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Jan 29, 2010

Rank and File

The Academia has a tension between its strong egalitarian instinct and the academic rank. On one hand, once you're hooded, you join a community of equals; you have proven your worth. On the other hand, just like with any other job, it takes years and years to learn how to be a good university professor. And because those jobs are not trivial, and demand a lot of effort and experience, the hood itself does not guarantee one is good at it yet. It does not guarantee one knows one's limits.

In some universities, rank is very important – full professors run the show and often enjoy tangible privileges, such as better schedules, easier loads, etc. Our School is a lot more egalitarian place – we agreed that seniority should not create privilege, and we are supposed to rotate all burdens and perks. The UNC's policy is also quite egalitarian: assistant professors can vote on promotion to full professor. It is a real strength, because we are more inclusive, and junior faculty are less likely to feel alienated or excluded from decision-making (That's my hope anyway, and junior faculty may feel differently). However, I now realize there is also a weakness to this system. We don't have a good mechanism of making qualification decisions: who can and who cannot teach certain courses; who should start advising doctoral students when; who can define what a program's philosophy should be? I am certainly not in a position to make many of those decisions. We have a pecking order spelled out in our Charter, but it does not always work as we have more inter-disciplinary programs, and as course prefixes make less and less sense as turf markers.

I think we make reasonably good decisions most of the time. But sometimes I hear people questioning each other's qualifications – in private, of course. And regardless of whether I agree or disagree with those judgments, there does not seem to be a clear way of resolving such conflicting claims. It looks like more senior faculty should have more say in it, but how do we make it a reasonably fair and reasonably transparent process without hurting each other's feelings needlessly? Do we create a committee? Do I solicit informal opinions? How do we resolve disagreements? How do we remain rational, and above personal likes-dislikes? How do we help people grow, rather than create permanent divisions between more and less powerful?

Perhaps we should have adjudicating committees, consisting of at least three people: the program coordinator, and the two most senior professors with the appropriate expertise? Any ideas would be greatly appreciated.

Jan 22, 2010


I lack the opportunity, and maybe skills to tell how much I appreciate and value every one of my colleagues. But I do appreciate, and notice a lot of good things, even though I sometimes fail to acknowledge every one. When I walk the hallways and look into someone's classroom, I am overwhelmed with a sense of gratitude to all of you who stand there and teach all these students, day in and a day out. When students trickle in with their problems, and I see one of our staff members talking to them, helping figure out problems, listening to each individual story – I have the same feeling. You all are really needed, and I am very much humbled by what you all can accomplish. When someone steps in quietly, and picks up a task, just because it is needed to be done – I know I am in the right place, and with the right people.

No profound truths this time, just a report on the internal life of your Director.

Jan 15, 2010

Perpetual tweaking

Here is quote from a preview of an interesting study by Steven Farr on effective teachers:

[Great teachers are] perpetually looking for ways to improve their effectiveness. For example, when Farr called up teachers who were making remarkable gains and asked to visit their classrooms, he noticed he'd get a similar response from all of them: "They'd say, 'You're welcome to come, but I have to warn you—I am in the middle of just blowing up my classroom structure and changing my reading workshop because I think it's not working as well as it could.' When you hear that over and over, and you don't hear that from other teachers, you start to form a hypothesis." Great teachers, he concluded, constantly reevaluate what they are doing (Ripley, 2009)

This is very true. Many of my colleagues are excellent teachers, and I know they are tweaking their courses all the time. On the other hand, when someone has the same syllabus as ten years ago, I get really suspicious about the quality of that person's teaching. It is not a perfect indicator, but is a very good proxy. It takes years to get one particular course just right, and by the time you get it right, either students change, or the content needs updating, or you just get bored doing the same thing over and over again. The one negative side effect of it is the organizational and curricular drift. But it is a different issue, and no one should ever feel embarrassed at constant tweaking of one's classes. It is not an implicit admission that you failed before. You just learned something new and are refusing to settle on something less than your best.

