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Dec 16, 2019

The relational university

In higher ed, we have been innovating a lot, but mostly in the wrong areas. The information technology has done very little to improve instruction. Assessment and data analytics have done very little as well. It is time to recognize that students come to universities to have the cultural experience of college, to make life-long friends and to find older, wiser people with whom they can build stronger relationships. In many cases, they come to fulfill their families’ dreams and aspirations, to gain recognition and higher social status. Of course, they also come for skills, leading to good jobs, but those are actually hard to predict and measure, so let’s keep them a bit of a mystery. Best universities have been on the path I am describing for a long, long time, although some of the regional comprehensives may be a bit behind. This is not a proposal for radical change; rather, an acknowledgement of what works, and an appeal to focus on it, while reducing effort in other areas.

To push a university along these lines, we need to do several things:

1. We need to refocus the entire innovation strategy on the relational side of education, and pull the resources out of the informational side. Education has turned out to be a lot more about relations than it is about information.

2. Radically reduce the complexity of curriculum and program/graduation requirements. Students are uncomfortable with too many choices; there is enough evidence to show that too many choices frustrate rather than liberate. Processing the choices create logistical nightmares for administrators. Not a single student is able to understand academic requirements as they presented in our catalogs. As a result, we create massive anxieties, breeding ground for many costly errors, and must spend many resources on translating the bureaucratese into plain English – for every single student. While I am a strong believer in the value of gened (common core) and liberal arts, there are ways to make those simpler. Academics should be as easy to navigate as Instagram or TIkTok. I have written about it before (1, 2, 3, 4).

3. While we are at it, university’s operations (HR, payroll, facilities, registrar, IT, etc.) should be simplified, automated, and partially outsourced. They consume too much of university resources, and create too many frustrations and irritants. There has been much progress on it within the last 20 years or so, but no real R&D money is spent on it. People Soft and Banner are ancient systems in comparison to what Walmart and Amazon have. Besides, they are bottle-necked for security reasons, and are hard to make flexible. This is a part of focusing on student and faculty experiences. They have to be pleasant and not frustrating.

4. Let’s evaluate faculty for the right things. Stop requiring service on committees - many of those are unnecessary and can be eliminated. They only exist because of the service requirements for tenure and promotion. Instead, every faculty member, tenure track of adjunct, should have obligations regarding student engagement outside the classroom. Those can be advising of student clubs, organizations, research groups, reading groups, athletics, etc. Reduced expectations of institutional and community service should create time to focus on students. About 70% of survey students reported being mentored by faculty, 50% by student affairs advisers (Thanks to Igor Chirikov for the reference). Of course, those are overlapping numbers. The numbers are not bad; we just need to improve on them.

5. The co-curriculum record should be strongly encouraged if not required of all students. Some campuses have that, and it needs an infrastructure to support. To create an opportunity for group work with others outside classroom is the essential part of the college experience. That is what students need and want, and we must nudge them, as well as provide space and structure for that. Right now, about 20% of students report they have never been involved in any college groups. I am sure this number is higher for mostly commuter campuses. We have no idea of the relational quality of those organizations students do get involved with. Intramurals actually lead here, not academic clubs and organizations.

6. Universities should stop the mission creep, and stop trying to be everything for everyone. They need to focus on their students, as well as faculty and staff, and on the relational side of education.

Dec 9, 2019

Just tell me why, or the Tale of the Lost Rationale

You know how good newspapers do this idiot-proof summary at the end of their articles, for people who may not know the context. They were under the rock for the last 20 years. It is something like “The second and the last US president who was impeached but not removed from office was Bill Clinton in 1998.” Or, “American Civil War was between the North and the South states in 1861-65.” This is a good journalist practice every organization should try to follow.

As J.Q. Wilson has noted, every instance of red tape or of a seemingly stupid bureaucratic rule is the organizational memory of a past incident the rule aims to prevent from re-occurring. A contemporary large organization like a university is a land of forgotten rationales. We follow certain rule or a procedure without remembering why it was implemented in the first place. Not knowing why things are the way they are can be an alienating and frustrating experience, especially for new people. Why do we have to approve international travel a month in advance? – Because it goes all the way to the President for approval. And why does it goes all the way to the President? – Because international trips are especially sensitive to public perception, and because there were improper uses in the past that caused public embarrassment.

Only a trained mind can reconstruct the correct rationale. Most people have no organizational imagination whatsoever, because they had never been in a position to make those rules. When I taught a course on ed policy, I asked students to come up with any stupid rule they could not explain, and then brainstorm what would be the rationale for it. I remember one of them brought up the ordinance that banned overnight parking without a permit at any curbside in the City of Providence. Students thought it was just dumb, but I saw at least two different rationales for it, anв was pretty sure both were considered.

This is not an attempt to justify every stupid rule. Indeed, very often the original rationale has either gone away, or was weak to begin with. Without knowing the rationale, it is very hard to rescind a bad rule. I think every communication about a rule or a decision should have this short paragraph of explaining the initial rationale. It would help people who must follow the rule to feel more comfortable, and also help to see bad rules that need to change. Right now, we normally include rationale only in more formal memos that justify a new and complex decision. We do not provide rationale on our numerous forms, platforms, e-mails, and in routine and simple decisions. I think it is a mistake, and we all should try to write an extra sentence or two in most decisions and requirements. Let’s not assume the Why is obvious – it is often lost on most people, and almost always lost on some people.

Dec 2, 2019

Why is outcome-based education so wrong?

Focusing on outcomes means losing focus on the process. Philosophically, the outcome-based education is a soft extension of “ends justify the means” approach. Imagine that you have found a method that trumps student dignity, but helps students learn more. Would you use it? All kinds of “tough love” theories assume that yes we should use such methods – as long as the outcomes are good. In fact, fear or pain may make our memory work better. Memories coloured by strong emotions tend to last longer. Should we go back to flogging children in school, if it proves to be effective?

Assessing quality of education should not be limited to easily measurable outcomes. It is like evaluating the quality of marriage by the number of healthy children produced: you can do it, but you really should not, if you have any brains. The very process of education should be if not all the way pleasurable, at least interesting and pleasant enough to justify subjecting students to it.

I am not the first person to say it, and yet we keep trying to reduce assessment in education to the measurable outcomes. Instead of trying to measure more, we relegate the things that are hard to measure to second class.

It is the same with the workplace. The quality of my experience here is just as important to me as how much good I do to the world, or how much money I make. I enjoy most of my meetings here, because I am interested in what people I like have to say and catch up on their news. My work has the stimulating value for me that the taxpayers of California did not necessarily intend to support. Yet they benefit, too, because if I enjoy my work and trust my colleagues, we are much less likely to screw up or hide problems. We are more likely to do our primary job better.

The thought here is simplistic enough to border on triviality. Here, take it or leave it.

Nov 25, 2019

The hell of micro-tasking

None of these things is a big deal. Complete another required training. Approve a request. Sign a contract. Confirm a transaction. Find and send me this one file. RSVP. Complete a survey. Evaluate so and so. Submit your absences, approve absences, now do the same for UEI. Sign the log here. Set a reminder. Enter into the project list. Schedule a meeting. Put together a Doodle poll. Send a message to your faculty. Send a message to your staff. Find that e-mail, and send it to me. Find that form online, complete it, sign in, send it. Build a survey, get a link, send it out.

None of these will take more than a few minutes to do. However, they eventually swell into a huge swarm of micro-tasks. Like mosquitoes, their individual bite is almost imperceptible. All together, they can suck your blood, all of it, to the last drop. All you have to do is to send me your […] once a semester, in this format. Because any single task seems reasonable and easy to do, they do not trigger resentment and do not provoke a revolt at the time of introduction. What is one mosquito bite to me? Gradually, they add to a huge swarm that can darken the sun. You tend to get frustrated and paralyzed, suddenly sending messages too short to be polite, because you cannot afford to write a longer one.

This is the unfortunate side effect of automation. Each individual procedure was meant to remove routine, boring clerical work. And it does – 99% goes to a machine somewhere, but 1% comes back to you, the dean, the chair, the faculty member. Objectively speaking, the management revolution within the higher ed is remarkable. With digital tools, we can now do much more, much faster, with more accuracy, and fewer mistakes. Subjectively speaking, it feels like the special hell of micro tasks. Each requires a tiny thought, a small effort that depletes the brain power one bit at a time. They fill all the small gaps in the day. I pee with a phone in my left hand. I eat my lunch with an eye on yet another dashboard. Something went wrong with automation, probably a few years ago. Half of emails in my inbox are written by computers; no human being wrote the, and I am just another computer in the network.

