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Apr 22, 2019

The Third Kind of Intelligence

A recent HBO documentary Future of Work shows how computers and humans are intelligent in different ways. For example the world-class chess play is hard for humans, but easy for computers. Yet a task like picking up an apple off a table without crashing it, is still very hard for a computer. Similarly, organizations can be thought of as another, third kind of intelligence, different from that of an individual human and of a computer. Theirs is the intelligence of the third kind. Certain things are easy for humans or computers, but hard for organizations, and vice versa.

Take memory, for example. Humans are very good at marking important memories with emotional markers, and wiping out everything else. Computers never forget anything, as long as they have enough storage and a retrieval system. Organizations remember routine, repeatable processes very well. In general, you will get consistent, more or less efficient treatment when asking for travel reimbursement. Your paycheck will generally come on time. At universities, classes will be scheduled, and grades given to students, degrees conferred, and faculty evaluated. However, organizations are bad at learning new things. For example, a university decided that all event announcements will be access-friendly, and offer accommodations. Yet it is not happening, because there is no routine yet to make sure it happens. Just a commitment, a decision to do something work for individual human being, but not for an organization. It needs to establish a routine, otherwise nothing will happen. The trick needed is something like this: OK, where all events come to be announced? Well, there are newsletters sent by Communications. That’s the one control point where we can enforce the new procedure. So, someone has to be told in writing, that from now on it is an extra check, an extra requirement. And by the way, the deadline for announcements has to be pushed back, for we need a week to schedule a captioner or an interpreter.

Organizations rely on written policies as a special kind of memory, but those are very imperfect, often contradictory, hard to find, and slow to update. Moreover, these little proсedural tweaks tend to accumulate over time, making organizations slow and inefficient. Every little procedure makes sense, taken altogether, they may become too much.

Organizations, just like computers, are very bad at forgetting. Once a policy and procedure is established and institutionalized, it keeps going even if the original impetus is forgotten. One example I wrote about is the catalog; there are many more. Individual humans are much more adaptable. Once a routine becomes obsolete, they are able to ignore it, and eventually forget. Computers can be rebooted, and all the software junk wiped out, but this doesn't happen with organizations. They have deep structural memories, which is both a blessing and a curse.

Organizations are both dumber and smarter than humans and computers that comprise them. They are incredible for coordinating specialized efforts of multiple individuals and machines for a large and complex task. Nothing of importance can be achieved without organizations. However, many of their species are denied the gift of mortality, which can also be understood as the gift of reset. Forgetting and death are friends of the human and machine intelligence. They both prevent clogging and excessive growth. Organizations are immortal like gods, and like gods they suffer from knowing too much, and failing to adapt.

Apr 8, 2019

How to tell a good journal from a bad one

It is not a trivial task. Beall’s list was imperfect and it does not actively exist anymore. No universally accepted rating of scholarly journals exists. However, scholars need to know which is a reputable journal, and which is not. A huge industry of predatory journals sprung up across the world. It does an amazing job camouflaging its crap depositories as legitimate publications. In the past, pay-to-publish journals were overwhelmingly predatory, but now the rise of open-access movement has made the criterion obsolete. In addition, there are too many weak journals, put together by well-meaning scholars but never achieving the level of acceptable quality. Because of the low number of submissions, they have to water down their acceptance standards.

Some universities and even single departments engage in sophisticated procedures for whitelisting and blacklisting journals. Those do work to some extent, but they cost much and may ignite internal conflicts. I want to offer some advice to junior scholars and their T&P committees for a quick and dirty check with resources readily available.

Here is my simple method, in two steps:

1. Go to and look for the journal there. If it is in the first two quartiles, it is likely to be a good journal. If it is in quartiles 3 and 4, it is still likely to be a legit journal, although not that great. If the journal is not found there, go to step 2. Scimagojr feeds from the Scopus database (where you could also go directly, but it is not as user-friendly). It captures a great number of good journals, but not all of them. A number of good journals, especially in North America, just never bothered to be indexed there. It is especially true for those published directly by universities and scholarly societies. This is why you should go to step 2 if the journal is not found.

2. Find the name of the editor and the editorial board. If you do not know who that person is, go to and see how many people cite the person and what is his or her h-index. In social sciences, it the number is lower than about 8-10, we are dealing with a junior scholar, who has not yet built a solid reputation in the field. The standards are different in different fields. By the way, here is the Sac State’s Hall of fame according to Google. There are some exceptions, like Harvard Education Review. It is edited by graduate students and is one of the top journals in the world. However, it is indexed by Scopus, so you would see it in step 1 above. There may be some other exceptions. As a general rule, no respectable scholar will lend her or his name to a crappy journal. After all the technology, all the indices, all tricks, the bottom line is still someone’s personal reputation that matters. And it works.

Neither of these two tests is perfect. If a journal fails both tests above, do not dismiss it, but you will need to do some more digging. The easiest thing to do is ask someone who you believe is an expert in the specific field. The problem with education and some other cross-disciplinary fields is that those are federations of various disciplines applied to a common phenomenon. Each of its sub-disciplines have different hierarchy of journals, and some of them are split into several traditions or approaches. This is why we should rely on some external evidence. While it is not perfect, it is better than nothing.

Apr 1, 2019

When is it time to quit?

Some people believe one should never quit, and try until one succeeds. That is a very stupid belief, because it leads people to waste their time, treasure, and efforts on non-productive things. Read or listen to this old Freakonomics podcast. However, when one deals with a whole organization, and its resources, such a belief borders on negligence. Every initiative, every project we have takes away resources from other possible projects and initiatives. In leadership, there should be no place for stubbornness, only place for cold and rational cost-benefit analysis.

It is very difficult to know when to quit, even with the coldest and most rational analysis. On Saturday, we held the 25th annual multicultural education conference – a very successful events with perhaps 900 attendees. However, when it started 25 years ago, I am sure it was a much humbler affair. People before us kept working at it, building and improving, and we are thankful for that. Some persistence is definitely warranted. In another example, we tried the competition for innovations in education for two years. The event was a lot of fun and definitely useful for those who participated. Nevertheless, we were not able to generate much publicity, or attract decent audience for the event. So we decided to quit, and focus on other things. I am still wondering if it was the right decisions, and perhaps we could build another good institution with more persistence.

In many cases, making the call is very difficult. How many years do you try to save a program that does not attract students anymore? You try to revise it, to provide more recruitment support. What if it still struggles? How many years can you afford to subsidize it at the expense of other programs? Remember, there is no exact science to this, no way to measure potential demand accurately. We tried the alumni reconnection events twice. Both times the events went just great, but attendance was underwhelming. At which point does the learning curve ends, and foolish stubbornness begins? Three years? Five? I am convinced we need to try the alumni events at least once or twice, for we are still learning important lessons. Ask me why am I so convinced, and I cannot provide a very rational explanation.

The best projects are those that die before starting. For example, we considered creating a development board in addition to our existing advisory board. We had several meetings and discussions, involving people serving on successful and less than successful development boards, and concluded it is not likely to work for us. We simply do not have a champion for that, and could not identify one. I am glad we quit quickly, before wasting a lot of time and effort. Quitting fast is sometimes the best strategy.

Sometimes an idea behind a project is so powerful that people follow it with an unbelievable persistence despite the abundance of evidence that it does no work. I have learned to appreciate the human propensity to keep doing the same thing while hoping to achieve a different result. We all need to check for that tendency. Just because we sunk a lot of time and energy into some idea, the idea is not automatically meritorious. There is a time to quit and stop throwing good money after bad.