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Jan 28, 2018

The clarity temptation or How to write a good policy

In policy-making, the greatest temptation is clarity, and I am going to make the case for resisting it. The case in point is our College’s Retention, tenure and promotion policy that we just recently adopted, but the logic applies to the entire policy-making world.

What is a policy? - A tool that should help us make more consistent and thus fairer decisions. The biggest temptation is to write a policy can help us avoid making decisions. Wouldn’t it be great to simply look into the document, apply a policy, and make an automatic, and therefore fair and objective decision? No one wants to hurt other people’s feelings, or defend one’s own judgement. Well, it simply does not work that way. In the legal universe, this has been known for a long time, in both Roman and Common law systems. You do need a judge and/or jury to consider cases and apply law, no matter how detailed the law is. In fact, the attempt to pre-empt judgement mostly backfired, as it was the case with the three-strike laws and with the minimum sentencing laws. Laws and policies that are closed to interpretation always lead to absurd consequences. For example, a guy steals a pair of $2.50 socks gets a life sentence.

In our little case, thanks God, stakes are much lowers. However, they are also absurd. Most of our faculty members going through periodic reviews are outstanding. This brings the embarrassing question of what crowd exactly are they standing out of, and the whole Lake Woebegone effect. What happened? Well, people who were writing the policy tried to take all arbitrary judgment out of it. It basically, requires evaluation committees to see if there is evidence in various categories. If you do have evidence in so many categories, you’re good, if you have in so many more, you are outstanding. The policy does not ask question – what kind of evidence, because that would open the decision to subjectivism. The document removes the potential bias out of the decision, which guarantees to generate absurdity. The result is that if you have published a paper in AERJ, which is the world’s top education journal, it is the same if you paid $300 bucks to a predatory paper mill that publishes absolutely anything. Or, if you sat through a few meeting of an entirely decorative committee, it counts the same as if you were reviewing hundreds of student IRB applications. How is this fair?

We would not need judges or evaluation committees if it were possible to automate decision-making. We could have a student assistant to flip through evaluation portfolios, check a list, and be done with it. A computer algorithm would be even better. Alas, it does not work.

A good policy may set a few examples, but it has to use evaluative criteria, not finite lists, or numeric values. In some contracts and policies, there is a word “normally,” which irritates many people, but not me. What a great way it is to indicate that exceptions are still possible, if they are within the spirit of what is normally the rule. There is no way to get a holistic judgement call out of decision-making. Such judgments are inherently biased and prone to mistakes. However, they are much better than the bean-counting process that simply assure certain level of absurdity. Multiple layers of independent review, certain level of mutual trust, and professional ethics can significantly improve decision quality. Adding more precision to the document rarely can.

Jan 22, 2018

Can Sac State become a startup university?

Stanford reports spinning off 6000 companies. Forbes lists 50 most productive startup universities, and if the top of the list is not at all surprising, the lower half is worth examining. For example, our sister campus in San Diego is there. Well, she may be a wealthier, more popular, and better looking sister, but a sibling nevertheless. The list is not as exclusive and elitist as one may expect.

The big question is whether such schools as our, with a different mission and more limited resources can enter the race, and if yes, to what degree. Well, Dale and Katy Carlsen apparently believe so, hence the major gift they provided to boost innovation and entrepreneurship here. The question is - do we on campus believe it is possible?

Here is a short case why we cannot: We do not do as much sponsored research, and just do not invent many technologies worth commercializing. Our faculty teach too much to have any time for anything else, let alone working on startups. Moreover, most of them really like teaching, and embrace our mission, and may not be willing to spend time on anything else. Pending the entrepreneurship center, we do not yet have much in a way of supporting spin-off companies. There is little culture of entrepreneurship on campus.

