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Apr 30, 2017

The procedural micro-barriers

I have always hated bureaucratic inefficiencies. Everyone who spent one’s formative years in the Soviet union, does. The First Socialist State was remarkably inefficient. For example, to get a new passport, you would have to take a bus to an office A only to pick up a form and find out that it works on odd days, before noon. Than you would take the form for the clerical intake, quite often to be told that you do not have all the paperwork needed. For example, you should go get a clearance from your neighborhood’s office that you paid the rent on time. On your second, successful try, you be given instructions on how to pay for the service, at a state-owned bank, a few stops by bus, and where to get a photo, another few stops, in a different direction. Then you would gather the receipt for payment and your photos, which of course, would be ready only in three days, and then come back to the passport office. Stand in another line for an hour, and voila, you get your passport with a very sad and tired looking photo of you. Since then, Russians actually had made a remarkable progress in their state bureaucracy; unfortunately, their universities are still pretty bad, even the best ones.

Now, most American universities have undergone a remarkable transformation of student and faculty services that I witnessed. I remember filling out a bubble sheet to enroll at the University of Notre Dame in 1991. We had to stand in line for about an hour, I think. We also had to register for classes through a campus phone, which was only hard because we were international students and had no idea what the machine was talking about. By early 2000-s Banner and People Soft integrated the essential services into one online access system – bursar bill, registration, schedule, etc. Yet at the fringes of university operations, we still have these small pockets of stubbornly archaic procedures. For example, we have these paper forms that need 2-3 signatures, and have to be carried from place to place, and logged in every place, so you do not lose a track of them: Transfer courses equivalencies, Major/Minor Course Substitutions and Waivers, Change of Major, Change of Minor, Add/Drop Petition. Similarly, on the faculty side, I have found this intimidating list of forms.

The problem with these archaic pockets is two-fold. First, they represent what Eric Johnson called “micro-barriers,” which disproportionally affects first-generation, diverse students and faculty. Second, they require extraordinary amount of work, primarily for our staff, but also for faculty members. I have already written about the first problem. The second one is less visible, because staff just do what needs to be done. I am keenly aware though, that unless we decrease routine work for staff, we won’t increase our advising resources. We cannot hire any more people, so we need to do less of clerical, routine work.

The University’s IRT works hard on implementing a whole set of new technological platforms that will make our lives a little easier. It is a new admission platform, a new advising platform, a travel claims processing product, a new learning analytics platform, a new LMS, etc. I am a bit worried that they may stretch a bit too thin. But ultimately, the work routines on campus are too complex, and the needs of each college are too unique to count on large integrated platform solutions. It is not the technologies that we’re lacking. Almost all such problems are organizational. For example, when we developed the new request for travel procedure, we had to take a faculty committee out of the process, because it takes too long to process, and because we may have enough resources to be less stingy. No software can do this; it is a policy decision, an effort to streamline the organizational workflows. The teacher credentials compliance is a problem everywhere, because it involves many non-course requirements. The Registrar’s office is not equipped to deal with them, so it takes a lot of work to monitor compliance. You can tweak the registrar’s data bases to do the trick, or you can develop a bolt-on for your main integrated database, or design a stand-alone system. None of these solutions are perfect.

It is especially wasteful to have faculty members do clerical work. Faculty is the most important, the most expensive resource we have. In fact, salaries are north of 99% of our budget. Every time a faculty is carrying a paper from one place to another, or playing with spreadsheet to keep track of students, my heart aches. I am thinking what they are not doing instead – not preparing for classes, not writing scholarly papers, not talking to each other about program improvement, not resting and recharging.

Many program requirements that faculty establish take little or no notice on how labor-intensive would be to implement them. For example, checking every student’s GPA every semester takes a lot of work, and I am not convinced it is that critical. Why not put the burden of self-policing on them? OK, we may have one or two upset students, but save many hours of staff work, so they can help other, more responsible students. Those are not simple decisions; it is always a balancing act. But we really need to pay attention to our labor expenditures. I cannot do it alone; I need help. We’re lucky to have our own IT specialist, but he is not going to examine every requirement and every procedure. This work should be broadly distributed.

