Sunday, March 23, 2014

New President Interview -- Part 27 Investigative Reporting

New President Interview -- Part 27  Investigative Reporting

Q: Last week an investigative reporter for a TV station in another city reported on a problem with some academic programs in a community college similar to the College. What insight can you provide to this type of investigation?

A: First, thank you for the giving me the opportunity to see the piece before starting this interview.  TV reporters and journalists are in the business of getting readers or viewers to buy their stories.  Even investigative reporting is more of a process of getting headlines than finding the basis behind the story and discovering the “truth.”  Just look at how many times the TV stations run promos for the stories.  The promos give enough of the stories to grab the viewers. 

The reporter is not necessarily lying or trying to be deceptive, they just don’t know how to pursue the same kind of truth as a historian or scientist.  Their type of critical thinking is not the same an academic researcher trained to view all sides of the story.  The basis of academic research is ability to examine the research and reproduce it.  This does not apply to journalists.   Academic research builds a story based on history, precedent, or previous research.  Someone writing a thesis will review the literature in the field before even starting to write.    

The report starts with some of the background that seeks to grab the viewer, but it is a diversion from the problem the reporter is trying to tell the audience.

Q:  What is the problem and what is the diversion?

The diversion is the mention of a new building and its location. The problem is low test scores.  These are not related issues.  The reporter also talked about pass rates from more than 2 years ago.  Since then, the college has done much to address the problems. The certification test pass rate improved in 2013 when compared to 2010.
Q:  The reporter wants to know why test scores have fallen over the past few years.  What did the reporter ask to find out why the test scores are low?

A: The reporter wanted an on-camera interview.  The request was denied by everyone in the college.  No one in the College is allowed to talk to the press about College policy without proper clearance from the president’s office and the public relations office.

Even this interview was cleared with the public relations office.  Since I’m just giving my opinion based on my knowledge and research it is allowed to talk to the press.  Also as the president, I am the chief spokesman for College policy.

Q: Doesn’t that infringe on academic freedom?

A:  The restriction has nothing to do with academic freedom.  Faculty is free to discuss their areas of expertise, present papers at conferences, and talk about any academic topics. Free speech is not limited in the classrooms.  I trust my faculty to be judicious in how they present their opinions of policy to the students.  A person is allowed to disagree, but not allowed to spread lies and misinformation.  They may give personal opinions. Professors, librarians, and staff are just not allowed to talk about College policies to the press.  An organization does not air its problems to the public media.

Q: The report talked about failing in a nursing program.  What would make a successful program?

A:  I don’t know the details of their program and it is not my business to find out.  I can only talk in generalities.  The faculty is the key to making any program successful, but the administration has to give the faculty the tools to success.  It is the same in any organization.  That is a good administration gives the workers the tools for success. The colleges need to give faculty incentives that allow them to succeed and stay with the organization.  Health sciences faculty are difficult to recruit.  A graduate of a 2 year nursing program who is bright, hardworking and able to get along with patients and hospital staff can earn much more than a seasoned professor.  Colleges require a masters degree to teach undergraduates.  People with masters degrees in health sciences are the managers, administrators, and experts in hospitals.  The can earn well over $100,000.  As a college president it is my job to figure out how to offer competitive salaries to make sure that faculty are encouraged to stay.  Our College does not offer a nursing program because the cost would not justify the benefit.  We offer the basic sciences so that students interested in nursing and other health careers can transfer to a four year program in nursing.

There are four aspects to education that fit not only nursing, but all academic disciplines – 1) Basic knowledge; 2) Writing and communication; 3) Critical thinking and analysis; and 4) The understanding of action, power, and consequence.  We give the graduates a platform to stand on and hopefully they learn to support themselves and make the next step.

Basic knowledge is the learning about history, terminology, and facts that comprise the discipline.  For example for the health sciences basic knowledge  is the biology, chemistry, anatomy, and mathematics needed for advancement in their academic careers and in the profession.

