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Mar 19, 2018

Over-promising is one sure way to fail

One certain way to ruin one’s reputation is to take on an impossible task, and then fail at it. The essential qualification of any contractor is the ability to tell what is possible and what is not. Say, if you want to have a floor made of thin glass, your contractor should tell you, no, sorry, you cannot do that.

The State Legislature is asking us, the teacher preparation industry to solve the problem of teacher shortage. Our culture is that of public service, and that is true for both state-supported and private institutions. Of course, we say, “Yes, we will do our best!” The Legislature hears something slightly different, “Yes we can do it!” The difference between what we say and what they hear is tremendous, but as it is often the case, it goes unnoticed. Then we fail at what they think they heard, year after year. They get frustrated and look elsewhere, trying to deregulate teacher preparation so that almost anyone can do it, school districts, private schools, county offices, and very soon - Starbucks shops. It still does not work, for poorly selected and ill-prepared teachers stay on the job for shorter and shorter gigs. The vicious cycle is the consequence of unclear, unarticulated response on our side and wishful thinking on their side.

Of course, the State wants to solve the problem without raising teacher salaries, and without investing a dime in teacher retention. Who wouldn’t want that? The State is willing to invest some in teacher recruitment, mistakenly believing that recruitment is the main source of the problem. However, retention is far more important, and it boils down to salaries and working conditions.

The labor economics, just like any market, works on the supply and demand balance. The reason plumbers are so expensive is that not enough people want to be become plumbers, so those who remain demand and get higher salaries. I am not an economist, but can probably find a friend who can calculate exactly at which salary point the State of California will not be short on special education and math teachers. They would come from other states, from other professions, from other segments of teachers. Credentialed, but not working teachers would come back. Is anyone interested in finding out what that salary level is? I don’t think so, not yet anyway. No one wants to hear the truth, for truth will require higher taxes.

OK, teacher preparation, don’t be a loser. The first step is to be honest about what you can and cannot do. And say it very clearly. CSU as a system has a really valuable know-how. We can prepare a fairly diverse and competent educator workforce, starting with regular students, on a massive scale. But we cannot attract many people to STEM and Special Education without achieving the economic balance.

Mar 12, 2018

Forgiveness is a skill

We tend to dress forgiveness in heavy ethical clothes. It is perhaps because all the world religions recognize the pragmatic importance of forgiveness, and tried to enforce it. No society, small or large, can function without the ability of its members to forgive each other and move on with their lives. Otherwise, with time, conflict would erode all social cohesion. I work in Academia where people work together sometimes for decades in tense, conflictual environments where benefits and hardships should be constantly renegotiated. Inevitably, small offenses happen, no matter how much people try to avoid them. Most of us – thank gods - are able to forgive and forget, start anew, and just continue to get along.

Yet sometimes I hear stories of very old grudges. I just feel very sorry for the person who cannot forgive. It is sad, really, to observe. It is really a failure of emotional self-regulation that hurts the person more than his or her old nemeses. An ancient grudge is like an obsessive thought or habit, a kind of addiction to re-running in one’s head the past injury. Reportedly, there is a Polish word “jouska,” that is a compulsive dialogue one is running within one’s head. I am sure such experiences cannot be pleasant. Such a person is addicted to indignation, to the need to remember, and to self-destructive fantasies of revenge. It is the addiction to the feeling of wounded self-righteousness. It is also an illusion of control over the relationship. Withdrawal of politeness and refusal to work together serve as a constant reminder of an unforgiven transgression.

Religious traditions usually include some sort of ritualistic apology. They are right; apology seems to be an important cultural mechanism for getting past conflicts. However, for old and trivial injuries, even the act of apology becomes silly. What do you say? I am really sorry ten years ago I did not let you teach the course you really wanted to teach? Apologies work when they are timely; with time, they become ridiculous. They also don’t work when the offender does not believe she or he did anything wrong. Holding a person at a distance will not change her or his mind. The opposite is true – the reputation for stubborn grudges will make you less credible, and make you look less reasonable. So it is a double loss – you feel bad and people respect you less.

