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Jul 30, 2010

Simple Math and the Curriculum Creep

Formula Load Hours (FLH) seems to be the currency of this realm. The union has negotiated 12 FLH for all faculty, plus “other professional responsibilities” such as service, advising, etc. In addition, just our School reassigns the total of 309.5 FLH in the next academic year from teaching to other things, such as research, coordination, and various worthy projects. In a series of very interesting conversations, I was trying to figure out the logic behind the reassigned time and FLH we attribute to various courses. At RIC, we often give students 3 credits, but pay faculty 4 or more FLH for teaching the course. How do you know what project or course is worth in terms of time? I was looking for some underlying simple math that makes those things fair and equitable. What I am trying to avoid is the individual bargaining – I will do this for X FLH, but not forY FLH. Why? - Because in academia, everyone without exception is working harder than the next person. This is just how it is; we all are acutely aware of our own work, because we’re doing it. The other people’s work seems to be much smaller, no matter what. It is one of those existential biases we have by the virtue of being human.
Anyway, several people, quite independently of each other, have proposed this underlying math: a regular course is about 3 hours a week, for 15 weeks. So reassigned time, or more demanding field hours courses should be measured like that, too. If you can show 45 hours of work over the semester, it is equal 1 FLH. Makes sense? Not really. One thing about simple math – it runs in all directions. For example, the total load is defined at 12. Let’s just assume for the sake of argument, “the other responsibilities” amount to another 3 FLH. If you equate the FLH with 15 clock hours (one hour per week), this mean you’re only expected to work 15 hours a week. Imagine a headline in ProJo: “RIC faculty members admit their work week does not exceed 15 hours!” And then try to fight the public perception. Of course, it is not true, and everyone works much, much more than that. In fact, an average faulty member works 50-52 hours per week, with tenure-track but not tenured people working 52.5 hours. I would not be surprised is RIC faculty actually worked more than the average, because we’re a teaching-intensive institution, with very dedicated faculty. Each hour in class needs at least a couple of hours outside of classroom: developing syllabi, assessments, and teaching tools, grading, communicating with students, individual work, collecting data for accountability, etc., etc. There is no end to it, especially for someone new to the job, or someone developing new courses.
So the simple math should go more like this: my teaching takes at least four full days a week, and the other responsibilities take the fifth day. 15 FLH a week mean I work about 8 hours on each 3 FLH. Therefore, to be reassigned for 3 FLH, I will have a project worth about 15 full days, or 120 hours.
What we do is very hard to measure accurately. And the last thing faculty want to do is to become card-punching, log-keeping been counters. But some kind of a simple math underlying our reasoning is helpful I am not saying my math above is good or workable. The point is more basic: we do need some basic rationale for all these negotiations. One reason I enjoy working in higher education is that rational argument usually wins. I like to be persuaded by reason, and I like to persuade others the same way.
We also need to make sure our programs are sustainable. For each little bit of faculty work, there should be a clear revenue stream. There are two reasons for that.
  1. We cannot pile more and more work on students without having their currency of the realm – the credit hour – reflect the actual work load. That is what I would call the Curriculum Creep. Everyone thinks students need to know more in one’s subject, so we add and add. But then students cannot do the work, because their week is too full. As a result, the general quality of their training dilutes, and we achieve the opposite realm. Does anyone still expect two hours of home work for each credit hour in class? Really? The real solution should be like with the Federal Budget: pay as you go: a. no extra work is added without extra credit hours; and b. no credit hour is added without cutting it somewhere else. If this means a little turf war, fight the war, and find a rational argument to convince faculty in other parts of the program that your course is more valuable.
  2. We cannot kill the College’s budget by the death of a thousand small cuts. We make many small deals, and bargain for getting paid a little more, because of the curriculum creep. We start doing it on our own, because we care about students. But then at some point, it becomes simply unbearable, and we revolt and demand more pay – we forget that we created the situation, and just crave for justice. But then at the end of a year, those people who are responsible for the entire budget, take a look at the numbers and realize, there is no room for salary raises, and we do need to raise tuition. So, students who we were going to protect by not charging them enough, end up paying anyway. By haggling over a tiny pay increase for a small group of faculty, we may damage the chances of real increases. In the end, higher education is not exempt from the larger economic trends. Either we figure out a way of controlling our cost of doing business, or taxpayers will revolt.
I use the first person plural, because I have done all those things, and did not see them till I went to the Dark Side. So, this is the Darth Vader speaking; can you hear the heavy breathing behind the mask? And by the way, don't take this as a sign that I don't support the revision of our compensation for practicum courses. I really do and have been spending a significant portion of my time (I'd say about 1.25 FLH) trying to figure out that puzzle. I am very hopeful we can announce something next week.

