Thursday, January 17, 2019

The Kinda-Sorta Favored Internal Candidate

The Notre Dame job ad with preferred candidates already listed really struck a chord online.  Over the years, I’ve lived just about every side of the “preferred candidate” issue at least once.

I’ve been a candidate who was treated with seemingly inexplicable hostility or skepticism, until shortly later I saw that the position went to somebody internal.  Suddenly, the “gotcha!” reception made sense; the committee had tasked itself with torpedoing anyone external. I’ve also been the outside candidate who defeated an internal heir apparent who then reported to me.  Luckily, we were both adults, so we treated each other well until she left shortly thereafter for a higher level position with another employer. I’ve been a hiring manager when someone who thought s/he was the heir apparent lost, and I’ve been the hiring manager when the heir apparent was so strong and well-liked that it would have taken either a disaster or a superhero to pull off an upset.

They all happen.

Yes, there have been times when I wished I could have billed a search committee for my time when it turned out that I was basically performing a task for them -- checking off a box -- rather than actually applying for an opening.  In a tight job market, in this industry, a finalist puts in serious time and effort. If that time and effort is doomed from the outset, the finalist(s) is/are basically doing unpaid labor.

But it isn’t always as clear-cut as that.  The more common case is the kinda-sorta favored internal candidate.  That’s the one where the bar is higher than it would be in a truly open search, but the result isn’t quite pre-ordained.  It’s the “let’s run a search just to see if there actually is someone better” search. As frustrating as those can be, I can’t imagine a rule that would get around them.  Employers simply have more knowledge about internal candidates than external ones. There’s a limit to what they can be expected to un-know.

Sometimes, colleges handle preferred internal candidates by running internal-only searches.  That at least has the virtue of saving doomed external candidates’ time. It works pretty well in the short term, though over time it can lead to isolation, inbreeding, and the loss of a bench of talent.  It prevents any sort of diversification of employees, and it’s riotously unfair to people who didn’t have the foresight to have been hired there decades earlier. It also creates a really awkward environment when the freeze finally breaks, and the first newbies in a generation show up.  

At the entry level, trying to get your first job, the stakes are so high that any sort of favoritism towards anybody else feels like a punch in the face.  Decades later, I still remember that vividly. That probably accounts for the speed with which the Notre Dame ads went viral. Full-time teaching positions in philosophy don’t grow on trees, so seeing two of them at a desirable employer revealed as shams is cynically validating.  I get that. Anyone who was offended had every right to be.

But as annoying as it is to be the sacrificial lamb -- having been there personally -- it’s hard to come up with a rule to get around it.  “Only run searches if you actually mean it,” which feels right at first glance, winds up legalizing bias. It also strengthens the presumption in favor of internal candidates.  “Keep an open mind when you do a search” also sounds good, but it’s hard to regulate minds. As any experienced teacher knows, people think all kinds of things, even when they’re told differently.  “Treat all candidates equally” is tough when the information asymmetry between candidates is dramatic.

Yes, Notre Dame deserves a moment of public embarrassment.  That’s fine. But by process of elimination, I keep landing on the occasional sham search as the least bad option among a bunch of bad options.  (Obviously, a robust hiring market would be preferable, but that’s beyond the scope of any individual employer.) I didn’t enjoy being the Dead Candidate Walking any more than anybody else, but if there’s a better way, I haven’t seen it.

Is there a better way?

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

A Salute to Hampshire

Apparently Hampshire College is endangered enough that it’s looking at not accepting an entering class this Fall, and it’s looking for a merger.  

As a former New Englander and a veteran of both the New England liberal arts college scene and Western Massachusetts in particular, this one was a shock.

Hampshire is one of the “five colleges,” a group of well-known colleges in Hampshire County that also includes UMass, Smith, Mount Holyoke, and The College That Shall Not Be Named.  (Fellow Ephs know why.) In my time at Holyoke Community College, I actually participated in an articulation agreement photo op with then-President Lash at Hampshire. We used to send a few students there every year, although it was never as popular or welcoming as Mount Holyoke.  

