Search This Blog

Dec 20, 2021

Vision, mission, and other sacred nonsense

Few management concepts in academia are subject to such wide-spread misuse as mission and vision statements. Every university has a page with its mission and vision (and sometimes value) statements, buried somewhere deep, because they are so embarrassing. Why would otherwise smart people publish uninspiring clichés is a genuine mystery I will try to solve.

Mission statements only make sense when they are different from each other. Such statements should describe what this university does and does not do, with respect to other universities. The mission statement defines a niche. Clearly, Harvard College educates the elites, while Sac State educates the masses. Their mission includes a lot of cutting-edge research, while ours is focused on quality teaching. Their freshmen come well-prepared, while ours often need a lot of help. Curiously, people refer to “our mission” in conversations, in this exact sense. But they NEVER refer to the official mission statement, and I bet most of them do not know what it says. Similarly, “The mission of Harvard College is to educate the citizens and citizen-leaders for our society.” No kidding, it could be a mission of any university on the planet; what’s so special about Harvard? Why don’t we just say what we really think?

Vision is also meant to be a pragmatic tool. For example, if you are a residential campus in the region where young population declines, you need to make some choices. For example, you can bet on reaching out to non-traditional population through online or off-campus programming. Or you can learn to be a smaller university. Or else, you can specialize in something, become a niche school, market like crazy, and recruit students from a wider demographic area. Or you can attract international students. Picking one of these strategies constitutes a vision.

Another example: if you live in a state that continues do cut public subsidy to its higher education, you should diversify your revenue stream somehow. If you are losing to local competition, well, there should be a realistic answer to that. That is what a vision supposed to be – some idea where you are going if you want to survive. It can actually be a very useful tool, allowing an institution to focus its priorities, rather than trying to be everything to everyone, and pursue all strategies at the same time (which in the end equals to not having any strategy at all). But why does it have to be some tasteless, pompous nonsense, like this one: “So-and-so University will create an accessible and equitable undergraduate student experience, both inside and outside the classroom, that empowers all students to learn, develop purpose and passion, and grow as individuals to achieve their goals?” How’s this a vision? Can you envision it, can you literally imagine it?

One reason is the way these statements are written. There is always a committee that will word-smith to include everyone’s opinion. Consensus is always bland, boring, and verbose. Committees will include words not because they are brilliant, but because, well, Joe has to be given a token on respect, since he is a member of the committee. The bigger the committee, the more words per sentence. No one edits those statements for clarity, no one critiques them, or seriously tries to improve them. University presidents don’t feel like alienating their faculty by questioning such statements. Not one of the committee members would put anything like that in their own academic paper fearing ridicule for bad writing and lack of originality. But it passes for something profound as a piece of collective writing.

The other reason is the believe that strategy is a sacred text. By its very nature, sacred writing tends to be non-pragmatic, dense, and haughty. That is an unfortunate assumption that guarantees failure every time. The sacred speech requiring taboos, preventing us from clearly communicating our intent. Harvard cannot say “The most capable students in the world;” that would be non-egalitarian. Sac State cannot say “First generation, diverse students most of whom were denied an opportunity to attend a great high school.” That would also be non-egalitarian. Those are taboo words in the context of a sacred text. They do not belong in a mission or vision statements, which condemn such statements to impotence.

Mission and vision statements are simple pragmatic tools for planning purposes. If you thought a hammer was a sacred object, it would probably look pretty. A hammer would have pearl incrustations, and a golden head. It would not be ever used for such mundane purposes as driving nails. You need your mission statement to work because it prevents you from mission creep. You need your vision statement to work because it allows you to implement a strategy. You don’t want them to hang on your wall, pretty, but useless.

Dec 11, 2021

Solidarity versus identity

I encourage most people, including student call me by my first name. I am an older and bearded gentleman in a Dean’s office, so I want to be more approachable. However, I am well aware that faculty of color, and younger women do get confused for students, or for support staff, and therefore need to insist that people call them Dr. So-and-so. The question is: should I give up on the approachability thing, and ask people to refer to me as Dr. out of solidarity with those who may struggle with recognition? In fact, in the presence of student, I try to address faculty as Drs. But should I do it always? Keep in mind, strangers will not know, am I simply being a pompous prick, or sending a message of solidarity with women and faculty of color.

Here is another example: A friend of mine always refers to his wife as “partner,” avoiding the disclosure of his dominant form of sexuality. The non-disclosure is a message of solidarity with gay people, not an attempt to pass for a gay person. Of course, in any conversation, that identity will still be somehow disclosed later through pronouns, or other details. The total message is then more complex: being in solidarity with an oppressed group, I still ultimately highlighting my dominant status. In other words, I draw MORE, not less attention to my superiority.

Let’s keep going. Should I state my pronouns? It is a more complicated case, where I don’t know the answer, just searching for one. The thing is, my gender does not define me; it is not even among the top 10 categories that I would use to describe myself. I don’t want to be defined by my gender, even if other people do. I can hear an objection – “Yes, because as a cisgender man, you have the luxury to ignore your gender identity, just like a White person has a luxury to bypass race in self-identification. By ignoring it, you perpetuate the power imbalances, assert your dominance. Do it anyway out of solidarity with those for whom pronouns are important.” Yes, all true, but by flaunting the “he/him” label, don’t I reinforce the dominance, don’t I make it more visible? In a group, where everyone discloses their pronouns, don’t we minoritize those people who may have different gender identities? For many people, their ethnic or racial identity is much more important that their gender. By forcing the gender identity forward, don’t we deny those people the right to define their identities the way they see fit? Putting my pronouns forward, I am encouraging other people to do the same. Well, I am not so sure I want to. Many people do not want to disclose to the whole world how they think of themselves in terms of gender, and about its linguistic representation. Some people do not want to be referred by any pronouns whatsoever. Do they also deserve solidarity?

Using my own identity to express solidarity with other people’s identities is just sometimes self-contradictory. There is an inherent tension between authenticity of self-disclosure and using the self-disclosure for another aim. By inserting the message of solidarity, into my identity statement, I also obscure some of my authentic self.

My point is simple – this all is far from simple. I think we should keep looking for delicate ways of declaring our solidarity with historically disadvantaged groups. But we cannot be simple-minded or crude about it. Some messages of solidarity offend more than support. Recognizing and affirming others’ identities is a search for the right conventions, and it has not been completed. Those who rage against “political correctness” do not want to even start that journey. Those who think they have already completed the journey are too self-righteous.

Dec 6, 2021

The end of the average student

This is really a part II of the previous blog.

Despite all the rhetoric, large organizations like universities have a hard time dealing with differences. The only way to make hundreds of policies and procedure work is to achieve a consistent application. Every time a student or a faculty has unique circumstances, someone has to review them, make a decision, and manually record it somewhere. With 30,000 students, you want to minimize the number of unique cases for obvious reasons. This simple reason trains our minds into imagining an average student, someone for whom the standard procedure is intended to work. Human concepts in general are consequences of our practice. We create a concept that allows us to reduce variety. For example, “fish” is such an abstract concept, for there are many varieties of organisms that breathe oxygen dissolved in water. But many of them could be caught and eaten in similar ways, hence the need for the shortcut. However, if you live in the area where the puffer fish can kill you if eaten, the diversity of fish species becomes very relevant. Consequently, the concept of fish become less relevant.

Suddenly, we realized that some of our students value personal contact more than convenience, while others do the opposite. Some want the online teaching to be over for good, while others prefer most of it still going on. I have to say most of our minds fight the newly found distinction. We stubbornly try to invent a situation good for the average student, who does not exist anymore.

We briefly considered offering specific f2f and online schedules to students and found out relatively quickly that our system is not set up to do that. We already sort students by major, class, and identify several categories that need help with building their schedules. Adding another large attribute (virtual preferences) would through the scheduling and registration system into the nightmare of massive manual processing. However, for students it is very important – to get a lease here in Sacramento, or continue living, say, in Stockton, and only occasionally driving here for a specific reason. Those are consequential decisions, but we cannot yet accommodate for them.

It is not like we did not see it coming; we certainly did. Yet knowing of a problem is not the same as solving it. For a while we thought a perfect solution would be to make every course section to be both f2f and online, by using the split modality. I was hoping for something like this to emerge for at least ten years. Unfortunately, the technology is not there yet, and I wish some startup would take this problem on.  While in theory it works, the split modality imposes an extreme cognitive load on the instructor. A few people can do it, but most will have a hard time. As we know from theory, a high initial barrier of learning the innovation makes wide-spread adoption unlikely.

However, the average student disappeared, and we sooner or later need to address it.

Nov 8, 2021

Post-COVID innovations to consider

We should bite the bullet and start thinking about offering students on-line tracks. No one wants to do it, and I don’t want to do it either. It would add a layer of complexity onto already unmanageable complexity of a large campus. However, we need to find reasonable way of guaranteeing students entire schedules online, within reason. This could be temporary for a semester, or permanent for as long as they are enrolled. It will not for sure be applicable to all majors and all programs, but it could be done for many. These students may get special priority in registering for on-line sections of large courses, in exchange for their lighter footprint on campus. Why would we do that? I have no deeper theory, or a sophisticated rationale. It is just a function of demand. Some students, a significant number, want it, for whatever reasons. And we should think of providing it to them, for no major cost is involved, and there is a cadre of instructors that are willing to teach online.