I have a hypothesis. There is evidence that introducing helmets made football even more dangerous, because athletes believe they are less vulnerable, and take more risks. In the same way, institutions would not dream of doing that much over such short periods if they did not have the online forms, the data processing, servers, mail merge, email, including automatically generated email. We just attempt to do too much, because we know the power of the information technology at our disposal. Human hubris is fed by the believe our brains are as good as the machines we make. They are not; they cannot handle too many easy tasks. The micro tasks make us incapable of handling the real, important tasks. Well, at least this is how I feel right now, on vacation, while looking at my inbox, horrified.

Nov 18, 2019

Is preschool a deniable service?

Karen, and Associate Dean, and I had exactly the same thought while visiting a preschool in Shenyang: “Why they can afford it, and we cannot?” The preschool is a gorgeous building with large windows, a number of role-play areas (a toy kitchen, a supermarket, a hospital). There was a multi-layer crawl construction in the middle, bedrooms for all children, classrooms, a pond with real fish, a fruit and vegetable garden… Whatever stereotypes you may have about Chinese preschool, definitely did not apply – the kids were happy, outgoing, curious, and busy playing and socializing. I specifically asked if this private preschool is an exception. I was told that it is one of the 5-stars, better preschools, but by no means is an exception in the city of 8 million. In fact, many university faculty kids went here. In China, university professors are solidly middle class, of course, making more than an average person, but still one can tell – this is not a place only for the elite.

Now, the median salary in Shenyang is $14,826 per year, while the median household income in in Sacramento is $ $56,943. Those are not the same measures, but still. Why is it again that they can afford such preschool, and we cannot? I actually know all the answers – about the labor cost, about the taxation structure, about the paternalistic state… Yet somehow, none of these answers satisfies. We have the money build and run quality preschool for every child. What we lack is a political consensus on whether such a service is undeniable.

There is a class of services I call undeniable – they are impossible to deny to anyone. And the list of those services have been expanding with time. For example, anyone who shows up at an emergency room will be served regardless of income. That right cannot be denied anymore, even though it is a relatively recent achievement. No one can starve in this country. While some people’s diet may be terrible, there has not been starvation. No child can be denied a K-12 education. Its quality may be questionable at times, but K-12 education is an undeniable service.

As the scope of undeniable services grows, so does the role of the state. You may or may not be a fun of socialism (I am definitely not one), but the practical reality is strikingly obvious: the list of deniable services keeps shrinking, while the list of undeniable services keeps growing. Preschool is still a deniable service, but for how long? Higher education is deniable, but we are not sure if it lasts. Basic healthcare has been deemed an undeniable service in most of the developed world, with the exception of the US, but the exception will not last for long. The existence of disposable wealth itself drive the process. It becomes morally impossible to see a starving person in the middle of an affluent society. There are many socialist and even communist institutions in the US, you only have to make an effort to see them. Public libraries are utopian communist organizations – free to all, unlimited. The military and the police, public education, community health clinics, environmental protection, fire departments, urban infrastructure - all socialist institutions, already here.

As anyone who grew in the Soviet Union, I am wary of all things socialist. A powerful bureaucratic state contains many dangers, including over-rich into private lives, and inefficiencies. At the same time, I cannot ignore the growth of undeniable services, and am not at all surprised at the rise of the Left wing of the Democratic Party. I am not sure what it would do to the next election, but the long trend seems to be towards more socialism, and more redistribution of income. We will have preschools in Sacramento like that one in Shenyang, sooner or later.

Nov 11, 2019

Gingko leaves

In California, fall comes gradually; as if unsure it is welcome. In New England or in Siberia, it invades the world quickly, uninvited, and cocky. But not here: plane trees will start rusting slowly and dutifully long before the first hints of cold. The grass never dies; to the contrary, it gets greener and thicker in the fall. Sequoias ignore the whole seasonality thing altogether. Some ducks leave while others hang out through the winter, if you could call it that. It is a mixed picture; only the sun comes up not as high, glancing sideways at us, changing the tint of every color slightly.

I take my clue from gingkoes. They are the masters of the autumnal arts. Their leaves will greet me with such an honest, naïve, and courageous yellow. Colors normally do not tell me much. Svetlana can see thousands of interacting shades, hear a whole symphony of colors. I barely get the tune; perhaps this is why gingkoes seems to be so loud to me. Their yellow is like trafficс light letting another fall into the city. A gingko leaf is shaped unlike any other leaf. It looks like a delicate insect, or a fairy. If you don’t see gingkoes in the fall, you are missing the season altogether.

Nov 1, 2019

How to avoid being manipulated

If you speak with someone and suddenly start feeling anger, resentment, or irritation against another person or a group, a red flag should always pop up. Your mind just have been hacked, and you are being manipulated. The person you’re talking to wants to use you for their purposes, to fight their fight with your help. In a regular, harmless gossip session, you feel just mildly amused. When you’re being manipulated, you feel a stronger emotion and want to act. Our emotion makes the actual difference.

The mechanics of manipulation are very old. The manipulator links your solidarity instinct with the justice instinct. We all are naturally inclined to emphasize with our interlocutor. That is how social cohesion works. At the same time, human have a deeply ingrained sense of fairness that has been found in animals as well. A manipulator uses two perfectly good instincts to recruit you into something that is good for her or him, but not necessarily for you. Then you find yourself fighting a pointless fight, or being embroiled in something you have no stake in. Once you join a pointless fight, it is difficult to retrieve, since you have already invested your reputation and capital in it. This why the initial hack is so important to notice.

A common pitch is like this: “They (administrators | other departments | junior faculty | senior faculty | T&P committee) are so incompetent | selfish | wrong | untrustworthy | greedy. They just did this (fill in with almost any action).” To manipulate others, you need to hit on a point they are already anxious about. With junior faculty, tenure and promotion always works well. With all faculty, allege violation of shared governance, because there are so many myths about shared governance in the first place. With administrators, exploit the anxiety about their performance. With women, touch on gender bias. With white men, there are too many anxieties to list. All of this could be done with an e-mail, just forward some private conversation, and add a few words to create some toxic context.

Smart people are manipulated just as easily as simpletons. In fact, people with better social instincts can become an easier prey, because their solidarity and fairness are well developed. This is why the Academia is so prone to group conflicts with very little substance. Such conflicts can last decades, and they damage souls of many otherwise wonderful people.

To avoid being manipulated is a discipline, a set of simple rules that many wise people discover on their own. However, some never do. It is not anything particularly new. The Buddhists probably figured it out the best, hence their stance against attachment, or clinging. The Stoics had similar ideas, and so did other religious traditions. A manipulator has invisible tentacles that attach themselves to your emotional veins and insert their fine poison. Imagine brushing off those tentacles, not allowing them to attach to your skin. That is what the Buddha meant.

The inoculation against being manipulated is simple. Ask yourself – why is s/he saying this to me? (This is an amazingly effective simple trick). What would the absent person or group say in response? What is their perspective? Can you be them for the sake of a conversation? Literally walk over to that other person(s) in question and ask for their perspective. Reflect on your own emotions – why am I feeling angry? Do I really care, or this is the manipulator’s agenda? Is the cause for our joined anger really a big deal? Is there too much drama? Are my emotions being hijacked? Don’t be too fast to empathize or express agreement. Do not commit to a possible manipulation stack; take time to think about it.

What about the manipulators? Why do they do it? Some people cannot live without some intrigue going on in their lives. It probably has to do with some unresolved middle school issues, where they had to have a victory over randomly appointed enemies, and collect an ever-greater army of supporters to do that. If you learn a few tricks, you can entertain yourself endlessly by stirring up conflict, outsmarting your enemies, and fooling the naïve to do your bidding. For others, it is an inept attempt to grab more power or at least influence. It never works, because those who fell victim of manipulation will eventually catch up to it, feel silly, and never trust the manipulator again. Manipulators are compulsive; it is a sort of addiction to steering up conflict. They cannot help it, and even more – their intentions are not all that bad. It is just a bad habit, and they are rarely happy because of that.

I have never seen a manipulator who is really good at it, although literature suggests they do exist. Or else, they are so good that I am being manipulated, but am not aware of it.

Oct 27, 2019

False kindness and kicking the can down the road

Academic admissions is never a perfect process. Sometimes we realize a student is not going to make it through the program. S/he may not have the right attitudes or character, or may have academic deficiencies that are too large to overcome, or some combination of these. However, we tend to support our students, and it gives us no pleasure to expel anyone. We pass someone barely, deep down knowing the student is not going to succeed, and yet hoping against evidence that s/he may benefit from another chance. Such indecisiveness simply kicks the can down the road, letting someone else deal with the problem.