Apr 23, 2017

The relational labor

Recently, I had a coffee with one of the retired faculty; he filled me in on the history of our College. One thing he said was both simple and profound. He said that people should realize they need to work on relationships. Relations are work. He did not mean to say that like in family therapy we need to talk about our feelings. No, he simply meant to say that we need to provide space and occasion for social interactions. We need parties, get-togethers, celebrations, discussions, rituals, traditions – all the normal things human societies invented to lubricate the social machinery. We do not have to be all friends, and some level of politicking is inevitable. However, we should create a place that is collegial, friendly, and focused on common goals.

Years ago, a group of philosophers of education that included me was working on the theory of relational pedagogy. I regret we never quite finish the work, although our edited volume got many citations. Well, a few hundred – for philosophers it is a big number. Our premise was that in education, relations are primary, and actions and curriculum are secondary. And the layer of relations among educators does affect the quality of relations that we are able to develop with our students. For example, successful schools always have a strong sense of collegiality and solidarity among teachers. Collectively, they project an image of the good kind of relations. Individual teachers are able to tap that potential, and build better relational patterns with their students.

It is not only about schools, of course. It is the same thing with colleges. It is not really a matter of choice: if we want to be a strong teaching institution, we ought to build a strong, coherent community among ourselves. And it takes work. After a hard semester, and a ton of graded papers, who wants to drag one’s ass to yet another pointless party? Who wants to support another colleague at a community event? Who has time for lunch with someone you won’t necessarily hang out with? Who has the strength to smooth over some past misunderstandings? Well, because actions are small, they are no unimportant. These are the acts of relational labor that is so critical to our well-being and success.

Apr 16, 2017

Can we reduce our teaching loads?

Nothing could do more for our College than a transition to the 3-3 teaching load. We could build a stronger scholarship record, do more to improve programs and develop new ones, and try more innovative things. While the CBA contract specifies a 24-unit per year load, nothing in it prevents us from funding additional release time with our own money. The mechanics of such a program have been tried in many universities: a faculty member would apply yearly for reduced teaching load and promise a specific deliverable to advance the glory of the College – a paper sent to a good journal, a grant application, or a completely new program. If you do not fulfill the promise, you’re not eligible for another reduced load until you do.

We have about 77 faculty members in tenured and tenure-track positions. Let’s assume only 50 of them would want to apply for reduced load. That is about 100 extra courses a year we need to reassign to our part-timers to teach. I think we pay our temporary faculty about 5K per course, plus some benefits; the cost of one reassigned course is roughly $6000. In other words, to do this, we would need about 600,000 a year. The program can start small – with probationary faculty, or with the best proposals, so we do not have to find 600K right away. Also, remember, these are very rough estimates.

Is $600,000 a lot of money? Yes, especially if it is an annual expense. On the other hand, just one off-campus cohort of 20 masters students should generate at least $60,000 the College, however you share the profits with CCE and with the University. Five of such cohorts will get us half the total we need. We can probably increase our fundraising and grants activities as well, and sell some applied research services. In other words, 600K a year is attainable. It could take us 4-5 years to get there, but it could be done. How is this for a vision? 

Apr 9, 2017

Your nose is a time machine

As I walked on the river trail along the American River today, its smell took me back about 45 years or so. I am walking to fish with my brother and our grandfather. We enter the green strip of the Karasuk river, with our wooden fishing rods, and jar with grasshoppers, our bait. We also have a few earthworms, for another kind of fish. The river smells of wet grass, dirt, and water. Grandpa says: “If you take a bucket, won’t get any fish. If you don’t take a bucket, there will be a lot of fish to carry.” We have no fish bucket. The catch will be carried home on thin willow branches, going through fishes’ gills. I remember hundreds of details - how the hook is stuck in the rod to prevent the line from getting lose; that I have a jacket with pockets; how the river banks are, one tall and one low, how grasshopper chirp, etc., etc.