Life itself created a form of accommodation, where students for whatever reason cannot attend a class. At least some faculty members agreed to accommodate them by providing a zoom access to classes – either in real time, or in recording. It does take extra time and effort and may be of questionable quality of engagement. And yet, since people are doing it already, we should recognize it, and perhaps create some incentives for faculty who are willing to take on extra work to accommodate students. Again, the burden of proof should be on those who opposes the practice, not on those who do more.

I know about the objections of identity. After all, we are not an online university, and do not intend to become one. I do not find the argument compelling. Having a substantial online track will not take anything away from our identity. I just do not see how it could happen. As long as we do not force people online, our reputation is safe. Students may still want to come to the library, to hang out with friends at Starbucks on campus, or join a student club. Some of them just don’t want to be sitting in class. Because we know we can do it, it is not clear why we would refuse to continue, if enough students want it to happen.

Innovation is many cases does not involve sitting around and brainstorming. It does not often come from special people. Sometimes life itself creates new things, and our job is to notice, support, and make possible for new things to exist. If we do not, students may take their business elsewhere, eventually. It will take many years, but if we miss this opportunity, we will be looking back on this moment, wishing we acted differently.

Oct 22, 2021

There is no shortage of teachers, only shortage of money to pay them

The absolute majority of policy-makers work under the assumption that the laws of labor markets somehow doe not apply to teachers. The professions is somehow exempt from the basic laws of economics, like supply and demand.  Every few decades, the US educational systems go into paroxysms of teacher shortages. The panic results in urging to prepare more teachers, exalting the virtues of teaching profession, and just luring more people in. ‘

However, teacher educators prepare more than enough teachers; our school districts just cannot hold on to them. The problem is about 90% in teacher retention, and only about 10% in supply problems. The labor shortages in other professions are resolved differently. For example, when we do not have enough plumbers, the labor market reacts, and their wages go up. Some people agree to pay more, and eventually more people will want to be lumbers, while others will learn how to install a toilet on their own, and the demand shrinks. The market balances itself. If a teacher would make $100,000 a year, we would have no shortage, and could be more selective in who we admit into the profession. Millions of people with credentials that do not work in schools will return to classroom. No exaltations of virtuous teachers would be needed, no heroism, or the language of public service. Of course, no one wants to significantly increase taxation to pay for it, hence the hand wringing.

It would be much more honest for, say, the California State Assembly to pass a resolution like this: “Sorry, folks, we overpromised and cannot deliver. We built a huge universal educational system, made promises of quality teaching and afterschool enrichment, of supporting equal chances in life for children of different backgrounds, of and services to children with special needs. But we cannot do it on the tax money we can collect from you. Not enough teacher want to work for the salaries we pay. Therefore, the State is declaring the great educational bankruptcy. Starting tomorrow, the school districts are allowed to collect tuition from parents who can afford to pay it,  and use the additional revenue to compete for better teachers. All the promises are off the table. Free and universal public education ends now. It was a good run, but alas the public does not really want it.” This is not what I want to happen, just pointing out this would be an honest solution; more honest than letting tens of thousands of absolutely unprepared substitute teachers to babysit the most needy children.

Oct 16, 2021

The White People’s Problem

Empathy works through identifying with others’ pain, or with other strong emotions. If you are not a psychopath, you can empathize with someone being ill, losing a parent, or learning of a bad diagnosis. It is not just pain, but also such things as love for own children, romantic love, or joy. You draw on a bank of your own experiences, and find a similar one, remember how it felt, relive it to an extent, and therefore can be helpful to the person you empathize with. Just communicating your empathy is very helpful. Building long-term healthy relationships is impossible without empathy. It works very well on universal or nearly universal human experiences that have to do with our bodies, family relations, love, and a few other things we have in common.

However, the mechanism breaks down when others experience pains we never experiences. For example, I never felt an intense gaze of a security guard, and never second-guessed myself, if the gaze is real or is it my paranoia. My heart does not beat faster when I am pulled over by a cop. I never had to, because I am not Black. I can learn about this experience from others, or from the literature, or movies, but my own personal experiential bank does not have that experience. I have never been mistaken for a student and spoken to condescendingly, not  even when I was a much younger professor. It is because I am not a woman in academia. I heard that story many times, so I get a rough idea, but there is not an emotion easy to recall to match that experience. I was never pushed by an angry person behind me in line, who thought I am ignoring him. This is because I am not Deaf and don’t need to see people to know they are trying to talk.

This failure of empathy is not symmetrical. Of course, there is some unique experiences I had that people from marginalized groups did not have. However, precisely because I don’t have to worry about what my race, gender, ability are, my own pains belong to the class of more universal, and therefore more commonly understood ones. People from marginalized groups are much likely to empathize with me than I with them. This is because they are likely to have the emotional bank of the common human experiences in addition to their unique bank of specific pains. It is like they know my language, but I don’t know half of theirs.

Sometimes is it perceived as pretending not to understand. It is not actually easy to imagine the other person who had never experienced your particular kinds of pain and lack emotional vocabulary to express the empathy. It is totally understandable, and may be true for some people. But in many cases, we simply have a hard time to actually see and perceive the slights and offenses you experience. We know they exist. Theoretically we want to empathize, but it just takes much linger to process these kinds of recognition.

I remember attending a reception after a meeting in Paris, where I was chatting with a Dutch guy. It was just after the Russian missile shot down the Malaysian Boeing with hundreds of Dutch people on it. I happened to represent the Russian government at the meeting (don’t ask, the Russian government sends academics to meetings, because almost no one in the government speaks English). So we were chatting and joking. The Dutch guy looked at me somewhat intensely, and only on the next day I realized why. I knew the story, of course, but it was not the same knowledge as his was. Mine was theoretical, his was visceral. Seeing him did not trigger an emotional alert, so I forgot to say the right words. I still feel guilty about my silence. These kinds of misrecognitions are a result of our different lived experiences. What took him a split second, took me a whole day to realize.

The mismatch of experiences between White, able-bodied, straight men and others is both tragic and mitigatable. There is still a way to train our imagination and learn to experience what others experience without actually directly living it. It takes a specific kind of imagination, and significant willingness to try. We may never get very good at reading other people’s pain, but we can definitely get better at it.

Oct 11, 2021

Wearing your failure as a badge of honor?

In education, it takes two to tango. Hence, it is not always easy to tell who fails. In any normal year, some students struggle with their coursework. They may not have enough skills, or are slacking, or life happens to them. Almost every college course will show a single digit percentage of DFW rates. While instructors may or may not provide sufficient support, some students will quit or fail a course. These rates randomly fluctuate a bit and may be affected by the sudden forced change of modality or of the grading options universities applied to adjust for the pandemic.

However, if a particular instructor consistently, every semester fails one out of five or more students, it is a clear signal of the instructor’s own professional failure. Such a teacher fails to teach and support students; it is just as simple as that. If one out of four or five students fails to learn, it is no longer their own problem. It is the instructors’ failure, and no one else’s.

Some people say, oh, my course is just too hard for many students to pass. Well, the stewardship of curriculum is faculty members’ collective responsibility. If a course is too hard to pass, it is designed inappropriately, and should either have prerequisites, or pa placement test, or be split in two courses.

I still sometimes hear that this is a screening course, designed to fail many in order to select those who can continue in a certain major. But this is such an expensive and cruel way of screening. Why not be honest, declare your major to be impacted, and offer some other, less devastating ways of selecting the best students? Making students waste tuition money and several months of their lives on failure is just not an ethical option.

What is truly shameful when a professor wears his or her own utter professional incompetence as a badge of honor. Such people imply that everyone else is not rigorous enough and giving students free passes. And they are the one true knight of the academic rigor in shiny armor, standing alone against the rising tide of mediocrity. This kind of attitude inevitably betrays a deep-seated anxiety about one’s own professional incompetence. I wrote earlier about “the harsh professor’s syndrome,” on the psychology of the phenomenon. But I am wondering why is ours the only profession where people can get away with wearing their own failures as a badge of honor? When do we collectively stand up to it? When will the academic freedom cease to be an excuse for poor teaching and stagnant curriculum?

Oct 2, 2021

How good departments self-destruct

The path to self-destruction most often winds its way through the terrain of prolonged and intractable personal conflict. Educational relation in general has a little element of utopia, of a perfect community. Educators are prone to make a mistake of confusing the in-departmental working relation for an educational one. They sometimes develop unreasonably high expectations about their own small community; expectations no group can ever meet. In other words, imagining a family, or an activist group in place of an academic department sets up a wrong model of relationality. If you expect your colleagues to change because you really want them to is a really bad idea. Instead of weak values of civility and decorum, people erroneously pursue intense values such as friendship, common beliefs, solidarity, and heightened sensitivity to each other’s personal needs. And it is just too much for a not-quite-a-voluntary community to sustain.

