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Dec 21, 2020

Martial law, official poisoners, and hope

Can’t think of anything other than the crazy, evil things in the news. Trump has been discussing martial law on Friday, willing to throw away 250 years of American democracy. Putin was caught red-handed in an attempt to poison Navalny, the opposition leader. Onу on the killers admitted he was sent to clean Navalny’s underwear to remove traces of the poison. Both men are trying to deny the accusations, and both look like pathetic liars. You could swap these two guys, and they’d be true to their narcissistic, delusional personalities. One can only wonder how such men get to the top. And there is at least half-dozen men like them in charge of major countries today: Turkey, Brazil, Poland, Hungary, India. What dark forces animate their supporters? What evil winds swept over the Middle Earth, bringing the worst epidemic and the worst wave of autocratic rulers?

It is hard to think of the meaning of winter holidays right now. The story of Christmas is that of hope for a fallen world that has no idea about it. The Prophet’s Birthday has a similar message of hope in Islam, although it in November this year. The story of Hanukah is about beating a larger army, and rededicating a temple again; it is a story of hope restored. The Bodhi day is about one man’s resole and hope to reach enlightenment. Solstice is the day of overcoming the darkest day of the year; it is symbolically about hope. These and other holidays are simply reminders. “This is not the shittiest it has ever been,” – they tell us, - “There is always a reason for hope.”

The reminder is always counter-intuitive. When you stare in the depth of the darkness, light comes from where you least expect it to come. It does not come from where you were searching for it; it is always a surprise. You never know, and yet you always knew, there is light, and it just temporarily obscured by some gunk in the Universe’s gears. Happy holidays. Let’s hope 2021 will be better.

Dec 14, 2020

What does my signature mean? Or Why are universities so clunky?

We have moved away from paper, thanks to COVID. However, just like before, I often wonder, what does my signature mean on this and that paper? Sometimes it means an actual approval – those are fine. Sometimes my signature only means that in theory, once in a hundred year, I have an authority to stop something from happening. In many cases, the signature means that I am expected to conduct some quality control. The assumption is that if several people will look at a document, someone is more likely to catch an error or impropriety. In fact, I notice that many signatures actually dilute responsibility, for ever person thinks someone else did the checking.

In other cases, my only job is to see if it is kosher, and no one is abusing the system. Almost always a signature means accepting responsibility – if something goes wrong later on, I will be held accountable. And there is a whole class of stuff where someone believes I should be aware of something, so why not ask for another signature. The reality is that at the very end of a paper trail, there is a staff person – very often WITHOUT their own signature line, and without much official authority – who verifies the numbers, checks compliance with policies, and makes whatever the paper is intended to enact to actually happen.

Signatures take time, even in the new world of digital documentation flow. Sometimes they are purely ritualistic – a certain decision “feels” like a dean has to agree to it. For example, I sign hundreds of lecturer contracts. The hiring decisions are fully delegated to chairs, and their support staff. There are too many of them for me to do a meaningful quality control. I also know that payroll office will check after me. So, the workflow goes like this: our departments have their own databases that keep track who has been offered a contract, who is eligible for what, and who has been offered to teach. Then we go into a completely different cycle of contracts and signatures, and after that, someone will punch some keys again, and enter the information into a third database that will eventually result in a paycheck. A completely different flow will trigger access to class rosters, and the ability to give grades, etc. All of this creates a lot of work at every stage, for chairs, at least 3-4 staff persons, and some for me. In theory, one email from Chair to the lecturer and reply to it contain everything we need; “Hey, would you be interested in teaching the Tuesday-Thursday class in the Spring? – Sure, will do.” The name is put in the schedule, and in theory, it should trigger an automatic process, where the lecturer gets paid, and can access Canvas, assign grades. But no, nothing is ever that simple. We make a whole big deal out of it. Every. Semester.

The problem with any university is that we don’t have anyone whose job is to question – why do deans must sign on this? Do we need this whole workflow at all? It is nobody’s job, so it is not done. Business affairs people do not understand academics well enough to question our chains of authority. Informational Technology people understand neither the business, nor student or academic affairs well enough to suggest improvements. No one on campus has a broad enough vision for radical improvements. The president is busy with strategic things, and definitely has no time for questioning every workflow. Vice Presidents are reluctant to intrude on each other’s turf. Moreover, streamlining requires initial investments, and universities are stripped of reserves. A consultant that would understand all these parts of the university in their complex interactions would cost a fortune, because you’d have to hire someone who has been a VP or a similar experience. In other industries, businesses are routinely re-created from scratch, so they often have an opportunity to reinvent their processes. However, the immortal giants like Boeing or GE have all the same problems we have in the academia. The taxpayers and consumers bear the cost. I actually cannot see a good solution right now.

Dec 5, 2020

December in the Central Valley

This land makes you wait for it: December, fall, my favorite
season. Stand under a big ginkgo tree, squinting at the autumnal yellow sun;
leaves will float down as hesitantly as snow in my hometown.

This land rewards patience with bright chilled air applied liberally to faces,
wiping off the long summer heat, breezing easy, pleased
with how things turned out in the end.

“How about these colors I just found” – it asks us.
We know, we’ve seen them before, from the same store.
And yet, yes, these are like new, like never seen before.

It is because fall smells excavate my subcortex,
Looking for memories of previous autumns’ smells,
of leaves, fallen because they are fallible, just like us,
of words, half-buried, half-dreamt.

Nov 23, 2020

It is time to shrink

In a conversation with one of my chairs, I suddenly realized that the best thing I can do for her right now would be to take less of her time – with anything, really, including most of this conversation. These are not normal times. Not one of the old set of tasks have been deleted, and yet a number of new tasks and challenges appeared. Faculty, chairs are under a lot of stress. Yet parts of the university act as if nothing has happened. They insist on providing support. They schedule trainings and workshops, events, and programs, consultations, improvements, audits and meetings. I have been mildly irritated by all those people, until I realized I am probably one of them. This realization, I must report, did not reduce the irritation.

We all are support units – deans and plumbers, librarians and VP’s, accountants and residential assistants. The magic happens in the classroom (virtual or physical) and few other places where students learn and experience life. The rest of the machinery has only one function – to support. Yet the way it works is that the supporters do not always ask the supported what kind а help do they need and when do they need it. In fact, in many cases those who support have formal authority over those supported. Or they may believe they do. Faculty and department chairs have the bulk of the non-optional work. Classes must have instructors, schedules must be built, grades must be entered and degrees awarded. And none of it is easy under the circumstances. Yet the rest of the campus gets antsy, too. All those support units are trying to be more helpful, do something right now to help. Moreover, they all have their plans, procedures, accountability measures. However, too much help is a very real thing. Helping take time from those being helped.

University administrators are not good at shrinking. Shrinking it goes against all of our mythology of leadership and management. A leader has to be large, visibly present, and affecting good change! In time of crisis, the leader has to be there in the front lines, giving comfort, encouragement, solving problems, and generally leading the troops. Well, all that makes too much noise, and takes too much time. Especially at the point where people more or less know what to do; they just need to be left alone to do it.

I have been deleting a lot of stuff that I was supposed to forward to my faculty, chairs, and staff. Another request to please be present at a webinar, a new exciting opportunity, and sometimes even a demand for information – these kinds of things can wait. Even the legally required training can wait. If you have to do something every five years, it can wait another year or two. When are you are doing anything involving other people, please think about it twice. Not now, at the end of our first ever virtual semester. Not when a good half of my colleagues experience one or another family crisis, with relatives getting sick. Not when their virtually schooled children drive the parents nuts. The rest of the campus needs to learn how to shrink. Sometimes the best thing you can do to others is to remove yourself from their lives.

Nov 9, 2020

American Education: The party of choice and the party of resources

Betsy DeVos has been a staunch advocate of the “party of choice” in American education. It believes that giving parents choice will lead to more innovation, and spur competition among all schools, making all education more competitive and more successful overall. Not only Republicans, but distinguished Democrats have been the supporters of this party in the past. The “party of resources” believes that improvement of K-12 education is possible with more resources, better paid and better trained teachers allocated to traditional public schools. Joe Biden’s pre-election platform sits squarely in the domain of the “resource party.” Both of these parties support accountability.

Why did the Democratic Centrists seem to abandon their support for the party of choice in education? For a trumpist, it is evidence of the Left wing taking over the Democratic Party. However, the answer is much simpler. With time passed since the Clinton administration, we have much more evidence. Effectiveness of charter school is still a matter of considerable debate (see a decent review in Wikipedia.) However, the debate is really about the margins. The revolutionizing effect of deregulation ma y people expected did not happen. I don’t think anyone disputes that now. Yes, some urban charter schools can be SLIGHTLY better than traditional public schools. However, the seem to increase racial segregation, and may actually hurt certain groups of kids more than help them. Again, these negative effects are also not very large. The overall outcome of the debate is very, very boring: charter schools do about as well as traditional public schools.

This is one of the few examples where social science may actually have made a real impact on policy. At least, there is a visible shift within the Democratic establishment. Thanks to numerous educational researches who conducted hundreds of studies that made this shift possible. Those of who enter into doctoral programs in education, should know this.