(The latest Jack Kent Cooke foundation report on the unheralded success of community college transfer students at selective four-year schools could easily have highlighted Mount Holyoke.  It was always welcoming. The College That Shall Not Be Named wasn’t nearly as much…)

Hampshire’s claim to fame has been its 60’s vibe.  It was born in 1970, later even than Holyoke CC was, and it was very much of its time.  It has long embodied a sort of left Calvinism in which students scrutinize each other for signs of complicity with this form of domination or that one.  Why anybody would voluntarily pay for that experience was never clear to me, but some people seemed to like it. A few years ago it posted an ad for a “chief creative officer,” which occasioned some chuckling among the neighbors.  It was a very Hampshire thing to do.

Still, it has carried a strong reputation in its way for the last several decades.  While its culture was, uh, let’s go with “quirky,” its academics were strong and its students smart.  It was nestled among some of the most respected colleges in America, plus Amherst. It never occurred to me that it would be in trouble.

Demographics are ruthless.

Massachusetts has seen several colleges drop recently.  Wheelock and Newbury Colleges are no more, although parts of Wheelock survive as part of a larger institution.  But Hampshire has national name recognition and draw far beyond what either Wheelock or Newbury had. And it’s still not enough.

If I were a betting sort, I’d bet that Hampshire will become part of UMass.  UMass is big enough to do it, and the two are literally in the same town. It wouldn’t be a stretch.  I hope that happens; for all of its quirkiness, I’d hate to see Hampshire faculty and staff lose their jobs.  

I have to tip my cap to Hampshire for being aboveboard about its plans.  Statements of doom can become self-fulfilling. That often tempts colleges in crisis to put on a happy face in public until the last possible moment, with the unintended effect of stranding students who unknowingly commit to something that can’t commit to them.  To its credit, Hampshire’s leadership has chosen instead to step up and avoid putting prospective students on a sinking ship. That could not have been easy. Whatever happens, I hope it’s able either to teach out its current students or to arrange soft landings for them at good places.

For the rest of us, especially in the Northeast, this is a red flag with flashing lights on it.  Hampshire doesn’t have the endowment of some places, but it has a national name and a clear niche, and it couldn’t hold off demographic change.  A model built for 1970 failed to change in time, though, to be fair, I don’t know how hard it tried. The world caught up and passed it by.

Here’s hoping that on its way out, Hampshire teaches the rest of us a crucial last lesson.  

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Aid Shock

The Boy is in the thick of the college application process.  He has sent applications to eight colleges, which is his complete list.  He has received word from four, all acceptances, with the other four still unreported.  So far, so good.

But these days, admissions is a two-step process.  The first step is getting in. He’s doing well at that, as he should.  I know I have Dad Goggles, but he’s a terrific student in ways that people in higher ed understand.  Any given school can go any which way, but he should do well generally, and he is. The second step involves getting the aid package and figuring out whether it’s realistic.  He heard back from one of his top choices; it quoted a “this is what you’re responsible” figure that was $26,000 per year above our EFC, which, itself, is improbably high. Taken as a whole, the package is farcical.  A second quoted figures that aren’t quite as extreme, but still aren’t particularly reality-bound. The others delay aid notification until March.

TB is suffering from aid shock.  Frankly, so am I.

He’s more frustrated about it, probably because he’s seventeen and he’s the one who has been working so hard.  I try to convey that he’ll be fine, but it’s hard to hear when you’re in the thick of it. If I remember the teen years accurately, vague assurances from middle-aged parents weren’t terribly convincing.  He inherited that, which I guess is fair in a larger, cosmic sense.

He also inherited the “I have to get the hell out of here” gene.  I remember it clearly enough not to be offended. It’s a sign of ambition, and that’s a good thing.  He wants to spread his wings, and I want him to have the chance. Brookdale is out because it’s local, and because he’d be known there as somebody’s kid, rather than as himself.  He wants to make his own path.

I’ll admit being at a loss to explain the “EFC plus 26k” “award.”  It’s obvious from our financials that we couldn’t come close to doing that.  Honestly, a rejection would have been cleaner. Saying “you’re in, but only on terms you could never possibly accept” is just mean.  And it’s from a school that can’t plead poverty with any credibility.

At least in his case, he has parents who have graduate degrees, and one who works in the industry.  We can help him decode some of it. A similar kid with parents who aren’t as familiar with how it works, or as attuned, could make a bad decision and not even know it.  

He still has four step ones and six step twos to go, so I’m hopeful that something more reality-based is in the offing.  But for now, he’s beside himself, and I’m appalled at what some well-known places are pulling. This is not how it should be done.

