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Apr 30, 2018

Expert knowledge and faculty governance

An educated citizen should be able to see the limits of his or her knowledge, and defer to experts. That is, more or less, the outcome of a long debate about the role of specialized scientific knowledge in a democratic society. One common example is the climate change. Only a tiny minority of the voting public can actually understand the evidence. How does a demosratic make decisions as a democratic policy without understanding the science to support it? We allow the scientific community to govern itself so that the small group of scientist that do understand arrive at a consensus. It is not a perfect mechanism, because the majority of scientists have been mistaken on occasion. Yet it is definitely better than the alternative, where the public at large would decide based on its ignorance. The alternative is the sickening paranoia of climate change deniers and conspiracy theorists, who are simply unable to see beyond the limits of their own knowledge.

Last week, we discussed an interesting version of the same democracy vs. expert knowledge dilemma. As we are trying to create deeper pool of online courses and programs, faculty are quite reasonably concerned about the quality of those offerings. We do not want to gain a reputation of an online diploma mill. Yet in in many program areas, most faculty do not have enough experience and expertise in on-line teaching. So we end up with opinions like “This course cannot be taught on-line, because it is too intense.” The fact is, any course can be taught on-line, although in some cases it may be prohibitively expensive to design right (language learning, performance arts, micro-teaching, etc.). Other courses could converted on-line with minimal initial investment of time, and some are somewhere in between. I wrote about it last year, so won’t repeat.

Back to the governance. Universities have recognized the governance dilemma a long time ago. Quality Matters started 15 years ago, and CSU has put together a very robust peer review process based on the QM ideas. We created communities of experts that can be trusted to make the appropriate decision, so wider faculty bodies can rely on their expertise. However, the process is intended for fairly mature courses, it is takes six weeks, and requires some homework. I want to encourage more people to try the online teaching, and therefore want to have lower entrance barriers. It is another delicate balance between high standards and over-regulation.

Some people start on-line teaching gradually – first, they develop a rich course support in LMS. Then they may try one or two online activities within a regular f2f course. The next step might be a hybrid course, with a significant online component. Then they venture into the online course, and finally get ready for an online program. Others may jump straight into a fully online course and programs. In addition, of course, we have a number of people who have taught on-line successfully.

On-line teaching is not rocket science. If you understand basic pedagogy, you should be able to figure out eventually how to do it well on-line, especially if you learn early on the non-replication principle (do not try to replicate on-line everything you did in a f2f classroom). For our long-term survival, we need the skills of online teaching widely distributed among faculty, so we can serve more students, be more accessible, and have a plan B.

Apr 23, 2018

Shared governance: The joys and responsibilities

We have exactly three more weeks of instruction left. The semester is winding down, everyone is tired, and there is so much more grading to do. I just want to remind that we have some of the best jobs in the world. It is never boring, we make real difference in many students’ lives, and we get to decide many things for ourselves. University faculty can shape their own work lives, do what is interesting and meaningful to them. That is not the case in many industries, where organization cultures mat be much more hierarchical, and much less participatory.

The freedom always comes with responsibilities. One obvious responsibility we have is to serve the public. We are a public university, owned and to a large degree funded by the people of California, and we sought our jobs because we value the public service. There are two sides to this: one is pragmatic and another is ethical. Let’s assume that we decide to limit special education options (too expensive, too difficult) and the press got a wind of such a decision. How do you think the legislative session would go where the budget for the CSU system is discussed? This never happens, because we feel responsible for our mission. The ethical side is no less compelling: thousands of California kids are in desperate need of special education teachers. Do we have still have choice? Yes, we do, and we want to make the right choice. If I wanted the freedom to ignore the public needs, I would have chosen another career.

Another responsibility is to the campus and to the system. The 1966 AAUP Statement on Government of Colleges and Universities spells out a university presidents responsibility:

“As the chief planning officer of an institution, the president has a special obligation to innovate and initiate. The degree to which a president can envision new horizons for the institution, and can persuade others to see them and to work toward them, will often constitute the chief measure of the president’s administration.”

Our President identified priorities for us integrated teacher preparation programs and shortening time to graduation. That includes the integrated teacher preparation programs. Can we ignore those priorities? Well, in theory we can, but would we? Those are sound, rational ideas, and universities are committed to the pursuit of truth. If we do not support good ideas, all we gain is a reputation of a troubled, recalcitrant bunch. What I have learned from my 30+ years in Academia is this, reputation is the only currency. As a faculty group, we want to be known for creativity, for initiative, for new things we bring to the table, for being team players. There is never enough faculty lines, budgets, space, and anything else. It is only logical that units that support the university priorities get more, and those who do not get less. It is not any kind of vengeance, just good management.