Nov 2, 2020

Depolarization of America

Tomorrow night, or a few days later, half of this country will be celebrating, while the other half will be fuming. In close elections, turn-out is king, and therefore both parties engage in the “vote or die” theatrics. Both imply that the world as we know it will end if their side loses. Republicans promise that Biden will turn USA into USSR, complete with the Gulag and shortage of toilet paper. Democrats say that four more years of Trump will turn the US into Republic of Gilead, complete with burning down the White House, and hanging “deviants” from lighting poles. None of this is true, of course. Everyone should go out and vote, but we also need to look at the morning of November 4, or whenever all the votes will be tallied.

There is no moral equivalency. In an irrational and self-destructing impulse, the Republican party has succumbed to the allure of an immoral populist demagogue. Democrats bear a much lesser responsibility for the advanced polarization. This is not about evenly allocating the blame; I am worried about what is to happen next. The truth is that the electoral defeat will not make the other side disappear. And while enormous treasure and efforts were spent on polarizing this country, almost no one is thinking of any effective strategies to de-polarize it. How do you actually come down from the high fever?

Excessive polarization undermines the political institutions that both sides of the conflict theoretically need to preserve. In practice though, the parties use the pro-institution agenda for partisan purposes. For example, Republicans object to the undue influence of unelected top officials (the so-called Deep State theory), perpetually suspect voter fraud, and resent the liberal bias of mass media outlets. Democrats, in turn, resent the accusation. In their view, the conspiracy theories undermine the trust in democracy itself. Democrats point at voter suppression techniques. They also accuse Republican of failure to distance themselves from White nationalism. Both sides do it for the sake of democracy. It is easy to see how such a tug of war can destabilize the institutions. Any political institution is as strong as public trust in it.

It is not clear where the de-polarization agenda would come from. Hopefully the winner, whichever it is, will have enough sense to work on it after the victory. It is tempting to use temporary dominance to completely destroy the opposition, but such a strategy only leads to further polarization. At the minimum, someone has to articulate the common interests: reducing the vitriolic rhetoric, developing a bipartisan plan for strengthening the institutions, reforming both the social media and mainstream mass media, rooting out conspiracy theory mongers from the acceptable public discourse. A lot of things had slipped backwards and need to be restored. The traditional barrier between opinion and news operations had been eroding in both Fox and CNN. Despite the meek efforts to control it, social media remain a vehicle for paranoia-induced theories.

Biden seems to understand this, and has sounded some conciliar tones even before the elections. I just hope he has plans that do not end with his victory speech. Trump, however, is another matter. His whole strategy is built on mobilization through polarization. The depolarization process will probably be postponed for four more years if he wins. Again, I don’t think it would mean the death of democracy. The US has a robust set of institutions other than the presidency.

The core of the de-polarization strategy is NOT in trying to convert each other. It is in emphasizing the common interests, strengthening the democratic institutions, and toning down the rhetoric of mutual political annihilation.

Oct 26, 2020

Teaching is not political activism

The Antiracist movement captured the academia, provided urgency, energy and a new focus to our work for justice. Many of our previous efforts with time became benign conversations about culture, broad and homogeneous inclusion, tolerance, etc. Somehow, despite all the critique, the “tourist approach” to multiculturalism remained strong. The antiracist uprising of 2020 changed that dynamics by focusing on one of the two original sins of the American project: Black slavery and extermination of Native Americans.

I have to say that I don’t find anything controversial about including the considerations of justice, including racial justice, in the aims of public education. The worn argument regarding political neutrality of education has been debunked. Neutrality is a conservative position, and education in contemporary society cannot be very conservative. I don’t want to go into a long-winded argument about why that is the case. The simplistic version of it is that societies change too fast for a conservative model of education to be relevant. Education is a huge public sector consuming some 8% of GDP and including a large portion of the population. We cannot afford not to use it for effecting and managing some desirable social change. We can debate which change is desirable, but it is too expensive to be the dead weight. Therefore, if it can help such problems as racism, we should. And if can do it more forcefully and more effectively, we should, too.

The question is how. The antiracist education has a fairly robust theory, but few established practical pedagogical approaches. One of the most problematic areas is the issue of educator’s authority and how it can and should be used for the purposes of antiracist education. In the political arena, the antiracist activism is almost always about confronting the political power, exposing and changing crypto-racist policies, practices, and discourses. A typical classroom is a much more complex environment than any city hall. An anti-racist educator has to confront his or her own and students’ racist attitudes and behaviors. And yet the educator is the agent of power, and students, even if they are ignorant and prejudiced, are also the relatively powerless. I can only imagine how difficult this terrain for faculty of color. The students they see are often both the oppressors and the oppressed: by the virtue of their own identities for the former, and by virtue of being students for the latter. In addition, the students in the classroom are not exactly volunteers. Students cannot walk away if they politically disagree with the instructor. Because the classroom is not a voluntary group, the freedom of speech for the instructor is somewhat limited. To add more complexity, some students will use their protected status to advance prejudice. While it is always tempting to use the full educator’ authority for the greater social good, the indiscriminate use of such power may do more harm than good.

All I am saying is that it is very-very difficult to manage. Teaching is not exactly the same as political activism, although they often overlap. The institutional arrangements and the power tensions are different here. And we all need to develop a common, pragmatic understanding of where the boundaries are and how they are enforced. For that, an open discussion is needed.

Oct 19, 2020

The harsh professor syndrome

It happens to those professors who do not learn how to teach and relate to students reasonably well within the first 3 years or so of their career. Receiving one- or two-years’ worth of negative student evaluations is tolerable; one can always use them to grow and learn. However, if they keep coming, the temptation to blame the students becomes almost unbearable. We begin to hear that “our students” are unprepared, immature, do not have good study skills, and need discipline. From such a colleague, we hear that students are too conservative, lacking imagination, racist, and otherwise prejudiced (All of which may be true but our job is actually to help overcome those deficiencies). The afflicted professor begins to talk more and more about the academic rigor, and how it is our job to uphold higher academic standards. They talk about how students need to learn a hard lesson, that harsh unbendable rules will prepare them for future lives and careers. You will inevitably hear how every student should be treated in exactly the same way. You will be told that if a student is homeless and lives in her car with a child, she must turn on her paper exactly before the midnight on Friday, like the syllabus says, otherwise it would be unfair to other students. And the entire world may actually end iа you show the slightest flexibility. You will hear that a student’s parent struggling with COVID is not an excuse for a missed class without a doctors’ note. And you will hear those stories again and again. They become incantations more than communication.

Our brains are very good at generating thousands of excuses to justify harshness toward students. As Tolstoy once wrote, “We love people not so much for the good they've done us, as for the good we've done them.” And vice versa, we do not like people we are mean to. Each individual excuse may have validity to it, and we all make fun of some of our students. However, the give-away sign of the fully blossoming harsh professor syndrome is the obsessive discussion of reasons why it is just, right, and necessary to be an asshole. The syndrome is not caused by intrinsic personal traits, although there may be a predisposition. No, it is a result of failure to teach, and the strong need to explain away the failure. Chronic failure is incompatible with professional and personal self-respect. It creates a tremendous cognitive dissonance. The dissonance can be resolved in one of two ways: by learning how to teach and/or relate to students, or by developing the harsh professor syndrome.

The tragedy of the syndrome is that it is very rarely reversible. Once a person develops it, her or his teaching and relationships with students fall victim of the self-fulfilled prophecy. One starts expecting all the bad things from students, and of course, they manifest in one’s classroom more and more readily. I am not writing from some point of moral superiority. If not for the great support from my senior colleagues at Bowling Green, I could have developed it too. They never supported the bad student talk, but strongly supported me in my growth as a teacher. I am so glad we have such a strong culture of teaching here at Sac State; it is the only way to avoid developing the syndrome. However, ultimately, it is a personal responsibility to stay away from it. Doctors never complain to each other how sick their patients are. Neither should we ever allow each other to blame student for the fact that they need teaching.

Oct 12, 2020

Churches, unmasked

Some 19 per cent of Americans do not believe masks are effective in preventing the spread of COVID-19. Many of those are Christian, and churches remain significant virus spreaders. Short of being an actual public health expert with access to raw data, how would you know if masks are or are not effective? Of course, a non-scientist would have no knowledge about this. Scripture does not address viral infections. To claim knowing something inaccessible to you is a case of pride, which Christianity have considered sinful for its entire existence. Jesus himself taught about humility, and the Church fathers after him did the same. St Augustine famously wrote that the way of truth is “is first humility, second humility, third humility.” And also, he thought that “Pride is the beginning of sin.”

One may consider the anti-masking attitude to be an expression of personal courage, of not fearing death. However, since mask wearing intends to protect others rather than just the wearer, the argument does not work. A good Christian is supposed to care about his or her neighbor first. It is also important to remember than once you are sick, someone has to take care of you risking their lives, pay for treatment, and cover for you at work and at home. Being courageous at someone else’s expense strikes me as the most un-Christian behavior imaginable.