Monday, January 14, 2019

Thoughts on “Thick”

“The op-ed writer’s job is to make their take work for me even if I do not share their cultural milieu.” -- Tressie McMillan Cottom, Girl 6, in Thick

On Monday on Twitter, @girlziplocked asked men to name the book they read that “radically revised your understanding of gender politics, heterosexuality and patriarchy in general.”  I responded with two largely forgotten 80’s classics, Barbara Ehrenreich’s Re-Making Love and Joan Nestle’s A Restricted Country. I read them in college, and in both cases remember having several moments of  “oh, that’s what that means…”  Ehrenreich’s book was, if I remember, more third-person and Nestle’s more first-person, but they both had distinct authorial voices, and they both managed to render a concept like “social construction of gender” in ways that even I could picture.  They historicized things I had thought were just given, and gave a sense of the human stakes involved. (Ehrenreich’s interpretation of Beatlemania remains the best I’ve seen on the subject.) They helped the world make sense, even as they argued in various ways that it could make much more sense if it took equality seriously.  On a personal level, they mattered.

I’d bet that there are young people now for whom Tressie McMillan Cottom’s new book, Thick, will work the same way.  

Longtime readers know that I’m a fan of McMillan Cottom’s, and that I consider her book Lower Ed essential reading. She and I both crossed over from for-profit colleges to non-profits, and we shared a sense that most of the comparisons people made between the two were too facile.  We shared a frame of reference.

Thick is about, among other things, the experience of being a Southern black woman in America, being “no one’s beauty queen and few people’s idea of an intellectual, public or otherwise, and showing up anyway.” (25)  Nobody has ever mistaken me for a Southern black woman; our frames of reference here are not the same. But she does what she calls the op-ed writer’s job so well that “push[ing] through the challenging parts” (175) isn’t difficult.  Her craft as a writer is so well-developed that even a true story of losing her daughter -- a heartbreaking and enraging chapter not to be read anywhere you need to keep a poker face -- somehow moves from personal narrative to structural critique to emotional gut punch without ever losing control.  

In a sense, her writing makes a move similar to Steven Spielberg’s camera.  Spielberg loves the child’s-eye view, usually incorporating a few shots like that to convey a sense of wonder.  McMillan Cottom does something similar, brilliantly. From “Dying to be Competent”:

“I never dreamed about weddings or boyfriends or babies.  The first dream for my imagined future self that I can recall starts with a sound.  I was maybe five years old and I wanted to click-clack. The click-clack of high heels on a shiny, hard floor.  I have a briefcase. I am walking purposefully, click-clack-click-clack. That is the entire dream.” (77)

Even some of the expository parts are written in simple language, as if explaining the background of a story to a child:

“We went to church and paid tithes and wore slips and we drank but had the good sense to be ashamed that we did.  We whispered when we said bad words and we valued hard work and education as evidence of our true worth. We did not want to be problems.”  (12)

Having built confidence in the reader that she’ll make things clear, it’s easy to follow her into academically-informed discussions of intersectionality or white fragility.  She makes those as clear and as vivid as the imagined clack-clack of her future shoes.

Fittingly, it’s hard to know which genre to consider these essays.  They’re personal, sort of, but she distinguishes them from “personal essays.”  Echoing Nina Eliasoph’s classic Avoiding Politics, she notes that black women “were writing personal essays because as far as authoritative voices go, the self was the only subject men and white people would cede to us.”  (23) Instead, she uses autobiography to ask “why me and not my grandmother? Why now and not then? Why this U.S. and not some other U.S.?” (27) They’re political in a sweeping sense, but they don’t usually feel like it.  They feel allegorical; they’re stories with morals, such as those one might tell a child. Slowly and patiently, to make sure he gets it.

The best artists -- writers, filmmakers, musicians, name it -- make it look easy.  It isn’t. McMillan Cottom takes great pains so the reader doesn’t have to. The book is extraordinary, compulsively readable, sometimes funny, always smart, beautifully written, and haunting.  I imagine somewhere a twenty-year-old version of me reading it, jaw dropped, whispering to himself “oh, so that’s what’s going on.”  Thirty years from now, he’ll remember that.  In the meantime, I’m grateful to her for working so hard, and at such a high level, to explain to the rest of us things that should be obvious.  She’s right. And she’s helping the rest of us see what she sees, one image at a time.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

Locked Out?