The beginning of such a conflict is completely irrelevant. It could be almost anything or nothing at all. The culprit is not the conflict itself – they are plentiful anywhere two or more humans come together. The culprit is the intense, obsessive focus on interpersonal relations. That is indeed the main cause of the self-destructive impulse. The more you stare to your own relations, the more twisted and distorted they will look. Every action, and every reaction, every word and every silence will be interpreted as a hostile move. Once a conflict builds its own history, it becomes very difficult to set aside. The longer it festers, the harder its fibers become.

In theory, we should not worry about such conflicts. After all grownups should be able to sort out their won relationships. However, it inevitably starts to affect the work. Curriculum will not be updated and passed, talented people will not be recruited and retained. Faculty will start looking for other jobs. Scholarly collaboration will wane. And most importantly, the creativity in pursuing new ideas, new programs, new projects will stop. Maintaining the status quo leads to stagnation. In the end, both the students, and the entire institution will pay the price. The damage is not only to the department – it is to other people, which is where I begin to worry. Eventually things may get so bad, that departments become the sick child, get disbanded, split, absorbed, or just closed down. It may take many years, but I have seen or heard of several examples in my 30 years in higher ed. TO be fair, it happens only rarely. Most groups will stop somewhere in the middle, redefine and rebuild their working relationships, and manage to move forward.

The solution is very simple. Our job is to serve our students, and to maintain the long-term interests of the institution. The public does not pay us to get along, to be friends, and to spend many days (of paid time) gazing at the collective navel. While faculty well-being is important, it is important as long as it serves the students and the public. It is not why we all are here. To refocus on the needs of students, on new ideas will help. Generally, looking outward rather than inward is helpful. The public trusts us to do the right thing, and grants us self-governance, tenure, and other privileges most professions do not have. While many faculty members feel underpaid, it is still a middle-class wage job with unparalleled flexibility and intellectual freedom. Let us not forget that the public wants something in return.

Sep 27, 2021

Academic freedom and disciplinary authority

Here is a case: Another unit at the University has invited someone to be a guest speaker at a public event. The speaker happened to be in one of our fields. Should the other unit consult us before inviting someone, or should they maintain the stance of academic freedom, and invite anyone they want, no matter how controversial?

Let us say you are in the more pro-freedom camp. Yes, they should feel free to invite whoever they want. However, let us extend this logic a little further. What mechanism can prevent a university inviting, let us hay a Holocaust denier, or a climate change denier, or an anti-vaxxer? That would make us look like a collective fool, right?

My preference is to always check with whoever has the disciplinary authority. If you speak about homelessness, perhaps check with Social Work. If you are talking about science, let’s talk to the college of math and science. A talk about nursing should probably be run by the Nursing faculty, etc. The thing is – you may in the end override your colleagues’ objections, and still invite a controversial figure to come. After all, every discipline is full of disagreements, and many fields are split on specific issues. But you would be making this choice from a more informed position, not out of ignorance.

This is the important lesson: in making a choice, just the ability to make a choice is not enough of a motive. Flipping a coin is not an act of choice. Freedom of choice does not apply to the choice between knowledge and ignorance. In some cases, equally well-informed people have strong differences in opinion. It is enlightening to hear their dialogue. In the absence of hard facts, informed opinions are the next best thing. But when opinions get stuck on egos, when having a different opinion is the goal on its own, the talk is not fun.

The question is, who can make that distinction between wacko quasi-science and a real science? Well, this is why we have academic departments, with their own disciplinary knowledge. You don’t have to believe them, but you must try to listen to what they have to say. That is the limitation imposed by working at a university. 

Sep 20, 2021

Cooler winds sweep through Central Valley

Every summer, the Valley restarts its probation period. ‘Can you withstand the heat?,’ - it asks, and then again – ‘Are you sure? How about some more?’ Sometime in September, it relents and sends one of it cooler winds, - not yet cool, just a little cooler. The trial is over, you may now go out in the afternoon, and no one will try to bake you alive.

Despite a plenty of warning, people keep trying to live here, and every Summer the Valley tries to scorch them, sometimes adding fire and smoke for variety. And yet, every September it relents, and rewards the patient with cooler winds.

To be fair, the reward lasts twice as long as the tribulation. The Valley is not unreasonable. It is just maddeningly obsessive in its cyclicity. It mocks our naïve understanding of hell and paradise: “How about both, every year? Four months of hell, eight of paradise?” Like a crazy parent, it keeps switching from bad days to good days, back to bad, and back to good again. We all know the game; it is nothing if not predictable. And yet never fail to feel grateful for the fist cooler winds of September.

Sep 9, 2021

When reasonable people disagree they don't get mad at each other

Here is another interesting tidbit from our internal debate on COVID contact disclosure. Someone from the other side of the university presents an argument that we should not inform students who we know had a low-risk level contact with an infected classmate or instructor. The rationale for this is the following: (1) The blanket notifications result in "notification fatigue" and people ignore them later, when they may actually need to pay attention. (2) You create unnecessary anxiety and unnecessary healthcare demands which comes at a cost. The logic is impeccable from the public health perspective. I am sure it represents the best thinking in the public health.

However, in the context of our relationships with students, this does not work. In colleges, we deal with specific small groups of students – we face them in classrooms and know them by names. When students find out we knew about the exposure, and did not tell them, they will be upset with us. Our unspoken agreement is not that of a healthcare provider and a patient. These are longer-term relationships of mutual trust. We are expected to share the information we have and let them make their own decision about whether they should worry or not. Withholding that information makes us look somewhat paternalistic and untrustworthy, regardless of the actual outcome. The considerations of cost do not enter into our calculus at all. Because we do not deal with thousands of students, large effects like lowering the sensitivity to exposure messages also is not a part of our worldview.

This is a classic case where a disagreement does not arise from one of the parties being wrong. We just operate in different relational worlds, with different assumptions about the nature of the relationships. It would be interesting to see how such a no-fault difference of opinions gets ultimately resolved. Ideally, it should have happened before the school year started, but we cannot resolve a difference in opinion we do not know about. The problem with disagreements like this is that pop up unexpectedly. Each party is blind to the fact that the other party may see things differently, until such differences clash.

They normally resolve as a compromise of some sort, just like any other disagreement. For that to happen, we continue to talk across the organization. It is not a matter of figuring out whose argument is stronger, and who holds more power. A successful solution depends on how much we all can expand our horizons beyond our immediate professional experiences and consider the other position seriously.

Sep 7, 2021

The ethics of COVID disclosure and the unlikely events

Let’s say a student in your class tells you he has tested positive for COVID-19. The first steps are obvious: please stop coming to class, inform the University, and get medical advice. However, the next step is tricky. If you tell his classmates that he has tested positive for a communicable disease, you violate his right to privacy, and it is illegal under HIPPA. However, if you do not tell anything to anyone, you are sitting on information that could feel very important to the other students and their families as well as all those other people they may be in contact with. We prepare educators, so most program have a lot of field experiences, so the circle of potentially exposed includes children, who cannot yet get vaccinated. So, the student in question may infect one of his classmates, who will have no idea, go to a school for a field experience, and infect a child. The child would suffer the extremely rare case of severe childhood of COVID and die. I am not going to be responsible for a death of a child and am going to alert the rest of the students, and suspend the program’s in-person classes and field experiences.

That was my initial thinking, and it was wrong. Incidentally, most of the initial thinking about any complex problem is wrong. Those who favor the “gut feeling” I strongly encourage to think through their conundrums.

Like all ethical dilemmas, it has two sets of values balancing against each other. Unlike some of my friends-analytical philosophers, I am not interested in an abstract, universal solution applicable to all contexts. I would much rather consider it within a specific context of a large institution with specialized units dealing with special problems. When someone tells me – do not worry, we have a policy and procedure for these kinds of things, - I do not always find it within myself to completely believe it. It is just a function of a larger organization. Because we cannot know each other’s business, mistrust is easy and natural, while trust is difficult; it needs to be built specifically.

I am not sure of the exact math here. What would improve our collective trust is some sort of a disclosure: here is the protocol we use, and these are the probabilities of low risk vs. high risk. After all, many of us in higher ed do understand probabilities. But in general, 0.1% chance of a large disaster and 100% chance of a small disaster do not weigh equally; the latter outweighs the former. Our lives are filled with small disasters and we rarely experience large disasters. We should all think about consequences of our actions in probabilistic terms. We can be sure about some consequences, but other remain merely a possibility, sometimes remote.

The truth is that ethics is useless without some understanding of probability. Hence risk assessment is a probabilistic discipline. The student is not sick, just positive. Everyone in his class is fully vaccinated. All are required to wear masks all the time. The chances of an outbreak are actually fairly low. I should recognize that people in Risk Assessment are professionals and have the best interest of students in mind.

Should we include very unlikely events in our moral reasoning? We normally do not consider a possibility that while driving we may kill a pedestrian. Let us not stop driving because of it. Any action or non-action can go wrong and have disastrous effects.

Aug 28, 2021

Nostalgia is a poor guide to the post-COVID future

Some people want to get back to the happy times where students were buzzing around the campus, faculty had passionate debates in person, when grass was greener, and the sun shone brighter. That is all good and dandy, for we all need some energy to keep going forward. However, nostalgic feelings prevent us from being more realistic, more specific about the future. It stands in the way of actual serious planning of the post-COVID world.

