisms to ensure that the eligible partnership is able to recruit qualified individuals to become school leaders through the activities of the eligible partnership, which may include an emphasis on recruiting into school leadership professions—

  1. individuals from underrepresented populations;
  2. individuals to serve as superintendents, principals, or other school administrators in rural and geographically isolated communities and school leader shortage areas;
  3. mid-career professionals from other occupations, former military personnel, and recent college graduates with a record of academic distinction.

The intent is, of course, to attach a lot of little strings to the federal money, just to make sure people do a good job with it. But of course, the prescriptive approach also limits people's imagination. All of these programs funded by this particular grant will look like twins, because they all followed the same recipe. However, no one is sure if the prescription is sound. It is just something that seemed like a good idea at the time people wrote the RFP, and something that would not raise too many political objections. It is very difficult to apply effort complying with rules and requirements, if you are not convinced they make sense. That's the lesson for us all. The rules we apply to our own students should be few, rational, and enforceable. And they need to make sense not only to us, but to those who have to comply.

Jul 17, 2009

The ethics of reporting

Because of certain events in our University, I was asked what is the responsibility of faculty to report? For example, if you hear a rumor, or a student has shared something in confidence – what should you do with this information? This is not exactly obvious, and I don't think we have a good policy or guidelines. Here is what I think, and please don't take it as the official University's line.

All information about intimidation, harassment, or inappropriate behavior should be immediately reported to me or to the Dean. Such behavior can be by faculty, staff, students; it can be related to sexual harassment, or racial, or gender, or other forms of prejudice, or just random. Every faculty and staff member is representing an institution, and should care about its well-being. It does not matter if you heard it in confidence, or indirectly, or believe it was exaggerated. If you hear something remotely credible and did not do anything, you accept a part of responsibility for what may or may not be another ugly story. Not reporting is condoning. University's administration has a responsibility to investigate, and to take actions, but it won't do anything until it knows something. Do not assume that if something was conveyed to you as a common knowledge it is a common knowledge.

Now, if you hear that so and so is not a fair teacher, or is weird, or dishonest, you do not have the same ethical obligation to report. It often makes sense to bring someone else's attention to the problem, but it really up to you who to talk to and if you want to talk at all. People's personal and professional weaknesses may be just as annoying or even damaging our community. However, if there is no harassment, intimidation, or inappropriate behavior, it remains squarely within your own common sense judgment to decide what to do with this information. As many of my colleagues have realized, I am generally nosy and like to know what's going on. But none of you have an ethical or professional obligation to indulge me on this. It is perfectly fine to keep the information confidential; you will not be responsible for doing so.

And the third class of information is when someone makes a mistake on the job. Those in general should not be reported, unless one of these conditions is true:

  1. It was a repeating error, a part of a pattern;
  2. It had costly consequences, in money or time, or reputation;
  3. You have a suggestion on how to prevent such mistakes in the future.

How do you distinguish between these kinds of things? One good way would be applying the Denver Post headline test. Compare these two headlines:

  • A UNC professor threatens a student with violence
  • A UNC professor loses a paper and gives an unfair "C"

Which one you think is more realistic? If your story is more like the second, it is probably up to you to report or not report it. If it more like the first, you have little choice but to report. Another way to figure it out is to imagine yourself or your child to be in the place of the alleged victim. Are you simply upset or enraged? If it is the latter, report, if the former, it is entirely up to you.

One way that is not so effective is asking whether we can be sued over this. First, most people don't have a good idea of what is and what is not a credible court case material. There are many myths and fears about being sued, but the University has a Council, let him decide those things. It is generally not very easy to bring a credible case to court without a specific damage or injury. And we are not in a very damaging business. Second, people litigate over so many things; it would be just paralyzing to always think about the threats of legal nature. The focus should be on us – are we doing right, honorable, reasonable things or not? If yes, the law is likely to be on our side.

Jul 8, 2009

The fine art of teaching


What you see here is distribution of mean student evaluations for our School faculty in the Spring of 2009. Each line is one faculty member, so if she or he taught more than one courses, those are averaged. Not a perfect indicator, but it shows we can really be proud. The waited mean for the whole School is 4.35 on a 5-point scale. We do have some awesome teachers, and students really appreciate what we do. The more student evaluations I read the clearer it becomes; it is not about being nice or amusing anymore. Some of the nicest people get the lowest scores sometimes, although being angry with students usually tends to lower the scores. But our students learn to appreciate those instructors who teach them something.