Communication skills are essential in every field.  One must master the language and vocabulary of the general world so that people take you seriously and respect your authority.  The language and vocabulary in your profession or academic discipline are important to help communicate with a precision and expertise.  Communication also includes the ability to read and understand texts, academic publications, and everyday human communications. Mastery of communication is not limited to a particular and includes print, electronic, visual, and non-print media. One must be able to write and express one’s self to the general public and colleagues.

Critical thinking is a skill that involves gathering data and information from multiple sources to conceptualize, analyze, synthesize, and/or evaluate. The information gathered interacts with knowledge and experience and enables planning and action. Critical thinking connects the dots so that a problem is solved or action is based on solid judgments.

When someone is in their job, home or in the street actions must be based on the confluence of basic knowledge, experience, and critical thinking.  As one gets more experience and knowledge, the actions can be more precise.  Greater experience and knowledge enables solving more complex problems. The process of gaining experience also includes knowing when to seek help.

Q: Thank you very much.

Part twenty-seven of imaginary interviews with the president of the College. After more than 20 interviews the president is no longer “new,” but since we are all works in progress I am continuing the series as if s/he were a “new president.” Please feel free to suggest new ideas for interviews and presidential comments. This article is for your information, amusement, and edification. Any connection to a real college or president is strictly coincidental.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

I Am Not Omniscient

I am just a humble librarian. Even though library users think I know everything about everything, I am not omniscient.

Let me tell you a little about the expertise of librarians. We know about books, journals, non-print media, and all kinds of electronics resources. We know how to find, acquire, catalog, and help readers find every kind of information that people have created and made available to the public. We know how information flows and how to use information to create wisdom. We know more about how to use recorded knowledge than any other profession. We also know about the promotion of reading and other information seeking skills.
Much of our work is done in the back room and for the users seems like magic. Even top faculty members don’t understand the processes that encompass the building and maintaining of the library collection. Collection building requires a combination of budgeting, purchasing, selecting, and working with constituents. At some point collection building needs to be concerned with space, building, and preservation needs. One can not buy and buy without enough room on the shelves. The flip side of acquisitions is de-acquisitions (also called weeding.) Non-librarians don’t seem to understand collection building is a highly skilled task that takes a combination of skills and experience that no business or administrative trained person ever appreciates.

Cataloging is the systematic recording of all the library’s possessions. Catalogers take the messy world of the writers and publishers and systematically record metadata so that readers can find library materials. Librarians assign subject headings, classification numbers, call numbers, and maintain authority records.
Sometimes publishers make this job routine and easy and sometimes the cataloging process could take more than 2 hours per item. Catalogers need subject and language skills beyond what any faculty members is required because the library could own anything in every discipline know in the institution.

Ask a librarianI don’t know the settings used in your web site. I can tell you theory of operation, but not how someone is applying the theory. I don’t know what your teachers told you in class or what was in the mind of the person who published the web site that you just visited. In the past week students have asked questions about systems and programs that we have no knowledge or experience using.

Let me tell you what I and other librarians are expert in doing. We are experts in library systems. That includes cataloging and catalog use. We can help users interpret the catalog and find library materials. We know about books, periodicals, non-print media and anything else that a library could own and make available to readers. We know about the library’s electronic databases and how to use them. We know how to seek information published in print, online, and in archives. We have superior searching and seeking skills.
We can anticipate needs and work with faculty, students and other stakeholders; we are not omniscient. We can’t read minds and we don’t know what people are thinking until you tell us. We don’t know what settings are on your computer unless you tell us.

We can provide basic help with Microsoft Office products; we are not product specialists or available for private lessons. There are thousands of software products that not only have we never used, but also never even heard of their names. We do know a little about how the IT department has set up the computers and printers but we don’t know what they haven’t told us. We know how to ask for help from our vendors and colleagues, but answers are sometimes hard or slow to get to us.

