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Dec 11, 2022

Teasing in the workplace

Teasing is generally accepted among close individuals across most cultures, but the degree of closeness required varies significantly. These variations can be challenging to discern, particularly as they can differ widely even within subcultures that coexist closely. In some communities (often more homogeneous), people don't need to be friends to tease each other humorously. In others, it can take years of acquaintance before any level of teasing is considered acceptable. When subcultures intersect across gender, class, and race, navigating these multiple cultural norms becomes even more complex. Regional differences also come into play, which is why quick-witted New Yorkers may encounter issues when moving to the Midwest or the West. The person doing the teasing might be saying, "Okay, now we're friends, so I will poke fun at you." It is a symbolic act of recognition and intimacy. At times, it might be a request for closeness, akin to asking, "will you be my friend?" However, the recipient may not interpret it this way and might see it as a sign of aggression or at least, poor taste. This scenario creates a typical cultural conflict, where differing assumptions lead to opposing interpretations of behavior.

Teasing can be seen as a form of verbal aggression masked as a joke. What makes it amusing is its proximity to real aggression or its highlighting of actual faults and blunders. This is why it's so fraught with risk and prone to misunderstanding. The rule in the workplace is straightforward: refrain from teasing unless you are absolutely certain that the other person interprets it as you intend. Establishing such safe boundaries usually requires several years of close interactions.

This rule extends to all forms of humor. In any conversation, I might voice around a quarter of the jokes that come to mind. The rest are too risky, and so, I suppress them. Yes, I have a twisted sense of humor, but I keep it under control. I hope other people do the same. All humor is a form of playful aggression. As Henry Bergson noted, "the comic demands something like a momentary anesthesia of the heart." In a diverse workplace, one must exercise caution when joking, especially at another person's expense. One might be playing a macho character as a joke or self-parody, but co-workers may not understand this and take your performance too seriously. It's not because they lack a sense of humor; rather, their cultural norms and life experiences might be too different from yours. We no longer live or work in culturally homogeneous groups. Thus, curb your urge to tease and joke. Opt for other means of connection. Kindness and politeness usually work better and have broader appeal. The Scandinavian style of self-deprecating humor also tends to work well.

Dec 5, 2022

Double consciousness for Russians

We understand others by finding glimpses of their experiences in our own. It is never the same, but sometimes what we experience “rhymes” with those of others.

I was thinking of W. E. B. Du Bois's notion of double consciousness when last week an anti-war and anti-Putin TV anchor misspoke and referred to the invading Russian army as “our army,” and said that he wants to help Russian soldiers to get better equipment. This created an outrage in much of Eastern Europe, understandably. People are on edge, and they reacted harshly.

W. E. B. Du Bois described the phenomenon like this: “One ever feels his two-ness,—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.” This is not the same, but similar to what this anchor was feeling: He still maintains his Russian identity and feels kinship with Russian soldiers who are cold and hungry on the frontlines of the war they did not start. He may think they are stupid idiots, but somehow related to him. Like many of us, he wants that invading army to be defeated, and his homeland to lose the war it started.

Ukrainians obviously do not feel the split; their hatred for the invaders is both justified and unproblematic. The anti-Putin Russians do. The horror of the story is that one is unable to completely disentangle oneself from the invading horde. One experiences pain and compassion for Ukrainians, and pain and compassion to their tormentors. A person like that looks at one’s self through the eyes of others, and yet retaining his own identity.

Again, I am not equating the two experiences; the power dynamic and histories are very different. Yet, parallels like this open a little window into how confused and painful divided identities can be.

Nov 28, 2022

Anger management and academic bullying

Over the years, I've encountered several individuals who seem to possess all the leadership qualities, with one minor yet critical exception: they can't control their rage. For simplicity, let's call them academic bullies. These people are often intelligent, sophisticated, energetic, and well-organized. Moreover, they tend to be good communicators and possess a certain degree of charisma. You'd expect them to take on more responsibilities and advance in their careers. However, they have a significant flaw: they can't help being nasty. During routine work conversations, something triggers them, causing them to lose control and utter or write something unkind. This kind of flaw may be tolerated in some types of private businesses, but in academia, most authority relies on the support from a wide array of constituents. These individuals don't get elected, appointed, or promoted. They fail the test of sound relational instincts. Most people can intuitively discern between someone merely being irritated and someone being mean. While ordinary folks may become angry with each other, they also tend to calm down and rebuild their relationships. They still sense the point of no return during their bouts of anger and avoid crossing it. Bullies, on the other hand, cross it repeatedly. Deep-seated insecurity and possibly a degree of self-loathing drive them to seek instant gratification from belittling others. They're often aware that this isn't the best strategy, but the urge to demean others is too strong. Regardless of the consequences, they can't help themselves. Certainly, bullies gain nothing from their behavior. In fact, they often damage their own careers and opportunities.

At some point, a vicious cycle takes root: Correctly sensing hostility from others, the bully develops a victim complex, which shields them from any potential self-reflection. They lose sight of those they victimize, but become acutely aware of their own perceived victimization. Once the capacity to repent is lost, no relational growth is possible. Negative relational dynamics tend to harden, fall into self-reinforcing patterns, and ultimately make relational healing impossible. All past events slot into a rigidly constructed narrative of mutual hostility. Eventually, any functional group will find ways to isolate bullies, either by ignoring them or by granting them a small domain to control. They become sad and angry; their talent goes to waste. I wish I had a foolproof method to prevent this, but I don't. Among all the issues we tackle in academia, these unhappy individuals represent the most difficult to resolve. In this week following Thanksgiving, I am grateful that these are rare exceptions.

Nov 13, 2022

Terrible software. Let us name some names.

How do you know you are stuck with a terrible piece of software? When you are offered a user guide. The longer is the guide,  the worse is the user interface. I am not a software engineer and cannot appreciate the elegance of the code and the creativity of its internal design. But I can definitely tell a bad interface from a good one.

For example, someone called Iiaisonedu sold the CSU system Cal State Apply. Not only the System itself has to maintain detailed instructions, and pay tech support, but every campus is forced to develop its own set of instructions. Ours for one program only has 18 slides. The first couple of steps are easy, but then applicants get lost in whatever terminology the developer things is commonly understood.

As I mentioned before I have a couple of dozen different platforms I use for work only. Here is the picture of my bookmark folder called “Accounts.” Let’s give them some reviews.

OnBase is terrible program, written by space aliens for space aliens. None its terminology is used by normal human beings in their office. Somehow, it opens not with your inbox, where people want you to sign something, but on its very obscure back office page (with reporting, archives, queries, etc.), from which you have to find your way into the inbox that you need 95% of the time. It has little annoying bugs like you need to sign something, but then also find a different button, and say the form is completed. Really? Three clicks instead of one? The program was initially designed in 1991, by Hyland Software, and I don’t think anyone attempted to redesign its user interface since then. And yet governments and hospitals use it, because of the legacy issues.

Concur has another thoroughly confusing interface. It was designed for business executives whose assistants have no choice but figure out what all these buttons mean. It is absolutely unsuitable for the university environment, where most people travel 1-2 times a year and completely forget all its conventions between trips. Tell me again, how do "requests", "authorizations", and "approvals" relate to each other, and how do you "allocate"? Faculty members have no assistants, so we are forced to have a staff person to help them with travel; it is probably 75% of her workload. Some automation, right? You know you got screwed when a software costs you more labor than it saves.  Again, the program is almost 30 years old, and it shows. And yet, because they have a near monopoly on business travel, they seem to be able to sell their terrible product to the likes of us.

Course leaf is actually not bad on the interface part, but it has some weirdly basic gaps in its functionality. It goes back to Leapfrog Technologies, another company from early 90-s. For example, the thing does not let you know when your curriculum proposal is stuck at some level for weeks. The company also has the audacity to charge for every little change in forms we want to make. The idea that only the high priests of soft can have access to the configuration of the software is just so out of touch with this century’s computing practices.

We use a version of PeopleSoft, now the property of Oracle for some 12 years. It is another example of a very old monster that fell behind the times. At least they have an excuse: the databases must be very secure, and security kills agility and user customization. Still, they could figure out a better, more sleek and contemporary user interfaces. You know, something that look more like Instagram and Tok-tok, and less like your grandfather’s bank account.

Our Auxiliary organization that handles all grants and many other things, uses something designed by Ultimate Chronos, another elderly giant, founded in 1977, to keep their timesheets and other HR stuff. The system is not only completely incomprehensible, but is so buggy that I cannot approve my people’s timesheets for five years now.

Microsoft’s SharePoint and Office 365 is a mixed bag. It took them a decade to catch up with Google with respect to functionality, in some aspects it is a more advanced functionality. However, they somehow cannot overcome their curse of perpetual clunkinnes. Everything MS touches will look good and work fine, but… always takes three extra steps to figure out. They really have great engineers, but mediocre user experience specialists. What they think is cool, is actually kinda nerdy, and not in a cute way.