Nostalgia is just a feeling, not a roadmap. Some conservatives create a version of the past that never existed: with full families, innocent teenagers, and wholesome TV shows. They attach their personal warm feelings to the made-up picture of the golden age and try to get there somehow. Just to be fair, not all conservatives do that. Some are also pushing a specific version of the future, not tied to any specific version of the past. They want to preserve certain principles, not their own rich imagination.

OK, back to the universities. As the first step, let us acknowledge that some of its operations will stay online. Student crowds will be thinner, although perhaps as joyful. Students will not come to campus to get advice, to turn it a paper form, or two attend every single class. Moreover, different students will have different preferences. The young and single would want to spend more time on campus, while those older and with their own families – less. Following that pattern, staff and faculty will spend less time on campus, and work more from home. Again, some jobs require no on-campus presence, while others will remain pretty much as before. We may avoid building more classrooms (for most classes will be hybrid) and more offices (those can be shared by partial telecommuters).

Planning is about nuance, about differentiation. It uses a different kind of imagination. Nostalgia is too wholistic, too undifferentiated to be useful. It assumes an average student, an average faculty and staff member. Such people do not exist. Let us get a little more realistic, a little more specific. Let us use our differences to our collective advantage. This is actually a very good time to start a conversation on re-imagining the future. We all learned much about ourselves, our preferences, our jobs, and technologies that help us. Going back while blinded by nostalgia is not much of an option.

Aug 13, 2021

Modality and morality or Do not go back to normal if it was abnormal

There we go again. I felt smug about figuring out a perfect solution, only to realize it does not work in real life. In ASL, facial expressions are an essential part of the language. Wearing a mask makes it very difficult to communicate. Face shields tend to fog up and they have a glare problems. I thought we would keep ASL interpreters on Zoom, and project the Zoom onto the large screen for meetings – and pipe any presentation through the same Zoom window. All participants, on Zoom and in the room would see the same thing, and the interpreter would not have to wear a mask. So, Binod, Michele, Leah and I went in to test the hypothesis. We tried our most advanced media studio room.

Here is how it went:
- What happens when a Deaf person from the audience wants to speak at a meeting? I need to see them up close, - says Michele, our interpreter.
- They will sign into a special laptop station with a camera. For equity, all speakers will have to come up to that station to speak.
- That’s a lot of commotion for everyone to come up to the speaking station, even to ask a quick question.
- OK, what if everyone will have a laptop and be logged into Zoom at the same time?
- Multiple Zoom sessions will create audio feedback, bunch of echoes – we learned that last year.
- OK, they will all be muted, and the room mics will pick up their speech.
- I imagine bunch of people in the room, each staring at and speaking/signing into their laptops… Why did they come f2f to begin with?
- [Silence]

This is just a small part of that testing exercise. At some point, we realized that someone had to be essentially a camera operator, and make sure the right picture is on screen and in Zoom. We have to develop a process where people on Zoom would feel as included in the conversation as people in the room – same opportunity to speak, same level of empowerment to affect the outcome of the meeting. In other words, every little problem has a solution. However, in aggregate, they are too much to overcome. Every little thing can go wrong. And it is too much to handle for whoever facilitates those meetings. Since I lead the College meetings, it would be me. I am not tech-shy at all, but that would be too much even for me.

Do not always listen to techno-optimists. Sometimes the technology is simply not there. The techies are trained to think how to solve problems. It is very difficult for them to say “sorry, we cannot solve this problem yet.” They will keep thinking about yet another camera, another powerful microphone, another trick to match displays, etc. Interestingly, the ed tech industry have been working on the problem of split classrooms for decades, so it is very hard for them to admit the problem has not been yet solved. It may be one day, like in Sci-Fi movies, where you are talking to a hologram, and are not aware this is not an actual human being. But we are very far from that.

Here is a really profound question for you. Why do we want to get back to f2f “normal” meetings? Because we enjoy the full spectrum of sensory experiences - an occasional short chat, a glimpse of other people, an aside joke, the body language, the energy of the room. But many of those things are inaccessible to Deaf and hard of hearing, to people with limited vision, with a difficulty processing facial expressions, not fluent in the working language, etc. What is fun for an able-bodied person is exactly the thing that excludes others.

Zoom is also incredibly limiting, but it is limiting to everyone in about the same way. At least we figured out how to make the interpreter visible. Thanks to artificial intelligence, the auto-captioning is actually OK: not as good as the best human captioner, but better than a terrible one. We learned that zoom-based meeting are not as much fun, but they do the job – things get discussed, and decisions made. Now, tell me, on balance, would you trade fun for most for more inclusion for all?

Moreover, the split modality will create a new underclass of people who cannot come. The very nature of the duel (split) modality puts the two groups of participants in two very different positions. It is impossible to provide equal opportunity and equal experience for both. By the way the few faculty that tried to teach the split classroom (we call it HyFlex here) all hated it. It requires too much effort from the instructor and takes attention away from teaching. Add accommodation for disability to this already very difficult task, and this is a recipe for disaster.

Now, when we go back completely back to normal, and not driving to a meeting will be indeed a preference, then we do not owe that much to people who chose to stay home. We can provide marginal participation opportunity for them, as a courtesy. If you want full participation – come here. But we are not in that world yet. People who do not come may have medical concerns for themselves, and their families. It looks like Zoom meetings are here to stay for some time. And even then, why go back to normal that has been exclusionary? How do we redefine the normal, so it works for more people? It may be the case that Zoom meetings are here to stay for a long time.

Aug 9, 2021

From the dictatorship of tests to a new educator preparation framework

It took a global pandemic to start undoing the damage done by the regime of teacher preparation that can be describes as over-under-regulation. A whole succession of federal policies is largely responsible for it: The No Child Left Behind, the Rate to the Top and the NCLB waiver regime. The Fed finally got out of the business of reforming education, but states continue to demonstrate significant inertia.

The regime consisted of two somewhat mutually exclusive pillars. The first is imposing multiple regulatory hurdles on the individual teacher candidate. No, it is not enough to finish high school; you must also pass a basic skills test. No, it is not enough to get a major from an accredited university; you must also pass a subject-matter knowledge test. And in many states, including California, you also must pass either a reading test, or somethings else to appease some crazy lobbyist still shock-shelled after the ancient Reading Wars. If the first pillar is about over-regulation, the second one is the opposite: let anyone, any school district or a local brewery open their own teacher preparation program, as long as they comply with some basic rules. That was a response to the conservative attacks on teacher preparation institutions in the University. We were called “Too theoretical” (read “Too social justice-oriented”).

Now the dictatorship of tests has started to crumble simply because during the pandemic, there was no way to administer all these tests, and states had to show some flexibility. And guess what – the sky did not fall on earth. This is beyond just teacher preparation; the entire duopoly of SAT/ACT is unraveling right before our eyes. Many universities had removed them from admission requirements, and guess what? – Yes you guessed it right, nothing terrible happened or is likely to happen. If anything, elite universities may become a little more diverse

What should state governments do? Right now, they are simply suspending or abandoning the most burdensome and non-sensical requirements. However, this time of change calls for a more comprehensive, more intentional shift in regulating teacher preparation. Both the intent of the new policy and its content should be constructed with the full use of research base, but also with the clarity of values connected to public interest.

One approach would be to prioritize diversification of the profession and encouraging professional self-regulation. For states like California, with rapidly changing demographics, the former is no brainer. The latter may be a bit more controversial, for we are asking our officials to overcome decades of suspicion toward teacher preparation programs. However, in our business professional ethics had always worked better than external controls. I’ve been at it for over 30 years. Every single time when we managed to improve something was because my colleagues wanted it to happen, not because someone told them what to do. Ethics is a material tangible asset. As far as regulatory tools go, shame and pride are much more powerful than accountability and compliance.

  1. Radical expansion of access. Right now, admission to teacher preparation program in almost every state is a nightmare of hoop-jumping exercise. The profession is just not welcoming to anyone, especially to candidates of color and to first generation in college.
  2. In admissions to credential programs:
    • Expanding ways of demonstrating subject matter mastery based on academic credentials earned plus possibly some review of transcripts.
    • Abandon basic skills testing. It does not exist for other professions. If regionally accredited higher ed institutions give bachelor degrees to people without basic literacy skills, let’s fix the higher education accreditation. But stop suspecting every future teacher of being illiterate.
    • Valuing cultural competency and lived experiences as well as subject matter knowledge. It is not that difficult to achieve. Take into consideration the exposure to diversity in high school experience, fluency in a second language, experiences of living abroad, etc – such forms of cultural capital are important for future teachers.
  3. In awarding credentials, move away from blanket EDTPA control to assessing a random sample of candidates. We helped Pearson collect hundreds of millions of dollars from struggling students, for a well over a decade now. Isn’t this time for them to show that EDTPA actually predicts teacher performance in the classroom? Is there proof that it does? If they still cannot do that after all this time, perhaps we should think of some other way of external validation for teacher preparation programs? The evidence so far is very mixed (Goldhaber 2017) or negative (Greenblatt 2015).
  4. In program approval, most states and CAPE use meaningless procedures like looking for places in syllabi where a certain ill-considered standard element is introduced, taught, or assessed. This ritual has nothing to do with research, nor does it reflect the real strengths or weaknesses of the program under review. The standards are made by a consensus of random experts and determined by each expert stamina more than their expertise. Almost none of the teacher preparation standards have any research base to rely on. And this is no secret – everyone in the know knows that. What works in program approval is when colleagues from other institutions come and look into what we do. States should keep and strengthen the peer-review part of the process, and radically reduce the mindless compliance activities resulting in thousands of pages of paperwork.
I am not going to insist these exact approaches should be used. However, I am certain state governments need new frameworks, some coherent strategy on what to do with its educator workforce and educator preparation.