In short we know everything and nothing at the same time.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Fuzzy Logic

For many months one of the mathematics professors has been trying to find statistics on the numbers of community college students diagnosed as needing math remediation actually finished the recommended courses.  He came to me for help.  I searched the academic databases, Statistical Abstracts of the United States[1], and the U.S. Department of Education web site ( without finding any help for the professor.

This was a fuzzy search because we didn’t know the author, title, subject or even the best key words to search.  I tried searching terms such as “community college developmental math” and got more than 10,000 hits.  None of which were helpful.  Limiting the search to academic journals gave 3 hits, but none were even close to what was needed.  After many searches spread out over four days, I gave up; I had no more ideas.  The professor turned to his colleagues and one gave him a list of three articles that I was able to find for the professor.[2]

How does one find something when they are not sure of what they are looking for?  Our information seeking training does not offer great guidance. There is an express, “you can’t nail jelly to a tree” used for problems that are impossible solve.  What is interesting is source for this expression is Theodore Roosevelt, but many people think it is a myth.

May 23, 1912 Theodore Roosevelt had a long campaign day in Northern New Jersey.  At about 10:30 pm he got up to the podium at Dickenson High School in Jersey City, New Jersey to give a 30 minute speech.  He is a transcription of part of that speech.

When I became President I found the negotiations for the proceeding with great decorum as they had proceeded for years The Spaniards had discovered the Isthmus four and they had at once said that it would be very nice to have across it and there had been four centuries of conversation and I thought it was just as well that the conversation into action I did my level best to get Colombia to agreement. We were more than just we were more than generous Colombia. Finally I had lo make up my mind that to hold up Uncle Sam. I didn’t intend that Uncle Sam up and Colombia intended to blackmail a French company then have had France on the Isthmus. I was finally forced that to endeavor to negotiate with Colombia was about to nail currant jelly to the wall. You can t do it. It isn’t of the nail it's the fault of the jelly. [3]

I found this speech using several kinds of Google searches until I found a book that Google had digitized.  The academic databases yielded no results.

The problem with Roosevelt was that he was using conventional logic when he coined the expression.  Computer programmers and librarians know how to find solutions using unconventional searches and fuzzy logic.  There are solutions to this problem. One could freeze the jelly, one could put the jelly in a container and nail the container to the tree, or one could hammer a big nail into the tree and spread the jelly it.  Several people have said that “nailing jelly to a tree,” was one of Roosevelt’s favorite expressions, but I can’t verify this.  

How does one do fuzzy searches?  If you went to a store and didn’t know exactly what you needed, you could search the aisles in hopes that the product you need would be obvious.  Many times I don’t know the name of what I want; I just know what it is supposed to do.  One could go the grocery wanting food for dinner, but not know what to buy.  This is a retailer’s dream because the merchandizing display, special deals, and layout are all there to convince the consumer to buy something they had no idea they needed before entering the store.

The world of information seeking is a bit harder; there are no stores merchandizing information. There are no special information “sales.” One could browse the library shelves in search of a book and hopefully find something appropriate, but this process may be a matter of serendipity or blind luck.  One could read journals or other periodicals  and hopefully remember enough to find the article the next time you needed something similar, but few people have that kind of memory.  Unfortunately I have no great answers on how to find what you need with a fuzzy search.  One consults with an expert and gets guidance toward the correct path.  Librarians, subject specialists and colleagues are good sources for this type of guidance, but this kind of search depends on if you can find the expert and the time you need him or her. 

From the cataloger perspective I have wondered how the catalog record can be made friendlier to fuzzy search logic.  If the title is not very indicative of the subject and the subject headings are not what a searcher would guess, the search is hard.  We sometimes add tables of contents that are searchable with keyword searching, but this has its limits because the authors and/or publishers create these chapter titles.

Sorry, I have no answers that will work all the time.  Fuzzy logic and successful fuzzy searching depend on prior knowledge and wisdom that only comes with experience or access to those with the experience you seek.

[1] I looked in the print version of The Statistical Abstract of the United States first to get an idea of what was available then went to the U.S. Census Bureau web site that has the most current information.