Back to the skill thing: The ability to forgive can be learned. It is a form of self-therapy any reasonable person can figure out. I won’t go into various therapy schools here; any of them might work, for the inability to forgive is not a disease. It is simply a bad cognitive routine, a glitch in our emotional circuits. The initial and the most fundamental questions are these: Why am I so angry for so many years? What does this feeling do to me? Is the person I am angry at really so bad? After that, retraining one’s mind is a matter of time and persistence.

Mar 2, 2018

Hunting Russian trolls, a field guide

How do you identify a Russian troll? It is simple, really. Scott Shane caught one by just noticing that the activist’s English was a little odd. It is a form of simple linguistic analysis, and it works. You may not know, but linguistic analysis was critical in catching the Unabomber. But you don’t have to be a linguist to catch a troll, because they are not as smart as Ted Kaczynski.

No matter how proficient one gets with a second language, the first language always “seeps in.” Unless you were lucky to grow up fully bilingual, the native language’s syntax and idioms will inevitably show up in your second language writing. The troll factory in Saint Petersburg is a massive operation, and they simply cannot afford to hire truly fluent people, or even reasonably smart people. Shane also shows that Americans who bought into Russian trolling efforts are, well, less than brilliant. So the troll infection is a case of the dumb leading the dumber.

Here is a few tips on how to spot a native Russian speaker who is trying to pass for an American:

  1. Because our language does not have articles, their use does not come naturally to us. My friend once told me, “You do not even hear articles.” That is true, Russian speakers tend to filter them out as noise, and that is why we are slow to learn article usage as adults. Besides, English has a whole class of article use that is purely conventional, especially in geographic names (The Hague, but simply Paris, for example). There is a whole slew of exceptions (you go to school, but go to the hospital) that simply needs to be memorized. Either missing or overused articles will point to the Russian origin of the author.
  2. The written form of Russian tends to have longer, more convoluted sentence structure, with dependent clauses placed at strange places. Russians are more likely to use awkward passive constructions. They may be grammatically correct, but not common. A Russian sentence has a free word order, and we tend to recreate this kind of variety of sentence structure in English. It often looks unnecessary complex. 
  3. Watch for weird idioms. If they do not quite make sense, they have probably been borrowed from another language. 
  4. Prepositions are very important and nuanced in English, while Russian has grammatical cases to express the same syntactic relationships, so Russians pay less attention to prepositions. Misuse of prepositions is a common error, because Russians will tend to remember the root of a verb, and ignore which prepositions modify it. Or else, they will simply transpose the Russian equivalent preposition into an English sentence. For example “it depends from.”
  5. Russian punctuation is somewhat different. Watch for extra commas where you do not expect them to be. For example, look for restrictive relative clauses surrounded by commas. However, an intro clause in the beginning of a sentence will not have a comma in Russian. For example, my instinct would be to write: “In the second decade of 21st century social media was weaponized by both foreign powers and internal political parties.”
  6. Watch for false cognates: A Russian may call guerrillas partisans. Similarly, a Russian may place a real English word in a wrong style. For example, in English, “banal” would be more of a high style, while “trivial” – medium. In Russian, banal is a bit more colloquial than trivial. The out-of-style usage will often give away a non-native writer, although native speakers may do the same thing on occasion. 
There are hundreds of thousands of native Russian speakers in the States. So when your Facebook feed shows someone with a typical American name, radical ideas, improbable stories, and strange writing patterns, ask your Russian friend or colleague to read it. In many cases, an educated Russian will spot errors, idioms, and stylistic moves that we all make.

There is also a non-linguistic telltale sign: the trolls have daily quota. They will spam your Fb and Twitter feeds a lot. They completely dominate forums with their incessant postings. No one can have that much free time for real. The trolls will also try to bait you, to challenge and, well, troll you, because the engagement rate is also important in their daily quota.

Good hunting! Let me know if you need help. Remember, they are not that bright, and we collectively can weed them all out. Troll hunting is a group sport. Yes, Facebook and Twitter should do more to track down both trolls and bots. However, the engaged citizens should also be a part of the new immune system to fight the weaponized social media. It is a relatively new phenomenon, so it may look scary. I think it helps to take a lighter look at this troll thing, to laugh at it a little, so we can figure out ways of fighting it.