Some churchgoers claim personal freedom as justification for defying the government regulations regarding masks. Again, personal freedom and the opposition to the civil authorities may be OK as stand-alone secular values. The problem is, they are not very Christian. The entire project is based on the call to submit to God, and remove fallen humans from the center of the universe. If you know anything about Christianity, it does NOT offer an anthropocentric vision of the universe. The European Enlightenment – yes, it is partially anthropocentric. But Christianity is theocentric; it is a religion after all. It distinguishes between the political liberation and the spiritual one. So, stop fighting the imagined government conspiracy, and start thinking about your own soul. "Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's; and to God the things that are God's." You are free to sign up for a militia, but don’t drag Christianity into it.

Yet another folk theory is that faith will somehow protect the believer from contracting the virus. That is a naïve and ignorant position. You are not going to drive 100 miles an hour on a residential street assuming God will protect you and others from you, right? God did not sign a contract with you, saying that you can do anything dangerous and stupid, and he would rescue you, as long as you say a few prayers once a week. If you think that you’re somehow covered by a divine insurance policy, you have missed the last 5,000 years of religious life. The Jews discovered the folly of idolatry (that is an imagined contractual relationship with God) and tried to warn the world. Well, that was not entirely successful either, as New York’s Hasidim just demonstrated.

The sad truth is that many people who claim to be Christians do not care to know the first thing about Christianity, its values and its intellectual tradition. While there are many different branches of Christianity, not one of them can explain why a believer should harm others, or why one should claim to possess knowledge one cannot possess. If you simply want to make a political point, do it outside the church, or start paying taxes on church income.

Oct 4, 2020

Black Lives Matter: (Only) or (Too)?

In conversations with my Russian friends, I suddenly realized that some of them completely misunderstand what “Black Lives Matter” means. They imagine an “Only” where there is none, and miss the “Too” or “Also” that is implied. The intended meaning of any utterance can be only understood within a dialogical context: what is this a response to? What was said before, and what is expected to be said later? An utterance makes sense as a link within the large chain of the big dialogue. Here is the actual reconstructed sequence, with silent parts in parentheses:

  1. (American police behave as if Black lives do not matter, only White ones do)
  2. (No), Black lives matter, (too).

“Black lives matter” on its own, without the first presumed utterance does not make any sense. With it, it makes a lot of sense. The “No” is silent, because the first utterance is implied but not said. You should be able to hear the “No,” because this s a protest movement after all. One should at least ask what they are protesting against.

The “too” is silent for a different reason. In English, like in other languages, “Too” connotes with an afterthought; it denotes the second class that is born out of comparison with the original class of phenomena. For example, “I am tall, too” means that the thought of being tall did not occur to me until you mentioned that you are tall. If I say simply “Black lives matter, too,” that means that the thought about the value of Black lives did not occur to me before we started talking about White lives. To avoid this connotation, the “too” is silent or implied. In fact, the absence of “too” is a powerful rhetorical move on its own. It actually conveys something like “Not ‘too’.” An intentionally omitted signifier is still a signifier and you cannot skip the omitted.

There are more layers of meaning in omitting the “too.” One reads like this: “Black lives matter (ESPECIALLY, because they are in a lot more danger than White lives).” Another layer emphasizes the fact that no one really doubts that White lives matter. The utterance makes manifest the irony that we actually have to say such a self-evident thing. It provokes the listener to begin thinking “of course they do,” but then bite his tongue, to admit that the “of course” is NOT a matter of course. It forces the listener to face the tragic reality that such things have to be said at all. The important thing is that the omission of “too” is not a mistake, not a lack of clarity, but a complex and intentional semiotic device. It carries several layers of meaning worthy of understanding and discussion.

All texts, especially short ones are open to multiple interpretation. That does not mean such interpretations are arbitrary. Some interpretations are just wrong. Those few of my Russian friends who are outside of the contemporary English usage may be forgiven for the failure to understand these meanings. I would give a pass to very young, naive or cognitively impaired people. However, we also see fully grown and very American adults who present a very different discursive construction:

  1. (No statement)
  2. (Only) Black lives matter
  3. (No), All lives matter (equally)

This is a rhetorical sleight of hand, or a version of the equivocation fallacy. No one who authentically says “Black lives matter” implies the “Only.” It takes a deceptive intent to impose such a meaning on the utterance in question. I can easily prove this: give me an example of a real conversation where the phrase “Only Black lives matter” would be used. Just construct or recall a little exchange, please. I bet you could not do it. It cannot be understood in any kind of real discursive context. There is simply no plausible conversation where a reasonable person would say “Only Black lives matter.” The implied “only” does not exist in the American discourse; it is fully fictional. Objecting against it is really arguing in bad faith. It ignores the entire utterance “(The police behave as if Black lives do not matter)” or pretends it has not been implied. Moreover, it denies the existence AND importance of the police behavior that disproportionally affect Black lives.

Now, one can dispute  the very fact that police behaves in a way that that implies Back lives have less value than White ones. It would be very difficult to do given the statistics and the lived experiences of majority of Black people. But it would be at least an honest way of entering a conversation. I can imagine at least trying to argue about the facts with a person like that. However, it is very difficult and perhaps pointless to argue with a person who is engaged in a deception by pretending to misunderstand what “Black lives matter” really means.

Sep 27, 2020

We are the tools that need care

Let’s not pretend this is normal, because it is not. The entire year online feels like a sentence to an exile. The conditions are reasonable, but it is still a withdrawal of freedom. Most people are resilient enough to cope with any one given stress. However, this is a low-level, long-duration set of stressed. They range from the increased time for teaching prep and grading to persistent child care issues, from the lack of social contact to the inability to recharge y getting out of town. I wish I had a way of reaching out to all to my colleagues and students, and tell them – I understand, I really do. I guess this is what I am doing right now.

People of caring professions are especially vulnerable to self-neglect. Their work requires a constant focus on the needs of others, on encouraging, challenging, consoling and cajoling of others. Their gaze is always directed outward, preoccupied with measuring of others’ well-being and progress. It is a cognitive and relational service, an act of giving. Looking inward is difficult for them. Assessing their own well-being, acknowledging stress, pain, and stating their own needs – all of these feel like an extra burden. Yet they need to do that.

It is because our own self is the most important, the most expensive instrument with which we can do encouraging, challenging, consoling and cajoling. For a teacher or a support staff, working while damaging one’s own self is like trying to play a beautiful and complicated music on a violin that is out of tune or missing a string. You can have all the skills and tall he right intentions in the world, but your music is not going to come out right. In this trade, we are our own tools. And any craftsperson takes care of her or his tools. It is totally fine to lay awake at night, mentally planning, or talking, or working through a problem – if it happens 2-3 times a year. If it happens a couple of times a week, this is a problem. Your tool is need of some serious maintenance. It will require some freeing of time, some creation of space for yourself. However, just accept the cost. There is no deferred maintenance of the self.

Our selves are very unique, which makes them so valuable as instruments. But the uniqueness also makes it hard to provide a universal recipe for self-care. However, all of the known ways require some mitigation of stresses. It could be in reducing the source of the stress, or learning to reduce the intensity of experiencing them. I will give just a few OK’s as examples; but the point is to continue.

  • It is OK to tell your students: You know, I realized I planned too much work for myself in this semester. I am going to cancel this required assignment, because I cannot do a good job grading it. Feel free to do it on your own, just for practice, and ask your classmate for a feedback. I will give you an extra credit if you do that.
  • It is OK to tune out of the political news out there. The situation is going to resolve itself without your great emotional investment. Consider how much you can actually do (other than vote), and how much this stuff is getting you upset. Watch a romantic flick instead of CNN. Sorry, CNN; perhaps another year.
  • It is OK to tell your boss, your colleagues, or an organization you are volunteering for: Sorry, can we postpone this project to the next year? I cannot deal with it right now. We do not have to be super-productive right this year. Think of all years before and after.
  • It is OK, no, scratch that, you need to seek help. We have professional help available; a unique program called the Employee Assistance Program. But we also have colleagues, administrators, friends, most of whom will hear you out, empathize, give support and advice. We all know that by helping you we are also helping those you care for. Any support given to an educator multiplies down the chain of care.

Sep 21, 2020

Past mistakes do not set precedents

Precedents are important in law and in all policy applications. Considering a precedent helps to ensure consistent and therefore fair application of any law or policy. However not all precedents should be followed. Something that has been explicitly recognized as an error or as an aberration should not create precedents. Here is an example: GOP leadership denied Obama the right to nominate a Supreme Court member in the last year of his presidency. While there were many people who objected to this new rule, the Republicans themselves never repudiated it as a mistake. Now they refuse to follow it without any appeal to the soundness of the general rule. That is, of course, a very low point in the partisan politics. For a body so distinguished in their legal and political expertise, the Senate on a brink of a shameful episode.

The recognition or non-recognition of previous mistakes is an important criterion for precedent setting. For example, in Academia we sometimes hear appeals to what appears to be a precedent, but was really an error. A student may say: I did not meet this one requirement in the past, and you passed me. You actually have only to answers here: (1) Yes, I made a mistake in the past, and am under no obligation to repeat it again, or (2) yes, you are right, I will pass you as well. Admission of past mistakes is almost the only ground for denying a precedent. When we are revising a major policy, it is an explicit acknowledgement that the old one had issues. Therefore, appeal to the old policy as precedent is not exactly a valid argument. We would not have revised it if it were OK.