Jul 23, 2010

How do you know what you want?

 It was a third meeting with various techies people today on how we can have a direct control over the School’s web site. what do you want to be on the site, -- I was asked once again. That reminded me one of those long and interesting conversations people have at conferences. My friend Bing and I were thinking about the connection between desire and cognition: How do you know what you want? How do you learn about your own wants and preferences? It is not really that simple; we are not born with a set of preferences; we both discover and define them from experiences.
As I am trying to figure out ways to work at RIC, the question comes up in many interesting forms. For example, what I really want is not having to express my preferences to the web master. I want us to change things quickly, to experiment, and to collaborate. By putting forth a specific web site structure, I would limit the ability to change it later. This is true for every choice we make: choosing one door closes many others. Another example: I needed some data exported from PeopleSoft. It was something simple, like a report on faculty loads over a few years. While the data was provided to me quickly (beautifully presented and formatted) I really wanted more – an ability design and run this and other queries on my own, whenever I needed. Ideally, we should be able to pull some numbers while talking to someone on the phone. In other words, what I want is to want many different things in the future.
But of course, it is not so simple. We have a centralized way of publishing the College’s web site for very good reasons. Such a site looks professional, consistent, and is quite accurate; it was designed in response to a chaotic situation in the past. If you let everyone run with their own sections of it, the site gradually deteriorates and will include dead links and inaccurate information. I don’t want that to happen either. The complication with our desires and preferences is that we have conflicting ones. Moreover, we very often want things that are bad for us, because we cannot imagine consequences of our choices. This is why the social world is full of tension: we must constantly check and balance each other’s desires. To put it simply, we cannot always get what we want. I am not someone who easily takes a no for an answer; I will keep pressing the issue until the reason for the no is very clear, rational, and considers all possible solutions. However, it is very important to not miss that point where a tentative and ephemeral no becomes a substantial no with which one must agree because it is consistent with other things one wants. Just want to let you know – we’re not there yet with the web. I still want the direct editing privileges; just don’t know how it could be done. 

Jul 16, 2010

Learning the ropes

As any good constructivist knows, the best way to learn about something is by changing it. By change I don’t necessarily mean reform or improvement – just making something work is already changing it. For example, you can read about how a new phone works, or you can just try to call someone. I want to defend all those people who get criticized by their domestic partners for not reading directions before assembling that IKEA furniture puzzle. Sometimes it backfires, and you need to take the darn thing apart and reassemble. But the approach itself is definitely sound. We learn about the world by manipulating it. That has been my approach to learning about RIC. For example, as I mentioned in my previous blog, we need to gain some clarity on our budget situation. That’s a perfect excuse to learn about the financial part of PeopleSoft. It became clear to me, for example, that we need another reporting tool, and I need access to another account. Some of it is quite confusing (for example, the info is kept in different ledgers, and their names make very little sense to me), but because there is a real problem to be solved, I have the motivation to make it work.
Another example: Kim, Eileen, Charley and I spend two hours today reviewing the current student teaching application process, and designing its next on-line version. In the meanwhile, I have learned from them about the technology on campus, about our accounting procedures, relationships with partner districts, and about the academic programs we have. If I spent same two hours reading the catalog and manuals, the result would have been much smaller, and easily forgettable.
There is still much to learn, of course. I attended a freshmen parent dinner last night, and could not answer many most basic questions. What are the meal plans? When do we learn about the dorm assignments? Trying to represent the institution, but saying “I don’t know” is not a very comfortable position. Thankfully, those people were really nice and gave me a break.
Being a new kid on the block (yet again!) is helping me to think about the nature of learning. Why do we learn, and how do we learn best; what are the existential implications of knowing and not knowing – everyone who is an educator should be reminded about these fundamental questions. I am greatful to this opportunity. 