There are times when faculty should say no, when there is a strong and plausible argument, when administrators might be making a mistake, or where faculty expertise in a specific field warrant a different approach.

Open dialogue is always the best way to engage in shared governance. It requires mutual trust, openness, and a commitment to listening. Most importantly, we do not have much of a value conflict. We all want to do our best to serve the State and its youth; we all are committed to justice and diversity. We have the best jobs in town, we get to hang out with lots of smart people, and we have much freedom that comes with responsibilities, naturally.

Apr 16, 2018

The world is so big

Did you know about the Sea Worm Festival in Lombok province in Indonesia? Did you know the men’s Chitrali cap in Pakistan sports a peacock plum? I actually met a woman from Lombok and a man from Chitral at a conference in Bangkok a week ago. It has people from 35 different countries, and was organized by a Sri Lankan company (whose vision is ”Revolutionizing the Asian Research Culture”), sponsored by the University of Northern Colorado, and a Lithuanian Vytautas Magnus University. That’s some globalization for you.

You may think the world is getting worse, but it is not so. The global GDP quadrupled over the last thirty years. Many parts of the world are raising millions of people out of poverty, making it possible for them to get education, to travel, to talk to each other. In the past, the world has been connected mainly along the North-South communication lines, where Europe and North America dominated the discourse, for better or worse. It was a simpler world. Now, increasingly, it is South-South communications, where the multitude of peoples come together to share their lively cultures, their experiences, their solutions to common problems.

For example, Thailand’s government has introduced a coupon scheme where its half a million teachers are free to choose any professional development they chose to pursue, from a list of approved courses. I know, that’s a lot of assumptions about the power of consumer choice, and anyone can see potential side-effects. But the sheer scope and audacity of the project impresses me. They are not asking Europeans or Americans for their opinion; they are just doing it.

The University of The Philippines Los Banos has its own original theory and practice they call Developmental Communications. It is somewhere between journalism and public relations, but focused on regional development. They have their own founding figures, the history of the movement, and their own theory. They do not care if no one else in the world does not believe it is even a thing. The little group seemed to be happy, self-sufficient, and interested in what they are doing.

These are just a few examples I caught. But there is a whole wide world out there, with hundred’s, thousands of such stories. Somehow, it is comforting to know. We will never run out of human diversity.

Apr 1, 2018

Seeing one’s own power

Power is a weird thing; when you don’t have it, you know it; once you get some, it suddenly becomes invisible. It is not something you alone have; you possess or lack power only with respect to other people. One minute you are disempowered and marginalized, and the next moment you are the powerful and may dominate others. But the psyche is not that fast; it cannot flip in and out of emotions. The psyche carries the wounds of powerlessness into other contexts, where it is out of place.

Universities are very unequal places. Professors wield significant power over their students. A strong dislike by a professor, justified or not, may cost a class, a degree, a year in someone’s life. University is a place often riddled with clashes of values. After all, good education is about changing someone’s mind. Therefore, certain exercise of pedagogical authority is not just permissible, it is often necessary. Yet this is also the danger. It is just so hard to see the boundary, where the exercise of authority for student’s sake slips into the exercise of authority for satisfaction of the professors’ own psychic needs. Education is a relational minefield. I wish I could tell that hundreds of faculty member I have known over the years walk on the minefield with equal grace. No, repeatedly I hear stories of professors getting angry at students, irate, treating some students harshly, because of disagreements, etc. Professors are only humans, and that is not always enough.

Academia has developed a special ethos to deal with the professors’ personal weakness. In general, culture is something that helps us remedy our own flaws. One of the key components of the ethos is the presumption of students’ innocence. Yes, students often carry with them all the prejudices and biases the larger world imbues them with. They may look like the perfect representatives of the world of injustice out there, which is especially difficult to handle when the professor has been a victim of that injustice. The point is – university is a different, parallel universe with its own set of rules. It is a world where students who place themselves into our care are innocent by default. They may be mistaken, but they are innocent, and as such must be protected. A student may be racist, sexist or ableist in his real life, but once he enters the university, he is treated as someone in error, not someone to judge. The very consent to be taught by us is the first step towards redemption. Treating him with moral disdain as anti-educational as it gets.

I wish protecting students from faculty was not a part of my job. Rarely and unfortunately, it is.