[2] One of the articles is from Community College Research Center, Teachers College, Columbia University.  “Referral, Enrollment, and Completion in Developmental Sequences in Community Colleges” by Thomas Bailey, Dong Wook Jeong, Sung-Woo Cho was right on topic.  The prepublication paper may be downloaded from: The findings were presented on October 14, 2010.

The author supplied keywords are: Developmental education, Community college.  Searching on these keywords would give too many hits to be useful for the kind of information the math professor wanted.

[3] This is quoted in the book:  Theodore Roosevelt : one day of his life : reconstructed from contemporaneous accounts of his political campaign of 1912 …  / by William H Richardson. Jersey City : Jersey City Printing Company,  1921 page 34.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

New President Interview -- Part 26 Becoming Human part 2

Q: I would like to continue the discussion of the book:  Man is not alone by Abraham Joshua Heschel.[1]  He talks about a kind of discontent and being in a state of endless yearning.  People need to search for spiritual needs rather than achievements and find what a person is not what he has. [2] How does a college course teach this?

A:   A course in history may cover the events of the past or how the pursuit of achievements.  A course in sociology or psychology may investigate what makes a person human.  These two streams of investigation may seem contradictory until one investigates the motives to achieve.  If one was to cloister himself in a closed environment and only pray and learn all day, they will be spiritual, but never achieve anything worthwhile.  If someone acts without cognizance of the others in society and awareness of something beyond the self and society, they will never be able to accomplish peace and real happiness.

Animals are satiated when they have their needs of food and shelter met.  Because people are in always in a state of dissatisfaction, moral and scientific progress can be made.  We teach the each new generation about the past and the principles of science so that they get a type of dissatisfaction and can have a fresh view of the world.  Maturity is learning to balance the experience of our masters with the path toward the new and better ways of dealing with the world.  Classes are designed to save students from the trial and error of investigating everything on their own.  The teachers give the basis, background, and history and then guide the students to find their own answers.  Liberal education does not have all the answers but hopefully guides students to the right path to seek the mature way of appreciating the world. 

Q: How do we open the student potentialities?  How do we teach student to value success?

A: According to Heschel, values are attained when we learn to anticipate, seek, and crave for them.  Values, like goals are based on the understanding of the past and the nature of law and community.  One can not have a goal without understanding the self and the role of the self within society.  A package of cement does not strive to become a building, but the imaginations and plans of people can turn the cement as the glue to become the concrete used for a sidewalk or building.  People learn to create, based knowledge of the world, how materials work, and a yearning for something better.
Our job as educators is to show the light of knowledge to our students. Hopefully the knowledge turns into wisdom.

Q: Thank you very much.

Part twenty-six of imaginary interviews with the president of the College. After 20 interviews the president is no longer “new,” but since we are all works in progress I am continuing the series as if s/he were a “new president.” Please feel free to suggest new ideas for interviews and presidential comments. This article is for your information, amusement, and edification. Any connection to a real college or president is strictly coincidental.

[1] Heschel, Abraham Joshua.  Man is not alone : a philosophy of religion.  New York : Harper & Row, 1966 ©1951.

[2] Ibid. page 257.

Monday, January 6, 2014

New President Interview -- Part 25 -- Becoming Human

New President Interview -- Part 25 
Becoming Human

Q: In October 2013 you talked about the role of experience in education.  I just read the book, Man is not alone by Abraham Joshua Heschel.[1]  He talks about becoming human.  That is rising above the animal needs and instincts and discovering the world around us. What is role of the College is helping students to become human?  Or perhaps how the does the College help the student mature into an adult?

A:  As I said before, knowledge comes from experience and education is the understanding of the    Heschel writes, “The child becomes  human, not by discovering the environment which includes things and other selves, but by becoming sensitive to interests of the other selves.”[2]   Mature human beings are concerned about others in society.  Diversity in educational curriculum teaches about people who are not like us.  They are different because of the belief, culture, gender, geography, temperament, and any other factor that could be part of their psychology.  No communal or corporate effort can succeed without understanding and working with diverse people.
results of experience.