Let’s be fair, some of these are good. Zoom is great, which is why they killed Skype without much of an effort. I am thankful to them for helping us all to survive the pandemic, and for their drive to constantly improve. Qualtrics is a very decent survey software, mainly because the field of surveys is so competitive, and they need to improve to survive. I would call to question several of their choices, but it is something one can learn and use. Adobe Sign is actually a good program to use; kudos to Adobe for coming up with it not long before the pandemic. It worked great to transition our paperwork online. However, its more advanced functions, like branching of signature routes depending on the first user choice – is very-very difficult to use. This is a problem that has been solved a decade ago in various survey platforms. Why is Adobe with all its software engineering might cannot figure it out, is beyond my comprehension. It is simple – if the user chooses College A, it goes to one dean, if they choose College B, it goes to another. I know of workflow feature; it is not there yet and too complicated.

Anyway, I can keep going and going. However, the good news is for kids who want to learn to code and try a start-up. Business software is populated mostly by dinosaurs who don’t know what they are doing. They are also responsible for computer phobia that affects millions of people conditioned to blame themselves for being unable to figure out some terrible programs. Most of these dinosaurs are hopelessly behind times. Hire a very cool user interface designer, and you can beat them all. There is no reason submitting a timesheet should be harder than playing a Tik-tok clip or sending a message. There is no reason signing a document should be harder than liking a Fb post.

The industry is ripe for disruption. It is so behind, because of corporate model of purchasing. If Facebook is hard to use, millions of people make that decision, and Fb would be dead by now. When it is a corporation that buys a platform, the micro-signals from the user-driven market do not make it upstream. Neither the purchasers, not the vendors actually know enough about how end-users work, what they like and they hate about your platform.

Here is my actual list of bookmarked platforms

Nov 6, 2022

How to double room capacity on campus?

To do that, we need a couple of tweaks n the scheduling system. First, add Weal A and Weak B to the scheduling greed. For example, if you want to schedule a class in a certain room on only odd weeks of the semester, you can schedule another class in the same room on even weeks. Second, make hybrid modality a default in in the system. If somebody wants to meet every week, it is still fine, they can book a room for both weeks A and B. However, the default would be meeting every other week, and meeting online for the rest. This kind of switch does not require changes in program’s accreditation status. After the pandemic experience, most faculty can manage the online portion of the class. However, most students need some in-class presence to stay focused and motivated, so a hybrid class is often an acceptable compromise.

Figuring out which classes are OK to be taught fully online for which audiences, - this task turned out to be much more complicated that we ever imagined. I expect some time is needed to get a fuller understanding of what is the best mix of modalities. Some problems only time will solve. As I have said before, the dual modality instruction that sounded so great in theory, turned out to be impractical for most faculty (although not for all). In the meanwhile, it seems reasonable to default to a half-way solution of hybrid courses; the solution that blend some of the advantages of online learning with those of f2f classroom. It seems to be the least risky option. It also solves a very practical problem of classroom capacity at a relatively low cost.

We will also eventually arrive at shared offices for staff and faculty who telecommute. There is a lot of psychological barriers to that, including attachment to one’s office, the sense of self-worth, office decorations, the kids’ pictures, and all the other office culture. However, the pragmatics will win in the end. The public will not be paying for hundreds of empty offices if telecommuting continues to be the norm. Taxpayers will start asking questions sooner or later.

In the future, the footprint of workplaces in general will shrink, and commuting will be reduced. As people will work more at home and less in their offices, we won’t need as many offices. It is good for both the environment and for people’s well-being. Less driving means cleaner air and lower cost of gas. Working part of the week from home will become the norm. I do not believe fully remote workers will be very common wither. Again, compromises tend to win the day, unless someone finds real evidence that partial telecommuting reduces productivity. I have not seen any evidence like that yet, which does not mean it does not exist. It is likely, that the partial telecommuting works better for some industries, but not for others. It works fine for universities so far. Let’s think about smaller campuses with lighter footprint.

Nov 1, 2022

Minority report

Last week, I had an opportunity to interact with a very small minority within a minority, within another minority. Estonia is a small European country of 1.3 million. Within it, a mostly secular country, there is 20% minority of Eastern Orthodox Christians. Within it, there is a minority of Estonian-speaking people, both ethnically Russian and Estonian. Within that group, there is a group that holds anti-Putin, and pro-European values. That’s who I visited and had a chance to interact with.

The minority point of view is always rich, and always more interesting than that of a majority. It is rich with contradictions, of unsettles identities, rich in alternative memories. A minority always understand the majority better than vice versa; and it understands itself much better. It is easy to blend in, to dissolve in the big sea, but it is hard to hold on to your identity, and even harder to pass it on to your children. This makes for a more complex, more multilayered culture. IN many cases, minority youth have better levels of adaptability, richer repertoire of relational skills.

St. John’s school in Tallinn is quite amazing. A brand-new building in Nordic design traditions, with a very cool chapel built into it. The kids chatter in Estonian, but after about 4th grade will switch to English with guests. An amazing Indian chef cooks home meals, and relaxed, free atmosphere. These are all the signs of a liberal school. And yet is also a religious school. The link between religion and social conservatism is very not universal. Cultural landscape is always more complex than one might imagine. I also enjoyed talking to several theologians at the conference. They are not normally the crowd I hang out with. But I was taught by my adviser Lyudmila Novikova to seek new ideas always outside of my own field. For example, I was reminded that the Patristic literature examined most of thing to know about the human condition. They used different conceptual apparatus but talked about the same things. It would be fun to do a second translation – not just from Greek to English, but also from the language of theology to the language of contemporary secular scholarship. I did a few bits of it in the past, writing about what icons mean today, and how the concept of sin is applicable to the Trump movement and other varieties of populism. But that is for another project.

Oct 17, 2022

There is no shame in shrinking

Finally, the waive of declining college-age population reached California. For years we were an exception because of the growing immigrant youth. And yet the trend has reached us after all.

The reaction is predictable: public universities are gearing up for a more competitive environment: rethinking their recruitment and marketing operations, developing more appealing programs, reaching out farther to non-traditional populations. These are all good; a little competition helps to boost productivity, creativity, and helps to attune better to the demands of labor market.

The one strategy I do not see is preparing to actually shrink enrollments. The imperative to grow was so strong for so many years, that it maybe difficult to adjust. Yet indeed, if the demographic changes will be as serious as we expect, none of the above strategies is going to not help much. CSU is too big to steal students from the other two public systems and from private institutions. While there are many people with unfinished degrees, not too many of them will come to complete their degrees. And we are not geared up to accommodate all of them.

Organized retreat is the most difficult operation, and yet it is much better than disorganized retreat. As student body shrinks, the staff and faculty body cannot stay the same. We can wait until the next financial crisis, of course, and then go through a very painful fast shrinking ordeal, with hiring freezes, furloughs, layoffs, etc. Or we can try to spell out a mid-range strategy of organized shrinking: evaluating programs, streamlining services, eliminating redundancies, automating workflows, increasing efficiency, etc. Let’s face the fact that shrinking will increase our costs per student while reducing our tuition revenues. Should we at least run a few models for various scenarios? In other words, we can arrive at a smaller size in better shape and avoid painful shocks to the organization.

I fully realize, learning to be a smaller institution is not as much fun as growing. Growing pains are much more tolerable than shrinking pains. The problem is, we may not have a choice whether to experience the latter. If you know you cannot avoid something bad, a responsible thing is to prepare and mitigate consequences. Let’s not talk about modest reduction in size in funeral tones. It is not the end of the world. We are an overcrowded campus with aging physical plant. Perhaps something good can be gotten in the worsening situation?

Oct 10, 2022

Poor department, rich department

All public universities have some sort of a quasi-commercial continuing or extended education shops. All struggle to figure out the right kind of incentive for faculty to engage into putting together more of such programs. State funding is never enough, and there is only a limited set of options to diversify revenues. Basically, only three exists: fundraising, grants/contracts, and continuing education programming. The latter is by far the most significant.

Those campuses more influenced by the neoliberal management theories send some of the profits back to those who create and teach CE programs. The logic is simple: create reach and poor, the poor will see how well the rich have it and will try to do the same thus increasing the overall wealth created. In practice, such an approach does not work, and sometimes has tremendous negative externalities.

First, not all departments and not all colleges are in a position to put together a CE program or any other revenue-generating gig. If you a chemistry department, you may occasionally land a commercial contract. If you are in astronomy, it is much less likely. Colleges of business can generate hundreds of thousands of dollars annually by putting together an Executive MBA. Departments like English and Math that work hard at putting all students through gened courses, can rarely offer something to the market. It is not because of lack of effort or creativity. Academic disciplines have very different relations with external markets; they serve vastly different external populations. One should not incentivize luck.

Other issues with fairness arise. For example, who do you share the income with? Is it the individual, the department, the college or the division? If it is a department, most of it may have nothing to do with the CE program that generates revenues. How is getting extra resources fair, if all you did was to be lucky to work with someone who had an idea and has the persistence to implement it? If it is the college, the same problem of rich and poor colleges produces a very inequitable outcome. I have seen more than one group ruined under the pressure of the irrational inequality. A lot of money not only create fertile sole for nepotism, but what is even more important, they create an inevitable mistrust. Dividing a lot of money that results in extreme inequality is a relational bomb. Seeing a very rich neighbor does not motivate the poor department to act (especially if they cannot do much); but it generates resentment.