I wonder – what is the purpose of these memories? Why does human brain store all this useless information, and is able to recall it at a whiff, with all its entirety? Nothing is wasted in nature, so why so much memory space is committed to it? Of course, we do remember stuff that has significant emotional component – like everyone remembers where they were on 9-11. That is understandable – emotions are like computer tags for importance; they make protein bonds among neurons stronger. But I have not have a particular emotional high when we went to fish – it was something pleasant, but hardly critical. And yet I cannot remember what the University’s RTP policy says about the formation of primary evaluation committees, and what is the last name of the candidate we just interviewed. In fact, I still struggle to learn all my colleagues’ names.

Perhaps in childhood, the memory selection process is not yet developed, or it may work differently. This is why childhood memory have such significance for artists, film directors, and writers: they seem to be random, unexplainable, and excessive. They are needed to activate creativity – not because they are useful, but because they record the patterns of everyday life, like canvas is needed for a painting. I am thinking about people whose childhood memories triggered by smells, sounds, and word cues are painful, and ridden with anxieties. I have sine а that too, but overwhelmingly, my memories are rather pleasant. Isn’t this the main work of childhood – to build a stock of background memories that can be then used throughout life to paint more pictures on them? How’s that for an educational aim? Which standard is it going to be written in?

Apr 3, 2017

Should we rethink multicultural education for the Trump era?

If prejudice was an infectious disease, we would be talking about the new drug-resistant strand. It has appropriated the rhetoric of victimhood and of the resistance to “political correctness.” It adopted the viral techniques through social media. How does one explain rise of the European nationalism, and Trump’s victory in the US? An economic explanation blames the Great Recession. It might be true, but I can’t help thinking – incomplete. The vision of the good life that motivates me and most of my friends includes the great diversity of human faces, cultures, accents, and beliefs, all engaged in a great polyphony of global community. Let’s not kid ourselves – this dream failed to attract millions of people. They are not quite the majority, but we’re still talking hundreds of millions of Americans and Europeans. Those are very big minorities. Those people have their dreams elsewhere: we may think in the non-existent utopian past where everyone was similar. It does not matter why, but the dream of multiculturalism is not their own.

Intellectually, we have not answered the two biggest challenges posed by conservatives. One is that some non-Western cultures hold values incompatible with a liberal democratic society, and therefore, there should be limits to inclusion. And the other is the challenge of righteous intolerance, the old flaw of the Left. The easy answers are readily available: (1) The Western cultures also have stuff incompatible with liberal democracy, and (2) All normative systems include intolerance to something; why should multiculturalism be an exception? But the more difficult answers would have to be strong in a less abstract, more practical ways to convince the great minorities.

However, the greatest challenges for us are not intellectual. The right-wing nationalists/populists (perhaps not without the help from Moscow) have weaponized the social media. The simplistic memes of prejudice now spread with a lightning speed, in various forms – from the alt-right propaganda to fake news, from political trolling to various conspiracy theories. It is not just an intellectual debate; it is an all-out war. The war cannot be won with multicultural fairs and social justice curriculum. Neither can it be won with traditional mass media. We really need something stronger, something different. I don’t know what it is, but we better start working on it.

I hate to say this, but we’re not winning the social media war. Liberals are a lot less prone to creating and spreading fake news or churning out conspiracy theories, (they do both, just incomparably less). Moreover, using the same weapon devalues our own convictions and principles. There is a chance that Trump administration will unravel on its own, just because of sheer incompetence of unprecedented scale. But in the long run, it would not solve the problem. The real problem is that mass consciousness is vulnerable to hacking by destructive racist memes, and we have no effective immune system in place to fight the disease.