Down the road, things are not going to get easier. A student who stays in a program long enough gets an impression that s/he is doing just fine, and can succeed. S/he invests a lot of money into a particular career, and becomes less open to other options. Not doing anything about an unfit student is ethically problematic. It amounts to giving false promises and charging unnecessary tuition. It is a part of the American culture, the irrational belief that anything is possible if one tries hard. This is why it is so hard to tell someone – this profession may not be good for you, but if we are not honest about it, who will be?

I am not talking about cases where the outcome is indeed uncertain. Many students do change, and many dramatically improve with time. Some can really surprise, and we should have plenty of room for trial and error. In those cases, one has to work as hard as possible to move such a student along, while warning other colleagues ahead in the program. Yet we prepare educators. Somone can be an OK engineer or a research assistant, but not a good teacher or psychologist, or a school principal. The test is simple: Would you let your own child or grandchild have this person as a teacher or a counselor? If the answer is no, the ethical obligation is clear. Other people’s children deserve the same as yours. Our primary ethical responsibility is not with our students, but with their students. I suppose it is the same with other professions as well. If you train pilots, their future passengers are more important than this student’s life dream.

Sometimes a fear to make a mistake may be paralyzing. However, it is impossible for just one faculty member to dismiss any student from a program. Students always have a right to due process. There will be committees, appeals, several layers of review. What we use is a collective judgement to protect students and each other from making hasty, biased decisions. The collective wisdom of the institution is greater than that of any of us individually. However, to engage it, someone has to raise an alarm, and not kick the can down the road.

Oct 20, 2019

No place for democracy in standard development

At a recent state-wide Deans of Education meeting, I asked why our state’s standards for teacher preparation (TPEs) are so long. For example, this proposed set of standards has 93 items on it, which makes any meaningful compliance impossible. One of the panelist responded “It is because of the democratic process is used to develop the standards.” She added that the elements are mere guidelines, and that of course, institutions are not asked to demonstrate meeting every element of the standard. But that is exactly what we are required to do, and the panelist just could not imagine such an absurd is possible. A less charitable colleague described the process of standard development as multiple special interest groups lobbying for inclusion of their things in the standards.

No matter what do you call it, there is a problem with documents developed through broadly based participatory input. Just remember when you were a part of a group that brainstormed something. Everyone in the group needs some recognition. When you come up with an idea, you want it added to the list, otherwise you feel worthless, and rejected by the group. The groups has an interest in maintaining peace and cohesion, so it is likely to accept your idea even if it is marginal or just weird. That is how we end up with laundry lists of standard elements that are impossible to use in real life.

It is important to solicit input from broader constituencies. However, any brainstorming should always be followed by a critical phase, where a smaller group would apply a critical eye to the lists of generated ideas. Each item has to be checked against the purposes of the document. For example, can programs actually credibly show that they are meeting this specific element? It would be good to check if a requirement has any kind of basis in research. Standards should be evidence-based, and derive from research. For the example, the proposed set includes “diverse learning styles,” a theory that was debunked more than ten years ago.

Finally, California regulators completely ignore the Item response theory, which is, more or less, the essence of the contemporary psychometrics. Here is how you take GRE in math test now. If you can answer a calculus question, you will not be asked to prove that you know the long divisions, or fractions. It is because statistically speaking, people who have more advanced skills, are very likely to also have the lower level skills in the same field. Deborah Ball had a somewhat similar idea, when she came up with the idea of “High-leverage practices.” For example, if a teacher can show that she or he can adjust instruction, we can safely assume that the teacher is capable of formative assessment. Otherwise, how would she know how to adjust? Extending this logic, if a teacher can “Apply knowledge of the range and characteristics of typical and atypical child development [...] to help inform both short-term and long-term planning and learning experiences for all children,” s/he should be able to “Differentiate characteristics of typical and atypical child development.” However, the standards check for both. There is no way teaching performance can consist of 93 different scales. Some of the items should be measuring the same constructs, right? Some of the elements can be included in others.

I am not just grumbling. Poorly designed, bloated, and unenforceable standards cost the taxpayers millions and millions of dollars in labor cost and lost opportunity. More significantly, they demoralize faculty, who must pretend to comply with the poorly designed requirements. I just met with two young faculty members to discuss their committee work. One of them had recently turned in a 317 page-long matrix document, and another was in a very small group that submitted a 546-page long document. In addition, they were asked to submit things like Lists of all students and their placements, list of all faculty by status and by courses taught, adjunct faculty and TT faculty job announcements, student handbooks, Hours in the Field by Type of Activity, Current list of MOUs with partners, training materials for supervisors, clinical experiences assessment instruments, Description of Process Ensuring Appropriate Recommendation, Candidate Progress Monitoring Documents, etc., ad nauseam. I felt bad for them. Did they work so hard on their PhDs to do all this mindless work? Does anyone really think these torturous processes assure program quality?

All of this is because of one small error. Standard development cannot be a democratic, all-inclusive process. Or rather, the initial phase of it can, but not the whole of it. We failed to build in a second phase, where someone with an OK knowledge of research and some common sense could just edit it down by let’s say 90%.

Oct 14, 2019

Why some people never reply to your emails, and how to stay cool about it

On every campus I know, a few people can be counted on to never return an email - not soon, not within a week – never. I always wonder why and how do they get away with that? I am sure they reply the President’s messages, but not to mine. It may seem irritating but the world of human communication always contains more shades of meaning.

I think there is a difference in a fundamental assumption about email: some implicitly believe it is an optional, almost superfluous form of communication. If you JUST email, you must not be that serious about it. They believe that not replying is not rude; it is just one of several options. The non-replying means, “If you really need to get a hold of me, call, me, or find me on campus.” The non-replying can also have the meaning of “I am not really interested in answering your question, or engaging in a conversation with you at this time. Please remind me later.” It is because there is no way to say how important your e-mail is. Yes, I know about the High Importance button, but it is reserved for true emergencies. Some readers may perceive this is an overly generous interpretation, but I believe it. I use the non-replying very rarely, and for me it means, “I do not wish to continue this conversation.”

In many cases, senders do not use the important difference between “To” and “CC” fields. In theory, only people in "To" are expected to reply, others are there for information only. In practice, it is all over the place. I do not reply when it is obvious that other people among addressees are in a better position to answer. However, the assumption can be wrong, and none of the addressees answers, because they all assume someone else is in a better position to do that.

Then there is the random error that eats up messages – from accidental deleting, to various devices’ synchronization problems. It is the “sync or swim” world. Statistically, it is quite probable for an error to strike twice or even three time against my messages in your mailbox. However, human mind does not tolerate low-probability coincidences, so after the second error I will think you are ignoring me. The solution is to try again, to write a second message, or to call and follow up. Some tolerance to human and technical errors is essential to a healthy organizational culture.

Some people do not possess good skills in dealing with their email flow. There is a method here. For example, reading e-mail three times helps, counterintuitively. The first time is a quick scan, where you delete junk, or answer those that require no effort to answer quickly. Then you read more substantial emails, but do not respond right away. Your brain will subconsciously work on replies, although it does not seem to be the case. Then, quickly scan again before actually replying. There are also ways of sorting by sender, the Outlook rules, and conversations that help deal with flow of emails. Amazingly few people take advantage of the new federal law on “unsubscribe” link, so their inbox is clogged with spam. If you never see the bottom of your inbox, you should probably learn a few things.

Finally, some people just receive too many emails. Faculty who teach large sections deserve the most sympathy here. Yes, there are many tricks to reduce the flow of student e-mails (most importantly, do not make your syllabus and assignments so confusing). However, student email inflow can be truly overwhelming at times. The rest of us, administrators, should not be getting more than 20-50 emails a day. Getting more is a reason to rethink how you organize your work. This means you are probably not delegating enough, not automating enough, and have become a human bottleneck. Being overwhelmed with emails is nothing to be proud about; I would not recommend bragging about it. It is, rather, a worrying sign.

Even 30 emails will take 2-3 hours to work through, and it is a major portion of our workload. One has to recognize it and plan for the daily task. For example, a day of back-to-back meetings guarantees a second shift at night, reserved just for emails. The shift is lonely and cranky. I’ve learned to never send any important emails at night – they always come out wrong: either too curt, or too vague.

Oct 4, 2019

Join the Google Revolution. An open letter to CTC

In California, 45 main and 14 additional standard elements describe requirements for elementary teaching preparation. Each of the main elements should be introduced, practiced, and assessed, which makes 135 minimal data points that should be linked to a specific place in one of the 15 course syllabi. Of course, many elements are actually taught several times, and are mentioned in different parts of the syllabus. For example the element 1.3 (Connect subject matter to real-life contexts and provide active learning experiences to engage student interest, support student motivation, and allow students to extend their learning.) is linked to various places in syllabi 29 times. Element 3.1 is explained through 33 links, etc. We have submitted 12 program reports, some of which may have up to 88 standard elements (Mod/Severe SPED). That’s 12 matrices with hundreds of references to specific pages in multiple syllabi.