The argument about the “Catalog rights” is similar, although not as clear-cut. On one hand, students who were working toward a degree under certain assumptions, deserve to finish under the same assumptions within reasonable time. On the other hand, this works only insofar as they can show that the change in requirements affected their planning. It is very difficult to do, so we grant them a blanket right to stay with the old catalog. But this right is not unlimited, and not unqualified. After all, we revised the degree, because we thought the old one was not good enough anymore. So, no you cannot get a degree you started in 1971. The world has moved on. The same applies to faculty members, hired under a different set of T&P guidelines: it is a valid argument, but not an unqualified one. Like many other things in the world of policy, it is a balance between two or more competing considerations. Policies rarely have a simple, on-sided justification. Almost always, they are compromises between two or more competing priorities.

Sep 14, 2020

Don’t replicate, recreate: Observational learning in an online course

In his effort to overcome the limitations of behaviorism, Albert Bandura demonstrated the existence of observational learning, a subspecies of social learning. We learn our behaviors from others, and can develop cognitive models by observing others. In a good f2f class, such opportunities abound. For example, when one student tries to think aloud through a problem presented by instructor, the rest of the students observe and learn to apply the same moves in problem solving. The instructor always identifies good moves, and correct wrong ones. It creates a situation of guided observation. A similar thing happens in small group discussions: students will learn to reproduce skills shown by their more advanced peers. The phenomenon is not the only learning mechanism, but an important one.

For example, in courses on multicultural education, we teach student how to become culturally de-centered. In other words, they need to overcome the very common and naïve assumption that their own culture is normal, and all others are good but exotic. They master an ability to view their own cultural background just as exotic as any other, if viewed from outside. It is a fairly difficult mental and emotional shift. An instructor can explain it many times, and still students are unable to overcome the deeply help assumption about their own “normality.” The main pedagogical problem is that you cannot only use other people’s examples or stories; students need to work through their own, highly individual cultural experiences and assumptions. We orchestrate some sort of an explication activity, where students share their specific cultural experiences, compare them to each other. We wait for one of them to have the “aha” moment, to slip out of their own egocentric point of view and view themselves through the eyes of the very different other. And then we focus on that experience, call the attention of others, more or less asking them to do what this student just did. This is just one illustration. In almost any course, there are 2-3 significant growth points, where students need to move up to the next level. If you have not identified key jumps like this, you should definitely think more about your course. The point is, complex skills are hard to teach without the support of observational learning.

The common learning management systems facilitate student-teacher interaction really well. They are OK at facilitating student-student interactions. But they do not have an easy way of supporting the kind of three-way dance with students observing, and instructor approving/disapproving their actions and thoughts. This is why so many instructors are desperately trying to force their students to keep their cameras on during Zoom sessions. The really want to read and send the non-verbal clues. But that is not the solution; it simply does not work through Zoom. Besides, the requirement to keep the cameras on all the time has a whole set of legal and ethical implications.

The direct replication of f2f world generally does not work in an online course. This is why it is important to remember one rule: don’t replicate, re-create. What you need to do instead is build a routine where students are asked to produce bite-size performances that get them one small step closer to the target skill. Then you need to make sure they read or watch each other’s performances/texts, with explicit instructions on how to critique and learn from each other. Do that, repeat, crank it up one notch, repeat again. Wait for a breakthrough, and then point out explicitly to that break-through, and ask everyone do the same thing Jenni or Jose just did. In other words, structure your activities in a way that observational learning still takes place, even though more slowly, a lot more explicitly, and more deliberate. However, the larger point is more important: do not replicate the exact behavior, re-create something else, with similar pedagogical properties.

Sep 7, 2020

Why can’t universities become tech companies? An investment opportunity

 If you follow business headlines, you probably heard that Walmart has turned into a tech company, and Tesla is not a car manufacturing firm, but really a tech company. Uber and Air B-n-B are not taxi and hotel companies; they are IT giants. Apparently, if you really want to take advantage of the IT revolution, you have to invest massively, and reinvent your entire business process while you are at it. This is a dramatic departure from a technology-assisted company that does what it always have done, just with assistance of some databases, and a few web pages. Walmart has created a super-efficient supply chain, buying in bulk directly from producers and eliminating the middlemen. They know where every jug of milk is going and when it is needed. By competing with Amazon, they applied the technology to their core retail business. This is a shift from the tech-assisted to the tech-based business model.

Universities are stuck uncomfortably at the tech-assisted level, and are unlikely to move up to the next level. They all use one of the integrated data management platforms. Those allow to handle student records, scheduling, HR, payroll, and other functions. Universities also purchase a lot – I mean – a whole big lot – of supplemental software. I have a folder in my Chrome bookmarks called “Work Accounts,” with 15 account links – anything from LMS to survey software to SharePoint, Adobe Sign, OnBase, the Course Leaf, etc. All of these platforms talk to the core platform with a different degree of success, or not at all. Our university is relatively advanced, and we still have dozens and dozens of very low-level manual or primitive technologies, like sending Excel spreadsheets to collect data, with someone copying and pasting the cells. A significant part of administrative and staff workload is basically, closing technological holes. Many people make sure an error that crept up in on database is not crawling into another. More people than we care to admit manually read data from one screen, and input it into another. The pandemic actually helped us to close some of these holes, because of the telecommuting. But it also made the rest of them more visible. For example, we cannot figure out a reliable faculty directory, for many years now. We still struggle with basic student forms.

We are stuck in this semi-technological limbo mainly because none of the universities has the size and the resources that would allow for a radical revision of its processes. In theory, every student could get exactly the class she or he needs when they need it, and all classes would be full, and campus space would be utilized at 90%. We could have a national database of qualified and vetted adjuncts, available to teach online and f2f. We could provide courses to the neighboring campuses if there is space in classes, seamlessly enroll guest students, provide intelligent fail-safe academic planning and degree audit, etc. That is what information technologies do every day in other industries. But it does not make any economic sense to do this just for one campus. It would take many millions in investments and some of the brightest software engineers working closely with the academic types. Even large state systems like ours (CSU Fullerton is the second largest university in the US) are unlikely to find money for a serious IT investment, even if it promises cost reduction later. No one has deep pockets and this kind of a mandate from the public.

It would be reasonable to expect either Oracle or SunGard, the tech giants that support the higher ed, to develop a betterб  truly integrated and cloud-based product. For some reasons, they do not. In fact, their products (People Soft and Banner, respectively) have changed very little over the last two decades. They deal with clunky legacy systems, and the only way forward is to start from scratch. I am sure they run better and have more bells and whistles, but there was no major innovation to reshape universities’ business operations. It is probably because the higher ed market is too fragmented, and too conservative to change their habits and to develop a tech-based model.

If there is a venture capitalist with a bold vision, hear this. The industry is ripe for change. We are sick of this maze of platforms. We want simple and intuitive interface, flexibility, and reliable data. Develop the platform that allows any campus to outsource most of its information-processing operations. We would be happy to focus on teaching and scholarship.

Aug 31, 2020

The parallel universe does exist: Education after the pandemic

The current pandemic is not that interesting on its own; history knows a plenty of similar tragedies. What is interesting is that for the first time in history, we have a spare universe to hide from the disease. A hundred years ago, when the Spanish flu raged, it did not exist. People had no choice but to live as they always did, with only few restrictions on crowds, movie theaters closings, and mask ordinances. None of that worked very well, and the disease claimed 50 million lives. In Italy, corpse collection points were established and no funeral ceremonies were permitted. In general, people more or less endured and waited for the disease to wear off, as it happened for millennia.

In 2020, it became possible to transfer a significant part of the economy and public life online. We orchestrated a massive move into a parallel universe where the virus is powerless. One can argue that this parallel universe is not as good as the real one, and that it cannot contain everything we need. That is all true. It is pale, cramped, and awkward. But complaining about it reminds me this Far Side cartoon. You have to appreciate a miracle first, and then see its flaws. The fact that this universe exists at all is a miracle. For example, hundreds of millions of children continued to learn. Again, the learning was marginal and uncomfortable, but – they continued to learn in schools that do not really exist outside out imagination. Some economists assumed that, in the United States, unemployment would reach 25%, but it is only 10%. Many industries, of course, remain in the physical universe. No one has learned to eat or wear digits. Yet some have successfully shifted online. Media, markets are working, some kind of research is being done, conferences are being held, governments, banks, and a significant part of the service industry continue to work. Without the Internet, the current quarantine would have been impossible, and who knows how many more people would have died.

The Internet existed before the pandemic. No one except science fiction writers suspected how big it could become, and what huge pieces of the old universe it can accommodate. We knew it existed, just did not know it is the size of the world. If you think about it, the scale of the event of the massive online migration is striking. The pandemic has made possible the discovery of a whole new universe. The discovery of the New World by Europeans may serve as a distant historical parallel. A discovery of a new earth-like reachable planet could be an analogy from the future. Yes, we ourselves have created this new universe, but it turns out that creating something does not necessarily include appreciation of the scale of our creation. It happened during my lifetime, from the Gopher protocol, to this. If you do not remember Gopher, you are too young to have witnessed the dawn of the Internet. It is a world that sprung out of human thought, in an act of the new divine creation.

