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Apr 24, 2009


This word does not exist in English, but it does in French and in Russian (although it is still a very obscure word). According to André Maurois, Henry de Montherlant made it up in French. A chronophage, literally, means the devourer of time. Here is an example: someone puts together a large meeting, invites many people, only to accomplish a very modest task that can be accomplished by a couple of e-mails. People gather only to find out that there is nothing really to talk about, there is no plan, no proposal, just a general talk. Or, someone send you a request to participate in a survey of some kind, and it is not clear what it is for, and the questions seem to be haphazard. Or someone puts together a public panel only to provide legitimacy to a proposal that is actually developed, and really does not need any input. Or, an official calls a meeting and lectures for an hour. A chronophage will present a small problem to be a large one, therefore demanding that people pay attention to it.

Don't get me wrong: I welcome and embrace nterruptions. I love when faculty drop by to talk about things that are on their mind. It is an interruption, but almost always a welcome one. I learn something, and I am able to answer questions, and ask questions. This is how we know what is going on, and how people are doing and feeling. That is not at all a problem. I also always see a student who dropped by, because it is important for us to maintain an open, welcoming office. It is also very important to meet face to face to solve complex problems, hence my deep appreciation for a good slowtalk.

The problem is when someone eats your time without regard for you or for others. A chronophage does not value you or your time. I missed an important phone call, just because three or four chronophages ate a few hours of my time this week. A really good person got upset with me, because I did not return his call in two days, and it was urgent.

Why do they do it? Well, I have a theory. A chronophage derives the self-worth from eating other people's time. It is really a childish need for constant attention. A chronophage perceives the time that he takes as a tribute, paid to him by others. It is a tax, an obligation, a sign of respect. Eating other people's time sustains this person's illusion of importance. And because people will start to avoid the chronophage, he will feel threatened and insecure. The chronophage gets hungry for time. To fix that, he will devise more and more complicated ways of eating other people's time. And the more authority he has, the easier it is to do, and the more difficult it is for us to resist him.

Therefore, I proclaim a holy war against the chronophages. Resist! Fight back! Do not get eaten alive! When asked to do something, to meet or to answer, ask why, who needs it, and what would be likely outcomes. Ignore salesmen! Doubly ignore salesmen who pretend not to be one! Always ask if there is a plan or a proposal. Ask to send you something first. Ask what it is about. A noble cause does not always indicate a worthy project. A lofty title may disguise a dog and pony show. You are the master of your own time. Someone might need it more than the chronophage.

Well, let's just say, it was a busy week, maybe a little more than usual.

Apr 18, 2009

Tinkering with the machine and crap shoveling

There is a side of our enterprise I like to call the machine: calendars, schedules, catalogs, web site, handbooks, policies, routines, and tasks. Those things do not directly affect what is going on in classrooms. However, when the machine is faltering, it can create a lot of problems. For example, students and faculty get confused or frustrated. In rare occasions, a poorly designed policy or procedure can have serious negative effects on people's lives. Thank god, this is an exception; otherwise we'd be in trouble, for the machine is faltering all the time.

When I just came to UNC, one of my aims was to simplify and fix the machine. Naively, I thought it could be done in a year or two, and then we all will have more time for the task of radical improvements of our programs. But the machine needs fixing all the time! I find myself tinkering with it again and again. For example, just in the last two weeks, I was helping to re-re-revise the student teaching handbook for the umpteenth time. And then just yesterday, I realized that the Diverse Experience form is not there. It is mentioned on the website, was discussed many times in many forums, and yet is not to be found in any of the student teaching handbooks. Besides, faculty found more need for revisions of what we have just revised last Fall. Fundamentally, those two factors cause a lot of machine maintenance: improvements and errors. Let's just say we want to revise the exit survey for students, common for three programs. Who can do it? Program coordinators are very busy this time of year. Our staff members are very knowledgeable and hard working, but they don't know all the nuances of the data we need to get. So, I am trying to do it almost solo. But, all projects done solo are bound to have errors, – both technical and of judgment, – because there is no one to check what I do. Carolyn and I will help each other when we can, but it is not the same as a deliberate, involved process of working with the entire faculty that is really needed. The choice is to let this little piece of machinery idle (skip the survey this year), or do it in the imperfect fashion. In other words, the option is to put the duct tape on it, which I did.

In addition, our machine is a part of even bigger machine of the University, which adds a layer of complexity. Who needs to know? Who gets to decide? How will it jive with the rest of the University? Here is another example. In December, I took large part of the Winter break time to revise the licensure parts of our catalog. It needed to be done badly, for no one could find anything in the catalog. However, we got only a few days for proofreading, and we simply missed the licensure part. Quite by accident, I discovered on Thursday that those changes were omitted. This is long past deadline, so I had to send some panicking e-mails, and the catalog people agreed to make the changes. However, every time you revise the catalog, other errors are introduced. For instance, Art Music and PE PTEP programs disappeared – inadvertently, of course. So, I had to put them back in. But the catalog is going off to the printer on Monday, so I did not have the time to consult with those programs, and I probably gotten these programs wrong, too. They will probably be mad at me, because the errors would be ultimately caused by my initiative to revise. So, we're virtually guaranteed that this piece of the machine will need another fix next year. Continuous improvement or continuous tinkering?

This tinkering work is absolutely endless. There is always something to fix, a process to improve, a form or a handbook to rewrite. It is fun at times, because sometimes I get to solve real problems, and find some new solutions. For example, on Wednesday and Thursday, I finally found a way to track our graduate admissions, something that eluded us forever, and costs us a lot of labor. However, it is one thing to find a solution, and quite another to make it work. Someone has to have it on their calendars, instructions need to be written, people trained, etc. Anyway, tinkering is mostly fun, but just in the last week got a little bit frustrating, and tedious.