Goldhaber, D., Cowan, J., & Theobald, R. (2017). Evaluating prospective teachers: Testing the predictive validity of the edTPA. Journal of Teacher Education, 68(4), 377-393.

Greenblatt, D., & O'Hara, K. E. (2015). Buyer Beware: Lessons Learned from EdTPA Implementation in New York State. Teacher Education Quarterly, 42(2), 57-67.

Aug 3, 2021

Can a university stop planning?

One of the most basic assumptions of all management is that one has to plan. One of the key functions of management is the ability to predict the future and prepare resources, information, procedures, and plans to make that future more successful. That assumption has been working for universities for a long time, until suddenly the future became unpredictable. So we get caught into a vicious circle of predicting planning, then abandoning the previous plans, because of the new virus variant, or some other unexpected health data. The problem is not only with our time wasted on multiple preparations for things that never happened. The problem is also with communications: we lose just a little bit of credibility every time we are forced to let go yet another solid plan.

Wilson in his classic Bureaucracy describes how a significantly outmanned German Army defeated most European armies and almost defeated the Soviet Union in the early 1940-s. Their murderous ideology aside, the German military had understood something the rest of the world did not. Instead of detailed plans of massive military operations, they gave field commanders just most general objectives, and allowed to improvise. The highly mobile infantry and tank units penetrated the best organized defense lines, and used a number of various flexible tactics to win. The Soviet Army was especially vulnerable because in a totalitarian society, everyone waited for Stalin to approve all moves. BY the time у got the message and woke up late, the situation on the frontline changed dramatically, and a new directive became irrelevant.

In the normal times, universities derive many advantages from centralized delivery of most essential services. It makes a lot of economic and practical sense. However, we are not in normal times. Perhaps a little more decentralization would actually make their various departments and programs more flexible, and better handle the changing landscape. However, such a shift is very difficult to achieve. Top-heavy hierarchical systems are accustomed to governing from the top. Avoiding universal decisions makes top leadership feel like there are dodging their responsibilities. And this is not a criticism – all managers feel that the best decisions are made at their own levels. While I expect to have more authority at the College level, I am not in rush to grant the same to our chairs. Of course, we are small enough to talk a lot, and make most of the decisions collectively. Still it is important to remember the limitations imposed by my own vantage point.

It is not productive to blame the system for doing what it knows how to do. Once we return to normal levels of predictability, it will become more functional yet again. After all, we are not at war, and there is significant cost to everyone running its own guerilla operations. My answer in general is no, universities cannot stop planning. However, a little decentralization during the time of unpredictability would be helpful.

Jul 20, 2021

Life, dignity, and the vaccine

Yearning for respect fuels irrational thinking. Someone propelling an “alternative” reality is simply telling us: “my opinion is just as valuable as yours.” Our disagreement does not make the yearning to go away. If you wish to convince these people, address their unspoken underlying message, not what they are actually saying.

Our politicians and health officials often unreasonably assume that all people value human life above everything else, especially the lives of others. That is a manifestly false assumption. Millions of people sacrifice their own lives and lives of others for dignity or another higher goal. The culture of solidarity differs from the culture of dignity. I know how generic it sounds, but there is some truth to it. People may belong to the culture of dignity because they have been experiencing lack of it for whatever reasons – real or imagined. And not everyone belongs to the culture of solidarity, that much we know for sure.

In the debate about masks or vaccines, it is not certain death that is being considered, but a risk of disease and death. In this probabilistic version of the dilemma, even people who value life in general, are willing to take some risk if on the other side of the scale is something very important to them. People like me accept science without giving up a shred of my dignity. To the contrary, we take pride in the ability to weigh in and accept evidence. However, assuming others are like you is the cardinal ethical failing. If you were told all your life that you are stupid and must listen to scientists who know better – who knows, you might have developed a thing about it. The insecurity about dignity may have colored your perception. The power-laden context of convincing is not indifferent to the matter about which we try to convince. Those who believe that truth is independent of power relations have slept through their philosophy classes.

From the public policy standpoint, throwing more and more evidence at antivaxxers will not work. The more of it you present, the more defensive mechanisms will be activated. Incentives are a much more promising approach. If you cast vaccination into transactional terms, it removes some of the challenges for the dignity culture. The transaction is voluntary: I still do not believe in your stupid vaccine, but I will take the incentive. Paradoxically, the direct mandate may work better as well: I do not believe in your stupid vaccine, but I need my job. It is the gentle persuasion based on facts that does not work. Or, to be more precise, it may have worked until we encounter the group of resisters strongly motivated by the culture of dignity. Some of them will never budge. Others may be swayed.

Jun 13, 2021

My so-called one-armed life

On Wednesday, I was starting my short pathetic jog with the dog, tripped over nothing, cracked my arm, and sprained both wrists. “Happens a lot,” – reassured the friendly ER nurse. She did not have to say it: her quick, habitual moves to encase my broken arm said it all. The guy who got out of my Uber before I got in had an identical cast on his arm. The universe never fails to remind how not special you are.

It is not the pain; pain is bearable, especially with the very serious drugs for which a pharmacist wants an ID and a little interrogation. It is the host of little indignities that the injury brings along for a house party. For example, it is absolutely impossible to make a ponytail with one hand’ just try it. I even googled it; one brave girl figured it out and shared in YouTube. I could not repeat the maneuver no matter how hard I tried. Or how do you take out the dog if neither of your hands can hold a 100 pounds of muscle with only a small but excitable brain, intrigued by every turkey and squirrel he meets? The answer is – tie the leash to your belt. It works great (minus the neighbors’ looks) until the belt breaks and a dignified bearded gentleman with splinted arms and bad hair has to make it home while also preventing his shorts from falling down.

The opioid gives you very vivid dreams, like in the movies. However, you pay with a tremendous hangover, worse than the $8 vodka in plastic bottle from my youth. The headache is OK for e-mails, but not for writing a book of any value. Dictation works instead of typing, but it actually slower. You must formulate a whole sentence in your mind before writing it down. And say “period” and “comma” all the time. It is not like normal speaking; it is more like writing with your mouth – needs getting used to. I cannot take a pot of soup out of the fridge; instead, I need to take the bowl and the ladle into the fridge and do the whole operation inside.

Of course, human beings get used to anything, anything at all. We learn, find new tricks, invent workarounds, accommodate, assimilate, adapt. That is what we do. I am still thinking of that girl who lost her arm in an accident and had enough compassion for others to record a video on the one-handed ponytail move. I am grateful – to her and to the universe for my inconvenience is just temporary. Let’s think of those who cannot just wait their disability out. If you have any sympathy for me, give it to them instead.

Jun 8, 2021

Relation-Centered Education Network conference

Last weekend and on Monday, I spent some 30 hours on Zoom, attending the first full conference of the relation-centered education network (RCEN). It started out as a conversation. Ann-Louise Ljungblad, a Swedish researcher and I were having lunch in Oslo in May 2019. Both of us were interested in educational relations. It occurred to me that there are hundreds of other people around the world that are interested in the same thing, and we never talk to each other. Very few pleasures in life compare to turning an idea into reality. We all secretly crave creation.

Two years later, here we are, a conference with 47 presentation by people from 18 different countries. When you meet an old friend, there is a way of skipping the chitchat, and going straight to real things that matter, like life, love, and loss. That is how this conference felt to me. There is a tribe out there that is just coming to self-awareness. We all share the assumption that education is more about human relations than about anything else. Sharing basic assumptions improves the quality of conversations.

I was also in awe of the great arch of scholarship made visible. It had philosophers with their power of abstraction, along with a psychometrician discussing the Cronbach’s alpha. The conference included qualitative researchers, an art presentation, and several practitioners talking about their work with youth. At an interdisciplinary conference like this, you can see how concepts turn into stories, stories into studies, studies into practices, practices into measuring instruments, instruments into policies, etc. There is a great comfort in discipline-based scholarly communities. Interdisciplinarity may be annoying for we all have different conventions and standards and conventions. However, it also provides a wider view. The great arch of knowledge is rarely visible; we tend to see out small slice of it. But it does exist.

Scholarship can be much more influential in public discourse and public policy if scholars and practitioners were better organized. For that we need a big common project, like affecting the direction of the great ship called education: from job-worthy skills toward well-being and a meaningful life.

Barbara Stengel called us (approvingly) a ragtag band rather than a proper scholarly society. That’s what we intend to remain for some time.

May 31, 2021

Everyone has a trigger

We all can be triggered into experience an involuntary emotion. This is not about particularly fragile or very traumatized people. If you do not have a trigger, you have not lived a life. We all carry treasures and trauma, some much more than others, no doubt. Growing up is as often painful as it is delightful. The self is nothing but an intricate ornament of psychic scars. The trick is to wear it with dignity. Some stimuli will elicit an emotional response you are unable to do anything about.