New Jersey is an unusual place.  It has the highest population density of any state, over ⅓ higher than Japan’s.  That explains both the traffic and the property taxes. Yet, unlike Japan, it lacks a major city of its own; it’s largely defined by two cities (New York and Philadelphia) outside its borders.  Its media are largely out-of-state, which creates some weird gaps in news coverage. Even its NFL teams carry the name of another state. (The only NFL team to play its home games in New York State is the Buffalo Bills.) Although a “blue” state at the national level, New Jersey has a long history of Republican governors, and a tax revolt is never far from the surface.  

In education, it’s both typical and atypical.  It’s typical in having massive and longstanding funding gaps between institutions, with those favored by upper-middle-class white people getting the most money.  It’s atypical in having both an unusually good K-12 system, and one of the highest “export” rates of high school graduates in the country. The state pours money into primary and secondary education, then cheaps out on higher ed and fills other states’ universities with its graduates.  I’ll admit that the economic logic of that strategy eludes me, but there it is. One sign of its relative indifference to public higher education is the relatively low national profile of its flagship university. Rutgers, the state flagship university, has an uncommonly high percentage of in-state students for a flagship.  It doesn’t attract very many out-of-state students, and the state seems to be okay with that. For whatever reason, the state seems content to make itself into the nation’s educational farm team. It develops prospects, then sends them away.

What makes that disconnect between K-12 and higher ed even weirder is that New Jersey has the second-highest bachelor’s degree rate of any state, behind only Massachusetts.  The economy here is particularly focused on high-value enterprises, by necessity. Given the cost of land and labor here, it’s hard to compete on the low end with lower-cost states.  It doesn’t have oil, and it isn’t nearly as warm and sunny as most of the South. If it’s going to compete, it has to compete on the high-value end. Yet the state remains weirdly negligent towards its own colleges.

“Locked Out of the Future,” a report on New Jersey’s higher education system from Education Reform Now, gets the picture about half-right.  It notes correctly that the funding gaps among public colleges defy any sort of logic. For example, Rowan University gets more than double the per-FTE funding that Montclair State gets, even though Montclair State has a higher percentage of Pell recipients.  Rutgers-New Brunswick, the flagship, gets more than twice as much as Rutgers-Newark, even though the latter has a much higher Pell percentage. And every single four-year college gets far more than any community college, with the racial lines falling more or less where a cynic would assume they would.

As the report correctly points out, the Tuition Aid Grant program (TAG) varies the award depending on cost of attendance, so a student attending Princeton gets more money from the state than a student attending a community college.  Princeton’s endowment is over $20 billion, so that seems a bit misplaced.

The report treats community colleges as a problem to be solved, which is both frustrating and at least partially contradicted by its own data.  While it correctly notes that graduation rates for first-time, full-time, degree-seeking students are lower at community colleges than at most four-year colleges, it fails look at state support per FTE in this sector.  If it did, it would have noticed that state support is less than half even the lowest four-year college. Despite that, community colleges have shown the largest gains in graduation rates over the last several years; improvement despite austerity suggests that they’re doing something right, and might stand as examples, rather than cautionary tales.  

The report also fails to note that the FTFTDS cohort is a distinct minority at most community colleges, generally for reasons having nothing to do with the colleges themselves.  Finally, to the extent that New Jersey wants to solve its brain drain, the colleges closest to most people would be a logical place to build, rather than to avoid. Some recent high school grads want to stay close to home; making that option more appealing should be an urgent order of business.  

Its two-year blind spot notwithstanding, the report rightly calls attention to a funding scheme that falls somewhere between “accident of history” and “racist conspiracy,” to the extent that it’s possible to separate the two.  New Jersey may lack a major city, but it shouldn’t lack a strong public higher education sector. Here’s hoping the new Governor gives it a read.

Thursday, January 10, 2019


I can’t tell you how gratifying it was to see a story, finally, about something a college tried that failed, hard.

Stories like those rarely see the light of day.  Success stories are legion, but stories of failure are rare, and usually hidden behind anonymity and/or the fog of years.  Secrecy helps failures proliferate, because people looking for useful lessons miss out when others are afraid to admit or own failure.  Nobody wants bad publicity, and it’s considered an iffy career move to be closely identified with something that fell flat.

I’m referring to this piece from EdSurge, about a decade of disappointment that Tallahassee Community College has faced with various early alert systems.  It’s a genuinely refreshing piece because it situates failure where it often actually happens: in the gaps between good intentions and shaky or partial execution.