And of course, quite independently of my tinkering, we were exposed to a case of irrational bureaucratic whim. Those of you in the School probably know what I mean, for those outside, it is not important. Tinkering with the machine – I embrace if not always enjoy. I understand why we have to do it. Shoveling crap is something else entirely. Here is my highly scientific definition of crap shoveling: dealing with unnecessary problems resulted from someone else's arbitrary decisions. So if I appeared cranky for this last week or two, now you know why. My apologies anyway, if I neglected or offended you in any way. I'll lighten up next week, promise.

Apr 4, 2009

Student complaints

It's been busy in the last couple of weeks. Two trips, several ceremonies, search, a couple of new projects – all of these worked out just fine. Things are going really well for me, and I want to believe, for the School. Yet problems that don't have a good resolution are on my mind, as always. Certain problems just don't have a clear cut solution, no matter how creative you are, or how hard you think, or how much you know. One of them is student complaints.

I am very fortunate to receive very few of those, but when I do, it is never clear what to do about them. Students who come forward to complain always have a mixture of motives and interests. They are always concerned about the quality of instruction, and almost always bring up valid criticism of someone's instruction. However, a student who complains before the end of the semester always has another motive – an attempt to get a higher grade. Even if they don't realize it, objectively speaking, they have a conflict of interest. The complainer is not a disinterested bystander reporting some problems out of JUST the moral duty. Students are often overestimate the influence an administrator can exert over faculty teaching. Or rather, they do not really know what they want to be done.

When I convey the sense of complaint to the instructor in question, everyone without an exception is hurt. A student complaint violates both trust and authority embedded in the teacher-student relationship. "Why didn't they talk to me?" – is usually the first reaction. And then, inevitably "This is simply not true." And almost always: "Let me tell you about this student." It is very hard to be in a position of power, and to sense the imbalance of power. You think, if I am open and honest with students, they should feel free to criticize me openly, to bring their concerns to me. But again, the objective situation of power imbalance makes this relationship look different from the other side. Power is one-way mirror: if you have it, all you see is the benevolent you. If you don't, you see the other, big, powerful, and scary. Therefore, I cannot simply turn away complainers and send them back to those against whom they complain. Even when students complain against a faculty from a different School, and even listening to them may look like invasion of someone else's turf, turning complainers away just is not a good option. There is no growth without knowledge of problems.

In those complaints, there are exaggerations, misinterpretations, although very rarely outright lies. Knowing that, I always try to check the facts with the instructor, and provide an opportunity to tell his or her side of the story. But – and it is a big and important but – the very fact of checking is already offensive to the instructor. The implied response is always "How dare you to even admit a possibility that the student is right, and I am wrong? Whose side are you on anyway?" No matter how much I tell that I am not inclined to believe student complaints, especially if they do not reoccur, faculty always feel offended and maybe even harassed. No one likes to be accused, and everyone feels the right to confront one's accuser. But because of the power situation above, it is often impossible. This is not a court of law.

And as I noted on another occasion, different perspectives can lead to different version of the same story both being true. To explain why someone would see the story differently, you almost have to evoke the moral argument: the other person is biased, unfair, and manipulative. That is where "let me tell you about this student" argument comes from. People in general have a hard time separating facts from their interpretation, and interpretation from the source. Yet how do you go about doing our everyday business without knowing each other's business? How do we improve if we do not get to reflect on our students' concerns and perceptions?

I hope you all see now how tricky this can get, how many layers of meanings can be revealed, and how many conflicting interests and considerations are at work. I wish I had an answer, but have some rules for dealing with student complaints:

  • Ask if the student tried to bring it up with the instructor, and if not, why.
  • Ask for details – what exactly was said? Can you show me your assignment? Can you show me your syllabus? Do you have your paper with you? What exactly happened? How many times, etc.
  • Ask what the student wants to be done (learned that from Eugene), and when they want intervention. It is important, because to intervene before grades are in is to disclose the student identity to the faculty. There should be some cost to the complainer: to prepare evidence, to risk confrontation, or other unpleasantness, etc. If you make complaining "free" it encourages frivolous complaints.
  • If the student wants to wait till the class is over, encourage to use evaluation forms. Inform about the grade appeal process.
  • Inform about the scope and limits of my own authority. For example, I cannot tell an instructor to change someone's grade, but I can ask to develop a better grading system.
  • Write an e-mail which focuses on facts, and send it to the instructor – immediately or after the end of semester, with or without student's name depending on what the student wants.

This is basically it. We have no policy or procedure on dealing with student complaints. In most cases, it just stays between me and the instructor. I don't know how to follow up, or how to make sure basic standards of good teaching are followed. Sometimes I keep a copy of the correspondence, but no one ever sees it. Maybe this how it should be, but it just strikes me as a lost opportunity. Ultimately, we must create a culture where our students are our allies, our sounding boards, and our critics and helpers. But we do not want to open the floodgate of ridiculous complaints whose only aim is to manipulate the system and get a better grade. What we really need to encourage is not complaints, but a steady flow of feedback from students about what and how we teach. They have many professors, and can see and compare; they usually know what works and what does not, what is a waste of time, and what is valuable. Faculty members do not have the time to visit each other's classes, so a lot of discoveries, tricks, and tips are not shared. But our students see it all – the good, the bad and the ugly. I don't want to see just the ugly; I want to see the good, and make sure everyone else learns from it.

The question of the day is this: how do we use our students' knowledge of college instruction to improve our teaching? How do we do it outside of the framework of complaining?