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Sep 28, 2012

Stories we tell

Every week, I look back and try to find a story, somewhat entertaining, and hopefully not too narcissistic. Many a blogger succumbs to the temptation to justify themselves. And even in portrayal of own weaknesses, one is often secretly proud of one’s own repentant righteousness. But each of us is not really that interesting at navel-gazing. The other temptation is to present a history of one’s own thought rather than a story of oneself. We talk about ideas rather than our selves. This does not often work, because people want to read about well-considered, not half-baked ideas. Very few can improvise thought of good quality; one needs time to produce something of importance. Blogs and tweets suffer from low production value, which is basically, the volume of effort and time put into writing per unit of output. I have no illusions on how many genuinely new ideas appear in my 263 entries; probably not that many. Like many others, I also sermonize without a license. Let’s be that or this way, let’s do this and that; all of this is addressed to an audience that is pretty busy as is, and with fairly established beliefs and preferences.

Despite typos, ill-considered topics, and sloppy writing, my little writing exercise has received 51,206 page views since it started counting in June of 2008 (I actually started in July 2006). I am very grateful to those who look at this blog even briefly, for it keeps my only non-email writing discipline going. Thanks to Google’s relentless tracking, I know which entries drew the most views, although it is hard to know why.
This may be a case of graphomania, but I am not giving it up just yet. We all constantly construct narratives of our own lives. We stitch the chaotic flow of events together into quilts of memory and meaning. Those are not necessarily beautiful or profound stories, but they go beyond personal use. There is a point in sharing them with each other, because we live and work together.

Sep 21, 2012

The joys of curricular cooking

In the last couple of weeks, we held a series of meetings to check on the multiple curriculum projects we're undertaking this Fall; 18 projects to be exact, three of which are already completed (they all carried over from last year). These are some of the most enjoyable and intellectually stimulating thing in my job. First, I get to dream, to imagine things done in the right way, and to solve problems. Second, it is a lot of fun to think through each challenge with others. The synergy of thinking within a small group is always impressive to me. My colleagues all have remarkable knowledge of the nuances of their programs, which often cannot be formally represented. But it comes out in these conversations, where we imagine how a program may be changed. If set up properly, a brainstorming session by a small team can be very effective in seeing the unintended consequences, but also in finding creative solutions.

Program development is a special kind of thinking, which I am only beginning to really dig; I don’t think anyone has a firm and scientific grip on it. We always operate within a set of multiple constraints. Some of them have to do with the limited fundamental options. What I mean is, there is only a certain number of ways you can slice a teacher prep program, or a masters’ program. You will probably need a student teaching at the end, and a few other practicum experiences before that. You probably need some methods course, and ed. psych, and a social foundations course. Of course, it is also a lot of fun to think of more radical changes (we have TEIL for that).

Then there is the political landscape within the College – how would this be perceived by faculty within and outside our School? There are economic considerations – if we design a program that is too scary to students to come into, - that would be a mistake. We need to think how program design affects student schedules, and how that schedule fits into their lives. How would they register, how does it affect their financial aid, etc., etc., etc.

One remarkable quality of human brain is that it can tell a holistic story of something that did not happen yet. We can imagine alternative realities. And that allows for a fairly quick modeling of available options. In most cases, we can quickly identify dead ends in our thinking, then go back and try another route. It will probably take computers a very long time to catch up with us in that capacity to imagine.

This process is somewhat similar to cooking – you throw in well-known ingredients, and a couple of new ones, and think about how they fit together, and how they interact. There is an element of accident to it, an element of traditions – we know what works and what does not, - and an element of creativity to it. I highly recommend it.

Sep 14, 2012

Selling experience

It is not clear what higher education is all about. For centuries, people believed it was about wisdom or virtue. For a few centuries after that, they believed it was about knowledge. Now all of it is in question once again. Knowledge seems to be abundant and cheap, and expensive teaching services seem to be replaceable. What are we selling then? It increasingly looks like we’re hawking credentials rather than actual knowledge. This is probably an overstatement, but it is plausible that we’re selling knowledge at a higher price than market is willing to bear. We cornered the market through the peculiar regime rooted in three things: academic credentials, accreditation, and professional licensure laws. Yet the cozy arrangement may not be as stable as we may think. There may be an unlikely coalition forming to shake the system up: social conservatives suspect we’re pushing an ideology on students; fiscal conservatives think we may be wasteful; and the creative Left thinks we’re too conservative and not innovative enough. All of them are looking for a technology that makes higher education less expensive if not obsolete. Literally, hundreds and thousands of very smart entrepreneurs and engineers are working on ending higher education as we know it (and as we learned to value the paychecks coming from it). No one yet came up with a plausible technological miracle. Although the media, TED talks, gurus and other such exulted things make it feel as if the Messiah is already here. No, he, or rather it – the revolutionary technology - is not here yet.