I lived in the Russia until the age of 29. That is half of my life. It shaped me in all sorts of ways, both good and bad. The emotional bank of childhood memories comes from there. Sometimes a random smell will take me straight to Kulunda Steppe, and my grandfather’s home. The rich, pungent aroma of drying grass at night, the smell of dirt with a tinge of mushrooms, dung and tomato plants. All of it blended with insects chirping, the horse’s soft stomping and a long cow sigh from the barn. Sometimes I can see the ancient floor rug in our apartment on the fourth floor of a white brick building, with a weird number 4/1. I looked for caterpillars in the inner yard’s bushes. Or a mesmerizing yellow light of my first-grade classroom and a hypnotic, calm voice of my first teacher Anna Ivanovna. Those triggers are welcome, for they let me time travel. They allow the soul to be rinsed through with a warm and lazy summer rain.

My Russian life also built up anxieties, over which I have very little control. For example, when someone tells me we must achieve more ideological unity, my gut reacts before my mind does. It feels like violence, even if it was not intended as such. I had enough unity. When I am unable to discuss an idea and am expected to accept it as is, my whole being rebels. When I expected to be silent, and only listen – no matter how worthy the speaker is, no matter how compelling their story is - I tense up. I want to come out and meet that story with my story, so we can find common experiences. When someone expects me to say something I do not believe in, I literally become mute. Those who lived in totalitarian societies can relate to these feelings, and perhaps others can as well.

Like anyone else, I cannot change who I am. We are not in full control of our triggers. The very notion of a trigger implies reaction that is hard to overrule. Most people eventually learn to manage their behaviors, but not all emotional reactions. It is best if we learn to accept that everyone has a stock of those automatic reactions and be tolerant to each other’s quirks and foibles. A human soul is a weird and spooky place; some of its corners are far from tamed.

May 24, 2021

Imagining the end of the pandemic

The ability to imagine is the most useful feature of human mind. It has limitations, too. For example, many of us are having hard time visualizing the return to campus after the pandemic. We all know we will, but the picture in our minds does not quite come into the focus. The trick it – imagination is fed by sensory perceptions. It cannot produce images out of nothing.

I spent a couple of days on campus for our CARmencement. During the pandemic, the campus looked like a ghost town, with eerie feeling. However, in those two days, it was full of people, brimming with life, sunny and as beautiful as I remember it. Ans yes, suddenly I knew how it will be once we are back. It all suddenly made sense. If you want to trigger your imagination, create a situation that is similar to what you want to imagine. The little trick really helps.

It is amazing how hard it is to change our behaviors, even if it is changing back to what one considered to be normal. The various governments do not help much. In the government world everything takes time to prepare. People who run large social systems always think a few months in advance. They constantly count back from the future horizon to the present. There is always a lag between what the best science have and what is happening on the ground. OK, no surface cleaning apparently needed. But tons of the cleaning solutions are ordered, contracts signed, people hired, money encumbered… Large ships take time to turn. OK, CDC says no masks. However, there are policies that local and state governments have in place. They need to be rewritten, rescinded, approved, communicated, etc. none of that can be done in a day. Here we are wearing unnecessary masks, waiting for the governmental gears to turn. That’s OK, we can wait a little longer.

May 10, 2021

Do not judge a movement by its fringe

Any social movement, progressive or conservative, national or liberatory, has its excesses. They all develop a fringe that takes things too far. Taking things too far is a part of the human history. There will always be a few people that use the movement’s idea for personal gain and for a power grab. And yes, from time to time the fringe takes over the entire movement, at least temporarily. Something like that is happening with the Republican Party right now, but I am pretty sure it will eventually self-correct or split.

Russian liberals, traumatized by almost a century of left-wing totalitarianism, keep seeing its ghosts in the American and European progressive movements of today. Many were horrified by the MeToo, the environmentalist (hilariously scared of Greta Thunberg), and by BLM. They all make the same mistake of judging the entire movement by its most radical fringe. The error makes one to see real risks, but dramatically overestimate its scope. The fact is, MeToo produced very few excesses, with the story of Al Franken the only high-profile example that comes to mind. With the exception of a few questionable PETA stints, the mainstream Green movement continues to take balanced, sensible approaches. If you look at BLM website, it spells out a program for non-violent change, a very much within the boundaries of mainstream of American politics. Equating the movement with a few looters is unfair to the extreme.

It is not just the Russians; some Americans make the same mistake, taking the fringe to represent the whole. This error is unfortunately amplified by the opposing political parties. It helps to mobilize the base but is self-defeating in the long run. Within each of these and other movements, there are multiple institutional mechanisms and forces to keep the movement from sliding into the margins. If you see a bit of a smoke coming out of your neighbor’s trash bin, do not run around shouting “Your house is on fire, you are going to die a horrible death right now!” Just find the hose and spray some water into the bin. Beware of actual scale of a danger.

May 3, 2021

And here is what I’ve learned about life so far

The highway called life is crowded, filled with small and smallish things, with accidents, happenings, talks, decisions, encounters - the meaning of each is known, while the meaning of them together is almost always elusive. I wonder – why is this and that, what am I supposed to learn from this conversation, that little drama? This one thought or that one observation, little insights and many errors, conclusions, illusions, allusions. Is this the curriculum? Who designed it? What am I supposed to learn from all that?

You always learn about people. Their thoughts and actions, quirks, and gifts – the world of other people is absolutely inexhaustible and unpredictable. Yes, you see patterns eventually. But it is also a universe consisting of multiple huge worlds, absolutely beautiful in their uniqueness. Every person is a planet, a rich, juicy, exquisitely painted picture of the entire visible universe that is different from any the next person possesses. Only rarely do I get to see this, maybe a couple times a year. I look at faces of people around me and hear many gentle echoes of their worlds subtly talking to each other. This is the music of the spheres, as nuanced and as inexhaustible as a galaxy. I begin to feel what the ancient Greeks meant by agape. The Greeks knew the many forms of love: eros, philia, ludus, agape, pragma, philautia, storge, mania. This one is agape. It is when I can marvel about many others, feel their pain and joy – all at the same time; when I can hum along the great symphony of the human multiverse. Wow, this is how he thinks, that is how she sees the world. People wear their scars like badges of honor, learning, striving, figuring things out, and yet hopelessly lost, just like me. Just like me and so not like me.

The curriculum is also about yourself. You learn your limits and sources of strength, your triggers, pet peeves - from living. We are not born with knowledge of ourselves. The self is a subject of discovery, just like the rest of the world. Children know very little about themselves – this knowledge is panned like gold flecks from a river bed, with about the same dreadful efficiency. The nooks and crannies of one’s soul are as infinite as the worlds of other people. The smells of childhood and the colored pictures of the life story, regrets and memories, melodies and desires – all these can come down as an avalanche, only to get completely still the very next moment. “Oh, this is how this thing works” – you think about yourself, every time surprised at the obvious. How could you live with yourself for that many years, and not know something very basic about your own self? Who knows, who cares, who gives. Life is like travel; the whole point is to find something you did not know was there. Perhaps if you don’t learn anything new about other people and about yourself, it is time to check your pulse and see if you’re still alive.

Apr 24, 2021

Does intent matter?

At least three times in the recent weeks I heard something to the effect that your intent does not matter, and the effect of your words or actions on other people that matters. Such a position is superficially appealing, for it calls for greater accountability. People should consider how their actions or words may impact others. And if they do not know what the likely effect is, it is their responsibility to learn, especially if the affected people are of different racial or ethnic group. It is fair, especially within the context of long-term structural inequities, where some groups have been systematically excluded. The exclusion was based, in part, on insensitivity to the dominated groups’ perceptions of what is respectful and what is not. It has always been easy for a White person to remain ignorant about other groups’ perceptions, or simply assume they are the same as his or her. The great Kantian mistake is in assuming that other people want to be treated the same as you want to be treated. In the historical context, it is not surprising that the defense “But I did not mean to offend” is being questioned more and more.

However, you also do not want to live in a moral universe where intent does not matter at all. Ethical judgements cannot exist without gradations. In an “either-or” moral universe, death in a traffic accident is the same as murder. A homeless stealing a sandwich is as big a villain as Berny Madoff who stole millions. A man telling a bad joke is the same as rapist, etc. In real life, various versions of “zero-tolerance” policies (all failures) are softer attempts of regulating society without gradations. The “three strikes” laws are also based on a similar “I don’t want to hear your excuses” fallacy. But if small evil is the same as big evil, then there is no evil at all. If any offense is equally bad, none is really bad. Gradualism in ethics is not an option; it is an essential component of any ethical – and legal – system. An ethical judgement always involves weighing in several components. They may not be equally weighted, but there has to be several. While consequences of an action are very important, intent matters, too. Sorry, you have to listen to excuses if you wish to remain ethical.

Another interesting side effect of the “intent does not matter” approach is giving too much power to the victim. I know it sounds weird; after all, why shouldn’t victims have more say in how much harm they experience? Again, on the surface, it is a plausible ideal. After all, the offended person knows the most about the degree of harm the offender has caused. However, there is a difference between giving more weight to victim accounts and giving all weight. It is not the same thing. In the legal world, it is the ancient problem of protecting against false or exaggerated or additionally motivated accusations. I have been dealing with many students convinced that their accusations against faculty may not be questioned at all. After all they are the victims and must be trusted. The revelation that faculty also have rights sometimes come as a shock.