One can only imagine how many hours of tedious manual work went into construction of the matrix with thousands of links to syllabi. Because syllabi are dynamic documents, and they SHOULD change every semester, we have to use a special “official” syllabus that is not exactly the same as the document given to students. Moreover, most faculty use the learning management system (Canvas in our case). Therefore, they have to construct an "anchor syllabus" mainly for compliance purposes.

Just wait, it gets worse. The reviewers also do not find the matrices useful. There is absolutely no way for a reviewer to click through hundreds of links, looks at hundreds of pages in the syllabi and make a sound judgement on whether the program element is taught well. Therefore, they end up randomly clicking a few places, and finding a few bugs. The reviewers will get a really good sense of the program by talking to students, partners, and faculty. Professionals can always tell if things are going right or wrong. They will report their overall conclusions based on those intangibles. However, they will pretend to derive their conclusion from the massive accreditation reports.

I know the system well, at all levels. I know people who developed those standards, and those who designed the technical requirements for accreditation, and those who submit and review reports. These are all decent, smart, well-meaning people. None of them intended for the system to become so absurd. In general, good people sometimes build bad systems; this is the first law of the organizational studies. What happened is that we have managed to miss the Google revolution that profoundly changed the information processing.

It is all about finding information. The first generation of data systems blindly followed the conventions of paper-based technologies: it had hierarchical directory structures. Some people still treat their personal files that way: they have directories, folders, subfolders, and sub-sub-folders, as well as file naming conventions. However, information is not hierarchical, and certain files can belong to two or three different folders. For example, a file on payments to faculty related to grants on graduation initiatives can belong to Faculty folder, to Financials folder, to Grants subfolder, and to Graduation Initiative folder. Computer scientists came up with a clever trick of tags (or keywords), where you could attach all four tags to this file, and retrieve the file four different ways. In effect, the same file could sit in many different “folders” at the same time.

Then came along Google, whose founders had a breakthrough insight: every word in the document is already a tag, every word is a keyword, and in a weird way, is a folder of its own. If you index the entire internet, you could find anything just by using the words or phrases in the document. Using the natural language’s syntax helped to narrow down your search. The information you get from Google search is not as neatly structured, but is a lot cheaper, and vastly more relevant than what we had before.

It took a while for the thinking to find its way into people’s personal computers. Like many other people, I do not have any folders in my drive – I just search through my documents the same way I would have searched the internet. It is the same with e-mail – there is no point in storing it in folders, just search for what you remember was in the message: names, words, numbers. With large text data, searching is really the only game in town. There is no other economical way of organizing and retreating these data. Accreditation bodies everywhere have missed the revolution completely, and design accountability practices assuming the data is small. However, the data sets are much larger than they assume, and the work of marking (tagging, linking) it is out of hand.

Here comes my pitch to CTC (it is California Commission on Teaching Credentials) and to all accrediting bodies in the world:
  • If you want to see the real dynamic picture, not a set of documents constructed just for you;
  • If you want faculty and staff to work on program improvement, not on mindless compliance;
  • If you want to save millions of mostly public dollars;
All you have to do is this: Ask the programs put all their current, real syllabi, canvas shells, handbooks, and program websites into one searchable directory. Ask your reviewers to google what they are curious about in each of the programs under review. They will see a search box tuned to look only through documents specific to one program in question. For example, to see if the program actually teaches about individualized family support plans, google “IFSP,” and see how and in which context it is introduced and assessed. Google “phonics” if you think we do not teach it enough. Google anything else related to any of the standards, as you do in your normal everyday life when you want to learn something about anything. Program review is just that, learning about a program, right?

(Now, the standards also need to be trimmed; 60 elements is simply ridiculous. Engage in Deborah Ball-like thinking. There are essential, priority skills, which you need to work on and assess. The time of checklists is over. While it is an occasion for another revolution, I will just suggest that standards themselves could be a list of key concepts rather than vague pseudo-scientific statements they are today).

Catching up with the Google Revolution would liberate us from a whole lot of useless work and allow us to do more for program quality while doing less for the sake of simple compliance. Compliance takes away all resources, all our time, all our energy so that very little is left for actual improvement.

Sep 30, 2019

What do deans actually do?

Every trade has a particular way of thinking. Teachers develop a specific thought process about instruction and classroom management. Plumbers see a building in a very different light than electricians do. A writer reads a text with an eye that no other person has. In general, work involves applying a particular way of thinking to the world.

Here is how an academic administrator works. First, we recognize problems and opportunities where other people see neither. I, for example, get bothered by multiple data re-entry, where we go electronic-manual-electronic-manual. This requires a lot of work, mostly not needed. I always have murderous thoughts about processes that may not be needed at all. Or, one of my colleagues has learned about one of our partner's troubles and figured out how wonderful it would be for us to expand our consulting portfolio while strengthening our partnership. That kind of thinking matches several considerations and sees an opportunity to advance.

The next skill is to prioritize problems and opportunities. There is never enough time and resources to address all challenges or pursue all opportunities, so one has to assess – is this a "do or die" situation, is this a once-in-a-lifetime chance, or can it wait? Is there someone really affected, or is this a small annoyance or someone's fancy? We have invisible scales to weigh a potential project for whether we can handle it or not.

Once we decide to try something, the key mental operation is selecting organizational tools. For example, we really need to maintain a connection with undergrads who are interested in teaching but are not in our programs yet. There are at least four different tools – organizational forms – that we can use. It can be a stand-alone program, a student club (both registered with student affairs or informal), or it can be a special class. Each of these potential solutions has a toolkit, with its own limitations and advantages. For instance, a stand-alone program needs someone to run it, and we should either pay that person or find someone who would do it as a part of their regular work. Faculty and staff have different labor arrangements, and it depends on who will run it. Student organizations rely on student leaders and faculty advisors and tend to be unstable over time. Classes work great because all university systems understand the language of academic courses. However, they are hard to make club-like and informal.

If you want to do something with faculty, there is a different set of options. Can it be done by a standing committee? By an ad hoc? Can the Dean's office do it? Can we find a champion who can actually deliver? Should we hire someone external, or give someone assigned time? Who would be receptive to running the project, and whom do we need to ask, beg, or bribe into participating? The set of available tools is limited, but there are always choices, and various costs, not always measured in money, but in time, effort, and the missed opportunity cost – all these people could have been doing something else, perhaps more useful to the organization. Think of a carpenter, pulling out the right tools out of his toolbox: which one will work, which one needs fixing, and which one he has to buy or build. That is what we do.

Because we need to run multiple mental models, thinking cannot be done alone. You need a team that would play various scenarios in their minds and alert of potential advantages or problems. This is really an exercise in imagination, based on the team's knowledge of the larger system's capacities and limitations. We also imagine how specific people would do something and what sort of support and controls they need. The team thinking takes time and has to be organized as well. Planning to plan is another idiosyncratic thing we do.

Lastly, one has to put all of it in a timeline. How long does it take to find someone? To schedule a course, first as a pilot and then propose curriculum? How long does it take to hire student assistants? Who would help when, what are the unknowns, when do we learn them, and when do we adjust? You sort of lay all your ducks in a row, project your story into the future, and set up checkpoints.

Not all projects work out, some because they were improperly designed, made wrong assumptions, or were mismanaged, others for unknown reasons. Therefore, there is a special skill to sense that point in time when you're beating a dead horse, or throwing good money after bad, whichever metaphor works for you. The ability to pull the plug in time is also a part of the administrative mindset that people from other fields may or may not have to possess.

What deans and other academic administrators do is match – interests with resources, problems with tools, people with organizational forms and processes. Our core function is not glorious and not public. In the end, it is a kind of service. Just like facilities personnel do not teach, they make sure the lights are on, and toilets flush. Similarly, we make sure the organization runs smoothly and improves with time.

Sep 23, 2019

The miracle technology

Online survey platforms are quietly improving organization development in the Academia, and I suspect, elsewhere. That is not what the authors of such platforms had in mind. All the survey monkeys, gizmos, qualtrics, etc. – they were literally meant to be survey instruments. However, turned them into various online forms, data bases, assessment instruments, workflows, and many other things. I have 56 of them right now, 31 were designed by someone else and shared with me. We probably have hundreds throughout the organization. This kind of technology does not need to be pushed on people.

