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Apr 29, 2011

My first year at RIC

I was considering writing a report to my colleagues before asking them to evaluate me, but there were two problems with that. First, it would take too much time, which I would rather spent on doing something rather than on making a long list of heroic deeds. If you’re really curious at how your Dean spends his time, take a look at my calendar – all 47 pages of it.   But second, if we accomplished something this year, most credit is due to other people – my colleagues in the dean’s office, department chairs, committees, faculty and staff.  Karen Castagno took on huge tasks to make this place run AND covered significant part of the NCATE data collection. I am especially grateful to her. Many other people within and outside FSEHD were gracious, patient, and forgiving. Thanks to all for a great year. OK, forget reporting; I have learned a few things and will talk about them.

  • RIC is a dynamic place, willing and able to change. To find the College leadership to be supportive and interested in mine and my colleagues’ ideas is encouraging. People ask hard question and challenge what we’re trying to do, but out of diligence, not resistance. Of course, not all offices are equally responsive and flexible, but there is a sufficient critical mass to make this place tick. Yes, some things drive me nuts, but none of them fundamental to the institutional culture, and all of them can be overcome with time and effort.
  • A lot of my time was spent on establishing connections throughout the state. I met with eight superintendents in one-on-one situations, trying to figure out what they really think of us. I also insinuated myself on a few committees – with RIDE’s various projects, some advisory boards; met with several journalists, community organizations, etc., etc. Sometimes it is hard to judge how productive these efforts are, but they surely helped to shorten my learning curve. Well, rumors about Rhode Island’s parochialism and backwardness are greatly, greatly exaggerated. Perhaps they are spread by those Massachusettsers and Connecticutians, who want to feel superior to someone next door, a smaller kid.  I met many very intelligent and forward-looking people here. Of course, my knowledge of local politics is still very basic, but nothing I saw or read about strikes me as unusual. Take corruption, for example. There are only 16 countries less corrupt than the United States (Russia is on 127th place, just above Sierra Leone, Congo and Venezuela). But within the US, Rhode Island is actually the 24th most corrupt state – right in the middle of the pack (Glaeser and Saks, 2006, page 1069). Did you know that?
  • Picking the essential apart from unessential is not an easy task for me. I don’t know if anyone ever figures it out. Life just does not match your plans. What I was hoping to achieve in August and what I ended up actually doing only partially coincide. Take a look at the Call to Arms document, with brief status reports. And another, a much more sensitive issue: the strategic plan FSEHD developed before me. I always liked it and agreed with the majority of the items. But did I actively pursue all the things planned for this year? – not really. Why? Partly because I thought other things are more important, partly because there was only so much one could do (which is, in the end, the same thing). Anyway, however you put it, I let some of this slip without an open discussion. It is OK to change the plans, but it should be done deliberately, not by omission.
  • The whole NCTATE reporting saga is both sad and inspiring. It was very sad when we spent so much time pleasing both the State and NCATE only to find out that never mind, RIDE is not interested. Department chairs for years collected data for annual reports to meet RIDE’s requirements. The saddest part is to have to ask people to submit certain data and documents and know they will never be looked at. Accreditation is an act of compromise, and sometimes I am not sure if all the compromise is worth the benefits – also real, but sufficient? A part of me wants to say good bye to NCATE, and just collect data and samples we believe is useful. The other part of me is dutifully typing pieces of the institutional report, because the national recognition is a wonderful thing, and we have spent so much time and effort to do it. The inspiring part of it is that most of my colleagues fully share in these uneasy dilemmas, and do what they are asked to do, even without a full conviction that every little piece of the puzzle is really meaningful. And looking at these data and documents is useful, and sometimes surprising. Showcasing our successes is a lot of fun. The project took so much energy, we have to celebrate when we’re done.
OK, enough lessons for one blog. See if I have others next week. 

