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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.