Here is an example of where such a technology can do what would be almost impossible to do otherwise. For years, the university has been struggling to provide accommodations to Deaf and hard of hearing at its public events. It is not an easy problem to solve. The Deaf community rightfully argue that not offering an accommodation is tantamount to exclusion. They believe – again, rightfully, - that the burden of the logistics should be on event organizer, not on them. The traditional way of dealing with an issue like that would be to train event organizers, and codify the language of accommodations and the procedures. However, every month, dozens of people, who keep changing on us, organize dozens of events. A university is departments, student affairs, faculty affairs, student groups, clubs, athletics … Even if we build another bureaucratic requirement, the results would have been mixed. Diana, our VP for Inclusive Excellence, told me – yes, we can throw a requirement at all those people, but we also need to provide a reasonable way to comply. She is right: we cannot expect every unit, every organization on campus to know how to schedule an ASL interpreter or a captioner. They simply do not have standing accounts with the interpreting agency, not to mention certain expertise needed to do this. In other words, what is possible in a small or mid-sized organization, may be unobtainable at a large and distributed organization like ours.

After a chat with Diana, I asked Binod to think of a survey where an event organizer would enter event details. It would automatically generate a unique URL that can be included in any event invitation or ad; worked into any RSVP system. The link lays dormant until a Deaf or hard of hearing person shows interest to the event, clicks on the unique link, and enters his or her name and email. At that time, the system would generate another automated e-mail that would combine the event details with requester name, and sent to our staff interpreter. She will decide if she can cover it, or book more help from the agency. It took Binod a week or so figure it all out, but he did as he always does. We do not need to invest in another expensive specialized technology, and do not need to build another burdensome and inefficient procedure.

This was probably one of the most complex challenges, but I can give you dozens of examples, from faculty votes to contest entry submissions that can be done through a survey platform. The power of such technology is in its universality. It is not specialized, and with some thinking can be used for many different purposes. Universities tend to rely on heavy, all-encompassing data solutions such as Banner or PeopleSoft. They integrate HR, payroll, scheduling, and Registrar, the key functions of the university operations. At some point, we all believed they could meet hundreds of various needs staff and faculty have. Alas, it did not happen and will not happen. The integrated platforms must be secure, and therefore should be controlled centrally by a few people. Any kind of functional expansion requires months of planning and development. Out-of-box surveys are nimble, simple, and can be used by anyone on campus. Even when we have to re-enter the data into the big integrated platform, it is often worth it.

While I am often skeptical about tech innovations in education, I cannot miss the rare success story. When technology is being driven by users, and allows to solve real issues, it is miracle, because it happens so rarely.

Sep 16, 2019

The celestial world of policy

Long time ago, I used to assume that a mind greater than human has designed the world of policies for all eternity. These rules and policies perfectly match and do not contradict each other; they gently spin in a perfect harmony, vibrating with the music of heavenly spheres. When I encountered a mistake, a contradiction, a badly written policy, I thought all those people in power must be complete idiots…

The relationship of a person to an organization is somewhat similar to that of a child and her parents. To a small child, parents appear to be perfect and omnipotent. To an adolescent, they look like complete jerks and failures. A young adult eventually learns to accept his or her parents the way they are – imperfect, messy, confused, erring, but mostly OK human beings. That is what an organization and its policies are: written by human beings who are fallible, imperfect, tired, and sometimes irritated at something very specific. With time, the organizational memory fails to recall what was the occasion, but a policy tends to stick around. New policies are being written because no one remembers all the other policies, and we do not have the time to check for consistency. However, it does not mean the policies and rules are useless or stupid. It simply means we have to read them intelligently, try to understand the initial intent and the rationale, and apply them as well as we can while keeping the organization’s mission and ethos in mind.

Here is one example: we have a policy in the College that a university-wide committee for whatever reason was not able to approve for about a year and a half. We voted for a few changes, mainly to eliminate previous errors and inconsistencies. There was also one untenable requirement. Technically, we are supposed to use the older policy with more errors that can actually hurt some faculty. What should we do? The answer seems obvious to me – we use our better policy even though it has not been formally approved. Can someone complain or grieve us? – Not really, because to complain, you need to show some damages, and none is likely to occur. In fact, people are more likely to complain if we use the old, erroneous policy.

Policies, like laws, are not laws of nature. They cannot always be followed literally to the last point. This is why there is a whole world of law interpretation, when it is applied to new cases and changing circumstances. This is why the legal system has courts, not computers. Human affairs cannot be governed by algorithms precisely because we generate too much variation and too much uncertainty.

Sep 9, 2019

In praise of scarcity

Free stuff is always problematic for it leads to over-consumption and hoarding. For example, sending an e-mail is free, so spam floods us. Posting on social media is free, so we post a lot of crap. Web pages are free or almost free, so institutional websites tend to proliferate like cancer, with so many pages and so much information that no one can find anything there.

I remember thinking over every sentence over a typewriter, for there was a cost to every mistake: I’d have to retype the entire page. Not sure if my writing was more eloquent or precise, but it was definitely less verbose. The ease of word processing has made thick handbooks possible, and then acceptable. The abundance of cheap labor discourages technological development. The ability to pollute air and water for free discourages environmental thinking.

Moreover, scarcity of free or cheap resources often encourages hoarding behavior and leads to more scarcity. For example, any department on campus can schedule as many classes as it wants, sometimes with the only purpose of hoarding rooms just in case they are needed in the future. While we seem to have enough rooms every semester, there is a period of acute scarcity right before the classes start.

Scarcity is always there even it is sometimes invisible. For example, the abundance of marginal information cause an intense competition of human attention, which turns out to be limited after all. Our life spans are getting longer, but we still have a limited number of hours and minutes to live. Some instructors believe they have plenty of time in a class, and keep filling time with less than relevant stories. Others treat class time as a precious resource that has to show some intensity and richness of learning experience.

Some economists believe that pricing a resource is the only efficient way of managing scarcity. That is not true. Pre-market economies have been managing resources for millennia without affixing price tags on most. Systems of cultural norms, taboos and conventions did the trick for a long time. Such cultural regulations exist now, and often work well. You may notice that the volume and average length of e-mails is slowly going down, for people have learned to be more modest in claiming too much of each other’s attention. Our university just introduced more stringent regulations on the number of web pages a unit is allowed to produce. Over-consumption does not always result from free resource. For example, we cannot really breathe more than we do, so there is no need to price air. However, it often does. There is never enough of everything, and the tragedy of the commons is not inevitable, especially in organizations with a strong ethos.

Sep 3, 2019

Can I teach what and how I want?

Like many other things in universities, academic freedom with respect to teaching is regulated through a mishmash of formal regulations, and unspoken rules. On one hand, all our accreditors require a systematic control over the quality of curriculum and instruction. That is why we have the multiple layers of curriculum reviews, and lengthy and thorough curriculum approval process. When we say that “Faculty own curriculum,” we do not mean each individual faculty, we mean all of them collectively. And administration has its say as well – deans and provosts have the right to veto curriculum changes that are too expensive, or fail basic quality standards. The right is only rarely invoked, but it is there, just in case.

On the other hand, there is little enforcement to make sure faculty teach what the community of peers have approved them to teach. Faculty members routinely exercise the broad right to choose textbooks and other materials, to construct student activities and grading systems the way they see fit. Unfortunately, there is no definite red line to show that one teaches something that was never approved.

The situation is a little different in programs with heavy external accreditation. Normally, a program has to demonstrate it meets all the standards. There is always a round of negotiations on who “covers” what in which course. To withdraw from such an agreement would be very difficult, for it would jeopardize the entire program’s existence. It is also generally well understood that a program cannot constantly reopen such negotiations with every new person teaching a new class.

In effect, the content of each core course is pretty well set, but there is still a lot of freedom about specific assignments, texts, and student activities. However, if there are multiple sections of the same course, students start talking to each other and quickly discover that one instructor seems to be “easier” than another is in the same course. The word travels, and it is not good for anyone. Students will try to get into an easier section. Instructors will start accusing each other of being less rigorous, etc. The best, and I have to say, the most common practice is to agree on several key assignments and the textbooks being the same across all sections. Again, there are holdouts, people who insist their way teaching is the best, and what colleagues think is irrelevant.

More generally, freedom is almost always a negotiated concept; it cannot be understood in absolute terms. What is an administrator to do? One of the few powers chairs and deans have is to tell people what they can and cannot teach. Ultimately, the refusal to cooperate will result in moving teaching assignment to something else to some course where the alignment is not as essential. Plenty of such courses exist, too.

Aug 26, 2019

First day of classes: A big secret revealed

On the first day of classes, I always look for an excuse to walk around the campus. This morning, I went to the Library to return a couple of books (yes, i do read physical books), then took a tour of the new gorgeous Science Building, got my Starbucks latte from the Union building, walked through Brighton and Eureka buildings, went to see Lorenzo, the Engineering and Computer Sciences dean… Any excuse will do. This is the first day of classes, so the students are back on campus; all serious, armed with best intentions, with their cellphones in hand for comfort, their bottles and mugs, backpacks and skateboards, their dreams and anxieties. All the problems have been shoved aside, for here it is, the first day of classes. I can see students making the new spaces homey, nesting in chairs or benches, reckoning if one can become a favorite spot, showing their back-to-school clothes and haircuts, hoping to meet old friends and make new ones. I saw the tents of student societies – the Accounting club, the pre-PT club, the Civil Engineering Student Chapter – all seeking to connect, to invite to one of many tribes. I see the eternal gray-haired gentleman on a beach chair with his “Does God really love you?” poster. No one ever stops to chat, but he’s got his question in.