Apr 22, 2011

Laughter and chaos

It is one thing to acknowledge the world’s imperfections, and quite another thing to deal with them. The world of many human beings is chaotic, forgetful, shifty and just not working well. When moved from small hunting and farming communities into big cities with complex organizations, our brains were not prepared for this. Thankfully, we had evolved a laughing animal. Simply put, when something is too strange, or too frightening, or too stressful, we show our teeth (it originates in aggression), and feel fine after all.  OK, I could not figure it out, and this is too complicated, and this should not happen, but I can ignore it, because it is funny! But what does it mean when something or someone is funny? It simply means we don’t have to deal with it in a regular way, don’t need to know why, don’t need to apply ethical judgments, don’t need to feel angry or guilty about it. It is dismissed – to funny. Laughter is a non-resolution that allows us to resolve problems. When someone is trying to crack a joke in a meeting, one is inviting the others to get pass the problem, to set it aside, and just take it lighter. There is too much chaos in the world to deal with it, so we laugh.
  • Funny when people want to spend a lot of time talking about unimportant things, and run out of time to talk about the life and death situations. I do the same all the time; still funny. Why does everything in higher ed take at least a year to accomplish? Because we spend half of each meeting finding the time for another meeting next month. Next month, we forget where we left off last month. First eight meetings we spend talking about silly details, and there are only nine working months in a school year. In the last meeting, we make tremendously important decisions in the last fifteen minutes, without thinking too much.
  • The inability to admit and say openly what is at issue – extremely funny.
  • Funny how I assume you want it, and you assume I want it, while neither of us want it. So we do it anyway and both hate it. Then we forget what we did and wonder why we hate each other.
  • Complaining about doing things we brought upon ourselves is funny. Not always, but most of the time. 
  • Funny when we won’t let other people do something, because it is our job to do, but not doing it because we have too much to do.
  • Worrying is funny, mainly because it never helps, but we keep doing it.
  • When you sit down and talk to someone, you are reasonably sure you can do this and that, only to realize later on, you can’t really do it. This bias to over-promise and over-commit is just so weird, it’s funny.
  • How we push deadlines earlier, because we figure, people won’t be on time, so we need extra time. People figure out we figured it out, and assume the real deadline to be much later, but they don’t know when.
  • With more education and more experience, we are less likely to admit doing stupid things. It should be the other way around, isn’t it? People with Ph.D. unable to figure out the simplest thing – I am one of them – now, that’s really funny.
  • When we don’t understand someone’s motives, we just make them up. Funny how we cannot tolerate the unexplained, but are fine with the completely fabricated.
  • How only little stupid thing that happens once every hundred years prompts everyone to implement new rules that take time to comply with every day.  
  • Funny how bosses’ suggestions become directives, while directives may remain suggestions.
  • Repeatedly saying stupid things because of speed-reading habits, and yet doing it again.
  • Forgetting whole conversations, as if they never happened. Remembering the conversation in detail, and well as all arguments on both sides, but completely blanking out on the resolution… Remembering what you decided, but completely forgetting why you decided it is hilarious, because you have to quickly invent another rationale.


Apr 15, 2011

When is now?

