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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.