But also consider other, less obvious side-effects. For strategic re-investment of CE revenues, you need a relative concentration of the funds. You can build meaningful programs with significant resources. When a small department gets their 5 K a year of play money, they will buy a coffeemaker, and a new furniture. I remember in one of my old places we repainted the main office. It was beautiful, but was it consequential? OK, the rich department faculty will go to a few more conferences, including that questionable one in Hawaii in January, organized by who-knows-whom. All of this is nice, but it is not strategy. I former dean-colleague I admire saved money for something like 8 years and built a whole brand-new facility for one of the programs. Yes, his departments got by without a leather chair, but it was a strategic investment that benefited everyone. And unlike another college, it did not self-destruct in acrimony.

Every CE program lets its authors and participants make extra income. No one does this work for free. If this direct compensation is fair, it is already a strong incentive to keep going, and invent new programs. The excess revenue sharing is a more complicated thing, because this money cannot be individual income. It can only come as some sort of PD funds, with a bunch of strings attached. Or it can be spent on buying stuff. As I mentioned, the more concentrated are those funds, the more strategic is its use. For the revenue, solidarity works better than competition. Deans and provosts cannot “keep” the money; they must invest it in something that supports the mission and benefits as many people as possible. Spending money in academia is not easy; it must come with a plan, and it must do no harm.

Oct 3, 2022

California Master Plan, and Why it should be revised

In 1960, the Plan was a recognized achievement in higher education policy. Most states and many nations copied it to some degree. It is still a required reading in higher education history and policy courses. It created three large public education systems with distinct missions: Community Colleges, the CSU, and the UC. The plan performed remarkably well, giving broad access while forcing the three systems to stay focused on their respective missions. Community colleges – for all programs below BA, CSU for bachelors’ and masters’ degrees, and UC for everything, including PhD level programming.

The plan has been changing gradually. Some community colleges were authorized to offer a limited number of bachelor’s degrees. CSU’s can now offer four doctoral degrees for practitioners (Ed D in Ed Leadership, DNP in Nursing, DPT Physical Therapy, and AUD in Audiology). Right now, 68 doctoral programs are offered by the CSU, including many joint programs with UC campuses. These recent shifts recognize the realities of the new knowledge-based economy. While in 1960, a tiny minority of workforce had doctoral degrees. In California now, almost half a million people have doctorate degrees. But per capita, the state lags behind 11 other states, including New Mexico and Rhode Island. Within CA, counties vary greatly by the percent of their doctorate-educated populations, From Modoc at .12% to Yolo at 5.12%.

I am not suggesting we need to churn out more and more doctoral graduates regardless of their employment prospects. It is easy to enter the race to the bottom if regulations are completely abandoned. Unfortunately, we know that free market competition does not work in education. If you deregulate higher ed, the Akerlof’s Lemon Law kicks in. At the same time, CSU should continue to expand its degree offerings for fields that we know are short of workers with advanced degrees, and therefore are guaranteed employment. I imagine some of the hard sciences and computer sciences are among them. I know for sure that mental health practitioners and their supervisors are on that list.  While UC had built am impressive range of research-focused PHD programs, those are not going to feed the labor market for practitioners with advanced degrees. It is time we recognize the trend at the State level, and make actual revisions to the Master plan, rather than keep authorizing one degree at a time. An amendment could be simple: CSU is authorized to offer doctoral degrees other than PHD. There is already a robust approval process all the way to the chancellors’ office to approve new degrees, including labor market analysis. I am just not sure it should take a new legislative action every time we do that.

Sep 26, 2022

The conservative in me

In the higher ed, the talk of change, of innovation, of strategy, and moving forward is all you can hear. In reality all administrators worry at least as much about screwing up. Take the CSU System. The public has entrusted us with this very expensive, very sophisticated machine, essential to the State’s economy and its democracy. As President Nelsen said recently, we are the manufacturers of the middle class for the state. Imagine you are in charge of the James Webb Telescope, a 10 billion dollars piece of equipment that took decades to build and launch. Even if you take care of only a small part of it, you don’t want your part malfunctioning, right?

From a certain angle, the CSU System looks like a slow, gigantic, and bureaucratic beast. From another angle, it is one of the wonders of the world, the image of the future for the humanity. How can it take all of this very diverse population, not the elite, but regular kids, many of whom first generation in college, and give them a degree, a profession, give them hope and purpose? It is something the rest of the world needs to learn how to do.

And our telescope can be damaged easily, yes. One scandal will not kill it, but multiple ones can seriously damage its credibility, undermine public confidence, and result in decreased funding and invasive over-regulation. Any kind of bad news can come out about any university: about poor morale, labor conflicts, harassment, bias, inefficiencies, wastefulness, self-interest, poor management, and many others. Of course no one wants to be the cause of such things, - not only because it is professionally embarrassing, but because we don’t want to hurt the miracle machine.

Yes, we all talk about change and progress, and improvement. Silently, all of us are also conservatives, very much so. We won’t admit it because no one likes an overcautious bureaucrat. Yet the stakes can be high. None of us wants to make things worse on our watch. We all want to pass our little part of the telescope onto the next person in a better shape than when we found it.

Sep 18, 2022

Administrators are philosophers

They may or may not realize it, but it is true. They all have to practice some philosophy to make good decisions. Here is an example of a dilemma:

1. Some students want to take online classes, but we know (from the pandemic years) that it may not be good for them. Others want to be online and can learn just fine, while improving their access and family lives. Therefore, providing simple choice is not going to work, because choice is based on an assumption that people know what they need. If student knew what they need, they won’t be needing education.

2. There is no easy way to distinguish between the two groups. However, we can make educated guesses about groups of students and types of classes. Our guesses may be poor, but they may be better than unfettered choices of students. We actually do not know that for sure, but professors have more experience than students and should be able to make better decisions.

3. Some instructors want to teach online, but they are not good at it. Other professors want to teach online and are good at it. And yet still others do not want to teach online, but they are good at it anyway. We know this from the pandemic records. However, politically it hard to push them to teach in modality that students need, because the authority of making most curricular and pedagogical decision lies with faculty. We may be able to delegate the decision to groups of faculty members, but small group dynamics may get weird really quickly, we know that from the past experience.

OK, this was only a small subset of major factors that should be considered into the decision on how many online and f2f courses do we need to offer. The other factors include cohorted programs, where choice of modality is impractical, the institutional accreditation rules that prevent arbitrary changes of modality, the practicality of assigning instructors to classes late, after the modality is established, etc. In other words, the problem appears too complex to be solved. We can keep it unsolved for a year or two, but it needs to be solved eventually.

The only way to solve a complex problem involves an act of “zooming out,” that is trying to figure out what is this a case of? It involves getting out of the particulars and trying to find a more general perspective on the problem. Once you do something like that, you start practicing philosophy weather you know it or not. Philosophy is thinking about how you should think about complex problems.

The philosophical move of taking a broader view can be performed in hundreds of different ways. The choice depends on philosophers set of tools, knowledge of theories, and often preferences. The only way to know if you have found the right one is the result – is the solution you offer is any better than others, and better than a random guess? Regardless of the way you move, it takes time to think through. Philosophy is work; it requires some mental effort.

For example, the example I started with can be considered a case of paternalism vs. developmentalism. All educational institutions are riddled with a paradox: On one hand, schools are paternalistic; they make no sense without guiding and limiting student choices. Hence, we have constructed curriculum, and organized instruction. We want to prevent students from making major errors that could ruin their lives. At the same time, schools are developmentalist: if you want to teach students to make rational choices that are good for them, you must allow some errors to occur. Without making some wrong choices and experiencing negative consequences, students will never learn how to make their own good choices. For example, knowledge that you are not a good online student is better if it comes from your own experience, not because you were told so. If you examine closely, most of education is a balancing act between letting students make their own error and preventing them from making errors that are too large. School is a place for safer errors.

Again, I am not saying that my way of “zooming out” is the best one. I may or may not be a good philosopher, but I know the trade’s basic move. My intent was just to show how philosophy helps reframe the problem that is hard to solve otherwise. Indeed, making the philosophical move allows me to focus on a very specific aspect of the problem: taking an online class and having a bad time – is it a big error that can ruin your life, or a small one from which you can actually learn something?

In this particular case, we should probably look for some empirical evidence, and that is where social science comes in. But at least we know what to look for. And even without detailed evidence, I can make a guess that the error is probably not too large, and it can be made educational and less painful. All we need to do is offer some variety of classes with different modalities, so that students who struggle to learn online are not overwhelmed by many small failures. We should probably rule out offering classes by poor online instructors; just find a political solution for that. And finally, to make these choices educational, we should warn students before they sign up, what is involved in an online class, and help them reflect on their experience after it is done. Not all errors are educational; only those you reflected on as errors.

Sometimes solving a problem entails the correct estimation of its scale. Once you realize the problem may not be as big as you imagined, you buy some time for experimenting and seeing what happens.

Sep 11, 2022

Integrity is not always a virtue

Liz Cheney and a few other brave Republicans have been accused of betrayal. Indeed, their anti-Trump stance is likely to help Democrats in the next electoral cycle and beyond. They found out that loyalty to the party and to the ideas it stands for is not the only virtue, and that virtues often conflict. For example, loyalty to the country is stronger than loyalty to their party. Those are not pleasant or easy findings. Being called a traitor by former friends and colleagues is not an experience anyone craves. Many people strive for integrity, that is a non-contradictory, coherent set of beliefs. However, it is not always attainable.