It also occurred to me the same principle works in management. We have been changing a lot of things around here for a long time, in some cases again and again. At the beginning, I thought naively that there will be a point when we clean up all the inefficiencies, waste of time, and boring work. Well, it is not happening. As soon as we solve one problem, we either have to struggle with a new one we created, or suddenly someone sees an even better way of doing the same thing. Just for one example: When I came here first three and half years ago, almost the first thing I did was to cut down the number of paper forms, and put them all on-line. It makes sense: if a student needs to come and get a form, and then bring it back – that's two trips rather than one. If we have a form that has no consequences, it should not exist at all. Then we converted many of those forms into on-line surveys, so that the data can be just downloaded as a spreadsheet. No trips to us for the student, and no keying in the data for us. Now I stumbled on a way of sending these forms directly to someone's computer as an e-mail but with all required information already included (here is an example). This eliminates the downloading step. And there does not seem to be an end to it. Our wonderful staff is very patient with me, and they have to learn something new all the time – sometimes only to switch to something else again. I guess this blog is an attempt to justify myself (aren't they all?), to show that I am not a moron who cannot make up his mind about office processes. It is what we have to do. OK, we revised some programs three times in two years (you all know which), so what?

But back to teaching: How do we cultivate that urge for perpetual tweaking in our own students? It is probably only possible when you do it yourself, and are open and intentional about it. We need to invite students into our teaching labs, so they not only see how we teach, but also how we think about our teaching, and how often one needs to tweak. Let's go tweaking! But don't forget that sometimes we need radical change, too. That involves a different kind of learning, needs to be done carefully and for a good reason.

Jan 7, 2010

Planned Abandonment

Late Peter Drucker, a management consultant of all management consultants, liked to ask his clients, "What should you stop doing?" He believed it is easier to invent new things to do than to abandon your practices even when they stop being useful. So true, so true.

The week before classes begin is one of those windows of opportunity when we can rethink what we do, rewrite syllabi, and redefine processes. This time, we had a little project on re-inventing student teaching placement process – for the third time, I believe. It works just fine, and thanks to Marita, there has never been a student that is not placed. But it takes a long time and effort, causes some students frustration, and is generally not as efficient as we would like it to be. Mainly, it is because we rely on other people's willingness to help, their effectiveness and professionalism.

Anyway, the ideas on what else can be done are easy to come by. For example, we decided to send a questionnaire to many secondary schools, asking them in general, how many student teachers they might be willing to take in the semester. We also decided on a more rigid calendar and shorter deadlines for both the students and the districts. So far so good, right? Only later did we realize there are actually things we can stop doing altogether, which will free our time for things that really need doing. A certain percent of our student teachers actually have confirmed placements. They either have a connection through the social network, or have an explicit invitation from a teacher and a principal from a previous experience to come back for student teaching. In certain fields, coordinators know all eligible teachers really well, and will arrange placements informally long in advance. Students maybe from a small town, and the only school there wants to help them to student teach. I don't know how many of out students fit that category – probably between 10 and 25%. But we used to treat them like everyone else: send us your information, your resume, your writing sample, and which school you want to go to, and then we forward that info, receive a confirmation, etc. Well, what service are we providing to them, exactly? None really; we simply pass through some information both ways, sometimes through several levels of approval. All we really need is a word from a school principal that the student is properly placed with an experienced teacher. How do we get that confirmation is not really that important.

Anyway, we created a one page worth of rules, and will let students opt out of the centralized placement. Considering that some universities rely exclusively on self-placement (which is just not right), we should have come with the idea a long time ago. Why didn't we? – Because Drucker was right; it is much easier to start doing something else than to stop doing something.

As we start the new semester, I want to challenge everyone to stop doing something; just one thing. Here is a list of ideas, maybe they can help:

  1. Stop roll calling. Send a sign-in sheet around your class instead.
  2. Stop reminding students to do things. Have a calendar on-line in your Blackboard, and teach them to pay attention to it.
  3. Stop thanking people for sending you an e-mail. If it did not bounce, they got it, and will be thankful for your "Thanks!" email to not come at all.
  4. Stop typing the same comments to hundreds of different students. Learn t use Building Blocks in Word (Alt+F3).
  5. Stop teaching something they already know. Join the TTT Project!
  6. Stop enforcing all rules except those absolutely necessary.
  7. Stop doing tedious things – this is why we have all the work study students! If you are work study and happen to read this (which is highly unlikely), stop checking news on face book!
  8. Stop reading hundreds of e-mails. Learn to use Google Forms.
  9. Stop fighting technology – if you cannot figure it out in 20 minutes, ask someone for help.
  10. Stop doing everything that benefits no one.