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Nov 27, 2017

The pedagogy of relation and defunding of public higher education

Until relatively recently, defunding of public higher education was caused mainly by economic reasons. States had mandatory and increasing spending on K-12, healthcare, pensions, etc. and reluctant to increase taxation. Now we have a much stronger political component: more conservatives have convinced themselves that universities turn normal kids into flaming liberals. See a recent WP piece for evidence. It is ultimately a self-defeating for the mainstream conservatism illusion. Universities have always been liberal, from their inception, and will remain so. There are a few conservative universities, but unfortunately, none of them can be honestly called great. Those that you will recognize on the list are not that conservative, really. It is not an accident and not a conspiracy; free thought is the essence of the university. You may think liberalism is evil and even a form of totalitarianism, but you cannot deny that without liberal universities, no contemporary society can survive. If you think Trump’s core electorate – men without higher education – is going to sustain American economy, in 21 century, you’re simply in denial. Not one economist will support such a preposterous idea, neither liberal nor conservative. There is no way to turn back to the elitist model of higher education. The mass higher education is here to stay, and starving it of funds will not make universities more conservative.

Only three states have increased their higher ed funding since 2008: Montana, Wyoming, and North Dakota. Arizona has an over 50% cut, which makes it a complete outlier. California is still below 2008 funding, and has allowed an over 60% tuition hike. With all my sympathy for state-level lawmakers, what is it they expect us to do? In theory, there are only two suggestions: one is to learn how to make money, and the other is to become more efficient.

I am somewhat sympathetic to the first suggestion, up to a point. Yes, we could enter some other markets, like online learning, professional development, and consulting, and make up some of the needed revenue there. But It would be irresponsible to think that universities like ours can rely on these additional earnings as a major revenue source. The depths of those markets are not that great.

The industry has given an honest try to the efficiency demand, too. We (the collective we) tried computerized instruction, MOOCs, tried cutting staff and administration, tried to replace many tenure-track faculty with lecturers. None of these things brings major gains in efficiency, and all have hard limits. Regular on-line teaching can be very effective, but it does not save much money in the end (you save on facilities, but lose on faculty support and IT infrastructure). The reason for that is not obvious to the public, and even without our professional community it is still needs explaining. It turns out the core of education is human relation. It is something peculiar to our species: most higher learning is only possible as social learning, and there has to be a teacher-like figure; not to transmit knowledge, but to make someone want to learn. The economic fundamentals of education depend on person-to-person affective labor. We have no relational technology whatsoever, not even in prototypes. Technology is not coming to our rescue any time soon. Although someone is better start working on how to reproduce the relational side of education with technology.

I am not trying to be alarmist; those who foretell a quick demise of American universities does not appreciate the strength of the tradition. Parents of all classes want their kids to attend college, and they are willing to both pay for it and to vote for public funds. No one in the world has quite figured out how to pay for mass higher education without bankrupting the country or eroding the quality; not the free public universities like in Northern Europe, not the tuition-charging private model. In fact, the American model of mixed sources of finance may be better than either of the other two models. In the medium range, state governments would have to find resources, while universities must do their hardest to become more entrepreneurial and efficient. In fact, state funding formulas may be tweaked to reward those universities that show more market shrewdness and innovation.

Nov 20, 2017

On on-line teaching

In face-to-face teaching, we use many communication techniques subconsciously. The most typical example is this: an instructor demonstrates a particular way of thinking, and asks students to apply it. With just a few facial twitches and vocal cord modulations, the instructor give all students immediate feedback on how close the student responses are to what the instructors wants. The process is very efficient, very economical in terms of instruction time, because it uses the natural patterns of relationship buildings we have as social animals. In an on-line environment, all these subconscious clues suddenly become unavailable. A whole set of tools developed through evolution and enculturation are suddenly gone, which is why it is such a shock for many first-time online teachers. And this is why so many very competent teachers become so skeptical about on-line teaching.

An experienced on-line instructor, however, have learned to compensate for the lack of the communication tools, in two major ways; first, such an instructor makes the clues explicit, and second, she or he develops new communication tools not normally available. The process is somewhat similar to the communication strategies deaf or blind people use to compensate for the absence of one of the communicative channels. It is also not that dissimilar from what writers did for millennia by describing feelings, scenery, and other imagery instead of showing them. A proficient on-line instructor not only is able to compensate, but also sometimes achieves more. All those who claim that their particular course cannot work online do not have credibility unless they actually try and fail. Human mind is infinitely flexible and imaginative, so yes, you can teach most of the things online if you apply some creativity to it.

The experience in on-line teaching will definitely help in a regular classroom. For example, I taught philosophy of education f2f for years, and I thought was good at it. However, as I was trying to teach the course online, I suddenly realized that I have no idea what it is I am teaching. Specifically, I could not explain to myself and to students how philosophical way of thinking is different from all others. Now, after figuring it out, I can BOTH explain it AND continue to use the subconscious communication techniques. It is a much better deal for students who are less able to read facial expressions, or interpret voice tonality. IN other words, f2f is not great for everyone; some students actually thrive online.

