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Feb 25, 2019

Faking understanding

I wish people would stop pleasing each other by pretending they understood something they really did not. After all, the party fooled now will get mad later, when it becomes apparent you did not understand. I wish people would stop being embarrassed at not understanding something. After all, it is your failure to explain rather than my stupidity that lead to misunderstanding.

Before I go too far on the self-righteous tirade, I do it, too. The temptation to oversell my own understanding of complex issues is sometimes just too strong. You look more competent when you get ideas quickly. You feel dumb where everyone in the rooms seems to understand what is going on, and you still trying to make some sense of it. So, half-understanding is presented as understanding; we nod knowingly, while the key ideas are still pretty fuzzy. It is also hard to tell your counterpart – dude, you are not making any sense, and I have no idea what you are talking about. There are many ways to say it politely, but the essence of the message stays the same. It is a hard one to give OR receive.

Understanding is even more difficult, when the truth cannot be told out loud, and one has to get by with hints. I tend to just say it while hoping people will forgive the directness for the sake of clarity. That kind of hope often goes unfulfilled. And certain things have to be communicated, but simply cannot be said.

Understanding is not a binary thing, where you either do or do not understand a message. While there is a feeling – yes, I go this – it does not really establish whether a person has understood or not. That feeling, like all feelings, can be easily manipulated. Time pressures, social norms, and psychological predisposition all can conspire to make understanding more difficult. The very nature of social interaction, its lubricant – mutual affirmation – sometimes gets in a way of actually understanding the complex issues at hand.

This is as much a note to self as it is a call for action. Let’s stop pretending we understand, let’s use the Navy’s “Repeat to Confirm” rule. I have not served there, but was told in the Navy, one has to repeat an order after hearing it, to make sure it is understood. In everyday situations, people use a milder form: “Here is what I hear you are saying.”

Feb 7, 2019

Kill the Catalog

Catalogs were the primitive foreshadows of websites before the websites. You would get a thick book with everything about a university in it. Most universities do not print them anymore, but they continue the existence as a separate section of a university’s website. It is a curious atavism, a testimony to the peculiar conservatism academic institutions. Look at Sac State’s catalog, for example. It has 21 sections, most of which really should be elsewhere on the university’s site, or they simply duplicate the information already provided elsewhere. For example, it has its own faculty directory (just names, without the contact information!!) in addition to the regular site’s directory. The President’s welcome is in the catalog, but it should be in the About section of the site, or on the President’s page. Who would go to the catalog to look for it? The same could be said about the Accreditation section – it should for sure be on the main site, normally under the About menu. But wait, the catalog has its own About the University section, with Mission and strategic planning – exactly the same as on the main site. It has yet another directory of the campus’ Leadership, with just phone numbers, but no e-mails or office locations. The catalog has two big sections called Campus Life, and Colleges. The information on them repeats the websites. Academic policies in the Catalog either cite or repeat what’s already in the University’s Policy Manual. The Bursar information on fees is exactly the same.

Just imagine how much time and effort is going into keeping the main website pages and the catalog pages in sync. Should I mention that despite best effort, such efforts are not always successful? Some program pages on the site contradict their twins in the Catalog’s parallel universe. This partially explains why we need so many advising resources for students. We confuse students with a chaotic information environment, and then hire people to explain what’s really going on. The question is – why are we doing the silly, costly, confusing thing?

Fundamentally, the catalog is simply a part of a website that follows a different, stricter set of editing rules. Certain descriptions and policies may not be changed on the whim, without a proper chain of approval, and even then, they can only be changed once a year. I would say there are three kinds: (1) certain academic policies, such as admission requirements, degree requirements, the rules about dismissal, student rights, etc.; (2) program requirements, and (3) is course description. If the catalog is truly intended for students to use, we must admit that students do not care what rules we follow to update the information. Therefore, the special status of catalog pages should not be visible to the user at all – it is our inner workings. Any information published anywhere on our sites (or given out as paper handouts) is official, and will be taken as such should a dispute arise. We need to kill the catalog as a stand-alone user space, while certainly keeping it as a quality control mechanism.

As a first step, we should delete the parts of the catalog outside the three areas, and integrate the content with the existing sites and pages. In the second step, we should make sure these three things only appear in the catalog, and are in no way replicated elsewhere on our sites. The program sites should be allowed only to link back to the catalog or pipe the info. This needs a little technical problem-solving, so that the catalog’s content is “piped,” not simply linked, but it is a trivial problem to solve.

What is not trivial is finding the will and the resources to take the informational ecosystem of the university seriously. Perhaps we should ask students to audit what they see, because most of us faculty and administrators get used to the byzantine maze of the information on campus; we fail to see its problems. Perhaps we can hire a user experience expert to do this for us. We are now trying to rebuild the website, perhaps it is a good time to look at the catalog.

Feb 4, 2019

Limits to transparency

When I first turned to the Dark Side, and became an administrator, I thought I would be different, would be transparent. I’ve got nothing to hide, and the more people know how I make decisions, the better. You can probably sense a “but” coming: it is not that simple. I quickly found out that I had to deal with other people’s secrets. A whole lot of information is either formally protected, or embarrassing to someone, or just confidential for a whole set of other reasons.

That class of secrets is easy to understand. Yet there is a whole set of other information that in theory can be disclosed, but it would not do any good. One example is financial data. The problem with that is that it is very difficult to understand. Financial systems are dynamic – no one knows exactly how much of your balances is committed, and how much is not at any given time. All projections are inaccurate, because there are too many variables. For example, one large sick leave or a resignation will throw your budget off balance. Money is clear only in the hind side. Besides the accounting business uses a whole set of categories that are not intuitively easy to comprehend. Consider a simple question: why are we spending 200K more on temp faculty this year than in the last year? The answer actually involves page-long explanation, half of which is mainly a guess. To those who never deals with budgets, some numbers appear to be to small and others – too large. Any spreadsheet looks unfair to someone. I never had a good, productive conversation with faculty over a spreadsheet.

Other decisions are so narrowly constrained that they are not really decisions. For example, the university tells you – you can hire a new faculty member if the position fits into this set of conditions. We look at our many programs, and see there is exactly one that fits. There is no point in consulting with anyone; it won’t change anything. To pretend to consult is disgusting. I could probably write a blog and explain later the reasoning to the last detail, but – it is as boring as it is inconsequential. Excessive self-justification is boring, annoying, and narcissistic.

Here is a more nuanced example. Let’s say you have an idea, a new initiative or a new program. If you share it too early, it is too weak, underdeveloped, nothing to discuss. Undercooked ideas are easily rejected, because they are too vulnerable to criticism. If you share too late, you lose on the buyout. People feel offended a fully formed proposal is sprung on them as a surprise. You look heavy-handed and authoritarian. There is a sweet spot somewhere in between, and it changes from chairs to faculty, to staff to students. Transparency can be gradual.

And here is one funny exception: never disclose who picked the colors. People have different sensibilities, and in the aesthetic matters, a democratic process fails every time. There has to be a dictator, otherwise colors never get picked, and people’s feelings get hurt needlessly. But if you have to have a dictator, his or her identity may as well stay secret, so the person does not get any flak.

In general, more transparency is better for an organization, because it prevents the mistrust build-up. However, it is not a blanket rule that applies to everything. Just like in any relationship, some things are better off not said.