Walking around the deserted campus makes a strong impression. It gives an uneasy feeling. It makes you wonder how necessary are all these buildings, lawns and roads, the water tower, and the dining halls. After all, for more than five months no one has been using much of this, and yet students learn, graduate, and life somehow goes on. Hundreds of millions in public investments bask in the sun and does very little. A huge question mark hovers over everything. I can’t help wondering, what is next for us?

The spare universe discovery allowed to ask questions that had simply never occurred to us before. For example, what is the actual value and importance of the good old physical universe, of the physical presence of other people, and what role do they play in education? Without leaving the familiar universe, one cannot comprehend its uniqueness. Living inside, you cannot look from the outside. Who thought about the “physicality” of human existence, until it suddenly became optional? Humans evolved adapting to life in the physical universe. In order to teach and learn, we prefer to have other people around. You don't even have to talk to them or work with them. Just knowing that someone is nearby and you are not alone facing the unknown, is important. The presence of others creates the motivation and the reason to learn. Students and teachers complain of a strange quarantine syndrome, in which a person gets inexplicably tired. People complain of a loss of interest in work and study, lethargy and depression. There are already several studies suggesting that there has been a rather significant loss of learning. Moving to a new universe has not been painless, but it is pain that is often the signal leading to new developments.

The forced massive transition to online made visible what we really need in the physical universe, and what is its real value. For example, it became clearer that education is not so much about information as it is about relationships. We can, of course, build relationships online, but only with a lot of time and effort. In the real universe, the eye contact, the fleeting facial expressions, the tone of voice, and body language – all of these create the relational canvas naturally and largely without the conscious mind’s participation. A human brain does a tremendous work processing relational information below full awareness in order to free consciousness for other important tasks. Savants can remember and multiply huge numbers because they have extra available brain capacities that ordinary people use on calculating relations. Teaching and learning online has made all of us a bit autistic. High functioning autists learn to process the relational data in their conscious mind, and many do it remarkably well. Building relationships online is like trying to talk while shouting across the street: you can understand, but it does not feel natural and it takes a lot of time and effort. I suspect that autistic people did not notice much of a difference; they always live like this and have adapted. Most of us are just now trying to adapt.

One of the main consequences of this collective experience will be valuing the ordinary universe more for what it is. For example, schools and universities should create better conditions for human relationships to flourish. We will see more clearly what is important and what is expendable. The physical expressions and environment for human relations is fundamental to education. The poor and the disabled live their entire lives in semi-quarantined conditions, restricted to travel and in an uncomfortable spaces. Now we all got a taste of such a life. Perhaps the experience will move us to make changes?

It is very possible that education will somehow split over time into two intertwined streams, where knowledge will be dealt with in an online environment, while relationships and experiences - in the real world. After all, you can really learn only from the teacher with whom you have a relationship that has developed outside the curriculum. Environment and experiences are converted into relationships, and those in in turn may convert into motivation for curriculum-defined learning. The chain of conversions is pretty obvious.

We learned a lot about the new universe; not only about its enormous usefulness and incredible opportunities, but also about its shortcomings. For example, it has become apparent that access to the high-speed Internet is one of the most important barriers. Internet access one of the most important manifestations of inequality. Unlike the economic inequity, the digital divide can be bridged without any side effects. Even the staunchest free marketeers should not object against the digital socialism, because it is the essential levelling of the playing field. How about a constitutional amendment: the right to broadband Internet access for all residents? By the way, such laws exist in a number of European countries. We cannot tolerate the fact that many poor kids were denied their education because they don’t have broadband service.

The second thing that is becoming more and more obvious is that the online universe has different laws of nature. At the peak of the crisis, the least experienced teachers simply moved their lectures to Zoom. It quickly became clear that even the most persistent teacher or student could not sit in front of a screen for six or eight hours a day. At the other extreme was switching to a self-guided study, where a professor gives assignments, and students are supposed to figure out how to do them. Doug Lemov wrote that in the most abstract sense, all learning is reduced to the triad of I-we-you. I is when the teacher demonstrates to students how something should be done. Then WE do it together with you (first, I with your help, and then you with my help), and finally you do it yourself. In online learning, the first and last steps are both easy to implement. But the essence of the educational process is precisely the middle link of the chain, the “we.” It is when some skill is already in the zone of proximal development, but has not yet been mastered. Through joint activity, in cooperation with a teacher or a more advanced peer, the student can already reach for the new skill. The joint activity contains the essence of social learning. And it’s just very difficult to implement online - possible, but difficult, because cooperation is a delicate intuitive process. Now I am holding you by the saddle of your bicycle, and now I have let it go, but you do not know this yet. In any education, this moment is the most precious.

In any LMS, connections are too coarse and too unidirectional. You either watch (read) how the teacher (or video) explains something, or you do your own work, and the teacher checks it later. The delicate “in-between,” where we work together on something, is hard to re-create. In practical terms, this problem is to come up with interesting, varied and useful types of student activity with exactly appropriate level of complexity - just within the ZPD’s “Goldie Locks zone:” not too cold and not too hot. Many teachers simply do not have enough explicit knowledge and experience to do that. Competent teachers do that all the time in the f2f environment, and do it intuitively. Now they have to make their own skill explicit and implement in a completely foreign communication medium.

Those who teach online for the first time should be prepared for a pleasant surprise at the end of this painful experience. Learning how to teach online makes you a better offline teacher. You will better understand exactly what you expect from your students. The superficial fluff falls off, and you can focus on the most important: here is what I want to teach, here is how I will know what they have learned, and here are the exact steps to get there. In the intermediate zone of the "we," one cannot run, one has to take small steps. In the online universe, these steps suddenly become visible, like in slow motion movie. Do not despair if this has not happened yet; it is a matter of time and persistence. The picture will certainly appear, suddenly and completely. Your discoveries will apply equally, if not more, to the offline universe. We will return from the new universe a different people.

The future of education is more complex than it seems. I do not really understand enthusiasts of online education who think that we all will be pushed into the permanent bliss of the digital universe. They believe education will become cheaper, more affordable and more efficient. I see no evidence supporting such enthusiasm. Without a doubt, with the end of the quarantine, most students and teachers will return to the offline universe. The temporary move to the virtual universe was too painful for anything else. Refugees normally return home as soon as they can. But the temporary shelter changes them; they will be different upon return. People will remember what was actually better and easier to do online, and will include it in their teaching arsenal. Elements of online will permeate education and other areas. I imagine we will do many more zoom meetings, after things will get back to normal, just because they are easier to schedule and quicker to travel to. In the best-case scenario, education will be enriched by the on-line migration experience, become more flexible, more tolerant, and learn to understand itself better than before. We will not permanently move to the new universe, but we will use it as a huge playground and workshop. I also do not agree with conservatives, who believe that everything will return back to normal, exactly how it was before. How can you survive something this big and not learn anything from it?

Aug 6, 2020

Tool fetishism in online teaching

Anxiety about online teaching skills often manifests in an interesting way: instructors are drawn to the vast array of digital tools, platforms, and services available for classroom use. Examples include Padlet, Flipgrid, Word Wall, Kahoot, Edmodo, Socrative, Projeqt, Thinglink, eduClipper, Animoto, and many more, with hundreds out there, each boasting its own fan club. Instructors also turn to blogs, website building platforms, Google and Office tools, smartphone apps, YouTube, Vimeo, and the like.

This attraction to digital tools is a form of "fetishism." Discovering a new tool can instill a sense of agency and accomplishment, making it feel like "your thing" and awakening creativity. While this can be fun, the costs are significant.

Modern Learning Management Systems (LMS) like Canvas have features that nearly replicate what these specialized tools offer. You don't need Kahoot to create a quiz, or Flipgrid for video discussion; Canvas and Zoom can usually suffice. Although external tools may appear flashier or slightly more effective for specific purposes, students often find them frustrating. An undergraduate might juggle five classes, each requiring one or two new platforms, accounts, passwords, and menu systems.

Some argue that learning these tools is part of digital literacy training. However, true digital literacy lies in the ability to critically assess various tools, resisting the allure of novelty to focus on the essence of the task at hand. Real professionals maintain a skeptical attitude, knowing that no tool is irreplaceable, and each comes with pros and cons. Most will only be relevant for a few years, and an over-enthusiasm for a specific tool can be a sign of inexperience.

Every minute spent exploring a new digital toy detracts from essential pedagogical thought and course design. Successful online courses hinge on the instructor's careful planning and clear objectives, not on a myriad of digital tools. Time students spend learning a new platform also diverts them from the course's intended learning goals.

The bar for incorporating a new digital tool should be high: it must be unique, directly aligned with class objectives, and not available through the standard LMS like Canvas, Blackboard, or Moodle. If a tool meets these criteria, it can certainly be useful. But an undue focus on tools becomes problematic and detracts from teaching and learning.