The F2f mode, with all of its advantages, is very good at creating an illusion that everyone got what you were trying to teach. They look you in the eye intelligently; they nod, and can give confident comments occasionally. However, if you dig deeper, it turns out a significant number of student understood very little. The on-line environment forces everyone demonstrate their mastery of ideas and concepts all the time. It is much harder to hide.

Another advantage of an on-line class is that it fits any schedule, and you do not need to drive and look for parking. Instead, a student can spend a little more time actually reading and practicing whatever you want to teach them. If you consider our poor record in graduating students on-time, on-line options for the hard-to-get classes seem to add an ethical imperative side. I am not proposing anything radical; we’re not going massively on-line. However, it looks like we should at least moderately increase our on-line classes for both undergraduate and graduate students

Nov 13, 2017

How do you make things happen?

In the course of any given week, I run through several various good ideas, each could be clearly beneficial to our College if implemented. Being a witness of a new idea is special; it is the most fun part of my day, no doubt. They may come from one person, or born out of a conversation – regardless of the origin, it is a special moment that makes me feel alive.

However, what happens next is the most interesting part. It is the process of turning an idea into a project. In one’s personal life, it is an easy transition – if you decide to go to San Francisco for the weekend, you know it is doable, and steps to getting there are obvious. It is not so in the context of a complex organization.

There should be a little gap between you have an idea and the time you decided to go forward with it. Many ideas seems to be charming in their infancy, but lose their appeal later. So, it is important to ask yourself a couple of days later – is this still a good idea? My first instinct is to jump on any idea that seems unique and original, so I have to fight that urge, unless it is easy to do.

The most critical part is to figure out who will do it (and why would they want to?), can they do it, and what other resources are needed. By necessity, deans have to toe a fine line: we really want to support any good initiatives, and yet we have to be careful not to be dragged into a resource pit. Our resources are not just money, but also staff and faculty time. Those are always limited, and if you commit them to A, you by definition remove them from B. I am always suspicious to projects that are very cheap or free, unless it is something an individual faculty member has a passion and skills for. On the benefits side, we have to take a hard look – what is in it for us, the collective us? Do we get exposure, good PR, do we cultivate a potential client, a partner, a friend? Do we create value for the community, and is anyone going to know about it? These are never exact calculations, but they are literally, questions about the two sides of a scale.

Does it work? Well, in my experience, even with the most careful estimated, between a third and a half of all new projects will fail, delay, or not achieve the intended aims. I have never seen a problem with that, and it is heartening to see more and more interest in failure in management literature. Just google for something like Google failures and you will see. Check also the Fail-fast philosophy. We need to learn to fail fast, so we are not wasting time and resources on dead-end initiatives. Yet if you apply too much critical analysis, all your ideas will die before they are even tried.

Nov 6, 2017

Not every idea is a directive

Everyone has had an experience of not being take seriously, when your ideas and suggestions are being just ignored or dismissed. The experience is more common among women in male-dominated professional cultures, but most people can relate to it. It does not feel good, let us just say that. However, there is another interesting kind of experience when you are being taken too seriously. You may just want to bounce an idea off someone, and people interpret it is a defnite proposal, a directive, or, even as a part of a hidden agenda.

Mikhail Bakhtin has an interesting theory about that. According to him, Dostoevsky described in a couple of his novels a phenomenon when a listener fails to perceive the inner dialogicality of a speaker’s voice. Any utterance, according to Bakhtin, is addressed to someone, and any utterance is a part of a dialogue, even if it appears to be standing alone. Our thinking is not monological, it is an endless dialogue with past, present, imaginary, and real others. The assumption that someone may have an internally consistent, coherent mind is almost always wrong. Anyway, here is the quote.

At first Smerdyakov perceived Ivan’s voice as an integral monological voice. He hearkened to his preachments on the permissibility of all things as to the word of a called and self-confident teacher. He did not at first understand that Ivan’s voice was divaricated and that his convincing and confident tone was intended to convince himself, and not at all as the completely convinced transmission of his view to another.
Analogous is the relationship of Shatov, Kirillov and Petr Verkhovensky to Stavrogin. 
Each of them follows Stavrogin as a teacher, accepting his voice as integral and confident. They all think that he spoke with them as a mentor speaks to his pupils; in fact he made them participants in his endless interior dialog, in which he was trying to convince himself, not them. Now Stavrogin hears his own words from each of them, but with a firm, monologized accent. He himself can now repeat these words only with accent of mockery, not conviction. He was unable to convince himself of anything, and it was painful for him to listen to people who have been convinced by him (Bakhtin, Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics (Ann Arbor, MI: Ardis, 1973), 220–221)
What Dostoevsky describes, is an extreme, like anything he describes. People do not turn my ideas to hasty actions, thank god, and neither do I do that to others. Yet sometimes people read too much into what I am saying, as perhaps I read too much into what other people are saying. 

Why does this happen? Is it our inability to convey the difference between where we state a position, and when we just think aloud? Or is it a function of certain lingering distrust with the organization? Is it both? An even more – is this even avoidable, or do we deal with the normal level of noise within any human communication?