Thirty years ago, I would not have imagined the day when I wish Russia to lose a war with one of its neighbors. And yet this is exactly my hope today. Who knew that a bloody dictator would rule the country again? Who knew that it would invade Ukraine, its closest kin? Who knew that the Grand Old Party, the party of smaller government, of free market and social conservatism would one way be hijacked by a fascist?

Many people, including me, realized a while back that Trumpism is a nascent fascist movement. Biden did the right thing, calling it out publicly. Again, he went against many conventions, against the tradition of political speech in America. I am sure he was conflicted about it. One of the biggest mistakes anyone could make is failing to notice how the world suddenly shifts. Sticking to your principles regardless of circumstances is not a sign of some virtue; it is a sign of rigidity and close-mindedness.

We are ruled not by one, but by a set of commitments and principles. Those sometimes come into a conflict with each other. Those conflicts can tear one’s self apart. The bad way of dealing with the internal conflict is to cling to one of one’s values and ignore the others. “Yes, Trump is a liar and lacks empathy, but he is good for my party, and he helps it win.” “Yes, Russia is an aggressor and a dictatorship, but it is my country, and I will support it no matter what.” Those are voices of cowardice that is trying to pass for integrity.

Aug 28, 2022

The school energy

After a couple of years of dashed hopes and the zoom-fog, we are finally back. I will let you in on a secret; all educators know it, but most of other people do not. We have an endless source of power that makes education tick no matter what. If you gather many young people for a peaceful and productive purpose, they exude a special form of energy. Let’s call it the school energy. It is especially abundant and palpable this year, although it is always there, and always more visible at the start of a school year. To be completely honest, many of us in the teaching profession get a bit addicted to it; it is one of the main reasons we do what we do.

The way it works is a mystery. Get together hundreds of young people, with their own hopes, anxieties, peculiarities, their passions, the capacity to love, dreams and ambitions. Make it clear they will be learning something. I am not sure if they are just happy to see each other, and the learning part is a good excuse to do it. But it works. The ingredients are: young people, a school of some sort, the first day of the school year. Mix quickly, and you get a boost of energy, both invisible, and unmistakable. Consume with caution.

Speaking at orientations for future educators, I always struggle to convey this little trade secret we have. How do I tell them, it is not all hard work and sacrifice? Teaching can also be an immensely pleasurable experience if you know how to look. There is nothing as hopeful and optimistic as a crowd of young bodies and minds who came to make their – and your – lives better. You can watch future by watching a Sci-Fi flick with starships, or you can come to one of the new school year events. The latter is a much more joyful activity. You drink this energy of the young freely, without taking anything away from them. To the contrary, you help them get where they want to go. That is the paradox of the school energy – the more you take it, the more is left for others to take. Take this, the first law of thermodynamics.

Aug 22, 2022

Dispatch from a very slowly sinking Titanic

As the fog of COVID pandemic recedes, we can take a good look at the road ahead of us. Before pumping the gas pedal, we should probably take a better look at where we are going from here. It does not hurt to remember that our mission as an institution is not to survive, but to advance certain priorities the public entrusted us to focus on. But that is easy, for our mission does not change much. The more difficult part is to imagine the specific mid-range goals. They have to be ambitious enough to motivate us, and yet realistic enough to maintain focus. Calibrating the mid-range goals is actually a non-trivial task. Organizational eyes tend to be far- sighted: we can see far fairly well, but the next few years look a bit fuzzy. Or rather, they look exactly the same as now; the movement, the subtle shifts in the needed direction is what’s hard to imagine.

As I noted before, higher ed is very good at re-enacting the annual cycle. I know that classes will be scheduled, rooms assigned, students registered, plus or minus a few glitches. Students will be taught, assessed, grades assigned, and diplomas duly issued. I feel no anxiety about the new school year or semester starting and ending. What we are not very good at is change. It is precisely because we are so good at routines. The organization is built to reproduce itself, to enact the same motions, according to the same rules. Wanting to change something involves making the procedures of self-replication less efficient. Improvement requires disruption. This is not just a paradox that sounds good; no, this is literally how things go. The ratio of disruption/progress could be different, but it is never zero. Even if you want to do the simplest act of improvement – abolish some procedure entirely, for example – it needs resources to explain to people what not to do anymore. You need time to figure out any unintended consequences of the change. The time must come from somewhere. Spending time on non-routine things is disruptive.

We are contemplating a way to reduce the teaching load for all faculty who want to do more scholarship to 9-9 level. This looks like both an ambitious and a realistic idea for, say a 5-year horizon. However, it has a massive disruptive potential. We need to find reliable revenues to support it, we need to find someone to teach all the sections without the loss in quality. There is a complicated question about who and how will get it, what criteria to use, how to not destroy incentives for applying for campus-wide resources. The one issue I spent a lot of time on is whether we can use our off-campus revenues to cover this cost. Once we figure out the basic questions, someone has to put together the process, the paper trail, and other supporting mechanisms. We need to estimate the increased burden on our staff and on lecturers. Someone needs to understand the potential for internal resentment and conflict. One you take in the scope of the project, an inevitable question pops up – do we have to do it?

Do you now see why it is so easy to just play defense, to just keep doing what we have been doing? There is no risk in just paying more attention to the routine, to reduce glitches, to spend more time going around and strengthening relationships, and cheering people up. Unlike private businesses, we are not under a constant threat from competition ready to eat us up after the first wrong move. And yet, we have long-term challenges. The higher ed is shrinking; only some of it is related to demographics. Students of color are losing ground on campuses. Our costs rise faster than the public is willing to tolerate. Like global warming, this is a very slow, almost imperceptible sinking. The responsible thing would be to try to change, to adapt. Yet our DNA is set up to reproduce. That’s what I am worried about. We can start the academic year just fine; that is not the issue.

Aug 6, 2022

What’s wrong with Russians?

That is the question I get from some of my friends, in one form or another. Why would a country reject opportunities for a democratic, peaceful development and chose totalitarianism twice within a century, and both times with disastrous consequences for themselves and for their neighbors? It would be easier to say “yes,” and produce some esoteric stuff about the mentality, culture, or deficiencies of the mysterious Russian soul. I can give you ten of these theories right off the top of my head. BS is too easy.

The uncomfortable truth is that there is nothing special about Russians. In other world, all their failings are common to all other peoples. People who now singing praises to Putin’s war are not very different from people who stormed the Capitol building on January 6, 2021. An attentive observer will notice the same breed of paranoia, the same toxic mythology, and the same xenophobia. Similarly, the urban educated and liberal class looks the same in Moscow or in Sacramento. Russians had demonstrated their ability to create a robust civil society, and grassroot democracy, and a modern economy, just like everyone else, before it was wiped out in the last 15 years or so. The only difference is a fragile framework of institutions and traditions that the US has, and Russia does not.

Instead of speculating, let us look at two very similar neighbors, Russia, and Ukraine. The history of both nations is very similar, and so is their respective culture, demographics, and the economics. Both countries came out of the Soviet slumber with a very similar set of challenges and assets. Both struggled with building democratic institutions and confronting massive corruption, while trying to modernize. Both countries inherited powerful secret services and weak court systems. The only difference is oil and natural gas. The natural resources put enormous money to the disposal of one small group of Russian corrupt officials. In political science, this is a classic example of the rentier state. In Ukraine, none of the oligarchic group was rich and powerful enough to monopolize power. While such groups fought with each other, there was enough room for a relatively free press, a civil society, and some democratic institutions to survive. Ukrainians are rightfully proud of two anti-corruption revolutions they staged to defend their fledgling democracy. With all due respect, they had not been dealing with an oppression apparatus as rich and as powerful as the Russian Federation. Belarus is an outlier, for it did not have many natural resources. However, its dictatorship emerged almost immediately from the Soviet system, and can be considered a simple continuation of it. In this sense, it is closer to Central Asian states that to Russia and Ukraine.

One policy lesson for the global democratic coalition is this: do not help enrich dictators. The resource-fueled wealth is going to be used against their own people, and in many cases, against neighbors. Putin’s Russia is an unintended consequence of the global trade. So was Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and ayatollahs’ Iran. Examples from the Middle East and Africa abound. The West made China powerful through unlimited trade and technology exchange, and we still do not know the consequences of this approach. The pattern is the same: a dictator needs to use the resources to stay in power forever. Staying in power often needs a small victorious war to whip up the patriotic frenzy. Poor dictators oppress their own people. Rich dictators go to war with others.

The other lesson is that the institutions need protection. They cannot be taken for granted. The fact that a demagogue like Donald Trump had been elected president and attempted a coup d’état is a warning bell. The fact that George Bush started an unnecessary Iraq war on false pretenses is another warning bell we failed to do anything about. The presidential power to wage war must be legally limited. The weaponization of social media must be contained. Let’s not look too deep; the lessons are specific, and pragmatic solutions must be found. There is nothing wrong with us. 

Jul 29, 2022

The pull of the rough draft

In general, executives try to walk out of any meeting with minimal to-do list in their hands. When discussing a project, we have a temptation to say “oh, I can do it so easily, and I may be the best in the room to do it.” That is almost always the wrong thing to do; if you a leader, you should find someone else to do it, whenever possible. Otherwise, your time will be completely eaten up by such tasks. More importantly, you are not letting your team learn and grow. Delegation of responsibility is essential for a learning organization.