Apparently I’m not alone in my craving for honest discussions of failure.  A new piece in Vox profiles Julia Rohrer’s new Loss of Confidence Project. It’s aimed at social scientists who want to admit that they no longer believe in one or more of their previous research findings.

You’d think that would be commonplace, but it really isn’t.  It should be.

We teach students that the scientific method consists of hypothesis testing, and that new information can disturb previous beliefs.  Yet within academia, we’re terrible at doing that. Discredited or outdated beliefs can hang on for generations. The old joke that “science advances one funeral at a time” is funny because it’s at least partially true.  

At my own college, we’re working on improving the ways that we do early alerts.  In that context, it’s useful to see that faculty at another college hated the system there because they never heard anything after they referred a struggling student.  They assumed, rightly or wrongly, that the alert fell down the memory hole. After a while, a sense of futility kicked in.

I can hear the flaming now: “why don’t you just ask people first?”  Because, as any good social scientist can tell you, people aren’t very good at anticipating their reactions to things that haven’t happened before.  (The classic literary portrayal of that is Dr. Seuss’ Green Eggs and Ham.) Some lessons become clear only through experience. Hearing from places where something was tried, and failed, offers a credibility that speculation -- no matter how self-assured -- just can’t.  Sometimes you have to try it before you know whether you’ll like it.

As the Vox piece coyly notes, intellectual humility isn’t always rewarded in our culture.  President Trump, for instance, appears entirely immune to it, and that hasn’t stopped him. I’m always a little disappointed when I see people fall for bluster and punish honesty, but more so within academe.  As the guardians of the scientific method, critical thinking, and academic freedom, we should really know better. We should use failures as teachable moments not merely for students, but for ourselves. It’s one reason that my favorite interview question is “tell me about a time you messed up, and how you handled it.”  I keep waiting to see conference panels about failed initiatives at colleges; they remain few and far between.

I don’t want to cheerlead for failure, exactly, but I’ll happily cheerlead for candor.  

What’s the catch?  As a wise person once said to me, “you first.”

Wednesday, January 09, 2019

Ask the Administrator: This One is Complicated…

Wise and worldly readers, especially in California, I need your help with this one.

A frustrated prospective returning student writes:

I apologize in advance for the lengthy email.I have a particularly unique situation and for many years I pondered how to surpass this. I’d like to start with a bit of my background in hopes that you may be able to help me. I've always been a A or B student so everything that transpired to me seemed like a harsh blow. In 2011 -2012 I went directly to [a Cal State campus] after high school I was just barely passing classes had a couple of failed courses as well but I passed some classes. I was placed on academic probation. I was living in the dorms with my roommate and through her I met this guy that would turn my life around in the worst way possible. This guy convinced me to take fault for a theft to my roommate that I didn’t commit that he in fact had committed but when initially questioned by my roommate I had no knowledge of.  Knowing that it had been his second offense and that I was in academic probation I took fault. The dean of affairs decided to expel me from [Cal State] to never continue my education in this school. Since I was under academic probation and I had failed my last semester due to the stress of being questioned by the police for something my roommate was involved in(drug related) I didn’t care at the time; thinking that I would be able to surpass this and start all over later. I was placed under a year suspension from setting foot on that campus and from being able to apply to any CAL State, University or Private University. This guy that my roommate had introduced me was my boyfriend at the time. Being incredibly stupid, young and naive I took the fault willingly at the time.
However one year passed after our breakup, it finally dawned on me the stupidity of my actions by accepting that sentence and not knowing also at the time that I could have fought her verdict. I decided to enroll in [my local] community college where I was receiving help that paid for just my classes. I no longer was receiving financial aid and was working to continue my education. I took maybe a year of classes on and off because I now had to work to be able to afford my books. Unable to qualify for financial aid due to the financial aid office requiring a sealed transcript from my previous school that I wasn’t able to afford from CSU at $800, unsealed copies are free of charge but not accepted by financial aid.  I wasn’t sure if I could transfer any credits so I just started all over now 2013. I was distracted with work and depressed at the fact that I would have to start again from nothing and slowly but surely failed some courses, while passing others. I retook and failed the same courses. Towards the end of that first year and a half I gave up, partly because the high school friends that I had were almost done with their bachelor’s degrees and I fell into a harder depression envious of what they had and thinking that if I hadn’t been in “love” and had made that dumb decision back in 2012 I’d be nearly graduating with them too.
I’ve thought about going back year after year since the last time I went to school. I wish there was a way to start all over again but without having to take a placement test as this would set me back further. I see myself everyday stressing over that decision that ruined my life. I no longer talk to any of those friends I’ve had because I envied them for their accomplishments. I want to go back but I see too many obstacles now, financial aid, affordability, not wanting to go back to [my local] community college for fear of running into anyone that I once knew and fear of dropping out again due to me being able to afford college and working full time to make rent. At the moment I’m working at a company where the pay is ok but In order to obtain better pay I must have a degree. I work in accounts payable with minimum wage rising even more every year living in southern California. I see that all my hard work in getting better pay is almost for nothing. I really want to go back but not sure what I can do. What are my options?I read so many articles that you have to have a certain amount of credits to transfer to a UC or CAL state but never from a Cal State to a community college.. . . Is any of my time I went to any of these schools still valid or now that its 2019 would I have to start all over again? If I pay for classes now would I later be able to qualify for financial aid if I keep my grades up? If I pay the $800(I don’t know if the fees have increased or changed since 2013) for a sealed transcript from CSU would I later be able to qualify for financial aid? If I have exceeded the amount of retakes for a course in the past will I not be able to start over? Whom must I talk to particularly to assess my situation? I have not applied this year to college because I’m not sure of my options. I know that this a stretch but I’m so tired of not being able to attain my goals due to my insecurities and past failures. Thank you for reading this far I greatly appreciate it.