The underlying principles of successful online course design include simplicity, predictability, variety, and explicit step-by-step progression. Simplicity means fulfilling course objectives with the least complicated technology and minimal tools. The focus should be on basics, without being sidetracked by every shiny new gadget. If there's interest, further elaboration on these principles can be provided. But for now, let's return to foundational practices and resist being seduced by the ever-changing landscape of digital tools.

Jul 27, 2020

Wait and see

Imagination is normally an administrator’s friend. What we do is anticipate problems, plan, and prepare; all of these rely on the ability to imagine future. If the future were completely known and predictable, you would not need us at all. However, there are times when imagination can become a hindrance rather than an asset.

Here is an example: our K-12 partners schools and districts were thrown into a major uncertainty this summer. They were а frantically working on plans to partially and safely reopen schools in the Fall, only to be told recently to stay online, while being ready to reopen at any time later. And we of course, want to send our student teachers to schools for various field experiences. Our partners do not know what is going to happen at their schools, and we do not know how the field experiences will work for our students. And because there are so many unknowns, our collective imagination starts firing like crazy: what if this happens, what if that happens? What if they go back to f2f in a month or two, and cooperating teachers want their student teachers back with them to help? What if a student teacher has serious health concerns? What if a cooperating teacher does not want an extra body in their classroom? How do we provide virtual participation? Which equipment do we need, who is going to set up and operate it? Can we provide alternative experience or change placements? How many of those can we handle? I can literally continue this list of questions for another full page and then some.

The problem is, if you let your imagination run wild, you spend a lot of resources preparing for low-probability events, and still miss the mark when things actually happen. It is like securing supplies for an advancing army. If you secure too much random supplies, they clog your supplies lines, and burden your transportation, not to mention waste. With us, we’d prepare procedures, equipment, train people, negotiate agreements, only to find out most of it is not needed, and confuses everyone involved.

Sometimes it pays to wait and see. Waiting for more information may limit your window of time to react and prepare, but will allow you to focus on higher probability likely scenarios. It also pays to wait and see which problems actually materialize, and which will remain in the realm of a theoretical possibility.

And I have to say, the “wait and see” strategy is one of the hardest to follow. It runs against every instinct we have. Try shutting down your imagination and stop worrying about things you cannot predict at the time. It is hard, for our imagination keeps going. The trick is to know the moment when the fog of uncertainty clears enough to see the most likely future and the most common problems in it. But right now, it feels like one of those tedious dreams, where you are trying to walk through the mud, or figure out a solution, only to realize you are not making any progress. I am just so happy CSU made the call about staying online for the bulk of our classes so early. At least that part of our world is fairly predictable.

Jul 11, 2020

All public sculptures should go

I never understood public sculpture of leaders, never liked them. In any city I visited, they are an eye sore: all these marshals, generals, kings and presidents. They are never about art, but are always about dominance. They are an attempt to force a particular idea of the past on collective memory. None of the guys (they are mostly men) have been blameless. Someone's hero is always someone else's villain. With passing time, it is very natural for some names to be forgotten, and for other names to be remembered. Those names are remembered differently by different people, and that is just fine. Individual, or group memories do not clash, they can coexist peacefully. Yet, if we cast them in bronze and stone, they become a political act, a visible sign of a certain group’s dominance.

There is an imposing sculpture of Marshall Zhukov (on a horse, of course) by the Red Square in Moscow. For some, he is a hero of World War II, the savior of the motherland. For others, he is a mass murderer of his own soldiers slaughtered because of his dismal military talent and indifference to human cost of war. Give me another public sculpture of a political leader – any leader – and I will find a group of people who see its presence as violence against them. If you think Native Americans will look at one of the many Washington sculptures, and be so impressed as to forget his Indian policy? This is just never going to happen. The message to the Native Americans is different: “Yep, he was a great man, and you have to live with it; we do not care what you think.”

One of the major intellectual gifts Jews made the world is their injunction against idolatry. It is perhaps they had a chance to contemplate the excess of Egyptian monumental delusion. People rarely think about why the commandment against idolatry exists in the first place. What did they have against images of God? Well, because any kind of an ideal can unify people if it stays vague. If it is too specific, it always divides, and by dividing, dominates. I have noticed, Russians get along just fine as they silently remember the WWI, or share a song or a picture of fallen family members. Once they start talking about it, a shitstorm usually follows. They all have different narrative of what happened, who are the heroes and who are the villains. Songs, tears, and pictures are fleeting, monuments make a claim for the eternity. Nothing can claim eternity, nothing at all.

I like the Little Mermaid statue in Copenhagen. I like the “Bad, bad boy” in Helsinki. I even like the little Lenin in Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood, because it is meant as a joke. These are about art, and do not intend to force themselves onto the future. I find statues of politicians and other “great people” in Canterbury Cathedral utterly gaudy, and so un-English. I dislike the Lincoln Memorial, have never been to Mount Rushmore, and not planning to go. Never liked Peter the Great in St. Petersburg, and actively hate the ridiculous one in Moscow that has a body of Columbus, and then got a Peter’s head. I have no idea what people find in the two Gogols (the sad one and the merry one) or the Dostoevsky in Moscow. Somehow, stone or bronze figures of human beings are creepy; they make a city look like a cemetery. If you want to learn something about one of the complexes, tragic, and brilliant people of the past, visiting their sculpture is the last thing you want to do. Read a book, watch a movie instead.

I do not think is t is a good idea to destroy sculptures. But I hope one day they will all be quietly moved to museum yards, away from public spaces. The difference is – you have a choice to see them in museums; you are forced to see them in public spaces. A democratic public space has to be open, free of dominance, and looking into the future, not the past. Like Jews keep saying for three+ thousand years, “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image.” They definitely knew something.

Jul 5, 2020

Is teacher preparation in California racist?

OK, let’s get serious, even if we have to get a little controversial. We know that any artificial barrier will disproportionately affect people of color. Consider the process of applying to a teaching credential program at our College. And I have to warn you, my colleagues spent hundreds of hours trying to make it clear and simple to understand. Even after all the work, it is still six pages long. I will give you SOME examples of barriers; this is by no means a complete set. We have NINE admission requirements, and many more to actually apply for teacher credential.

You need to meet the Basic Skills requirement. CTC provides 15-pages long instructions on how you can meet that one out of nine requirement. How many potential minority and first generation candidates will be intimidated at the sheer volume of this and other documents, full of abbreviations, new vocabulary, and unfamiliar references? How many will feel inadequate and not invited? To be fair, the last ten pages is a list of out of state exam options. However, all these options are high stakes exams like SAT, AP, CSET, etc. We know that is very difficult to create a test like that without an inherent bias. And, if you simply have a BA degree, this does not mean you have basic skills, although every campus in the country has some GE requirements. I am not sure why that is the case. Does accreditation of universities have any meaning, if we do not believe they provide basic skills? Is the requirement in effect racist? The collapse of SAT regime in California university admissions only makes these questions more urgent.

We also require teacher candidates to pass the subject knowledge test, or to pass a specifically approved (usually huge) waiver program. Just having a BA in the discipline you want to teach is not enough. There is an argument to support these requirements. It goes like this: “We should not send underprepared teachers into the classrooms, where minority kids will receive inferior instruction.” I would have bought into this argument, if evidence were stronger. In fact, the evidence is weak. Subject-matter test scores of teacher candidates do not strongly predict test scores of their own students. The evidence is mixed at best. Actually, those who argued for more subject matter testing were more concerned about building all the trappings of the “teaching profession” than about how inclusive it is. The White middle-class struggle for status outweighed the need for minority candidates to enter the profession. I also question the assumption that a fraction of score on standardized achievement test is more important than having a teacher who in one’s life that can be a role model. You have to assume that the test scores are more important than students’ self-worth. But how do you weigh the two? On what scale? Who says that one is more important than the other? Have anyone actually asked parents and kids?

We also have a state assessment of teacher candidates’ performance in classroom. That is not a bad assessment, for it actually measures the ability to teach. And yet, despite shortages of teachers, the State does not seem it appropriate to pay $300 for the assessment, and future teachers have to pick up the tab, on top of tuition and fees. The candidates also have to do the TB test, the criminal background check, and a number of other hoops to jump through. One of the most bizarre is that that we require prerequisite courses to get into the program. A reasonable person would ask: if you require a course, why not make it a part of your program? Why ask students to take courses at their own expense before they even know if we are going to accept it or not?” Well, the answers I get are somewhat vague. Apparently, at some point in the past, the concern was about keeping the number of program units down, so some courses were pushed out of the program and became prerequisites. Again, this is an example of a bureaucratic logic that has nothing to do with the values of inclusion and diversity in our teaching force.

Here is the thing about structural racism. If you always think about something else – building the profession, maintaining appearances, curricular turf wars, or the pressure from outside interest groups – if you keep thinking about those things, a racist structure will come up on its own. All you have to do is look in another direction. I am just worried we drown the energy of antiracist protest in passionate, but inconsequential conversations. Yes, we should address unconscious bias, and  acts of microaggression. But structural issues seem to be more important and more difficult to tackle.

