Search This Blog

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.