Jul 9, 2010

The first three days

It’s Friday morning, my fourth days on the job. The moving in and organization took very little time, thanks to an incredibly efficient support by Paula McKeon and people from HR and  IT. I spent the entire three days learning about this fine institution. The best way to do it is to meet with people face to face and ask them a lot of questions, so my thanks go to all those who took and will take their time to educate the rookie Dean on the intricacies of the School’s operation: so far, Paula, Karen, Eileen, Ron, Kim, Monica, Ellen, Pat Cordeiro and Pat Hays, Dottie, Bettie - all have been victims of my questioning and probing. How much do I really know? Don’t overestimate the level of my knowledge, especially if asking for a quick decision. However, it is amazing how many subtle trends are similar to those in the other four institutions I have worked before. There are parallel limits and challenges for all education professional preparation schools, so people independently come to similar solutions. Without that background, I would have been completely lost.
I managed to learn some of the alphabet soup, RIC style (FLH, DLC, PEC) and enough about our programs and operations to be impressed. This looks like a thriving, and a competent institution. The problems and issues also start to pop up, because different people bring them up independently. For example, the new practicum compensation scheme clearly landed on the top of my list. It needs to be addressed quickly, but I am still struggling to understand the financial implications of the move. The last thing this new Dean wants to do is to finish his first financial year in the deep red. It is interesting though, that I helped to devise similar pay-per-student schemes at my old institution – not because of the union contracts, but simply for the sake of transparency and fairness. People should get paid for the work they do, because money, besides its obvious value, also has an important symbolic function. From my experience, people do not mind working very hard, but faculty and staff want to be recognized by being fairly compensated.
Another list of projects I am trying to identify as a first priority has to do with operations. We will need to switch quickly to on-line applications to the School, and to practicum and student teaching. RIC has a powerful tool – PeopleSoft, but right now, it’s like driving a Jaguar in the school zone. IT and our staff here have done great work already, we just need to eliminate as much of manual data input and hard copy paperwork as possible. This will free time for Kim, Paula, Dottie, and Rose, so they can help us with the next line of projects that have to do with NCATE accreditation.  One small but real achievement: I asked Kim to call to our partner school district to ask if they still require the TB test. Guess what – the absolute majority do not, and neither does the Health Department. We can kill that requirement right now, with DLC’s blessing. This means less hassle for students, less boring work for us!  
I am also trying to set up more meetings, as I realize which other key people in and outside of RIC may help me learn. There are smaller projects, which most of the people will probably have little interest in. For example, I realized we need a faculty database to monitor and report on workloads and tenure/promotion/sabbatical processes. We need to develop a way to scan all the archival files, so we don’t run out of room in the office.
That’s my first three days. Am I missing a big iceberg ahead? Please do let me know! In the next week, I will put out a faculty and staff survey to get a more systematic input from all of you. Please think what you think are our priorities, which way we should move, and how we can help each other to have meaningful and enjoyable work lives. 

Jul 6, 2010

On nostalgia

As Svetlana and I hit the road a week ago, our nostalgic road trip began. Revisiting old places wakes up memories one did not think one had. It brings up little details, random segments of your life, and makes it richer, just a little more textured and nuanced. My entire life in America is connected to I-80/I-90 corridor. Along the desert roads of Colorado and Wyoming, giant insects - field sprinklers –look at a passerby with their mechanical eyes, wondering, wandering, watering. They greeted me as I drove another truck from Ohio to Colorado four years ago. Now we were leaving friends behind; their voices slowly fading, their faces turning into memories.

Around Chicago, I-80 merges with I-90; turn west on I-90 and you can get to Seattle. Almost 20 years ago, my two friends (one Kenyan and the other Sri Lankan) drove a drive-away white convertible that way. We had about $100 and one driver’s license among us. That was the city where we rented our first apartment, where both of my children went to their first American school and promptly turned into Americans. A warm, wet, hip, welcoming city, Seattle gave us home and many friends. This is the town my daughter still calls home, because she graduated from high school there. We did not want to leave it.

Then, on the third day, we could not resist stopping by the University of Notre Dame, just a minute from the highway. In 1991, I rode a bus from the O’Hara airport to South Bend with my two friends, a Latvian and a Ukrainian. We were still from the same country, the Soviet Union, only to leave the place citizens of three different ones. An intense flood of delicious and painful memories passed through me as we walked on campus. Notre Dame is very beautiful; it always looked somewhat otherworldly for me. I had to struggle very hard here to learn the language and this new country. I had to claw through the cotton of incomprehension and misunderstanding. ND is a special scar on my psyche.

Later the same day, we passed through Ohio. Hwy 75 would take us to Bowling Green in no time. BGSU gave me my first professional job; I started there as an assistant professor at $36,000. That is where I learned how to teach and what a university is all about. We spent seven years there, amongst corn and soy bean fields, friends and colleagues. That is where we bought our first house, a war box fixer-upper. That is where my son’s high school is. We were now driving on the stretch of highway by which I took him to college in New York. On this road, I drove through the entire night to Kennedy airport to make it to my father’s funeral in Russia six years ago.

For me, highways are the best part of America. The rest stops, the beef jerky, tired truckers, messy family vans, “you are here” maps, gas stations in small towns, local radio stations; all of these and more, many more, make the stuff that feeds my memory.