Jun 28, 2020

The quarantine and the relational self

Today I stumbled across a fascinating 2002 paper, The Relational Self: An Interpersonal Social–Cognitive Theory, by Andersen and Chen. The theory goes like this: we do not have a unified knowledge of our own self. Rather, relationships with various significant others create “possible relational selves.” We cannot activate all of them at the same time, because the body of self-knowledge is so huge. Something in the immediate situation triggers a recall of a particular version of the self. “For example, cues in one’s workplace are likely to elicit the set of cognitive, affective, motivational, and behavioral responses associated with one’s “professional self,” whereas cues in a party setting elicit knowledge reflecting one’s “partying self.”” This explains a lot about our situation at the quarantine. We all are missing the cues of the workplace, which makes it difficult to “wake up” our professional selves, and all the associated abilities, attitudes, habits, and motivation. This is why it feels so awkward to teach, write, think, and communicate from home. In the absence of these cues, we are literally not quite ourselves. The home environment triggers a more domestic version of the self, one inclined to rest, be entertained, or do brainless domestic or yard work. Doing more complex work for work requires an extra effort. Even recalling the right information takes a little longer. Writing a simple memo takes twice as much time. I can only admire my colleagues who have to teach online. Good teaching requires mobilization of the very specific version of the self that can be dramatically different from all others.

I was working in my office for a couple of hours last week, and the two large screen on my desk just felt amazing. It was as if someone just cleaned my foggy glasses, and the big world became suddenly visible. That says something about the importance of these visual cues for finding the right frame for my mind. Seeing what I see around me actually tunes up my brain in a particular way. It is just nice to understand that our problems are not a sign of weakness or laziness, or lack of willpower. And I am pretty sure it is not just me. Signals I get from others are similar. People struggle with something undefinable and invisible and feel guilty that they cannot put their fingers on it. On the surface of it, the transition should be easy. And yet, weirdly, it is not. People try to hate Zoom, but it is just a lightning rod. Something larger is going on. The thousand details that went missing from our worlds together sucked the oxygen out of us. If you believe the Andersen and Chen, other people make the most powerful cues. We need them – not necessarily to communicate, but just to be there, in the same building, on the same campus. We can still call or zoom any time, but somehow it is not the same.

We may have underestimated the difficulty of the transition to the distant work. In the wake of the crisis, with all the adrenalin going, we all did really well. When the routine settles, one can usually expect that things get easier. But in this particular case, the routine brings new challenges. As we are planning for four more months of this new normal, I worry just a little. Of course, humans are creatures of adaptation, not just of habit. We always adapt, find ways around the obstacles, rewire our brains, and find different kinds of cues to call up our professional selves. I just want to convert my general optimism into a more specific help we can provide to each other. Maybe the first step is not to ignore or trivialize the problem. It is indeed difficult to work remotely in the industry like ours. And it is even more difficult to do it for extended periods of time. I usually at least pretend to have a solution, but in this particular case I have none. Tell me if my worry is misplaced. And if it is not, we need to figure out what to do.

Jun 22, 2020

Regulatory Paroxysms or How to Control the Uncontrollable

Universities have largely been successful in transitioning to the online environment, much more than almost any other industry. Victims of their own success, university leaders have been asked to stay online in the fall to reduce the overall rate of infections. The other industries had to bу allowed to reopen sooner, because they suffered relatively more. K-12 schools got the worst possible deal, where they were allowed to half-reopen. That is what I was afraid was going to happen to us. It did not, but it happened to schools, and let us all empathize. From the logistical point of view, it is the most complex and daunting task. Our K-12 partners deal with three sets of contradicting guidelines AND with enormous pressure from parents. As a colleague put it today, “Where will that kindergartner go twice a week, if both parents work?” This half-reopening for K-12 creates significant problems for teacher training programs, but does not affect the rest of the university.

OK, we got it relatively easy, with mostly online instruction. All we need to do is figure out how to deliver online instruction a little better, and create a health and safety plan for the campus while letting a small percentage of classes to be f2f. The latter part turned out to be more difficult than we all expected, and to be completely honest, is not working out that well. The paradox of the situation is that the campus requires some staff, students and faculty to be on campus, and at the same time forbids others to be here. How do you require and forbid something at the same time? Normally, a thing is either a good people want, or an obligation people don’t want, but must do. It is rare that the same thing could be a good and an obligation.

The only thing burecracies know how to do is regulate. We have developed an application process, that treats f2f presence as a scarce quasi-good, as something you can get only if you ask nicely. But if you create a barrier, a scarcity, you encourage people who really need to be here to do their job better to NOT apply, and stay home, while damaging the quality of their work. At the same time, people who need to get out of the house must now prove they are deserving this great privilege of coming to campus. For example, program faculty as a group have decided that a certain class will really be damaged if taught online, because it trains students to read body language and non-verbal cues. However, one of the faculty members has personal health concerns and still wants to teach it online. That’s creates a weird tension – we just begged for a permission to teach f2f, and argued it was impossible to teach online, but now we still want to offer one section f2f. Awkward! The bottom line is – people need different things, and making the application process equitable and fair is very hard. You may be concerned about getting infected. But I may have a home full of kids, and may go crazy if I have to teach another class from home. For me the quiet of the office is an equally compelling health need.

In general, do not regulate anything you don’t have to regulate. We saw over the course of the quarantine, that voluntary compliance along with strong messaging gives results comparable to strictly enforced rules. If there is enough trust and understanding of the dangers, people tend to make mostly reasonable choices. I think it will work with us as well. Give faculty and staff general guidelines, establish a set of norms, but trust people to figure out what is it they need to do and how to do it without endangering others. We have the most educated and reasonable workforce in the country. If anyone can do it, they can do it.

Th issue with over-regulation is that it is (a) very expensive, and (b) has a lot of side effects. It is expensive because of the transaction cost for all the applications, reviews at multiple levels, the cost of time for highly paid managers, etc. The side effects may include, paradoxically LOWER levels of compliance in comparison to voluntary regimes. Establishing a rigorous procedure remove the internal locus of control, and encourages cheating, hoarding, and other undesirable behaviors. Once you signal people that they cannot make good decisions, you undermine the power of conscience. We do not have police cameras to check who is and who is not in their offices. We have to rely on self-policing anyway, and that can only start with trust.

Jun 15, 2020

Racism, the Old Deluder

One can slice racism in several ways, but at a minimum, it has the overt and the covert parts. The former includes explicitly racist policies and practices, as well as openly discriminatory behaviors. That is what Martin Luther King called “social sin.” It is the most outrageous, but also most easily identifiable plane of existence for racism. Because it is so open, eliminating is is actually not difficult once the political will exists to change racist policies and laws. Despite an occasional flair up, most progressive communities in this country have been fairly successful in beating it down.

Th covert racism is much more difficult to pinpoint. It includes laws and policies that may look neutral, but in fact affect minorities disproportionately. For example, in NYC, only 9-10% of those subjected to the “stop and frisk” were White (and let’s not forget, almost 90% of those stopped were innocent). In 2011, NYPD stopped a whopping 686 thousand people; in one year, Carl! But those who invented and implemented the policy had never admitted the policy was racist, and most of them are probably still convinced it was not. If you look at policy’s consequences rather than stated intent, it is no doubt racist. It is very difficult to read the minds of those who design and implement these kids of policies and practices. None of them will admit the intent was racist, but the effects speak for themselves. The wide spread practice of de facto immunity from prosecution bargained by police unions is one of those weird racist-by-effect outcomes. Designed to protect Black and White police officers equally, it disproportionally and intolerably affects the Black communities. Yet if there is a specific policy, it is possible to track down its effects, and change it. He diddle stratum of racism is like that – still very visible if you look the right way.

And now we get to the lowest stratum of racism that operates on the periphery o human awareness. Those include implicit biases and acts of micro-aggression. Sometimes perpetrators are aware of them, sometimes they are not, and very often it is somewhere in between. This stuff is still all over the place, even in progressive places like Sac State, in the most progressive state like California. The only real way to control these is a kind of self-discipline, a habit of checking one’s own words and deeds for bias. Like music or martial arts, it takes daily practice for years, and trained awareness. I know many White people who have mastered it, and even more of those who did not. I am definitely still an apprentice.

The unconscious or semi-conscious covert racism is very difficult to eradicate through the instrument of explicit policies. People quickly learn to comply formally, check all the boxes, and go on with their unaware lives. Moreover, formal compliance breeds complacency and resentment. Solutions must match problems, or else some hasty solutions may unintentionally make problems worse.

The covert racism is difficult to deal with, because its roots go deep, all the way into the fundamental human nature. It is an old, old disease. Those who expect a quick fix do not know much about the human kind. Christians call it the original sin, Freudians call it Id, and evolutionary biologists may call it innate xenophobia. Our civilization already took thousands of years to overcome it. One kind of resolve is to go to battle right away. Another kind is to plan and execute a long siege. Depending on what we are dealing with, we need both.

