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Dec 30, 2010

Starting over

If the Earth did not have this weird tilt in its axis, we could have been very different species. But it does, so we have seasons, which force us to live within specific cycles. It also spins, which not all planets do, and gives us day and night. The time is given to us as a predictable and inevitable change. We even add to that by creating an arbitrary date in the middle of the winter to start over again. Why start each year mid-season? - Probably, because we want more seasons. We need an opportunity to forget our failings, and fantasize about the future, about how things now will be different, and how we will exercise, eat well, and be organized, and even nicer to others. Even though it is somewhat predictable, we still perceive time as a wave of newness rushing towards us like at a sea shore.  We want to both keep our memories, and yet not let them dictate every future step. The belief in newness is a way of archiving, and somehow discounting the past.
Time is such an interesting thing to think about, because – can you see? – both hope and possibility come from our relationship with time. The difference between the past and the future is freaking profound: We cannot do a thing about the past, but we know it. We can do a lot about the future, but have no knowledge of it. Things we know – we cannot change; things we can change – we don’t know. What a bummer of a world; too bad there isn’t any other. The universe quickly hardens right behind our backs; push and the cement of completeness will not even budge. And the other end of the universe just barely appears out of the fog ahead – visible enough to be scary, but not clear enough to be comforting. What do we do? We chat! We drag the past with us, portending it is still malleable. We pretend the future is real, and can be predicted, prepared for, and tamed.
The New Year for me is the crunch of snow under my feet, and a cold wind stealing my breath when we face each other just the right way. I was probably four or five, and my mother was taking me to the day care, so early, it was still dark. I was all bundled up as only children in Siberia are dressed – almost round, with a scarf over my mouth icy and wet. When I squirm, - and squirm I must - the lights in snow crystals grow large, large, and huge before disappearing. My eyelashes are sticky, but it is really warm. There is no past, and no future; none of that stuff. Yes, one can exist without time, and without the need to start over. It just does not last long.  

Dec 16, 2010

Academic freedom is a contract

1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure started it all. It is a short and simple statement, which is very often misunderstood. The preamble is especially easy to miss. “Institutions of higher education are conducted for the common good and not to further the interest of either the individual teacher or the institution as a whole. The common good depends upon the free search for truth and its free exposition.” The intent of the document is quite clear: the society must recognize that scholars and teachers know something that the public in general does not and therefore should be trusted to research and teach the way they see fit. However, in exchange we promised to use the freedom for the common good, and the deal must be verifiable.
The recognition of freedom is not therefore given to us individually, but to professional communities to which we belong. For example, to get hired, one needs a doctoral degree, which is conferred by other scholars. To publish a paper, one needs a collective judgment of peers on merits of it, which is done either through peer review, or subsequent critique/study replication, etc. Grant proposals, IRB, tenure and promotion are all instruments of collective judgment. In other words, nothing about the academic freedom is arbitrary or whimsical. You’ve got to prove your point to your peers, even if the public in general, or your dean won’t understand anything you’re saying.
This obligates us to collaborate on program development. No one can claim academic freedom as a simple right to do what one pleases in classroom. If you know your version of the class is inconsistent with those of your colleagues, you are obligated to talk and make an effort to convince each other, using actual evidence and rational argument. If there is no agreement among you in the department, appeal to research and opinion of the professional organization. When no consensus exists, it is fine to experiment, but the results of your experimentation should be discussed, and made public. The same applies to all instances of the curriculum drift: courses once designed as a sequence drift apart, and create gaps or needless overlaps in what students should know. Texts and methods get outdated, or isolated and marginal. Our knowledge of the field may get rusty or lopsided. Our programs may get out of sync with the most current thinking in the field; we may miss important research. Those things are impossible to do alone; we all need colleagues.
We have relatively weak institutional controls to maintain quality of teaching. For example, there is no blind peer review of syllabi, and no routine peer observation. We rarely demand actual data on student growth in our classes (the irony of teacher preparation – we expect our students to develop a work sample, and to actually assess their student learning, but don’t do what we preach). How many of you routinely do a pre- and post-assessment in your own classes? Raise your hands… one, two. When the institutional controls are week, we need to create them, and in the meanwhile strengthen ethical controls. Academic freedom is a deal based on trust; if public loses trust in us, the deal is off.
It is very tempting to just talk yourself into believing how good you are. “I know I am doing a great job in my classroom, and don’t need anyone to check on me.” I don’t know how many times I heard this in one form or another. But hey, how do you know it? If you cannot explain it to your colleagues, how can you prove it to yourself? Oh, you just feel good? You see it in students’ eyes? You receive thank you notes? Would you use any of these “data” in your research? If not, why do you believe it is good enough for teaching?
We all need someone to check on us, and it better be a colleague (next door, or across the country), than the heavy hand of state agencies, accreditors, or administrative types like me. Because you know what? When a dean comes to your classroom or looks at your syllabus, she or he probably has no idea how your field works. In those cases, you should claim your academic freedom and stick to it. But you cannot claim academic freedom against your peers, and you are obligated to be a part of a community. And the community must prove it acts for public good, not to promote its own interest. That was always a part of the deal. 

