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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.