Naturally, my eye is wondering to the outliers at the bottom of the list. What went wrong, and what can I do to help? My biggest concern is about people who have done it for a while, and still cannot get decent evaluations from students. I believe, this is an issue with just the level of effort. When students see a poorly prepared syllabus, no rubrics, a grading system that seem to change every week, or a professor reading a textbook aloud in class – they have little respect for the instructor. Not putting enough time into thinking through one's class is probably the biggest contributors to the low scores. And it does not matter how much experience you have, and how much you can improvise – homework is essential. In fact, I believe people who are more improvisational in their teaching, have more difficulties relating to our students as time progresses. This is because we all compete against each other in the eyes of our students. Once they see a well-designed course, which is well-paced, relevant, and engaging, going back to a long lecture with questionable relevance is very hard.

A variety and density of instructional methods also seems to be important. Our students are future teachers, so they are not impressed by the same activity repeated again and again. Nor are they convinced by endless small group discussions without a clear focus. Long stories about one's life and teaching experience are clearly irritating. Time needs to be compressed, and used wisely.

I am less concerned about one-time low scores; we all have classes that don't go well, one in a while. Nor am I worried about new people getting lower scores. It does take time to adjust and to find your own teaching voice and style – this is true even for those who already had successful college teaching experience elsewhere. This is a different university with its unique culture, and we are dealing with some very sophisticated students. We talk about teaching, and there is always an opportunity to learn more. My real worry is about people who seem to be stuck in one place and cannot get out of it.

Sometimes it is simply laziness. To be honest, I don't know how some people I know and used to know fill their days. Anything they do seems to be done on the fly, without much thought and preparation. And it is not like they are preoccupied with grants or research or service. Producing evidence of a 40-hour work week is a challenge for them. For these people, working at home seems to be difficult. I recommend coming to the office 5 days a week, and spending 8 hours there – you'd be amazed how much can be accomplished.

Sometimes it is anger. Once you get angry at students who are not smart enough or honest enough for you, it is very-very difficult to improve as a teacher. Every failure will serve as an evidence of how spoiled, stupid, unfair, and dishonest your students are. This is a dead-end, because think of it: if all students were bright, capable, prepared, and proficient, why would they need us? A teacher who is angry with his students is like a doctor, complaining how sick his patients are, and how nice it would be to treat healthy people!

Anyway, I just wanted to say how well we really do overall, and how proud I am to be among such wonderful teachers. Also wanted to tell everyone, I pay close attention to the evals, understand the problems, and am here to help should you ask for it. Heaven knows I have had my own share of teaching problems, and - my students will probably say - I still have them. If there was a good way to rank, I would probably be somewhere in the middle among my colleagues, and certainly not at the top. I can help by facilitating conversations, by putting people in touch with each other, and of course, by sharing the few tricks of my own.




































Jul 5, 2009

About blogs

OK, I have been doing it for three years. My first blog was published on July 2, 2006; I have 123 entries since then. Did not keep track from the start, but in the last 6 months, the site had 836 Visits with 478 Absolute Unique Visitors, and 1,189 Page views. Here is a little stats table thanks to Google Analytics:

Count of visits from this visitor including current

Visits that were the visitor's nth visit

Percentage of all visits

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2 times



3 times



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5 times



6 times



7 times



8 times



9-14 times



15-25 times



26-50 times



51-100 times



What does it mean, exactly? Even though I don't get many comments, at least some people read it, which is already a good sign.

The plan was to keep a journal of things that I learned, and make my thought process a little more visible. At first, it included both ruminations about our own institution, and about all things educational. Then I created another blog on wider educational issues, and focused this one on what is of interest, mostly, to people with whom I work directly. But every week, I struggle with the same choice: what is interesting and amusing to me, may or may not be as equally amusing to others. That's the central tension of blogging as a new medium. Your old paper journal was never read by anyone else, so it did not mind being a little self-centered and narcissistic. The blog, however, is read by other people, and it becomes annoying if focused on the author entirely. However, it is not exactly a newspaper article, and must maintain a strong personal voice.

For example, last week, I spent a chunk of time working on two different grants, and of course, learned something new about that. I've also learned a lesson about how a small technical error at the beginning of the process can lead to a tense argument, misunderstanding, and to an unnecessary problem. I suppose, my conclusion could be like one of the two:

  • Projects, like children, disproportionally depend on early stages of their development. A right onset can go a long way in ensuring the project will grow strong and succeed.
  • People must not get annoyed with each other without first investigating the origin of their disagreement.

That has been, more or less, my formula. I take a case, and draw a conclusion – either a purely managerial one, or one with a human dimension. The blog entries become either a sermon or a short management article. But I always feel uneasy about the sermons, and am never sure if the management pieces are of interest to anyone.

So, if you're reading it in the middle of the summer, please give me some feedback – comment here, e-mail, or just tell me. Should I keep going? Why are you reading it? Is the blog helpful? Should I change it? Ger rid of sermons? Get rid of management? Keep both?

A reminder: Comments are moderated to protect the site from spam. All legitimate comments will appear, just after a short delay. Thanks!