The peace of solitude is not because the person is alone or ignoring civilization, but it is the time to recharge the brain and become better at coping with the stresses and opportunities civilization offers.  A vital part of educations is teaching how to become part of multiple societies.  While elementary school may teach the care of the self, basic values, and getting along with people, the College and its academic curriculum are guiding the students to fluency in a wider range of thought covering many times, places, and thoughts. From the humanities, sciences, technology, and arts, and to the clinical and experimental, we are teaching the students to care and regard others with respect. The price of civilization and society is that one gives up a part of the self for a greater reward.   A mature person understands and respects the self, other people and the dimension of what is outside the individual. Over and above the individual is ethics (or religion), the law, the holy, and society.

Educators need to challenge students and themselves to venture outside of their comfort zones.  Research is part of this quest to search outside of a previous comfort zone.

Q: Professor Aaron Pallas of Teachers College said, “The voices of parents, business leaders, and other taxpayers have not been heard in shaping a vision for what students should know and be able to do when they leave school.” [3]  While Professor Pallas is talking about K-12 students, how do his thoughts apply to the College?

A: He is also concerned with an educational system that recognizes that schools are agents of society. Society wants members who know the ways of the past and present and are able to set a course for the future that is better than today. A person who thinks he is always right will never be a fully functional member of society any more than someone who can never get anything right.   Making mistakes on the way to learning and mastering a task or such is part of education.  Failure is the inability or unwillingness to learn from mistakes and take appropriate remedial action.  The College needs to build on what the student learns in high school.  Pallas says that new administrations have the opportunity to create a new social compact with the stakeholders because they can make a new beginning.  In the two years I have been president, I have tried to work with student, faculty and the community to educate students who are ready for the workplace.

Q; I see commercials for mayors, governors, and others running for political office saying they the “education candidate.”   What do you say about that attitude?

A: The movie 2010, Waiting for Superman, includes the story of Michelle Rhee, is brought in to the Washington, DC school system to change it.  She has business background and was advocate for students and change.  Geoffrey Canada was educated as educator.  If they would have been able to start a system from scratch, they would have devised a truly great system, but they ran into the inertia of several hundred years of public education.  They fought against an administrative system, a faculty and community that they never were able to find the lines for communication and cooperation.  In a perfect world, they would have been right, but in the mixed up world where everyone is out to prove they are “right” Rhee and Canada were disillusioned. Rhee lasted only two school years in the chancellor’s job.

These politicians may have great ideas, but they will never succeed if they don’t find a way to get the stakeholders on the same page.  They should not promise reform until they have consulted and found ways for all parties to cooperate.  Better test scores are one goal; better citizens who are life-long learner is a better goal. A better political promise will tell us how they will work with the community, faculty, and students to figure out how to best prepare children for a mature role in society.  To paraphrase Heschel, people become holy when they rise above self and the interests of others become a vital concern. Our job as educators is to help everyone find the inner holiness.

Q: Thank you very much.

Part twenty-five of imaginary interviews with the president of the College. After 20 interviews the president is no longer “new,” but since we are all works in progress I am continuing the series as if s/he were a “new president.” Please feel free to suggest new ideas for interviews and presidential comments. This article is for your information, amusement, and edification. Any connection to a real college or president is strictly coincidental.

[1] Heschel, Abraham Joshua.  Man is not alone : a philosophy of religion.  New York : Harper & Row, 1966 ©1951.

[2] Ibid.  pages 137-8.

[3] Pallas, Aaron. “Cost-Conscious Tips to Improve NYC Schools : A Professor Offers Advice to Incoming Chancellor”  From web site: School Book.   New York: New York Public Radio, © 2014. Retrieved from :  .  Aaron Pallas is the Arthur I. Gates Professor of Sociology and Education at Teachers College, Columbia University in the City of New York.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Signage and Mr. Google

This continues  the quest to poke fun at ambiguity.  In every library orientation we warn students that Google is great tool, but it is not without its limitations.  Google uses algorithms to match the search request.  Google maps is no better.  Last Friday on a trip to St. Louis we wanted to visit Forest Park.  My daughter wanted to go to the ice skating rink.  Since Forest Park streets are very curvy and require lots of signs to navigate, I turned to Google for directions.