For those of you non-university types, here is the secret: This is how we charge our batteries. Just like vampires who need a fix of fresh human blood, we need our energy shot from students. The real connoisseurs know that the student life force is best to partake in the first couple of days of classes: it is pure, abundant, and accessible. All you have to do is walk around any campus you can get to. It is the same anywhere in the world, in Siberia, California, Ohio, Colorado, Moscow, or Rhode Island. The life force is free, and you cannot OD on it. Happy new school year!

Aug 19, 2019

Beware of good ideas

Where something looks like a great idea, turn on your critical brain. If something instantly looks good, there is a good chance no one had thought it through. It is tempting to say “let’s do it!” However, “it” may be outside of your organization’s priorities. A good idea in general, it may not fit into your mission. It may not be likely to achieve whatever objectives you are thinking it may achieve. It may be too expensive to do, or you may not have enough resources to do it well. There may be not enough support among the people you want to do it for. A problem may be intractable. The status quo, however bad, may be the same as whichever new thing you want to introduce. Every one probably has that experience when you ask later: “Why did we think it was a good idea?” To the extent possible, I want to avoid being in that situation.

We just finished a planning parathion, a series of meetings with slightly different groups of people on priority projects for this coming year. In at least two instances we killed projects, and in many others, we reduced our commitments. In a nerdy way, we even planned the planning meeting, just to make sure they don’t start from zero. Then we asked ourselves three questions – Why are going to do this? What are we going to do it? And, - How are we going to do it?

Planning is really an exercise in a collective imagining. I enjoy planning, because you get to play out scenarios, imagine how things would and would not work, what good can happen, and how things may go wrong. It is a truly creative activity, akin to brainstorming, or screenplay writing. You get to live in parallel universes, slightly different from the one you are actually in. The exercise allows us to see the possibilities and the limits of our organization, and often result in unexpected solutions. For example, we have been struggling with event support: sometimes staff and the Dean’s office do not know what is going on, and sometimes someone has to put out the last minute fires. So, we decided to put together a universal and simple request for support form. Well, that was not an intent of the meeting at all. Yet planning is thinking about the organization, and it sheds lights on its inefficiencies just because we got together to talk.

School year planning is also a seasonal mark for me. Faculty will update their syllabi, re-build their Canvas shells, check out their classrooms, and sharpen their quills. We, administrators, plan the year, marvel at our budgets, look at neat rows of numbers, and pretend to understand what we are doing. Of course, we know, that half the work will be unexpected, something will come up to eat our time. Yet we try to make the other half as predictable as possible. It was said many times that educators are like farmers; their world governed by the predictability of seasons and unpredictability of weather. There will be a new semester, whether we feel ready or not. What will it bring – is always a bit of a surprise, which makes life interesting and worth living.

Aug 10, 2019

What is going on in Moscow and why you should care?

We will never know if Russian troll factories put Trump in office. Given the narrow margins in a number of states, it is entirely possible. However, besides direct interference, there exists the “Dirty International” of right-wing populists around the globe. Even though some of them may be in conflict with each other, Trump needs Putin, both need Erdogan and Modi. These people need each other to open up the possibility of the new world, free from tolerance and moral constraints. All of them share the disdain for democratic institutions. Just as the rise of Fascism in 1920s and 1930s was a European phenomenon, the nationalist wave of the early 21 century is a global phenomenon.

Muscovites started to protest when none of the opposition candidates was allowed to run in the city council’s elections. The last three Saturdays saw massive rallies. The last one on August 10 had 50-60 thousand people. The police and militarized police had a level of brutality, unusual even for Russia. Thousands of people were arrested, and the authorities charged several people for inciting riots. The awkward thing is, there were no riots. Not one car was torched, not one store window smashed, not one policeman injured. On July 27, one person threw a light plastic trash bin at a policeman and missed. Another guy had a hammer and a knife in his backpack; he never took them out. Yet a third one threw a small plastic water bottle at a policeman. That is all the authorities could come up with, and they are charging people with organizing a riot. The whole situation is Kafkaesque in its absurdity.

However, it is important to point out that Putin did not start with the violence; he started with lies. Populism destroys democracy by exploiting the worst instincts of the people. Putin used xenophobia, homophobia, and fantasies of greatness to create a large following. He was able to exploit the tremendous economic pain Russians experienced thorough 1990s, and turn it into the narrative of victimhood. Trump did the same thing by telling how other countries, intelletuals, and immigrants have been taking advantage of working Americans. The playbook goes back to Adolf Hitler, and the story of German people as a victim of the global Jewish conspiracy. Of course, the simplest recipe for preventing the Right-wing populism is to avoid massive economic declines. Indeed, countries that were able to build strong social safety nets seem to be immune to the disease. Countries without strong social protections are not.

What people in Moscow are doing is a part of the same fight against the same enemy. If Americans manage to beat it down, it will keep in check all the strongmen around the world. If Russians win back their democratic rights, it will weaken trumpism here. The fight is global, and the stakes are high.

Aug 2, 2019

Winter is coming, and Trump is the Night King

Game of Thrones has a terrifying scene, where the Night King raises hundreds of dead bodies to join his Army of the Dead. Jon Snow watches his slaughtered friends open their eyes filled with eerie blue light. I get the metaphor now. A similar creepy feeling comes to me when I watch the latest Trump rally. I can see well-meaning, decent people, your neighbors, colleagues and family animated by some weird magic, embracing xenophobia and the foolish fantasy of greatness.

Unlike many of my friends, I was dismissive of Trumps danger when he was elected. After all, American democracy was designed with someone like Trump in mind. The institutions will hold, I said to my friends. Now I am not so sure. I missed - and some are still missing – the Movement behind the cartoonish figure of Trump. The movement has quickly from the shadow of its leader, and it is much more terrifying than Trump. The ease and speed with which the Movement has destroyed the Grand Old Party is astonishing. A political party is a democracy in miniature, with its own institutions, checks and balances, its norms and procedures. Yet we see distinguished senators and representatives who are terrified, silent, and cowed, some with a blue tinge to their eyes. We see a party that abandoned its cherished values such as fiscal responsibility, global free trade, and confronting authoritarians around the world. In other words, we see that the Movement can and will destroy democratic institutions, given an opportunity. Neither Trump, nor his supporters have ever expressed any concern for democratic institutions. All the signs point to the opposite direction.

The strength of the movement is in its seductive promise of liberation from the norms of decency and compassion. The temptation is as old as the world, and it goes like this: “Constraints be damned, we are the strong; send her back, and build the wall. We are free to say anything we want to anyone, and we will crash all the others. Let us get some torches now, just drop me a hint when it is time to storm CNN.” It is nothing but the deadly sin of wrath, amplified by the crowd. It is only human to succumb to it, it has happened many times in the past, which does not make it any less deadly.

Nazis dismantled German democracy using the Reichstag fire as a pretext. The Weimar republic was not the strongest democracy in the world, but it had a democratic constitution and a functioning parliamentary political system. All of it was gone within one year. While I still believe the American democracy is too strong to be dismantled, I worry about an unexpected additional crisis – a large natural disaster, or a significant military or terrorist attack, or another great recession. And extra push may be just too much. How would our Commander in Chief behave? More importantly, What will his blue-eyed supporters demand him to do?

What makes me worried is the wave of nationalistic authoritarianism around the world. European democracies are in danger; Turkey, Russia, China, and a few other countries slip further away from democracy. China is about to crash Hong Kong. UK has an irresponsible buffoon in charge. Winter is coming.

The risks are too high. In the last season of the GOT, the story turns into an all-encompassing battle of all the living against the dead. Old enemies had to fight side by side, because the common threat was too great to squabble amongst themselves. One could not get along with the Army of the Dead. Winter is not the time for the living to pursue their narrow ideological agendas. This is the time to build a broadest possible coalition against authoritarianism and racism. That is the only thing I could think of watching the Democratic Primaries debates.

There is nothing wrong with fighting a defensive battle when the stakes are so high. It does not matter which wing of the party wins the nomination. As long as they do not slaughter each other before the real battle, anyone of them will do fine.