Dec 10, 2010

Teacher quality as an ethical dilemma

Social institutions and systems cannot work on legal rules alone. Even such hard core mechanistic ones as financial markets depend on a degree of trust and an informal understanding of what is ethically acceptable and what is not. When people rely on regulations too much, the systems eventually collapse. Teacher education is not an exception. In the end, we put our names, our reputation, and our conscience behind every student we graduate. We are in this profession, because we want to be supportive and nurturing to all students. However, our ultimate ethical responsibility is to children our graduates will one day teach. The test is very simple: would you like to have this particular individual to teach your own children, nephews, nieces, or grandchildren? If you are not comfortable with the idea for any reason, you should do something about it.
The screening mechanisms we have are imperfect, and could not be counted on to work all the time. GPA, course grades, and observation forms – all are needed to provide a degree of objectivity to the process, but in the end, it is your professional judgment, and your personal responsibility. Someone can get good grades and try really hard, but just not have the right personality or enough knowledge and ability to be a good teacher. Someone can lack social skills, or have a disability incompatible with teaching. Just like blind people cannot be allowed to fly your airplane, a severely dyslexic person cannot be an elementary teacher. Moreover, such students often do not know or do not want to believe it. But it is not fair to them also to give out false promises, and condemn them to a life of professional failure. They are adults, and can make their personal choices in every respect, except for this one. We belong to a profession, and must protect school children against someone who can potentially cause a lot of harm.
In a recent conversation, a colleague brought up the fear of law suits if we dismiss someone without a proper procedure. It is true, that dismissing or counseling students from a teach preparation program should not be arbitrary, or motivated by personal irritations or dislikes. The rule of thumb is this: if you are the only one who is worried, find other colleagues and cooperating teachers who have the same concerns. Put these concerns in writing – at any point. If they are critical, send them forward immediately. If they are borderline, make it a personal task to follow up on the student at the next stage of the program.  Involve program coordinators, chairs and the Dean’s office. Can you explain your concern to other professionals? If yes, go for it, but don’t worry too much about having a good story for a broad public. It is not necessary. I remember a few years ago one of young program coordinators told me she wants to fail a student teacher. I looked at transcript – nothing unusual there. Why, I ask? – The student lied about her mother having cancer and about other weird things like that. We check the facts, talk to cooperating teacher, and realize the student does have some serious personality problems; she is a habitual and imaginative liar. We’re not psychiatrists, but we just know this student in this mental state cannot be an effective teacher. I am not sure if a non-educator would have the same reaction, but I argue, we should not really care that much. We dismissed her from the program, and took some heat from parents, of course. There were threats of law suit, but it never materialized. Again, our primary ethical obligations are not to our student, but to her potential students. That is a special feature of teacher education, which demands a different moral calculus. 
The fear of legal action cannot cloud our professional judgment. First, it is greatly exaggerated. No lawyer will take on a client who has very little chances of winning a case. Dismissal from a professional program is almost never a winnable case, unless there are signs of discrimination based on unrelated factors. But even if a case goes to court, our collective professional judgment, outweighs whatever myths the fear of legal actions create. Second, if laws were perfect, who would need ethics?
Some students argued with me that they have received good grades and good recommendations before, and therefore cannot be excluded late in the process. My reply is this: just because we made a mistake with you one or a hundred times before does not mean we are obligated to make the same mistake again. The opposite is true – we should correct our own mistakes.
And finally, if you have a good case and your colleagues are with you, I will back you up with all I’ve got. Let’s just make a commitment – not a single bad teacher will come out of our College. And it cannot be someone else’s concern. 

Dec 3, 2010

Personal lives

Emergency rooms and OR waiting areas are tense places. I spent some time in them this week with my son who had to have an emergency back surgery (he is OK and recovering). It was hard to concentrate on work, although hospitals now offer internet access. Among other things, I was thinking about all my colleagues – these three have been fighting cancer, that one broke her hip; another person’s father or mother is dying, someone else is going in for a planned surgery. But someone just simply had bronchitis, and someone else I don’t know about had sick children, broken transmissions, family troubles, or financial crises. How do they all cope, and how do I know where my requests, demands, and messages come into their lives?
Somewhat disparagingly, It is called personal life; as if a life can be anything but personal. One is supposed to keep it separate from work, or so I was told by someone.  But can we, really, any of us? – nope. It affects us, and sometimes in ways that are not easy to trace. I found myself, for example, very cranky and critical (more than usual anyway) when I came back on Wednesday. Why? Because I am worried about my son, because I wonder if I could have done anything to prevent his injury; perhaps one more word of caution, one more doctor visit could have made a difference. I am frustrated because unlike Windows, real life does not offer a system restore point. But that’s just a theory; this may very well be a mild flu or something else entirely.
We are not rational beings, far from it. Our subconscious minds do things for their own strange reasons. We do not understand much of our emotions and reactions, sometimes until later, sometimes never. And if we do not understand or fully control our own actions, how can others? This is way humans have developed the judgment gap, the ability to suspend judgment. “Well, he is rude but who knows what’s going on in his life?” “She is absent-minded lately, but it will probably pass when she works through her issues.” That sort of empathic imagination is not given to us at birth; it is something we struggle to build; some with the help of religion, some without. It competes against our very basic need to defend ourselves, to counter aggression with aggression. If someone is rude to you, you must feel very secure to blow it over, and allow for complexities of a human psyche. If you are threatened, the empathic imagination shuts down, and forgiving becomes very difficult.
I am thinking – how can we help including our colleagues’ personal lives in the fabric of our work lives? How do you mix and blend, helping both be good and worth living? Is it a too tall of an order?