Jun 1, 2020

Manufacturing racism

28 years ago, I was watching the Rodney King riots in LA, in a living room of a Notre Dame dorm. I was in this country for about 8 months, and had only the vaguest idea about what is going on. Few of us, international students, could comprehend the events. We all tried to apply the various frameworks we learned in our own countries. 28 years later, I see similar pictures on TV. It is a bad kind of déjà vu. The US have made a lot of progress confronting its homophobia and gender bias. However, the country seems to be completely incapable of addressing the police violence against its African-American community. The very lack of progress makes the crises we are witnessing now almost inevitable.

The Black-White race conflict is very difficult to explain to people who do not know the US context. I tried many times, with very mixed results. The closest analogy I could find is this: Imagine a foreign occupation. The occupation can be brutal or gentle, and you can have a better or worse trained army. Yet every occupation will result in abuse and violence towards the occupied population. There were literally no exceptions in history that I know of. Why? – because the occupied population does not accept legitimacy of the occupation, which is why the occupying army will always operate in a hostile environment. The soldiers’ attitudes will inevitably harden. A soldier must have a way to dehumanize the occupied in order to justify his presence there, and explain away the hostility. Of course, some do and others do not, but the pressure is in the wrong direction. Any number of biases including racism will be reinforced among the occupation soldiers. Yes, we must hold individual soldiers accountable for any atrocities. Yet deep down you know, that if you put regular flawed human beings in a chronically stressful situation among hostile locals, many of your soldiers will become callous and some will become abusive. The ultimate responsibility lies with those who commanded the army to occupy.

The attitude of African-American urban communities is not exactly like that, but somewhat similar. They do not fully acknowledge the legitimacy of the predominantly White police forces for a number of historical and practical reasons. They rightly suspect that there is a larger effort to suppress their community through invasive policing that other neighborhoods do not experience. The stop-and-frisk practices evoke the images of foreign occupation. I am not sure if it is effective, but it is certainly humiliating. A White man, I have never been stopped and frisked, never been pulled over for little or no reason. I have a luxury to presume the police will be generally on my side if anything happens. None of these assumptions are shared by African-Americans. The mistrust is definitely justifiable. By the way, there are a number of other communities, including some White ones that deny police its legitimacy (watch, for example the Murder Mountain series). And of course, the longer the “occupation” lasts, the more it is reinforced. Hence, we are caught in a vicious circle: the population’s distrust will push police to be more racist, and the racist police will make their acceptance more difficult. Under the situation of a structural conflict, appeals like “support the police” and “don’t be racist” are only of limited utility.

Many progressive police departments understand the dilemma, and apply major efforts to build strong connections between the police force and African-American communities. The Flint police chief recently has shown what can be done. The smart chiefs figure, if you reduce distrust, you remove the major cause of racism among your officers. It does work to some degree. However, I will betray my structuralist bias: look deeper. Perceptions are not all local; they also shaped by the national agenda. Those people in Minneapolis wear uniforms similar to those your local cops do, so the trust is fragile and never universal. Similarly, American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan tried to build stronger ties to local communities, but in the end, the local people wanted them out. Ultimately, unless the major gaps in wealth, housing, health and educational opportunities are closed, the gentle police will be perceived as a gentle occupation force. It is better than the brutal police, but it is still a force that protects a perceived unjust world order.

This is why we are stuck. This is why we are watching the rerun of 1992 LA, which was a rerun of 1980 Miami, which was in turn a rerun of 1968. The society at large does not want to make difficult political decisions that includes significant equalization of income and opportunities. We failed to deal with the economy that no longer creates good jobs in sufficient quantities. We the public have sent our police to defend the indefensible, and then are eager to blame everything on individual racist cops. Every politician has condemned the bad apples; because it is so easy to do. But the individual racism, as inexcusable as it is, is only a symptom. Urban police departments do not recruit racists. Let us acknowledge, at least some of them become more racist in the course of their work. And we the voters and our political representatives are responsible for that. Either we invest in the disadvantaged communities, or keep cleaning up the broken glass every few years.

May 26, 2020

Wisdom of the crowd, and the expert bias

Scientists working on several vaccines against the virus do not really need wisdom of the crowd. The public at large knows nothing about viruses and vaccines, and should really listen to those who do. Yet when someone develops a policy, for example on how to re-open universities after the pandemic, it is a different kind of knowledge. It should rely wisdom of crowd. Those two situations require different kind of expertise and of leadership.

Imagine a group of very bright people sitting around a virtual table, and trying to lay out the rules. They quickly agree that there should not be more than 10-20% of students physically present on campus. That’s the objective. But because they are so bright, and so experienced, they are tempted to actually provide more advice on how to get to that objective. They brainstorm a very reasonable procedure for both the virtual courses and the on-campus courses. However, it is a smaller group, so no one remembers there are courses that are neither virtual, nor on campus, such as field experiences. Being the brightest does not guarantee you know every little detail of every unit you oversee. In fact, it guarantees the opposite.

Those who have to implement, realize that half of the policy requirements do not apply to these weird courses. Do we report them as on-campus or virtual? They are neither. Do we work on safety procedures? Well, the host sites will have their own, and we cannot impose ours on them. This makes it awkward for all. What do we do? Go back to the authors, and ask to rewrite? This does not sound appealing; who wants to delay the process even further and get an even longer memo? It is already 12 pages.

The funny thing, there is a certain expected length to a memo. One cannot just write: “Reduce physical presence on campus to 10-20% of your normal capacity, have good reasons for exceptions, while following the guidelines of your local county health officials.” No one writes short memos, guidelines, and executive orders like that; it would be ridiculous. People at the top really want to help, to provide some advice. After all, they have so much to give. So, they wrote a longer memo. The paradox is that the longer is your memo, the more you forget to include. Every detail included increases the likelihood that there may be a special case you are not considering.

I am guilty of the expert bias as much as anyone else, even though I run a small organization. We cannot make all the decisions with 250 people. Thus, we work through most problems in a group of 9. Yet we still do not know everything, and someone else in the organization knows something none of us do. Oops. The choice is either to delegate more, or keep revising your solutions. Each of the two options has costs. What’s the solution? Remember wisdom of crowds, and learn to write ridiculously short memos. Make a distinction between goal-oriented regulations and simple advice.

May 17, 2020

Is there an administrative bloat in higher ed? A history of one glitch

In theory, the glitch could have been preventable, but the probability of something like that happening is very high, because it is a one-time occurrence. We have a special credentials data module that was built to assist with teaching credentials compliance. Our main teacher prep programs were revised, and therefore student had to be coded in a new way in the campus system. As a result, the module could not “see” them anymore. I just pulled up about 35 emails in three different threads that I was involved in, and I am pretty sure there were a few before I got involved. Probably about a dozen people from three different units within the university were involved, including two deans and a senior IRT administrator.

Again, in theory, the staff person who discovered the problem should have filed a ticket with our IRT (that’s what we call IT here), and a technician would have resolved it. But that is a theory. In real life, the staff member did not have any idea about the origin of the problem, and neither would an IRT technician on the other end. So she went to the chair, who went to Graduate Studies admissions team who actually do the student coding. They relatively quickly figured out the problem, and told us to go to IRT. Because it was very time sensitive, the Chair asked me to figure out how to speed it up. I had to reach to another person to find out which structure within the IRT is responsible for the module. People like me in the middle management know the organizational structures, but we are often mistaken about the nature of the problems we are trying to solve. It turns out, I slightly misreported the problem, so it took a few emails to fix the miscommunication.

I don’t want to retell the entire saga here; it is like War and Peace, volumes 1 and 2. The thing is, flat solutions (staff-to-staff) very often do not work. The university operations are just too complex, and figuring out the organization itself is a job that administrators routinely do. The glitch could not be resolved without the full-time chair, the dean, an associate dean, an internal IT staff, staff at Grad Studies, and people at IRT. Each of us had a particular piece of the puzzle, and we had to communicate – slowly and less than efficiently, but still communicate – to find a solution. All of them except me are experienced and dedicated administrators and staff members.

Someone told me that in order to reduce the cost, universities must cut the administrative bloat. While it sounds good on its surface, I just fail to see who would figure out this and hundred other glitches we experience every year. A faculty committee? Faculty are overwhelmed with the finals’ week, and admissions. It would be unfair and inefficient to add this to their workload.

Universities are not getting simpler. The burden of various regulations and compliance has been growing. Teacher credentials is only a small part of it. Add accreditation, assessment, Title IX, various audits, financial aid regulations, etc., etc., etc. Someone has to do all this stuff. While administrative bloat is real and well documented, I am not sure if it is preventable and reversible.

Of course, you will think it is just another higher ed bureaucrat trying to justify his well-paid job. OK, fair point. Yet if we didn’t resolve the glitch, it would have a domino effect on student admissions, their Fall field placements, and maybe their financial situation. The domino effect would actually take significantly more staff and administrator hours to deal with.

Some savings perhaps are possible, if we narrow down our mission, and outsource some of the support function. Perhaps universities can stop doing some of the things they are doing. But I don’t want anyone to believe there are some major reserves in the administrative side of the house. And all cuts on the teaching side have already been made. The people of this and other states should just decide if they want accessible and affordable higher education for all children to provide social lift, or it is an unattainable dream.