However, there is one exception to this rule. When a meeting resolves in a need for some sort of a document, I often volunteer to do the first draft. It is because the framing of the issue and structuring of the initial document are critically important to get it right. After that, people can contribute to it in many ways, including completely overriding the initial idea. But everyone tends to stick to the original frame. A document with three sections tends to stay with three sections, no matter how many edits it goes through. If it has the Background part, and a summary part, they normally stay. If you include a section called “Limitations of the proposed approach,” people usually keep it there. I may never have any input or control over the document again, but I can influence the questions people ask themselves while writing it.

The structure of things, not just documents, is something that is obvious to the point of becoming invisible. It affects our thinking in subtle, barely perceptible ways. The most potent power is that of a blank page, where everything is still possible, and nothing is solid yet. We rarely get to deal with the blank page. None if us get to do anything really from scratch. The “scratch” is the sensation of boundless creativity. That is the reason not to miss such rare moments where nothing yet is fixed. Whatever you or others create later will increasingly limit further steps. The way you use your freedom determines the shackles that will eventually confine it. Treasure the potency of a rough draft.

Jul 11, 2022

“My dog is racist”

Googling “My dog is racist” will return 1.2 million hits. “Are dogs racist?” – over a million hits. Of course, dogs are not intrinsically racist, but their owners train them to be. Most often, it happens completely unconsciously. Dogs are not that smart in many respects, but they are very good at reading subtle behavioral cues. If you tense up, pull a leash a little shorter, when you see someone different, or engage more often with people who are similar to you, the dogs will pick up on that and eventually learn the unconscious bias from you.

This is nothing new, and there has been some empirical research to back the story up. If anything, the phenomenon is an irrefutable evidence to support the existence of unconscious bias. (Yes, some people still do not believe it exists). However, I think it is important to remind, that just like dogs, humans are capable of learning subconsciously from each other as well. Kids will sense their parents tensing, or using exaggeratedly polite expressions, or somehow treating people differently depending on their identity. Neither the teacher nor the learner is aware of the lesson, and yet the transmission of such implicit attitude does occur. Just like a virus, prejudice does not need the carrier’s intent to be passed on.

It is difficult to unlearn what you do not remember learning. As I attended Resmaa Menakem’s workshop last week, that much became abundantly clear to me. He encourages all of us to refocus on our bodies, learn to read what our bodies are telling or hiding from us, and eventually overcome both the implicit trauma and the implicit bias we may suppress away from the consciousness. This is why racist, sexism, ableism, homophobia, and other forms of prejudice are such hard problems to solve. We are dealing with much more than just the self-aware human mind. We cannot talk our rational minds out of it.

As I am thinking about our own social justice agenda, I am more and more convinced that we should think of it in terms of two buckets – the quick and the slow. The quick are policies and curriculum we need to change to eliminate barriers. That can be done relatively quickly. However, classroom pedagogy, the interpersonal interactions among people – are different kind of phenomena altogether. They are significantly connected to the unconscious minds, and deeper, to our somatic constitutions. Confusing the two types of change, using the same strategies for both seems to be a mistake. I am not saying we should give up or literally go slow. We just need to use different strategies on the slow problems.

Jun 28, 2022

Can I zoom into your class, professor?

This seems to be a persistent post-COVID request, a difficult one to address. On one hand, instructors want to be accommodating and compassionate to students. Everyone now knows it is theoretically possible to have some people Zooming in. Students have very good stories, including being sick with COVID. Other faculty relent, so one may feel a bit of a peer pressure to say yes. On the other hand, it is very hard to do well. The dual or HyFlex modality turned out to be very hard on instructors. First, the technology is not there yet. We thought it is, and some ed tech enthusiasts will tell you it is. But do not believe them. Someone has to point the camera to the right direction, make sure the sound feed is OK (most rooms do not have good microphones). Someone has to monitor the online portion of the class and include them into all kinds of activities. Depending on the class, the effort ranges from very difficult to impossible. Also, you look like an incompetent fool to the students, when fumbling about technology. These impressions may affect your student evaluations and ultimately your career.

Universities are reluctant to regulate for obvious reasons: Faculty tend to value independence on decisions, and classes and programs are too different to merit a one-size-fits all approach. Yet the lack of regulation is a problem on its own: it breeds inconsistency, and makes peer pressure worse. Going through the existing services for students with disabilities seems to be too cumbersome. Those procedures work for semester-long accommodations, but not for short-term, or one-time requests. Even regular doctors notes won’t work consistently.

To address the issue, we have been working on a set of guidelines and best practices. The fundamental assumption is that we should communicate three things to the student:
  1. It is a curtesy accommodation; you are not entitled to it. It comes at a cost to me and to other students in class, so please only request when you are truly desperate. “Gas is too expensive” does not qualify. And even then, I may not be able to grant it to you, sorry.
  2. Do not expect experience similar to being in class. We do not yet have technology to provide full participation for remote students in a f2f class. It is much more difficult than a regular online class, and you should appreciate the complexity.
  3. If I agree, find a zoom buddy in class who will do this for you: turn the laptop around, make sure your sound is good enough, ask questions on your behalf, etc. The instructor is too busy teaching to do this for you. And your zoom buddy should do all of that without disrupting the rest of the class. 
We also started to collect the best practices for such remote participation. I am sure, in a few years, people will find better ways of supporting such requests. I hope some smart entrepreneurs are working on better tech solutions. In the meanwhile, we should try to live with the imperfect the best way can.

Jun 12, 2022

A shoestring conference. Downshifting in the academia.

No deep thoughts here, just some practical tips on how to run an international conference with no budget and minimal support. There is an international network of scholars that has no legal status and no budget. We intend to keep it that way as long as possible, because setting up an organization is a headache regardless of jurisdiction. It is because once money start exchanging hands, tax authorities reasonably require some accountability. It is harder in some countries than in others, but still it is a burden.

We use Qualtrics, a common survey software to collect names of all people who are interested in being in the loop. Conference proposals are also accepted through the same survey software. Once proposals are in, we created one long file with all the anonymized proposals. Reviewers would all go to the same file and insert their reviews right there, after each proposal. The reviewers also use a code number, so we maintain the double-blind standard. This little trick cuts down on writing back and forth, matching reviews with proposals, and virtually eliminates manual data entry. The only small manual step – we mark rejected proposals on the list and mark the rest of them automatically mark accepted. A mail merge trick allows you to send 60 emails in a few seconds. It can send a thousand in a few minutes.

Now, the next trick is important; we discovered it this year, and it works. We created a google doc with empty time slots, and invited presenters to enter their name and paper title in any empty slot. It worked great, and we have a program no one spent any time putting together. It literally assembled itself, and people had a choice on time. The non-editable version of the program is automatically published on the conference website. Now, we got people a little confused because for the global conference, we had to use UTC, and it is surprisingly hard for many people to figure out the time difference. This is something to improve next time around.

Because the conference is virtual this year, we did not have to deal with hotels, contracts, food, receptions, and all that stuff. We sweet-talked the keynote speaker to give the talk for free, which eliminated the need for registration fees. The conference is open to all, so people come to the site, enter a zoom room, and participate. No worries, no zoom bombing took place. I believe it is a very rare event, and even if it happens, no one is physically hurt. Those who ran conference know, what a headache registration is, both in terms of money collection, and maintaining records.

One can, of course, pay someone 50K to run an online conference, and charge a few hundred dollars in fees. The treasurer has to worry that if not enough people register, the conference will be in the red. Well, we have no treasurer. However, the quality of conversation is not affected by that at all. I the end, it is the same 8-12 people in every room, listening to a presentation, and engaging in productive conversations. With available distributed information processing technologies, there is a way to downshift in many areas of life. Scholarly conferences is one of them.

If we ever decide to go f2f, there are ways of keeping the cost down. Any campus can give rooms and tech support for free. People can book their own hotels without conference discounts. The way those discounts work is – you must buy a lot of food in exchange for slightly discounted rooms, and free or discounted conference rooms. And if you do not make the quota – you are liable to pay the difference. It is a racket, really. Unless you run a conference in very expensive cities, the discounts are not worth the registration fees. The local host campus can always sponsor a reception, with a cash bar, of course.

Success of academic downshifting is not entirely dependent on the virtual modality. It is a matter of choice and skill. Simple is beautiful. Sorry, middlemen.

May 14, 2022

Misreading intentions

Human conflict almost always starts with misreading the other’s intentions. The ability to infer intentions from behavior is a gift that comes to humans with their particular kind of sociality. We evolved to guess what the other person might be thinking. However, as it is often the case, an advanced ability comes with side effects, when it is in overdrive. Humans in general do not tolerate uncertainty very well; even less so in relational context. It is difficult to us to observe another person’s behavior and think: I do not know why she did that. I do not understand how he really feels about me. The temptation is always to create a coherent story. A very curt email means he is dismissing me. An objection means she is angry at me. Critical feedback means they are biased against me. Those kinds of explanations pop into our minds quite naturally. And once the misreading of intentions happens, every new interaction tends to reinforce the initial erroneous hypothesis, because every new interaction is colored by the initial misreading.

