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Mar 29, 2021
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
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
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
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
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.