Jul 20, 2019

The orgiastic pleasure of Trumpism

The most troubling thing about Donald Trump is his supporters. They are numerous, consolidated, and show no signs of weakening their resolve. The earlier explanation of the Trumpism still works – to a degree. Yes, they are the disaffected, mostly White people alienated from both the new digital economy and the democratic politics. However, it does not explain these people’s refusal to acknowledge Trump’s very obvious moral failings. Some of us liberals thought it was a form of denial, but the recent mass chant “send them back” shattered our illusions and sent shivers down our spines. It becomes obvious that we are dealing with a mass movement that is related to Fascism – not as a political ideology, but as a mass culture phenomenon. How is it possible, that the picture of a dead toddler clinging to her dead father makes some of us cry, and compels others to make crude jokes? This is really the pressing question, not the person of Donald Trump. He clearly tells these people what they want to hear.

Dmitry Bykov, a celebrated Russian writer and dissident, described Fascism as a “cult of ecstatic, orgiastic pleasure.” Fascism, he says, is the intentional evil; it is a conscious and joyful violation of moral taboos. I think Bykov is wrong in equating postmodernism and Fascism, but his description of Fascism in terms of erotic and intentional embrace of evil is precise. Many of Trump’s supporters succumbed to the fantasy of a morality-free, post-apocalyptic movie, where the heroes dominate, and the week are either exploited by bad guys, or graciously saved by an equally badass hero.

This is why people like David Remnick are wrong when they are trying to turn Trumpists by appealing to their moral sensibilities. These people know they are being bad and unkind. That is exactly what they enjoy. It is a collective psychosis impenetrable to a rational dialogue. A Trump rally is an orgy of hate, and people show up for that reason. The sheer numbers allow them to avoid personal responsibility, to drown the moral voice in the crowd’s pleasure.

The liberals and the Left are underestimating the danger, and therefore are bickering about the ways to move forward. The conventional wisdom until now was to focus not so much on Trump, but on specific policy proposals. However, I think only the first part is right. The way forward is to create the broadest possible anti-Fascist coalition, and focus on the danger of the movement. This is not a good time to decide whether Obamacare should be replaced by the Medicare for all. Yes, do not focus on Trump as a person, but focus instead on the moral abyss that is Trumpism. There are more people who are not infected; they need the sense of urgency to get out and vote. Fascism was defeated in France – twice in the recent history; it will be defeated in the US, too. Once you deny the weak-minded people their exultant orgy, they start noticing they are completely naked and most of us around are dressed. The sense of shame will return to them, in time.

Jun 10, 2019

The secret lives of proxies

We need them, we get used to them, and they take on lives of their own. This is a pitch to always remember that a proxy measure is just a proxy, not the real thing.

A proxy is an indirect measure of something. In higher education where direct measures are few, this is especially true. For example, universities use acceptance rate as a proxy for the quality of students. More “selective” universities should be of higher quality. Of course, the less selective universities may measure higher by the value added to student education, and in this sense more productive. But who needs thinking when there is a simple index, right?

It is the same with selectiveness of each program. How many applied? How many have you accepted? However, if your program has a reputation of being very rigorous, it will discourage many people from applying in the first place, so the proxy stops working right there. Moreover, if you are very clear and careful about your program’s expectations, and criteria of admissions, fewer people will waste their time applying. You have a better program, but it has low rejection rate. This creates an incentive to over-promise to the applicants, which makes the whole system less efficient and more deceitful.

Universities often proudly present their student-to-faculty ratios. So if you have 1:15, it is supposedly better than 1:20. Why? – Because the ratio translates into smaller classes, more personal attention from faculty, and, in theory, better educational quality. But just remember it is but a proxy. In fact, we have no idea what is going on in those smaller or larger classes, if the quality of teaching and learning is in any way different. In fact, there is little evidence of class size direct effect on learning outcomes. The low ratio can be explained by terrible management, when some classes are large, and many are small for no good reason.

Take the College Scoreboard, something the Obama administration put together. It has three measures: the average annual cost, the six-year graduation rate, and the median salary at 10 years after graduation. Sac State measures at $9,7K, 48%, and $48.9K, respectively. UC Davis, our neighbor, measures $17,7K, 85%, and $58,2K. Each of the three numbers is supposed to tell something about the quality of the institution. However, UC has a medical school, and we have much larger group of teachers and social workers. These two things will skew the median. Depending on your career choices, investment in Sac State may or may not be better than that in UC Davis. The proxies tell very little about the quality of instruction or return on investment. All three indicators are useful, unless someone attempts to read too much into them. To the Government’s credit; the College Scoreboard is never described as a measure of quality. In fact, it gives very little interpretation, just “and here is some data.”

Here is another interesting proxy: people who work long hours are assumed to be more productive. We all understand that it is not so, that productivity is as much a function of organization, smart planning, and tech skills as it is a function of length of work. And yet somehow this particular proxy insinuates itself into most people’s common thinking. One person can spend days fishing hundreds а email out of a long document. Another person will google for a macro that does the same thing in five seconds, and then takes a long walk to think of the next creative solution. Which of them is more productive?

Is longevity a good proxy for population’s health? Yes, up to a certain degree. Yet is a certain society figures out how to keep very sick people alive longer, the proxy stops reflecting what you think it is supposed to reflect. You just have many more sick people hanging on, not an improvement in health and well-being.

We are better off with proxies than without any measures and indicators at all. However, one has to be aware of the danger of the proxy fetishism, when a proxy measure takes a life of its own, becomes an important as such. Every proxy is based on an assumption that whatever you are measuring is closely correlated with the thing you actually want to measure, but cannot. However, very rarely do these correlations stay constant, especially at the extremes.

Jun 3, 2019

Relation-Centered Education, a Call to action

Critiques of test-based accountability abound; alternatives to it are few and far between. The demand for accountability is not an aberration, not a mental affliction of “neoliberalism.” No, it is because education has become huge and very expensive. The US spends about 8% of GDP on education, most OECD countries are not far behind. The quality of education varies greatly across the world and within each country. The public has the right to know how the huge sums of money are spent and if there is any improvement. Many educators secretly hope that the taxpayers will fund them and not ask any questions. Well, this is not how it works. There is no public support without accountability.

With all the obvious shortcomings of the standardized testing, it is cheap, reliable, and fairly objective. It measures only one dimension of education, and too narrowly at that. If we want to change the game, we need to come up with another instrument that would measure another dimension of education equally reliably and cheaply. What would that another dimension be?

Some 15 years ago, a group of us wrote a book called No Education without Relation that opened up with the “Manifesto of relational pedagogy.” We argued that relations are not just an important educational means, but are also an educational end. Frank Margonis actually coined the term “Pedagogy of Relation” that has an intuitive appeal to many educators. We drew on several philosophical traditions (Buber, Bakhtin, Noddings, and others). The book was well received, but it suffered from the usual limitations of theoretical work: it stayed largely within the theoretical discourse.

Over the years, there was some response from empirical researchers and practitioners, much of it outside the US. There is a fairly long tradition of classroom and school climate research. The problem with it, it is all self-report, which makes the data unreliable and expensive to collect. There is a whole group of people trying to measure the 21st century skills, but they are struggling, because there is no good theory behind that movement. Focusing on skills simply broadens the current test-based accountability, but does not offer a whole new dimension of education to consider. However, a quick look across educational scholarship reveals that many people from different disciplines recognize the centrality of relations in the educational enterprise. They may call it something else, and draw on vastly different traditions, but will still demonstrate the “family resemblance.”

Some of the original authors are now trying to form an interdisciplinary network that would include empirical researchers, practitioners (both teachers and teacher educators), psychologists, psychometricians, and policy scholars. The network would start building a knowledge base around these goals, from both existing and new scholarship. It may have very practical objectives:
  1. Understand how educators create positive educational relations with and among students
  2. Learn how to help teachers develop their relational skills
  3. Develop good instruments to measure the quality of relations in educational settings
  4. Offer a policy framework for the relational accountability, to augment or replace the cognitive test-based accountability approaches
What is the next step? We need to meet to have an initial conversation, an organizing meeting. It would be easier to hold it here in Sacramento, but I need to gauge interest? Here is the link to put your name down if you are interested. 

May 28, 2019

The optimism bias and starting a university from scratch

Apparently, bad planning is in our genes. According to this Freakonomics show, we humans have an inherent optimism bias, and a related bias of bad planning. We tend to underestimate how much time and effort any project takes, and grossly underestimate the transactional cost of teamwork. So we optimistically plan all these projects, and then have to work evenings and weekends to try to see them completed. We also get frustrated that someone dropped the ball, did not follow up, or is late with his or her portion of the project. In many case, it is because we underinvest in communications among team members.

