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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

1 times



2 times



3 times



4 times



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?

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