The problem is resolved (albeit imperfectly) through the legal system, where other people have a say on how such real damages have been done, and what was the intent. At lower levels, we have established various due process procedures, where both the offender and the offended have the right to present their points of view on what happened, and a third party makes a call. If intent is nothing, then the victim’s subjective feeling of the harm is everything. This would be an untenable situation. We have seen how progressive social movements harmed themselves by going too far. It often happens when intent is discounted.

Apr 18, 2021

The cost of hygiene theater

In at least two different meetings last week, we discussed campus reopening and safety measures. The question is: should we follow the best scientific advice available right now, or should we also take people’s anxieties and fears seriously? The answer is not obvious. On one hand, we have learned that massive cleaning was a waste of time and money, and that virus does not really spread through surfaces. On the other hand, perceptions of danger are just as real as the danger itself. If we want to people feel safe back on campus, we better show that we care about their feelings. On one hand, we are a university, a place that should always demonstrate respect for science and rational thinking. ON the other hand, we are a caring community, and should not force the science on our people. Some suggest that if we put out too much of the “hygiene theater” we will reinforce some irrational fears and make them worse. However, if we do not put enough, we may lose trust and make the fear worse.

There is also the issue of cost. For example, some people wanted to discuss air purifiers in offices. The Facilities told us they have already upgraded building filtration systems, and individual purifiers are not only useless, but also very costly, if you provide to everyone. However, the good cleaning at least once a day may be not as expensive and not very different from pre-COVID cleaning. The plexiglass barriers are somewhat expensive, but they may have additional benefit of limiting the spread of other viruses, like common cold. We have spent a lot of time calculating various formulas for room capacity, but if everyone is vaccinated, it should not make any difference. Except people are now to used to holding a distance, that it is physically difficult to break out of the new habit. A crowded room will feel dangerous for a long time, even if it is not. After all, many of us lost family members and friends to the virus.

This is a particular case of an old ontological dilemma: what is reality? Is it something that is objectively out there, regardless of what we think? Or is it also how we perceive it? For an administrator, neither option can be acceptable. Like many other similar dilemmas, this one is not going to be resolved without some compromise, without finding a balance. There is still hard truth: the virus is whether spread by contaminated surface or not (It is not). Vaccinated individual can either spread the virus or not (it looks like it is highly unlikely). But that hard pit of reality is covered by soft but significant fruit of human perception that cannot be ignored.

Mar 29, 2021

We all are conservatives sometimes

We have much to preserve. The California State University system is an enormously valuable public investment. Despite its faults, the system has almost half a million students. It has been an awesome machine producing hundreds of thousands of capable employees, and good citizens. It provided countless people with middle-class incomes, and a sense of accomplishment. It lifted out of poverty hundreds of thousands of families and helped build the fifth largest economy in the world. It cannot be taken for granted either. Therefore, all of us, administrative types, spend significant time on preserving what we inherited, on protecting the system from numerous potential threats. This includes avoiding legal and public relation calamities, taking care of public money, preserving the delicate balance of interests with the labor unions, etc. I am personally more inclined to emphasize change and experimentation, but the job requires a great deal of defensive play. I imagine that at the higher levels of the hierarchy those pressures are even greater. No provost, president, or chancellor want to screw up what they have been entrusted to oversee. It is not even about personal risk aversion. They all feel the sense of responsibility for this big, expensive, and ultimately useful thing people asked us to take care of.

If you have been waiting for a “but,” it ain’t coming. Some people including me, have been saying that the higher education is heading or is already in a major transformation, and that the survival should compel us to take on more risks. The funding model replying on growing public investments and rising tuition rates does not seem to be sustainable. However, to be fair, we have been saying these things for decades, and the higher ed stays the same, save for an occasional small contraction or expansion. No one knows the future, and the dire predictions should never be confused with reality. Statistically speaking, the future is most likely to lot a lot like the present. That is the problem with any kinds of predictions, especially with prophecies of doom. You cannot sell books and attract attention by saying that things will be… almost the same. In our everyday life, we all often act as conservatives. This applies to even the most radical agents of change who want to conserve things already achieved.

Again, I am personally inclined towards change. This is why I always appreciate having more careful colleagues around me. In an organization, someone has to be pushing for change, while others should be pushing in the other direction. It saddens me to see how the Republican party stopped being a party of conservatives. Where is the party of adults in the room, who asked us to be careful, to not ruin what we have, to avoid reckless spending, to limit the government bloat, to watch for the dangers of social engineering? Instead, we get a bunch of leaders who care about power more than they care about their principles. Instead of fighting for their ideas, they want to limit voting rights, and to ride the xenophobia wave. But that is a tacit acknowledgement that their ideas are bankrupt. That is not true. If they come back to their principles, and communicate them clearly, they will always have a chance to govern. Americans of all ethnic and racial backgrounds have a very strong conservative streak. Both liberals and progressives would benefit from a fair competition from a sensible Right of Center party. Unfortunately, it does not seem to exist anymore.

Mar 22, 2021

Perfectionists and slackers in academia

Academia rewards perfectionism, until it does not. Grad school instills in us an internal auditor, an ethical control mechanism against slaking, cutting corners, and just doing shoddy work. We are taught to always to the right thing, and follow the rules out of internal conviction, not because of the threat of punishment. Graduate education is about excellence, and excellent graduates tend to become faculty members, and some of them – chairs, directors, deans, and other university administrators. At some point, many discover that the good old perfectionism just does not work. There are too many things to do, too many reports to write, too many surveys to complete, and too many trainings to attend. It becomes impossible to do it all equally well. One is brought up short by the sudden awareness that the game has changed. One finds oneself holding a chess piece on a tennis court. You are a better chess player, but people seem to be playing tennis around here. It is now about the ability to prioritize, to lose certain smaller skirmishes while trying to win the war.

The internal auditor, however, does not give up easily. It raises an alarm every time one needs to submit a sloppy product or ignore a requirement. The constant buzz of alarm is frustrating, and often provokes us to snap at other people, or create self-doubt, guilt, and other unpleasant experiences. The perfectionist in you does not give up easily. You end up writing that 20-page self-study report no one is likely to read very closely.  You keep asking about some deadlines no one cares to remember anymore. The perfectionism can also make teaching and service overwhelming. I have seen painstakingly designed complex courses that bury their author under mountains of student papers to grade every week. People have been known to burn out on excessive committee work as well. Perfectionism gives a strong short-term high when you admire another excellent piece of work you produce. However, seeing the long list of other things to do will trigger a long withdrawal.

The problem with perfectionism is that it encourages us to spend all the time on defensive play and leaves no time for offense. In other words, we neglect development, moving forward, and simply thinking. Our own personal scholarship also tends to suffer. Perfectionism eats up our time that could be spent better.

Everyone must find the inner slacker and remember where they are. Depending on the task, let the perfectionist run wild, or allow the slacker to do it, or ignore it altogether. Your slacker will whine and complain that something cannot be done at all, it is too hard. And s/he might be right. Not every problem is solvable.

Mar 15, 2021

Why some of the most useful technologies are not adopted

There is a whole theory of innovation diffusion, first put forward by Everett Rogers in 1962. We know – more or less – how innovations are adopted. However, there are curious exceptions. Certain very useful and simple technologies are met with incredible wide-spread and inexplicable resistance. Below are just three examples:

  • Mail Merge was part of Word at least since 1995, if not before. It is perhaps one of the most useful features in a word processing application. It allows to create labels, envelopes, individualized letters and emails using a spreadsheet or any table.  By all measures, this is a simple feature. You write a letter, link it to a table with names and email addresses – and voila, send hundreds of emails, all different. While many support professionals know and use it routinely, very few regular people do the same. From my experience, many still do not even know it exists.
  • Outlook has been around since 2002. The most useful feature it has – you can look up whether people are free or busy, when scheduling meetings. I believe it was available right from the start, if not before. And yet, incredibly, 20 years later we still waste hundreds of hours every year trying to schedule a meeting. The success of Doodle, an alternative scheduler, is a result of a mysterious resistance by so many people to adopt an equally simple Outlook feature (There is an Apple equivalent for Exchange servers). The 20-year-old Outlook calendar is actually way better than Doodle, the work-around. Why, why? I have no idea.
  • Google doc is a revolutionary product introduced in 2006, 15 years ago. The whole point of it that multiple people can edit at the same time. You do not have to send multiple versions, wait for each other to edit. No one must take suggestions, and re-enter them into the master document. The feature was so useful that MS copied it for its new Office 365 and did a good job at it. And yet, 15 years later, it is amazing how many people do not dare to write in a doc. They will send emails with suggestions, but will just refuse edit or suggest, or comment right on the google doc.

