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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.