Anthropologists specifically train to avoid over-interpreting their subject’s behavior. They learn to assume that within a different cultural lens, the meaning of every behavior may be very different than one the researcher naturally assumes while using his or her own cultural lens. However, when people come together to work at a place like university, they do not act as anthropologists. They overestimate cultural coherence of their group, and routinely overinterpret each other’s actions. In the Academia, people get mad at each other all the time. In my humble estimate, at least 90% of these conflicts are absolutely baseless. Those involved share values and beliefs, but simply misread each other’s intentions. I also cannot help noticing, that such conflicts are more common towards the end of the Spring semester, when people are tired, and are subconsciously looking to attribute their fatigue to someone else. Their relational imagination is fried, and more generous interpretations of other people behavior is more difficult to achieve.

What helps is personal contact at the very onset of a conflict. Go to the other person as soon as possible, and talk about intentions. A face-to-face interaction involves more universal, more culturally-neutral means of communication, such as body language, facial expression, and the tone of voice. Face-to-face contact is a routine relational hygiene. Another good habit is to simply learn to suppress the over-active imagination, and ignore behaviors that may be interpreted as hostile.

It is especially damaging to assume that if you feel that someone’s behavior is offensive, it is therefore offensive. This kind of over-trusting one’s own feelings leads to disastrous consequences for all involved. Our feelings lie to us all the time, in the same way our rational minds may deceive us. To assume that you are incapable of making a mistake is a self-destructing trait. It closes the feedback loop from other people, and claims too much righteousness. People who go in that direction for a long time lose all ability to adjust, to learn, and ultimately, to relate to other people. If you think you always know what other people mean, you cannot work and live among human beings.

May 9, 2022

Parallel universes and the freedom of speech

Sci-Fi is full of stories about parallel universes. The Man in the High Castle is one of the most vivid recent examples. It shows a universe where Nazis won the WWII, and the US has been divided between Germany and Japan. Every being that has imagination can envision an alternative future. The drama created when some people sometimes are able to cross over from one world into another. I have a similar eerie feeling when I watch Russian State TV. It feels like a parallel universe, separated from our own reality. It is a world where noble Russian soldiers are fighting evil Ukrainian Nazis, saving children and elderly people. It has this weird coherence to it; it almost feels real. Even a skeptical mind, being exposed to hundreds of hours of this, will adapt, will accept the reality despite itself. That’s what humans do – they adapt, they accommodate, they find their way in any circumstance. Survival means accepting reality, or what looks like a reality.

If you read QAnon sites, you know the feeling. It feels like strangely coherent whole universe that is like ours and yet not like ours. It is a world where Trump has won the election, and a secretive cabal of shady operatives is running the country towards its ruin. These people disagree whether it is the reptiloids, or the pedophile Clintonites, or the Jews that are behind everything. But those disagreements are within the same whole self-sufficient and parallel universe. It is the universe that is impenetrable to ours, just like ours cannot be accessed from there.

In The Man in the High Castle, Nazis have found a way to penetrate into other universes, to infiltrate and poison them. Similarly, the seemingly autonomous universes have been invading our own. Russian tanks are every bit as real as the US Supreme Court’s majority or Trump presidency.

In recent decades, the magic power to imagine has been enhanced so greatly that large swaths of humanity seem to be unable to control it. Too much imagination is psychosis, where one cannot keep straight where is reality and where is the illusion. The ability to alter video, distort information, and validate falsehoods through peer communities – those tools are too dangerous to be used uncontrollably. The classic standards for freedom of speech did well, when speech meant mostly black print marks on cheap paper. We are dealing with entire vivid, emotional, shared multiplayer universes that are better than reality. I do not know if classic liberal principles such as freedom of the press and freedom of speech can survive such an assault. When Twitter kicked out Trump, they have been criticized from the Left and from the Right, and by libertarians of all shades. But perhaps they were the first to understand the new reality we are living with. Or, to be exact, with multiple realities.

I have no answer, and a part of me protests censorship. Yet, it would be foolish to ignore the new danger of holistic fictionary worlds invading us again and again. At the very least, we need a robust debate on how to regulate tools that potentially can lead to collective psychosis.

May 2, 2022

This war is against the future

My heart goes out to Ukraine, but I worry more about Russia. While Ukrainians undergo tremendous destruction and human suffering, they are fighting for their future. Their future looks bright. The world is already thinking about restoring their cities. Ukrainians have fortified their national identity and affirmed their democratic choice. They may even overcome corruption than plagued their country for decades. Russia is fighting for its past, or for a version of the past that never existed. Their remaining institutions of democracy have been extinguished, free press crushed, and their minds are poisoned by propaganda. The Russian economy will decline. Most strikingly, Russian public space contains no conversation about the future. How do they all think it is going to turn out? How the fighting against the entire world will improve their lives? No one wants to think about it, instead regurgitating clichés about the glorious past and paranoid delusions about a global anti-Russian conspiracy. The country literally obliterated its own future – first in their heads, and then in reality.

Russia has lost the war on February 24, the day it was started. No matter what happens on the battlefield, an aggressor will never stop being called an aggressor. While there are more and less catastrophic and shameful ways of getting out of this predicament, escaping a harsh moral judgement of future generations is not one of them. Those who think that the future is not real do not know what they are talking about. The future is already here. It is the only real beacon that allows us to have a direction. A racist has no future. There is no plausible vision of a world where White people continue to dominate all others and command most benefits. A multiculturalist has a vision of the future, where all races and ethic groups co-exist without losing the ability to choose their identities. One can almost see it; this future makes sense. The racist future can only exist as an antiutopian image, where things did not go well for the world. Similarly, Russian and any other radical nationalists can construct no plausible future. It is just very hard to imagine where one nation is thriving, and everyone else is in decline. It is very hard to imagine the corrupt dictatorship to continue its existence in perpetuity.

Putin and his cronies know that they live on borrowed time. They only vision is of a personal future. Yet personal futures all end up with the same – death. Only collective future has a long-term motivating power. To live without some image of a better world is intolerable. This is why apocalyptic nightmares are so strong. Death of the world somehow compensate for the despair of the futureless world. Russian state TV has been seriously discussing the prospects of a nuclear war. It is because they cannot find themselves in any positive future.

Apr 25, 2022

The ethics of false promises, or What education cannot do

Could Russian educators have prevented the moral catastrophe of popular support for the aggression? Could American educators have prevented the poisonous blooming of paranoid anti-democratic Trumpist movement? For centuries, education was thought of as a remedy against hatred and ignorance. The results are less than encouraging: the world has never been as educated, and paranoia and xenophobia are as alive as ever.

I have been thinking lately about the ethics of over-promising. Did we, educators, implicitly promised to solve problems we cannot truly solve? We have been happy to receive public funding under a false assumption that we can reduce inequality (we did not), diminish xenophobia (we did a little), eliminate racism, reduce poverty, and solve a host of other social problems. What is the moral responsibility of the one who promises regarding the extent of their ability to deliver? Are we pitching snake oil to the public?

To be fair, on some promises, we delivered. Getting a college degree does improve your life outcomes. Desegregation actually benefited a lot of children. Head Start is a successful program. Free and reduced lunch program does improve children’s wellbeing. Multicultural education does reduce prejudice. I am not linking empirical source here, but I think I can find evidence for each of these and many other positive outcomes. We are doing something very impactful.

An ethical position is not to over-promise, and not to under-promise either. Our professional responsibility is to be clear on what we can, and what we cannot deliver. An old plumber in Ohio told me about my old war box house’s sewage pipes: “I will clean your roots for you, but you will be calling me the same time next year.” The caveat is a sign of professional responsibility. We just need to be very clear with ourselves and with the public on what we can, and what we cannot deliver. While the principle is clear, I am not sure of the pragmatics of the solution. Who exactly, and how should tell the public about the limits of education as a vehicle of social improvement? I cannot think of a genre of scholarship of policy communication that does this. Which advisory to which political body will deliver the language of moderation? No one wants to hear the “curb your enthusiasm” message in the midst of political fight over resources. Do you want some extra funding for K-12 education? Well, maybe this is not a good time to tell people what you cannot achieve. And there is never a good time to say it, because there is always a political fight for resources. So keep on giving false promises. Will we eventually suffer from the backlash? Oh, wait, we already do.

Apr 18, 2022

Workflows or How do we tame Higher Ed inefficiency

One of the main causes of low organizational efficiency is that universities do not routinely review their procedures. It does not seem to be anyone’s job. Various people create procedures all the time, but no one seems to be in charge of periodically reviewing them and making dure they still do what they are supposed to do. For example, in the College of Education, there are 47 annual processes that require some college-level coordination. Some of them repeat every semester. In addition, there are dozens within each of our branches that only their respective staff have. Some of these are fully redundant. For example, we report reassigned time for our chairs and coordinators in a special form, but we also report the same on faculty workload modules. Or here is another beautiful thing: The University has a storage for course evaluations by students. But because they wipe the data out every so often, for completely obscure reasons, our staff download hundreds of them on a network drive, and then upload a significant portion of them again to faculty RTP files, this time on OneDrive. What should have been one link, becomes three downloads and two uploads, for hundreds of files. I could go on and on with a list. A fundamental problem is that someone creates workflows, but no one reviews and improves them.