Google told me to go east on Forest Park Expressway, exit Kingshighway and turn right on Hospital drive. The ice skating rink is indicated on the map by the little red oval at the end of Jefferson Drive.

Going south on Kingshighway the directions said to turn right on Hospital Drive.  The only problem is that we could see the street sign marked “Hospital Drive.” (We were not using the GPS because we didn’t have one.)  The sign in huge 18 inch letters said, Barnes-Jewish Hospital Plaza.  When I knew we went to far we tried the first street that we could turn right.  It took a long time to get in to Forest Park because we couldn’t just turn around.  When we entered the park we followed the signs to the ice skating rink.  Soon we saw signs indicating street parking for the rink, but we couldn’t see the rink.  I saw a sign the indicated a parking lot, but did not say enter her for the skating rink.  The sign indicated that there was a dead end.  I thought entering would be a mistake.  We found ourselves back on Kingshighway and entering the hospital grounds.  I turned around and crossed Kingshighway and then saw the tiny “Hospital Drive” sign.  We went down the dead end street and finally found the parking lot and at the end of the parking lot was the ice skating rink. 

Google was absolutely right in the directions, but the directions combined with the confusing signage wasted more than 20 minutes of our time.  Next time we’ll know the way. 

I love to make fun of signs when they are not helpful.  People who make signs should test them the verbiage on neophytes, people who have no prior knowledge on the place.  On the highway on another day there was a sign that indicated the left lane was closed ahead.  It was really the right lane that was limited.  Another sign told me I need to exit on 38b, but neglected to tell us the exit was on the left.  I was in the right lane.  If traffic would not have been light, I would have missed my exit and ended up on the bridge to Illinois.

If you make a sign, make sure to test it of the signage patrol will poke fun at tit and people will not get the message.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Ambiguous Language

Language by its very nature is limiting.  It is a symbolic representation of thought. The job of a librarian is to organize the chaos of information.  I like to make fun of imprecise language.  I saw a sign for an event that said, “Limited seating.” The creator of the sign wants the readers to sign up right away.  He wants to fill the venue.  What does “limited” mean? It could mean the size of the seats is limited.

I checked and found the width of economy airline seats are between 17” and18”.  Train seats are about 20” and the desk chair I am sitting in while writing this blog is 24” Every chair is limited, but how does this limitation work?  A person with a 32” waist has about a 12 inch diameter, leaving about 5” of wiggle room.  I doubt the sign creator wants the readers to even care about size of the seats.  The limitation must be the number of seats in the venue.  Since every venue has a finite number of seats and space, they are limited.  So—what does “limited” mean in this context?  If the venue is a sports stadium there could be 50, 60, or 70 thousand seats.  If you wanted to go to a big game, the venue could be sold out. If you wanted season tickets, there could be none available. Is 70,000 a limited seating place?  “Yes!”  I doubt the event in the above sign has 70,000 seats available in the venue. I doubt 1000 seats are available.

What if a theatrical play had a limited run of two weeks?  The limitation could be based on contractual agreements to be in several cities.  The run in one city could not be extended because the production needs to move to the next place.  If the play had an open run has seating unlimited by a planned end date. The open run will continue as long as they can make money and fill the theater.  But it still would be limited by the laws of time and space. They could not schedule more performances in a day than can be fit into 24 hours. The play could be sold out one night and have plenty of empty seats the next.  Everything has limits.  Perhaps the sign creator could have conveyed the message more precisely by stating, “seating limited to the first 125 reservations?” That would tell the reader to make a reservation quickly to avoid disappointment and tell them they could not bring 126 friends.