However, it would be foolish to ignore our precarious position. The fundamental ritual of college – a lecture – can be cheaply broadcasted. It is not clear why thousands of professors should deliver a similar lecture across the country. The other fundamental interactions – a discussion, even a lab – can be reproduced online, and become potentially less expensive to deliver. We can circle our wagons, but the monopoly may not hold anyway; not because of the technological threat, but because of the massification of higher education (I published a paper about that very phenomenon recently).

What we could do is the same thing other industries have done, when their goods became less expensive and more widely available: we should sell experience. The essence of human life is experience; it’s the adventure, the challenge, the struggle and triumph, the making of memories, and writing one’s own life story. You can buy a pair of shorts for cheap online with minimal effort. Or you can dress up, go to the mall with your significant other, do some people watching, check out what’s new in the stores, see some colors, eat some ice cream, catch a movie, and, by the way, buy the same pair of shorts at twice the price. Although there is an element of unpredictability here, like in any game – you may run into a sale, and feel even better. What did you just buy, shorts or the experience? Are shorts merely an excuse, a byproduct, an extra benefit to what is the real commodity here – your experience, your life.

It is the same for college. It can either go to the inexpensive no-frills Wal-Mart-like transaction, or become experience-rich, experience-centered enterprise with knowledge as a bonus. How this can be done is not yet clear.

Sep 7, 2012

Decision-making is a contact sport

I teach a doctoral class on organizational theory, leadership and educational policy. This is my sermon to them for the next week (double-dipping here).

Here is how decisions of managers – mine and others’ – often go wrong. You get a report on an issue or a problem from someone who does not have the direct involvement with it. No one normally has the time to go and talk to the people directly involved, or to the other side of the conflict or issue. You weigh the options within the context of my horizon of the organizational knowledge. It becomes very clear which options are unacceptable and which we can live with. Because your view of usually broader (that’s the reason people came to you with the issue in the first place), you simply assume that the priorities you see outweigh whatever priorities of the parties involved in the issue. So, you ask/direct people to solve the problem in particular way, and figure out the details on how to get there. You’re done and move on to bigger and more important things. And it often goes wrong; more often than not. Why? Because it is a contactless decision.

First, the solution you see – oh, so clearly! – as a correct one, may turn out to be completely unattainable. Your particular view of the organization just does not allow seeing what could go wrong. There is simply too much context that easily escapes the view of a manager; some of it may be irrelevant, but some may be critical – you just never know. Now, asking people to perform impossible things is not a good management strategy. They will either fail or do something that makes sense to them, and won’t tell you. Either outcome is not good for a long-tern health of the organization.

Second, a fair decision must be based on hearing both (or all) sides of a story. We tend to trust people who we work with every day, and it feels weird to reach out for an alternative opinion. But the problem is not in the intentional misrepresentation. We all tend to remember and highlight facts that support our version of events, and forget or demote facts that do not. Again, time crunches tend to make this problem worse, for there is no time to look for alternative narratives. We then end up with an unfair decision. Most people will not get upset if they had a chance to state their case, and are overruled nevertheless, especially if they understand the reasons. They will inevitably get upset if given no chance to present their case.

And third, if you keep making all the decisions, you short-circuit all responsibility on yourself. As a result, you get overwhelmed with a constant stream of problems to be addressed. You train your people not to make decisions, but always defer to you. So they feel less responsible for the overall well-being of the organization. You also spread the word that none of the other people in the organization matter; unless it is you say yes or no, everything else is not important.

Decision-making is a contact sport. You need to be in touch with people who are actually involved in the issues you’re trying to solve. But because you in your position cannot be in touch with that many people, you should not make that many decisions. You should be there to listen and to mediate relationships with those above you or outside organization, but people closest to the issue should be making most of the decisions, and figuring out most of their own solutions. Only when and if they fail or ask for help you should step in. And once you delegate responsibility, you cannot constantly yank it and give it back – this discourages everyone and makes it impossible to take one’s responsibility seriously.

And the last point – just because I know this in theory does not mean I always do it. The instinct to make a quick call is very hard to suppress.