One side effect of my job is that I have to deal with longer timelines. Many projects have to be calculated like this: “If we start it in the Fall 11, it will take us to the next curriculum approval cycle in Spring 12, which means we’d start phasing in the new program in Fall 12, and first graduates will complete in Spring 16.” If you keep thinking in such terms, the reality of now is easily forgotten. I was sure, for example, for a few minutes, that we are in 2010, only to be reminded this is 2011. Have you done this? We also start forgetting how old we are, because years become increasingly short, and simply not as good and long as the old kinds of years. When you are six, a year is an eternity. What a torture to wait for two months for a summer vacation. Then waiting becomes a luxury; things come our way much faster than expected. Oh, really, it is already April 15? Oh, shoot, I am missing a deadline. This may be age-related, too, but when I am losing my mind, my instinct is to make a theory out of it. Denial is a wonderful thing.
This is not just about perception of time. It fascinates me to see that the now is just a construction of our minds. The present is nothing but a convention, an agreement; it is adherence to an arbitrary concept of time. We learned to use certain astronomical features of our world to create a particular theory of time, consisting of a sequence of consequent simultaneities. It is one but one of many possible theories. For an ascetic, for example, the subjective time is much more important than the calendar time, because he or she does not need to meet other people, so times do not need to be synchronized. This is what the present is: a device to synchronize individual timelines. As with any other great inventions, the invention of simultaneity both gives us much and takes something away. We can get along and cooperate, but we completely ruin our inner subjective time. We act before we are ready, and grow up before we mature; we limit our freedom to slow down or fast-forward time.  We become complete prisoners of the linear time. And when we forget when is now, we are either losing our minds, or are returning momentarily to the primordial bliss that had to point in time. I want to skip to June 15 now. 

Apr 8, 2011

Looking for joy

Spring semester is always hard. You cannot predict when exactly, but the cabin fever eventually hits. Because college life is seasonal, there has to be a point where it just becomes hard. Warm weather helps, and so does the natural winding up of the school year. We can see the end, and though the view is obscured by the mountains of work yet-to-be-done. In most Christian calendars, it is the time of great Lent, repentance, and meditation, which culminates on Easter. In the Jewish tradition, it is Passover, the release from Egyptian slavery (sometimes I feel like the Pharaoh, when I ask someone to do one more thing).  The Islamic calendar has nothing to do with climatic seasons; the holidays cycle through the astronomical year. However, the Hijra is celebrated annually on 8 Rabi' I, a Spring month. (The Prophet’s migration from Mecca to Medina actually happened in September… Well it’s complicated, but it is about moving, changing, meditation).
Anyway, besides looking for release from bondage, I recommend finding joy where you can. I, for example, had a blast today talking with a people from URI and CCRI about improving our transfer articulation agreement for early childhood majors. Yesterday, mine was a guilty pleasure imagining how a new schedule grid may look like. Why? It’s fun to pretend you can change things! Sometimes people think – oh, well, I will get done with all the boring, routine, compliant stuff, and then I will have time to change and improve things, to be creative, to write and compose. This may make sense practically, but not psychically. Our souls wither and shrivel, if we cannot experience joy for a long time. And within the confines of our work lives, moving, changing things is as close as it gets to real joy. It invites the unexpected, and gives us a sense of possibilities. The joy of agency is the same as the joy of creativity. 

Apr 1, 2011

Limits of the self

In the last few days, I have hit some limits within myself, not institutional, or fiscal. Those realizations are the most humbling, and somewhat cathartic.
First, I got sick with a bad flu. This is the third day, and I am still flat on my back, writing delusional emails. It happened in the worst possible time: we had to finish a grant; I missed an important partnership meeting with RIDE, and Svetlana and I were trying to celebrate our 30th anniversary this weekend. Only in the last one I am irreplaceable, the first two will be OK, because other people can pick up the slack. But it helps to remember than none of us irreplaceable, and things will go on with or without us. And of course, we can celebrate a couple of days later.
Second, I was reminded once again of the flaws in my character. All Sidorkins actually have this problem to a different degree: my late father did, my brother, I, and my two children may have inherited some of it. We are impatient, and tend to insist that we know how to do things best. We just know it; we can immediately perceive the one true and best way of doing something, and get annoyed with people who cannot see it the same way. It has to do with the way we think – holistically, trying to grasp the essence of complex problems at once, rather than analytically of relationally. Sometimes (but far from always!) we get get things right. But it also can be very damaging, for example, when I bombard various offices in this college with incessant and insisting e-mails, telling everybody how to do their jobs. Mt wife, of course, have many stories to tell about the Sidorkin syndrome. It comes out more in the time of stress, and then I have to patch up relationships, and make them right again. I am still learning to control this, but obviously did not yet succeed. For that, I am sorry.