To conduct a workflow review, these are the basic steps:

1. Is the work process needed at all? What happens if it is simply abandoned? In most cases, the answer is no, but asking this question really helps tog et at the purposes. Some procedures have been designed to prevent a very rare undesired outcome. But their cost is often disproportionally high. I worked at a place, where the President had to sign all travel requests over $250, because many years ago someone had an embarrassing trip to Hawaii that got media coverage. Well, such trips never occurred again, but the procedure stuck for years.

2. Work procedures are flows of information. It is helpful to start considering them from the first point to the last one and try to create the shortest path possible. For example, some processes are applications, where everyone is eligible. There is no point in approving applications, so that step should be removed. In other cases, a university unit would send something to deans with a request to distribute to faculty. However, that unit has access to all faculty emails and can the information directly, without bothering deans. Sometimes extra steps appear just in case, because in similar processes, there have been such extra steps. The shortest is the chain, the better.

3. Similarly, instead of approvals, consider informing. If the risk of inappropriate decision is very low, consider self-attestation instead of active controls. For example, we routinely approve student requests for late class drops. And these requests require approvals of their instructor, the chair and the dean. I guess the hope was that 3-level approval would give the process some rigor. But it does not, for none of the three have any way of verifying student stories of hardship. In these cases, it is enough to say something “I swear the explanation is true, and if not, this would be a violation of honor’s code.” This way, three people would not be involved in processing a decision none of them actually made. Examples of extraneous approvals are a many; they all distract us from doing our jobs.

4. Universities have many databases that often do not speak to each other. What we do not want is a process, where someone reads data and them manually enters it into another database. Not only it is insanely time-consuming, but also prone to errors. If at all possible, a procedure should stay within one database.

In the end, a workflow review is not a set of specific steps. It is just an attempt to take a look at what we are doing and why we are doing it. There is no magic solution, just a drive toward simplicity, sanity, and automation.

Apr 11, 2022

After the pandemic: soft or hard landing

Many large CSU campuses have not yet dealt with the anxiety of dropping enrollments so prevalent in most of the country. Because of our young, ambitious, mostly immigrant population and relatively generous public support, we never really had to think hard what students really want. They came anyway. This is all about to change soon, and we will be subjected to the unrelenting forces of market-driven competition for enrollments. I am just a little worried about how well we as a system are prepared for it.

Here is one example. A new diversity among students has emerged and is patently obvious to anyone who wants to notice. Some students prefer f2f classes while others prefer more hybrid and online classes. We can debate endlessly about why this new split had emerged, and which group is wiser than the other. The difference in preferences does exist, and we can chose to ignore it or address it. “Hard landing” would be to ignore these new preferences, then face a drop in enrollments, and then fight to get back those students who may have come to us if we were more accommodating. A “soft landing”  would be to hedge our bets, and try to accommodate both groups of students.

Neither of these two options is easy. Going fully back to the pre-pandemic f2f world just does not seem like a good idea. And yet we do not know what to go to. So far, we have been operating on arbitrary target numbers, like 80-20, or 75-25, where the first number is for f2f or hybrid sections, and the second is about online sections. We do not know, however, what the real preference is. We do not know how many students want fully online programs, and how many – just some classes online and others f2f.

If we try to accommodate, the same questions must be answered. Do we redo whole programs, or just throw in a few online sections, so students can choose? Logistically, it is very difficult to guarantee students either a f2f or online track within an existing program, mostly because of our gened and free electives, and partially because of accreditation definitions. Adding additional layer of complexity will stretch our ability to manage to the point of breaking. And what if we misjudge the situation, and offer something students do not want, or few of them do? That would be a waste of resources. From a PR point of view “Sac State will meet your preference for online, f2f or hybrid course modalities” would be a great promise. The question is – can we keep it?

I have too many questions and too few answers. This is probably one of those cases where a committee could work through these issues. I just don’t think we can afford to ignore it.

Mar 24, 2022

Changing the name of this blog and the question of identity

"It used to be called “The Russian Bear’s Diaries.” When it started in 2006, I was at the University of Northern Colorado, whose mascot is a bear. Sometimes my gay friends teased me that it sounded like a porn character, but I kept the title for nostalgic reasons. However, the imagery of a Russian Bear has now taken on a much older and more menacing tone. So many things have changed. OK, now it is “Admin Diaries: Weekly Musings of a Philosopher Dean.”

Most Russians living outside of Russia now face an uneasy reconsideration of our ethnic identity. Suddenly, the country we all love has shifted from being troublesome but still respected for its culture and its people, into an evil category. We are the Nazi Germany; we are the Mordor of this planet. It is hard to look into the eyes of our Ukrainian friends and neighbors without some guilt, even if you opposed Putin for decades. I guess the closest nightmare scenario for an American would be if Trump managed to override the elections and then invaded Canada – with missiles hitting neighborhoods in Toronto and Vancouver.

We cannot shed our identities and must bear their weight, even when the weight changes. White people in this country cannot stop being White, cannot unload the bad baggage of racism and keep only the good bits of freedom. Many people would like to, but they cannot; it simply is not up to us. We have no choice and should work through this complex legacy. Similarly, it is easy to be Russian when you listen to Tchaikovsky or discuss Tolstoy. It is much harder when your country is killing unarmed people in the neighboring country under a ridiculous pretext. Of course, we all are running around, trying to organize help for Ukrainians, writing open letters, forming anti-Putin committees, and all of that. Yet all these seem like too little too late, not making enough of an impact. There are 20-30 million ethnic Russians living outside of Russia, including about 8 million in Ukraine. Many Russian-speaking Ukrainians are enlisted in the Ukrainian army or the territorial defense units, fighting against the invading Russian army. Those of us in other parts of the world are seething with rage, praying, and trying to help the best we can, while feeling powerless.

One of the most painful disappointments is realizing how many Russians in Russia support this senseless war. It is not likely to be 70% as the official numbers tell us, but a good guess is that about half of the population is evil or stupid or both to believe the propaganda. Despite all the restrictions, information in Russia is available and can be found if you want to. Like die-hard Trumpists here, they have chosen to believe in only one source of information and talk themselves into denying reality. We may entertain a fantasy that one day they will wake up and comprehend the enormity of what they have done. Realistically, most of these people will never acknowledge the truth. Does the fact that I share a language, culture, and history with them make me one of them? The answer is more complicated than I would like to admit. Perhaps our identities are only canvases on which we can write our own stories. Yet sometimes, the canvas becomes so dirty, it is hard to see the writing."

Mar 14, 2022

Compartmentalizing and its discontents

In one part of my life, a horrendous war destroys cities I know and love. In another part, we need to organize our requests for faculty hires to start in the fall of 2023. In yet another part, I am responding to a paper by a British philosopher who examines Dostoyevsky and the concept of vulnerability. The only way to do it is to erect walls dividing all these and other concerns. One develops some sort of separate personalities to think about these things, and by necessity they must be semi-independent. If you go too far with this, you end up with a dissociative disorder. However, going there just a bit helps to maintain functionality in different spheres of one’s life. This is how we maintain the semi-separate spheres of work life, parenthood, civic engagement, or an involved hobby, etc.

You may move down the road of compartmentalization one step further, when one of the spheres causes a lot of stress. This means erecting fences just a bit higher, keeping the different spheres more separate. This is because you don’t want the sick part of yourself to contaminate the relatively healthy ones. It is a bit like an internal quarantine for the part of your soul that is aching.

I am sure many of us go through this experience sometime in our lives. Your mother dies, and yet you need to do your taxes. You are going through a divorce, and yet grades are due. You almost died in car accident, and there is a meting to attend. The chasm between the profound and the mundane never feels natural or pleasant. It always feels like a little betrayal, of is you denigrate the profound by paying attention to the mundane. Yet there is no other way, because the mundane deserves our attention. That is where life happens, where other people depend on us. We all must compartmentalize sometimes.

Feb 28, 2022

Is collective responsibility just? Невинны ли русские бабушки?

This one is in two languages, and the versions are not the same. Этот блог на двух языках, но это не прямой перевод. Русский ниже.

Feb 21, 2022

The sublime art of complaining

Many students, staff and faculty do not know how to complain well. People should defend their rights, and it is important to know how to do it effectively. Make is easier for the administrator you are complaining to to be more helpful. 

1. You need to know what you want to achieve, what would be an adequate resolution for you. If you just want an apology, say so. If you want your problem fixed – say which one and what would be an acceptable solution. Iа you don’t want what happened to you to happen to others -think about how to do that. However, if you want the offending person immediately fired or burned at stake, well, it is unlikely to happen, so be realistic. If you want the world to know how horrible A is, keep in mind that administrators cannot really share a lot of personnel-related information with others. Perhaps good old gossip will work better for you there. If you just want the administrator to know about some misbehavior, just in case there are other complaints like this – it is totally fine, as long as you are explicit about your intentions. If you just want to tell the other person you do not appreciate the way you are treated, it is better to confront them directly. Bullies and tyrants are rarely aware of their bad behavior. They always have a theory about why what they do is a good thing. Tell them first, before complaining to others.

2. Don’t start with your conclusions, start with facts. In other words, don’t say so-and-so is disrespectful or ageist. What did they say or do to you? We need specific words and actions. An administrator needs to know facts, not only your opinion. Of course, you can also say how you felt about it, and why. Your personal perceptions do matter, just start with facts. Also, if there is a written policy that the other person’s actions violate, name and cite them. It helps to process the complain better.

