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Jan 30, 2009

Being a student

This semester, I am a student again. I am taking GER 202, Intermediate German II. This is a hopeless attempt to remember the language I have studied in school quarter a century ago, and has not used much since. So, I am sitting there, with my long beard, amongst a bunch of 19 year olds, who speak and understand the language so much better than I ever will. Just today I was trying to give a presentation on the brochure I created in German. It was very embarrassing; I turned red like borscht, and mumbled something incomprehensible. The kids were polite, and the instructor was wonderfully encouraging. Yet it was really hard and somehow emotionally very difficult. Now, I have no stage fright, and am OK with public presentations. Nor do I have any desire to be perfect at everything I do. It's just my German is very weak, and I found myself in a class that is two years ahead of me. This happened to me when I first learned English, too. However this is not about learning languages (although this process has some unique emotional qualities). We all had these experiences; they come with being a student, from struggling to learn in a public space. To be a student means to subject yourself to judgments of others, and to run a risk of exposing your own incompetence. It also contains the risk of comparing yourself to others in the room, and perhaps finding yourself at the very bottom of the ranking order.

Most of us forget or repress these memories, which is why I highly recommend that all my colleagues occasionally experiment on themselves. Take a class in a subject where you know you're not that good at. Take a math class if you're a math-phobic. Take a technology course if that is where you are not as strong. It is easy to forget how it is to be a student, still easier to forget how to be a poor student. I always try to be decent to students, but like any teacher, I will sometimes be irritated by someone's incompetence, inability to perform the easiest task. And if we go real deep, that irritation is probably an outward manifestation of my own insecurities projected onto others. The more you identify with a struggling student, the more irritated you may become. Of course, everyone knows by now, I am a fan of Freud.

We always have those students at the bottom, who are painfully aware of their position. I am not sure if one can be compassionate to them without experiencing something similar: embarrassment, denial, lack of self-efficacy. We struggle to overcome and hide vulnerabilities, and yet those maybe the best gift we have as teachers. Thinking about it, all the great teachers I knew are very aware of their own limitations, which probably what makes them able to relate to a struggling student.

Don't get me wrong – Deutsch ist Spaß. German is a lot of fun, and I enjoy those classes immensely. Thanks to the Board of Trustees for the free credit. I am just curious and puzzled about the peculiar mixture of pleasure and pain that is called learning.

Jan 24, 2009

On laziness and long-term perspective

My brother Konstantin is an engineer, a creative mind, and a pub philosopher. He likes to tell people that all progress in the world comes from laziness. What he means is that most people dislike routine and monotonous work. But some individuals hate routine and monotonous work with such a passion that they will spend more time trying to find a way out of doing this work than the actual work would have taken. Let's call it laziness, although I suppose it is not a common usage. I must confess I am lazy, which may or may not be a good thing for the School I am trying to lead.

Looking for ways to reduce work feels like a creative activity; it is fun, and definitely beats doing the actual work it is trying to improve. For example, if I have to do the same operation in word processing more than 3 or four times in a row, my mind immediately starts looking for ways to make the machine do the repetition. What would have taken most people half an hour to do, may take me an hour or more: 59 minutes to figure out a solution (like writing a macro), and then 1 minute to run it. There is a chance I will face the same issue again, and then this time will pay off. But there is also a good chance that this was a unique problem, and the solution will never be used again and is thus wasted. I remember hundreds of these things I figured out once, and then never used again. My kids always give me a hard time about this particular obsession: "Oh, Dad, not another shortcut!"

In the last three weeks, I found myself trying to streamline and simplify several of our operations: graduate admissions, scheduling, placements, doctoral program policies, collecting data for the DPS project, etc. These efforts include talking to people, understanding their work, asking for their suggestions and for critique of possible solutions, working on technical issues, looking for resources, etc. This took probably 20% of all my work time, plus some homework. And I am not convinced it is all time well-spent. Actually, some of my little projects turned out to be duds. For example, I really liked the idea of matching cooperating teachers and teacher candidates via a social network website for the purposes of student teaching placements. I spent perhaps 4-6 hours investigating it, playing with the sites, writing it up, and explaining to various people, only to realize that the organization culture barriers are too high for this solution to work. Too many players, too many unanswered questions. Another example of waste: we archived a part of our SIMS database last Fall to make it faster. However, this created a major reporting problem, which we did not see at the time. So, on Friday, I spent about two hours undoing damage from my own mistake. And then, of course, it is unclear whether our new way of processing graduate admissions will work better than before. I think it will save us hundreds of hours every year, but there is no way to anticipate how many new problems it will create. For example, the Graduate School is suddenly concerned about us having our separate on-line application (it never bothered them when we had four different additional paper applications).

Like my brother, I really enjoy this, and do not get upset when something is not working. However, I just re-read my earlier blogs, and realized that I may have gone too far. After all, a School Director is not an efficiency expert. While I designing new ways of improving our operations, what do I miss? For example, we slowed down our work on curriculum improvement. This maybe just a result of working out kinks of already implemented, or maybe because I quit pushing? We have such complex, multilayered set of programs and procedures that it is hard to keep a clear sight of priorities, and how they should be structuring my own work day. I will see to the grad admissions puzzle being solved, just because so much time and energy has been invested already. But we really have fixed the most urgent operational problems, and managed to create a few new programs and cohorts. It is time we begin a serious conversation about the long-term goals. We tried a couple of times to do it before, but perhaps the time was not right. We had too many immediate pressing needs such as accreditation, catching up on educational technologies, maintaining and revising existing program, etc., etc., etc. But now we should start to take on the long-term perspective seriously. I don't want to rush or force this conversation. It just occurred to me as I was fixing the database on Friday that while it is fun, we may have bigger game to catch.