However, last Fall we had this informal group called Bigger Ideas in Education. Among other things, the group has casually generated a dozen startup ideas, about half of which I believe are viable. For disclosure, I have seen hundreds of pitches for educational startups, and generally follow the field. You can trust my assessment somewhat. It was easy to do, actually, and I am sure our faculty and students can generate dozens more.

While we do not invent many technologies, we collectively possess a ton of in-depth knowledge of our fields, which is a prerequisite for generating valuable solutions. I would not underestimate the value of the rich contextual knowledge. Startups often rely on technologies in search of applications, but we can offer applications in search of technologies. In education, specifically I find most of solutions offered to educators were never asked for. Innovators imagine that a teacher might like something, but they really do not know much about teaching. We do.

As for the second half of the doubts, here is an interesting thing. Right now, there is a huge interest to educational innovations among investors. In 2011, the US private VC investment in educational innovations was $224 million. In 2017, it reached $1.4 billion. Because of the influx of venture capital, it is just possible to bypass the stage of inventing a new technology, and go straight to products. There are not that many break-through technologies and investors are looking broader. For example, some of the best-known startups spun off by Stanford and MIT do not have any new technologies: EdX, Udacity, Coursera. Our lack of time and support are obstacles, but money can buy all of that if we can access it at earlier stages of startup development.

Just and FYU, typical entrepreneur is a married 40-year old with children, and with significant work experience.

Jan 16, 2018

How to build a killer T&P portfolio

You know that annoying student who wants you to tell him, how exactly he has to write a paper, and what to write in every section, exactly? Well, don’t be that student. T&P committees evaluate, among other things, your ability to organize a portfolio/dossier/file, or whatever else it is called at your institution. At Sac State, it is WPAF, don’t even ask.

The most important thing first: Do not ever use plastic sleeves; those are legendary annoying to reviewers, expensive for you and utterly unimpressive. They also make your binder too fat, force you to go into the second and third volume, and no one likes carrying these things around. Just punch the three holes for God’s sake!

The CV is really the most important part of the portfolio. It is amazing how many people make mistakes constructing the basic document. Just a few tips: number your publications and presentations if you have more than five. It is always better to disclose the status of your publications – peer-reviewed, editor reviewed, the Scopus quartile, the acceptance rate, or another indicator of the journal’s status. Consider using more modern indicators like H-index (you will need a Google Scholar profile for that; it is more generous than the alternatives). If you got a grant, include the amount, and if you were a PI, co-PI, or a team member. In short, don’t make people guess. If they start guessing, they also start checking, and are more likely to disagree with you. A clear CV will keep your committee away from Google.

One common error is turning your T&P binder into the graveyard of evidence. The worst kind of advice one can get is “collect everything.” Such a strategy misunderstands the nature of evidence. We need evidence of quality, not evidence of fact. You do not need to prove things have happened; you need to show samples of your best work. If you served on a committee, there is no need to bug the committee chair to give you a thank you letter. We trust you about the fact, and lying is so risky that almost no one would attempt it. Hand-made student thank you cards may be cute, if you have one or two, and if they are truly interesting. Printed out e-mails always look like you’re anxious, desperate, and insensitive to your readers. Instead, tell us something specific, for example, you were the lead author on a policy document, and include it. Or you were in charge of such and such project. That would be impressive. You were not just sitting there for a year, approving the minutes, you actually accomplished something! It is the same thing with conference programs – we trust you went so no need to include a 10-page program with your name highlighted in its glory. However, did you have an awesome presentation and would like to share? Not twenty similar presentations, just give me one that shows how you have aced the genre. If you put in a syllabus, we do not know whether it is your masterpiece, or you simply inherited it from the previous generations, with slight modifications. If you actually invented something, how would we know? A sentence like “Major revision, ¾ new assignments, and all new assessments” would go a long way.