3. Don’t expect to be immediately believed. You can count on empathy and validation of your feelings. An administrator cannot be dismissive, or immediately distrustful. However, the accused must have an opportunity to present their point of view, and until that moment the administrator must refrain from making her or his mind. This is just the basic due process, without which any action is not defensible in court. I know it does not feel good when someone is checking your story. The very fact checking feels a tad disrespectful. However, think about it in terms beyond your own case. After all, when someone complains about you, you would want that story verified, and you would welcome an opportunity to defend yourself, right?

4. Anonymous complaints are very hard to do anything about. Unless they are about something very serious like sexual harassment or threats of violence, they are likely to be forwarded to the person you are complaining about and that’s about it. Eve if they keep coming, there is always a suspicion that it is the same person waging a campaign. Only rarely anonymous complaints are so specific that they are verifiable. For example, “so and so said this in class.” But even that is hard to check – no administrator wants to go to the entire class of students, and ask – did your professor say this horrible thing? We ask the professor and unless she or he fesses up, it is hard to pinpoint. If you want to be serious about your complaint, sign it.

5. Student complainers often want their name to be kept confidential, usually out of fear of retaliation. Those are very hard to deal with. To confront the accused, an administrator must provide examples, details, facts. Providing those details will identify the complainer. I cannot go to a faculty member and say, “Hey, listen, there is a student concern aboutcontent of your email, but I cannot tell you which one, and what kind of a concern.” Any institution is obligated to prevent retaliation, so don’t be so afraid about revealing your name. If you are still afraid, just keep in mind that your complaint will be very difficult to do anything about. It will not be as powerful as an open one. Retaliation is not as easy as you might think, and putting your name forward automatically places you under increased protection.

6. While you can complain on behalf of other people, to raise an issue, it is always better if the victim of alleged mistreatment complains on their own behalf. Don’t be a passive bystander, talk to the victim, offer your help. Your administrator or whoever pick us the case, will have to check with the direct victim anyway, to verify the facts, and to see of the person want to raise a complaint.

A disclaimer: this has nothing to do with Chancellor’s resignation. We were just working on the College’s grievance policy since Fall semester.

Feb 14, 2022

Expecting a war on Wednesday

It has been a tense couple of weeks. US intelligence is predicting an invasion of Ukraine by Russia. Like most Russians, on both conservative and on liberal sides, I don’t want to believe something as crazy as this will actually happen. Many Ukrainians believe that also. Belief, however, is not evidence. The news reports are so specific, so menacing that a part of us is thinking – what if this is true?

It is hard to predict one man’s behavior, because you never know if the man is still sane. Actions of larger groups are much easier to predict – just go on previous patterns and understand power dynamics within those groups. With one man in charge, there is always the risk of him going full psycho on you. This is exactly why monarchy does not work – no checks and balances make a country highly unpredictable.

How do you conceive the inconceivable? How do you think the unthinkable? When imagination fails, anxiety replaces it. Ukraine is not an abstract for me. We have family members, friends there. Our honeymoon was in Ukraine. I love the language; it was widely spoken in rural Siberia, where one of four people is Ukrainian, and most people have some Ukrainian ancestry. I went to Kharkiv just a few years ago to give a talk at a local university. That is the same city that Russian artillery may hit without crossing the border. I have personal memories of Poltava, Nikolaev, Odessa, Lviv, Rivno, Crimea. It is the place I came from, just like Russia is.

We all hope sanity prevails so we can go on with our lives, because right now it is quite difficult to do. Imagine your neighbor picking up a rifle, aiming at you, and gently suggesting: “Oh, by the way, let’s talk about that fence repairs…. And no, I am not threatening you. What do you mean, am I crazy? I am not going to shoot you. Just standing here talking to you, holding my gun on my backyard, don’t worry, it is my right,” – all this while aiming directly at your heart. I find it highly problematic when people suggest that well, he has a legitimate grievance about the fence. And he is not shooting yet. He does and he is not but threatening is already a crime. Talking to the guy to please put the gun away is an honorable thing to do. Justifying him is something else. And if he expects an invitation to the next neighborhood barbecue, he must be just a tad crazy. And that is exactly what makes you worry.  

Jan 31, 2022

Cause-blind solutions and the puritan sense of fairness

In social affairs, it very difficult to untangle multiple causes of a problem. Here is a recent example. Our DWF rates have risen during the pandemic. The causes are many and their relative weight is unclear. It could be that online modality is generally bad, or it could be that many of our faculty have not mastered it yet. It could be also what was happening in student lives: illness, family care, job losses, stress. Most likely, the decline in course completion rates is probably a confluence of these and other unknown factors. Disentangling the causes is a lengthy, and sometimes impossible process. True experimental studies are often impractical. The thing is – we will probably never know for sure.

Yet one can already hear opinions that, it was FOR SURE the modality, and we should all go back to what it was before. They assume that once you get students back to f2f classes, success rates will automatically improve. But we do not know if they will. We know anecdotally that some students have terrible time in online classes, while others actually prefer to stay online. We do not know how many are in each group, why they prefer one modality over the other, and whether their own explanations of their success or failure are correct. It may be the case that a student was depressed but blames Zoom for it. Or, a student aced all the courses online, but only because she or he stayed with parent, did not go out, and did not have to work at their part-time job as much. So, subjectively, they feel like the online instruction fits their style, while in reality it was something else. This is why surveys are not always helpful. We have no idea whether actual learning online is more or less robust than in f2f, and for which subjects, for which age groups, etc. The depth of our ignorance is so great that one actually has to study social sciences to appreciate it.

What happens if we jump into conclusion that is too closely tied to a presumed cause? We risk creating interventions that do not work. For example, we knew for decades that student engagement in campus life correlates with their academic success. Increasing extra-curricular activities seemed like a sure path to success. However, it is more likely that students who are more likely to engage are also more likely to be successful in classes. It is the king of all errors - confusing correlation and causation.

We should have robust hypotheses about causality, even thought we cannot test them properly. Having the menu of possibilities will help us design solutions that are cause-blind, which is to say, they are likely to work regardless of what primarily caused the problem. For example, designing more extensive incomplete policies would be an example of such a solution. It helps all students regardless of why they could not finish – because they were stressed, lost their job, could not cur it academically, were evicted from their apartment, or got high and lazy. These kinds of solutions will remove us from a moralistic assumption that only people who suffer at no fault of their own deserve help. Paradoxically, the intense interest in causality is fueled by the puritanic sense of fairness. The other approach is to help everyone, whether they deserve it or not. While in prevention, causality is important, in mitigation – not so much. Stop obsessing about the “why.”

Jan 20, 2022

Designed to Fail or A little Taylorism is OK, really

Let’s say you have a campus with 1200 non-academic staff. You want to launch a process where every one of them submits a form, and you approve it. Even if you think a most cursory review, plus 3-4 clicks, it should be at least 5-10 minutes for each. Assume an average of 7 minutes, although it Is better to pilot just a few and time yourself to see how long it takes in the field. We then have 140 hours of non-stop work. Further, let’s estimate that 10 percent of them forms will be problematic and need some communication, further review, or an email exchange. If you assume none of them will be problematic, you probably do not need a review at all, right? Well, let’s allow 180 hours just to be safe. People take breaks, they have to answer other emails, or take care of left-over business. Do you have five people and time on their hands? Will you make sure their schedules are completely cleared of everything else? If yes, congratulations, you are a good manager! If not, you just created another Designed to Fail (DTF) processes. Hope is not a strategy. You are likely to find yourself burning midnight oil, just frantically clicking through without reading, seething and looking for someone else to blame. If only those damned 10% idiots paid attention!

Or here is another example. You plan an event where about 200 people are expected. So you set up a check-in procedure, with about 5-minute worth of checking in. You know, with finding names on the list, giving some swag, and showing where to go. 5 minutes tops per person. If 50 of them show up at the same time, and you only have two check-in persons, we can expect a two-hour long waiting line. Either have a lot more checkers or cut out something from your check-in sequence. If event is open, let them grab the swag and make better signs. Later during the event, send around the list, and ask to self-check. Do something, don’t hope it will somehow will sort itself out, because it never does.

Here is an example especially for faculty. If you have three sections of undergrads, at 30 students in each, and assign a 10-page final paper, with average of 20 min of grading for each, do your math. It is 30 hours of non-stop work, even without detailed written feedback. Grading is almost impossible to do for more than 8 hours a day; even that can give your brain an inflammation. It is because all papers tend to be similar and concentration eventually becomes very difficult. Even if you add music, wine, frequent breaks, etc. – do the honest, not hopeful math. Do you have four full days free from all earthly cares to do this work? If you, the DTF philosophy will get you to the same midnight oil, deep in regrets about your choice of career and a resolution to quit and go back to your happy barista days. You are not a hero you may think you are. You did not plan well.

Many people think Taylorism was a joke, a pseudo-science. OK, think what you want, but a little bit of it is a good thing. It is not rocket science. Do the honest math, do a realistic estimate of how much time a process takes. It is better to design a less rigorous but done well procedure than to put out some DTF monster. The latter is likely to make you look bad in the end and not accomplish its ambitious goas. Let’s use a little of the scientific management, just enough to keep us out of trouble.