Jan 18, 2009

Flipcharts and Brainstorming

In the last few months, I have found myself at a table with a few other people, a flipchart stand with markers beside us. We were either brainstorming or prioritizing, or doing something like that. Everyone probably has done something like that. And many have wondered why this inevitably fails to produce anything worthwhile: new ideas, good analysis, or workable solutions. These brainstorming sessions make people feel included, and may generate some buy-in, but ultimately, they fail to produce any good ideas.

Why? – It is very simple. First, people need time to think. If you ask them to think on the spot, they are unlikely to produce good ideas. Second, in a group of people who often don't know each other well, one is unlikely to feel safe enough to propose a truly creative idea. The inner censor starts working; we want to be accepted, not weird on non-conformist. Third, even when an interesting idea does emerge, the person who is taking notes usually ignores is, simply because she or he is thinking about presenting it to a larger group, so the internal censor works again. Those who volunteer take notes often want to make an impression on the large group. Fourth, the teammates are very unlikely to offer support for a truly unusual idea. They will support ideas with which they already agree, and these, by definition, are common-place thoughts. To accept something new, one also needs time, and a new idea needs to be critiqued, and considered at length before it can be accepted. Fifth, the meeting organizers will then summarize ideas presented on all flipcharts. The way you do it is by retaining ideas that are common across all groups, and ignoring the outlying, weird, and improbably suggestions. Once you sift through all generated output through these five filters, you are almost guaranteed to find a list of trivial points well known before your meeting ever took place. So, you waste time of many smart people only to receive a bunch of platitudes in the end.

Why do organizations – from the Governor's office to this university - keep doing it? Mostly, of course, to produce the warm feeling of collaboration, to make the invited individuals feel a part of the common project. Yet it is very dangerous, because everyone leaves with a vague feeling of failure. I mean, everyone can look back at the flipcharts, and see they contain nothing but trivialities. They may also be a little grateful for being asked to contribute. However, the balance is usually negative. You go through these exercises a few times, and you become a cynic. A cynic's buy-in is not worth much.

Small group work is very effective for critiquing a possible idea or a solution. To imagine how things can go wrong, and what unintended consequences are – for these tasks the groups are indispensible. We had some wonderful discussions in which people did come up with good ideas, but only when there was no expectation to do so. A multitude of voices and opinions is also helpful in outlining a scope of possible solutions. All of together know more than each person individually. The genuinely new ideas almost always come from one person, and it is a job of a leader to encourage those ideas to come forward, and then to be discussed, and vetted by all affected and interested. People don't want to be ignored when decisions are made. But the flipcharts and group brainstorming is a path to guaranteed mediocrity.

Jan 8, 2009

Hard times ahead

I am back from vacation and glad to find all things in decent shape. We are ready for the next semester. It is nice to see colleagues trickling back into McKee: just as smart, dependable, and funny but not as tired as in December.

That was the good news. The bad news is that we still have not received any money from last academic year's Extended Studies revenues. Again, we are flying blind financially. Our Dean is in the same position, and so is the entire University. This encourages hoarding behavior. For example, the Provost is holding back our money, because he does not know what is going to happen to the University budget. As for the Dean, I can see him tightening his fist for the same reason. Because no one knows how much money we have, everyone assumes the worst. Colorado is one of the states that are required by their constitutions to balance budgets. This means that if tax revenues drop significantly, we might be required to return money to the State. Last time it happened in 2002, and the university took drastic measures: cancelled searches, implemented a hiring freeze, eliminated travel budgets, cancelled salary raises, etc.

We worked really hard to earn the off-campus revenues. Over the last three years, we virtually doubled the revenues while providing much needed services to the community. The assumption was always that at least a small fraction of the money could be used for our travel funds, program development, technology, furniture, etc. Now I am told that everything we earned can be taken away from us. Although I understand the nervous administrators above me, it is still very hard to accept such a turn of events even as a possibility. Instead of being invited to solve the shared problem as partners, we are treated like peons: the people above know better. Instead of engaging our brains, and our knowledge of the details at the ground level, we are being ignored and dismissed.

The truth is, the people at the bottom of the pyramid can both save money and make more money. To do that, we need to be able to count on a certain portion of these savings and earnings. Otherwise, we have absolutely no incentive to be creative about either savings or earning. The confiscation policy will kill the goose that lays golden eggs.

No one knows the extent of the budget shortfall. It can be negligible, or huge. But what is the best way of dealing with uncertainty? Perhaps it can be done best by trying to operate as normal as possible, by honoring previous commitments, and by developing plans B and C. The worst way is to cause panic, to make every unit hoard its resources, and to damage long-term expansion plans.

Perhaps this is an imperfect analogy, but it works: The Great Depression could have been another short-term recession, if not for Hoover's stupid idea that that was a good time to balance budget. What the feds are doing now is to provide a large stimulus to the economy, even if it means bigger deficits. I know we have nowhere to borrow from, but we need to keep people working and thinking creatively, not to freeze all activity just to wait the crisis out. The solution is simple: honor the previous agreements, distribute the money to the units, then come back to us and ask to pitch in to solve the shortfall if it becomes a reality. We may even give most of this money back. Or better else, STE will lend money to the University, at a moderate interest.