An important part of any dossier is the narrative, or section narratives. What works best is if you provide a strategy, a vision, a coherent agenda of some sort, a list of priorities, or other way to conceptualize your work. For example, my scholarship is going to focus on these one or two themes, and my home scholarly society is so and so, and I have a long-term plan, and here is how much I moved toward it. And who said that the narrative should be 3 pages of small font, single-spaced, with NO bullets, NO tables, NO charts? Remember Alice in Wonderland: ‘and what is the use of a book, without pictures or conversations?' No, the opposite is true, bullets, subheadings, tables, charts, bolded words and sentences, everything that makes it easier to skim. Yes, it ain’t a novel, you cannot expect your readers to savor every word of it.

Summarize! Think of composing your file as writing a paper – how to make it logical, present the data well, and make it visually appealing and easy to read. Tables, again go a long way, for example: semester, course title, mean student evaluations, perhaps even standard deviations, and comments (“this is a required stats course everyone hates”). Such a table makes the entire history of your teaching obvious. Don’t make reviewers hunt for data; it is better to present it in one place, then explain. If you had a dip in student evals, tell us why and what’s the plan. In teaching, the ability to grow is on par with constant excellence.

However, in some cases people do not say enough. Where we deal with specifics of your subfield, do not simply assume people know what your journal and conferences mean. For example, in some organizations pre-conference workshops are just blah, while in others they are more like lifetime achievement awards. In computer science proceedings is everything, while everywhere else they are easy. In some societies, proceedings go through a separate, rigorous peer-review process and professional editing, whole in others they are just an archive of raw stuff. In arts, exhibits are the same as publications, and there is a complex signaling system about the status of the show. Books are great in humanities, but not so huge in social sciences. In more professional fields, publications for practitioners are weighed very differently than in academic fields. Peer-review status is normally a quality check, but there are exceptions, but if you get into New Yorker, well it is a different story.

Most people have no idea how to judge professional social media publications, such as blogs, or online newsletters. If you give the readership numbers, provide some baseline for a typical publication of the kind, and include a couple of samples. The same thing with awards and honors – you may think they are obvious, but ask around, and realize that no one outside of your small group have heard of them. In short, providing context about your field is critical. As one wise editor once told me, never underestimate your readers’ intelligence and never overestimate their factual knowledge.

In the end, the art of putting it together is not that consequential; it is definitely not worth obsessing about. The truth will shine through regardless. Senior faculty and administrators who look at the portfolios tend to be sophisticated, experienced, and well-meaning. No one is out there to get you. Your job is to make your stuff as clear and concise as possible, and the least annoying to get through.

Jan 8, 2018

My mother's voice

I saw Mama in December, just four weeks before she died. She could not remember me, but kept saying that I look very familiar. Just in case, she decided to treat everyone she met as a potential family member. Perhaps this is how we all should try to live? She would ask everyone how they were doing, how are children, and offering tea. She told storied from her childhood, could name the village, the street where she grew up, names of her parents. She actually looked happy. When she spoke, the timbre of her voice woke up a small part of my brain. Something within me started to vibrate in unison with her voice. It always happens when I do not see her for a long time, and it always surprises me. Here I am, way over fifty, and I get the profound sense of bliss just from hearing my mother’s voice. Aren’t we supposed to grow out of it?

One of my memories is when I was about 5 or 6. My brother and I are at home, it is dusky and chilly. And then Mom walks into the door, we hear her voice. As we run to greet her, the apartment suddenly feels warm and light. I even remember wondering about this physical sensation at the time, “but it did not actually get lighter and warmer, did it?”

Bowlby, Harlow, and Ainsworth have created the theory of infant attachment. It is perhaps one of the most important patterns of all human sociability. Eli Sagan, unlike Freud, thought that mothers, not fathers, are responsible for the birth of morality. Morality is universal, because it draws on the same experience of being nurtured by a mother. Our mothers or their substitutes literally make humans out of us in the first few months of our lives. What happens to the attachment when we grow up, move away? I’d say, it is still there, somewhat hidden, buried under all the layers of adult lives. Her voice could bring it back, and that is what I am going to miss.