More examples can be found. People refuse to use very useful innovations with low threshold of learning. Each of these could be learned in under 15 minutes. This cannot be simple laziness or lack of time. I do not know what is going on with these but have a hypothesis. Sometimes an innovation hit a subconscious taboo. People resist without even understanding why. For example, seeing if anyone is busy or not may feel like intrusion into someone’s private life. It is like looking into a diary. Writing into someone’s Google doc feels like physically intruding into someone else’s notebook. Not sure what is going on with the Mail merge. Perhaps it is eerily close to speaking to someone who you don’t really remember or now. The awkwardness is in pretending to be personal and individual, while not being such. It is a fear of being discovered.

We need to employ psychoanalysts in the business of technology implementation – not just user exerts, but someone who understands the ego, its desires, and fears.

Mar 8, 2021

Crisis is a harsh but effective teacher

It does not please me to say this, but evidence is undeniable. The pandemic taught us many things quickly. Instead of 5-10 % of faculty who dabbled in online pedagogy for decades, we now have 100% of faculty with online teaching experience. Our campus was unable to replace paper forms for many years, always with a perfect excuse. It was done within a few weeks last Spring. Telecommuting was this complicated, exceptional thing, it is no longer. A huge bulk of our advising was done f2f. Do you remember the huge traffic in the first week of classes? It was not because students came to classes, but because they needed to meet with someone, solve some problems, get help registering. Oh, never mind, it can all be done without coming on campus. And the embarrassing thing is – the technology to do that has been уaround for a couple decades. We have long and serious debates about how faculty tenure and promotion portfolios can be converted to online, and at what cost, and what is the best platform – for at least ten years. Because of the hiring freeze, we were forced to reconsider work duties, and were able to do more with fewer staff. Well, it was done in a matter of few weeks, without much of a fuss. If it continues to go like this, we may be able to figure out the high art of HyFlex teaching, where some of students are f2f, and some are online. That’s a very complex skill indeed.

The truth is – change is painful, and most people do not really want to change. We may say something else, and even believe it, but only urgency can generate real change. Universities avoid conflict and abhor risk. Consider a recent Chronicle piece by Gabriel Paquette, “Can Higher Ed Save Itself?” especially if you are not planning to retire soon. If you think the end of this pandemic will restore tranquility in our industry, think again. We all are exhausted because this trial by fire is hard. And yet, it is very satisfying to look back to the year of pandemic, and marvel at how much we learned and accomplished. Who knew we had it in us?

Mar 1, 2021


In Academia, knowing is the currency of the realm. Because of this pressure, some people develop an interesting anxiety that prevents them from ever displaying ignorance, especially about thinks that they by their position are supposed to know. Such people will never admit to their ignorance, and start making things up just to project some, even temporary competency. Ignoraphobes can never say “I am not sure, let me look it up. I will get back to you on this.” Nor can they ever say, “Let me ask someone who knows for sure.”

Of course, sooner or later people will find out that what an ignoraphobe says is not really true. This presents a problem for an ignoraphobe: they have to cover their tracks somehow. What they were compulsively unable to admit in the short-run creates a long-term credibility issue. Only a few moves are available: one can say “I never said that wrong thing.” Well in the age of e-mail, someone will dig up an old e-mail proving you said it. One can change the topic, try to confuse the conversation, or just ignore further inquiries. All of these are not great ways of coping. Accumulated, they tend to ruin one’s reputation and create more general distrust.

This hurts both in teaching and in administration. In teaching, students tend to look up answers right there, and may loose confidence in their instructor. In administration, an ignoraphobe may send colleagues on a wild goose chase, only to find out they did the wrong thing all along. It is especially problematic, when an ingnoraphobe has the actual decision-making power. Their erroneous decisions will always need some further justification.

Like any compulsive behavior, the always-knowing speech is hard to control. Among better coping strategies, try these:

  • Delay answering. Ask the other people – can you write me an e-mail about this? There are too many details to cover. This gives you time to do the actual research, without blurting out the half-truths
  • State the degree of confidence. For example, say, I am 90% sure that… This allows one to still feel confident, and yet let the door open for a potential error.
  • Copy someone who is likely to know, and note “If I am wrong, so-and-so will correct me.” This will still feed one’s compulsion, and yet provide some room for back-tracking.
  • And finally, force yourself to say “I don’t know” in low-stake situations. Gradual exposure to the trigger tends to reduce anxiety. 

Feb 15, 2021

Administrator as a prophet

Administrators both predict the future and strive to shape it. That’s where our similarity with real prophets end: we experience no divine revelation, no ecstatic exaltation of seeing through the centuries. Instead, imagine different rows of dominoes set to tip from here and now to a point sometime in the few months. The ends of the rows disappear in a fog.

There is no mystery to it, just common-sense knowledge of how the organization’s machinery works and how it does not. It looks like this: students start registering for the Fall in late April. If we do a major revision of it, we need at least 3-4 weeks. If we just need a minor tweak, with codes, it can be done in a week or two. Observe the two different lines of dominoes. If we need an hour break between classes for cleaning, that is a major schedule revision, and we lose a third or more of total classroom space, so we need to keep that 1/3 of all classes online. If we are still at strict 6 feet distance, we must have small groups of students present. If it is more lenient 4 feet, a whole different story. If we ask faculty to rotate students, that is at least 4 different class formats, one of which requires actual training. If we simply schedule smaller sections, that is a lot of money in a shrinking. However, we can probably use the on-time money, but will need to find more instructors, and more rooms for these smaller sections. Again, this is a massive rescheduling effort. Of course, students do not need to know the exact rooms, that could all be done over the summer. Now add such factors as student and faculty preferences, and the county’s unknown health regulations in effect in August. This now looks like a whole field filled with lines of dominoes, going roughly in the same direction, but different in length and shape. Which one do you tip forward? All of these are conditional versions of the future, sort of like in chess, only your opponent is not smart or intentional. It is simply just a bit unpredictable.

The administrative gift of foresight is in guessing which domino clues are feasible, and which will end up in disaster. Some pathways are too complicated, some require too much work, others are too expensive. Some are short and sure, but blunt and will bring more problems than they will solve. The real problem is when we are dealing with unprecedented and can only guess how the gears of the organization will actually turn and how fast. The only way to get better at these forecasts is doing it as a group. The collective knowledge and the ability to predict is almost always better than the individual ability to do the same. Predicting and shaping the near future is a team sport. I am happy to be at a University that clearly understands that.

Feb 8, 2021

Too much to manage

Any organization wages a never-ending war against chaos. It commands an army of rules, forms, processes, and procedures to force the naturally occurring complexity in a set of manageable, similar things that can be dealt with in a uniform manner. Otherwise, chaos will take over and make any mission impossible to implement. Chaos is simply complexity that got out of control. Universities, for example have courses, programs and other requirements fixed in catalogues, and schedules that map these out in repetitive time blocks called semesters. Students aided by an army of advisers must turn the complex catalogue information and apply it to their schedules, while taking into consideration their jobs, families, and other obligations as well as availability or scarcity of class offerings. Like in any war, it is important to not underestimate the enemy. Sometimes complexity is too great to manage, chaos becomes inevitable, and it is time to retreat.

Here is one example. Many of our freshmen cannot translate the catalog requirements into a sensible schedule in their first year on campus. Advising notwithstanding, they make so many errors, that the chaos creates real damage to their academic careers, sometimes delaying graduation by years, and sometime derailing their college plans altogether. To reduce the errors, we implemented a program of block scheduling, where every freshman receives a pre-created schedule. This was designed to reduce the errors and relieve freshmen orientation anxiety. That is a wonderful, sensible idea, not at all unique to our institution. However, we discovered that creating over 3000 individual schedules for 64 bachelor's degree programs with 70 concentrations, and registering them all was… hard. OK, it put our resources on the brink of total collapse. Why? – Because the entire university registration system was designed around the minuscule act of a student registering for a course. The system was error-rich, but required no direct management. Once we centralized it, we became like the Soviet Gosplan, a body that was so spectacularly unable to cope with running the huge planned Soviet economy. While market economies are prone to terrible errors, and unintended consequences, they are not trying to manage the unmanageable. In the long run, the distributed self-regulation works. I remember when someone in Gosplan forgot to plan for toothbrushes, and the entire country went into a panic-fueled buying spree that Soviet stores of any toothbrushes for years. Then it was sugar, pantyhose, toilet paper, jar lids, and almost everything else. A contemporary economy with tenths of thousands of consumer products is too complex to manage. Student schedules are very close to that, although the university can figure it out, albeit with much effort. Like any borderline situation, its value is in demonstrating the limits.

Now we are thinking about the Fall re-opening. We do not know what the health regulations will be in effect: do we still need to maintain the 6-feet social distance and an hour break between classes for cleaning? Or will it be just a request to reduce the campus population to a certain level? Will we be asked to impose an absolute cap on class size? We do not know how many students, faculty, and staff will not be able to return for health reasons, and how many will not want to return, and what kind of policies we may be able to have to compel people to return. Most importantly, we do not know when we will know what we do not know now. With seven thousand sections, any major revamp of the master schedule will take many weeks. No one knows what the solution should be, and I am no exception/ However, I am pretty sure it should not involve a team of tired chairs and associate deans manually assigning students to classes and classes to rooms. The quest is for a solution that would allow for thousands of informed micro-decisions, and somehow make the whole puzzle work relatively quickly.

This is just in case you are wondering what they mean by “Planning for the Fall re-opening.”