The Academia is similar to all other organizations, but also different. We have here the annual, Big Project: classes, grades, progress toward degree, and graduations. The Big Project runs smoothly, because it repeats almost exactly every year, just like the Church Liturgical Cycle. On the other hand, it is so massive, it takes most of our resources and waking hours – just to make sure it runs as planned. Any kinds of improvements to the Big Project, any one-time smaller projects often misfire, exactly because the organization has little capacity outside of the Big Project, and because we can take no risk on it – the Big Project must happen no matter what. We are not like a software company that is used to churning through regular new products. We are not like a construction company that has a beginning and an end to any construction project. We are more like farmers – 99% of all effort is spelled out in advance – we saw, we cultivate, we harvest; year after year, for decades.

Another big difference – in education, innovation within its core activity – teaching and learning – is very limited. It is a whole long argument that I will spell out one day; it has to do with the Baumol’s Cost Disease. The short version is that we will not see large gains in productivity of learning and teaching any time soon. However, we have tremendous marginal areas where much за possible innovation has not happened yet. For example, we have so many advisers and staff members, because our students and faculty cannot get though most processes in self-service mode. All those processes are way too complicated, and very poorly designed. In theory, it should be very easy to figure out which courses you need to take when. It should take seconds to ask for money and complete a travel reimbursement claim.

Yet just because information technologies are available in theory does not mean they can be implemented and integrated easily. Universities are patchworks of old, disjointed improvements that do not talk to each other. Banner and PeopleSoft were tremendous steps forward to integrate at least the most basic university functions. Everything else is kind of bolted on them, haphazardly. We still have hundreds of students run around the campus having their change-of-major paper forms signed by three people. It is not anyone’s fault; this is simply because we have the Big Project to take care of.

So the problem is that we under-invest in the trivia of small improvements. Or perhaps the size and complexity of a large university makes true improvements unattainable? I wish I knew the answer to that.

I would love to start a brand-new university from scratch, with some capable software architects. I know several people tried. However, they completely misunderstood the task. The task is not to mess with the core function – students meeting their professor for a conversation. It is to strip down everything else that gets in the way; literally everything – the scheduling, the registrar, the athletics, the grounds, the physical plant, the buildings, the deans and their assistants, the Academic Affairs division… All of it is really meant to help the essential human project of teaching and learning, of relating. The Intelligent Cloud should handle all that, or most of it. In 2016, Sac State had only 686 full-time faculty (and about 1000 part-times), and 1,290 full-time staff. As you can see, the helpers outnumber the helped. And most of us on the staff side wage the battle with disorganization, all day and every day. On good days, I believe it is winnable, but then again, it may be the optimist bias speaking.

May 13, 2019

The third spiral, or Why education is so interesting to study

Understanding education is key to understanding the story of our species. Like many of our animal cousins, we supplement the gifts received through genes with gifts passed on by our culture; we just do it a lot better. Education is the craft of weaving the biological with the social. We take the genetically determined ability to have a language and graft onto it the ability to write and read. We thank the genetic accident that lets us distinguish pitch and perceive rhythm, and turn into music. How do you make so much more out of what is given to us? The magical practice is called education. Culture is like the third spiral of DNA - it is closely bound with the two original ones, to the point that it is actually quite difficult to tell the boundaries between the genetic information and that transmitted through culture.

Tolkien’s mythology describes “the strange gift of mortality bestowed upon Men by Ilúvatar,” but not other intelligent species like elves and dwarfs. It is indeed strange to think of mortality as a gift rather than a curse, but it is definitely one of the most profound human conditions. The biological evolution has learned to pass a lot through the death barriers by reproducing biological copies. Because of sexual reproduction and random mutations, the copies are not exact, and sometimes are better-fitting than the originals. However, the third spiral of DNA can only be reproduced artificially, and with much higher chance of positive mutation. Education is thus the cultural enzyme that tells us which raw elements of chaotic human culture are to be expressed in every new generation, and which are to be suppressed. Hence, in school we study math rather than murder.

The fundamental human process is self-domestication, self-improvement as a species. Our long journey to freedom from violence and suffering is very slow and painful. However, in evolutionary terms, it is a wild success in a blink of an eye. How do you get from the total warfare and hunger to a relatively peaceful and prosperous world of 10 billion people in mere few thousand years, and without any noticeable edits in the genetic pool? How do we record more knowledge that anyone of us is capable of knowing? The answer to those questions is in our secret evolutionary weapon, education.

In any given society, there exists a set of practices based on selection of knowledge. They select certain kind of knowledge and deem it worthy to be curriculum. They also select certain social mechanisms to ensure that youngsters learn. The combination of the two creates a steady push for the human species to drift in a particular direction. Education provides directionality of human history as history of humans. Some believe it is the explicitly stated ideals, or the Universal Spirit, or the objective material forces, or god that provide the arch to human history. However, from the evolutionary point of view, the most powerful force is the slow wind that fills the sails of educational practices. It affects how the new generation will be a little bit different from the previous, intentionally so. Imagine a huge airship, the society, at the bottom of which is a small engine, education. The airship is at the mercy of huge economic and technological winds, however, the tiny engine pushes it in one direction; over decades, it wins.

Of course, kids will learn what they learn, with or without intentional education. A.V.Mudrik defined education as a relatively more manageable part of socialization. Yet again, even if the unmanageable part of socialization is bigger and stronger, the gentle boost provided by education is directional, not random. Education is nothing if not selection. A society has to decide which things are worth learning - both in content and in content and in social arrangements of educational institutions.

Do you want to know what a society wants in terms of redesigning human beings? - not what it says it wants, but what it actually wants?, - take a look at its educational system. For example California says it wants to prepare its workforce for 21 century jobs, especially in STEM. Yet it spends about average on K-12 schools, underpays its teachers, and tolerates significant shortages of STEM teachers for many years. It says it wants to educate in inclusive environments, and yet it tolerates both huge shortages of special education teachers, and many segregated classrooms. What it really wants is tax rates competitive for its businesses and population; and it wants them more than STEM workforce and inclusion. You can talk all about equality of opportunities, but be unwilling to provide quality schooling for all kids. You can talk about access to higher education, but unwilling to pay for mass university systems. I say unwilling, not unable, although in this context they are the same thing. To the extent we can assume there is a directionality of human history, the direction is the intent.

One can look at number of other policies: economic, social, healthcare, etc. to guess the direction. However, only education will tell you the prevailing anthropological project, the project of changing the human being.

Of course, the developmental direction of the California society is not created in one person’s head; it is a result of complex political dynamics. Indeed, there are significant policy efforts to reshape education in California to provide for equity, inclusion, STEM careers, and access to college. Within education, there are also competing interests and conflicting intentions. However, the point remains: if you want to know where a society is heading, take a look at its education, as it actually works, not how it is meant to work.

May 5, 2019

We are not that similar

There was an interesting discussion about generational misunderstanding in my Russian part of Fb. A teacher considered why a certain history documentary is inaccessible to contemporary students. The narrator uses tacit citations, allusions, and references that are well known to the generation that grew up in the late Soviet Union, but is alien to Russian adolescents today. Exactly the thing that makes the documentary interesting to us, makes it boring to them. It is the same language - they understand all the words; they just miss the connotations.

We have watched recently Sharp Objects - a great Netflix miniseries. I was wondering if anyone could understand much of it without some knowledge of American small town life, and without living in the US for decades. What one critic described as “honey-coated but often barbed dialogue” is delightfully hard to comprehend. I enjoyed it greatly, but am also wondering how many layers of meaning escaped me because I did not grow up in America, and missed some 30 years of mass culture and everyday banter. I do well in all kinds of professional conversations, but will miss certain nuances when Americans quip over a beer. When I listen to British BBC Radio 4, I don’t get perhaps every fifth joke, just because their context is not as familiar to me.

One of the greatest communication sins is to assume that your interlocutor is the same as you, that his or her cultural contexts are the same. It is easier to avoid when you deal with a foreigner, whose accent screams at you “I am different and may not know what you know.” It is much more difficult to avoid when dealing with a different generation. For example, some older folks who grew up in the 60-s and 70-s will drop an F-bomb in a formal conversation, because that was a signal of liberation from the formality of old institutions, and was a call for solidarity against the oppressive System. Yet today’s 30-something may hear nothing but mucho bullying. Are they too sensitive, too sheltered? No, they just have a different set of cultural references, and it is just too easy to miss. The same goes for regional differences: what is a friendly chat in New York City, will be considered an open conflict in the parts of the Midwest and South.

It would probably be best if we learned to treat everyone as a foreigner who may have learned our language, but will never be exactly the same as us. What we sometimes think are “wrong” reactions may speak not as much of moral deficiency, as a subtle cultural difference. Multiculturalism is easy when the other is very different. It become incrementally hard as the degree of difference diminishes. Intimacy is greatly overrated and sometimes trumps respect. It is hard to be generous and hospitable to thy neighbor, hence… but you get the reference.