I’ll start with a few of the more basic points, then open it up to my wise and worldly readers for the more personal side of it.

Yes, you can usually transfer credits from a university to a community college.  I’ve never heard of an $800 transcript fee, so I’m guessing that the $800 (or most of it) represents an unpaid balance from when you were last there.  Sometimes colleges will withhold transcripts from students who owe them money. You could certainly ask for a hardship waiver.

Yes, you can still get financial aid even if you previously paid for a semester or two yourself.  In terms of GPA, most need-based aid only requires “satisfactory academic progress.” That usually means passing at least ⅔ of your classes.

Any credits you earned should still be good.  Typically, they don’t carry expiration dates. The only exception I’ve heard of with that is in some science and math fields, where it needs to be less than 7 to 10 years old.  But that’s unusual, and only in specialized areas. I wouldn’t worry about that.

In terms of cost, some employers who insist on degrees as conditions of advancement will offer partial or total reimbursement for tuition.  Many don’t, but it’s worth asking. If your employer does, that could take one challenge off the table. Even if they only do reimbursement, instead of fronting the cost, at least you could roll it over after the first semester.

I wouldn’t be too concerned about seeing people you know at the local community college.  Students turn over pretty quickly, and it has been several years.

All of that aside, though, I’m worried about the pessimism in the letter.  It can become self-fulfilling.

If you have a friend or family member or colleague who can take the plunge with you, that might help; at least you’d have someone to keep you on track.  If not, or even if you do, I’d definitely recommend starting with seeking out the counseling office on campus. It sounds like getting a handle on self-doubt could be an issue.  There’s absolutely no shame in getting help. In terms of the academic side, I’d recommend looking for a “student success” course in your first term back. It can help you figure out how to “do” college.  

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers, I feel like there’s much more to say.  What would you suggest?

Have a question?  Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.

Tuesday, January 08, 2019

Financial Aid, the Shutdown, and Student Accounts

This one is really more of a “cast a wide net” query than an analysis.

With the Federal shutdown, students are affected in myriad ways.  Getting tax documents can be trickier, for instance, and that impacts financial aid documentation.  Some students are from families in which a significant chunk of income comes either through a government worker’s salary or a government contractor’s salary.  (The latter face the prospect of going without back pay when all is said and done, adding injury to insult.) And that’s true in a college hours away from DC, in an area where the major military base shut down years ago.  The impact is probably much more drastic in areas where the federal and federal-contract workforce is larger.

So, this one is aimed particularly at the financial aid and student accounts folk out there.

What are you doing to help students through the shutdown?  

There’s never really a good time for a shutdown, but our semester starts on January 22.  That adds some urgency to the situation. Depending on how much longer it drags on, stopgap measures may be hard to sustain.

Any helpful ideas would be appreciated!

Monday, January 07, 2019


How should members of a department allocate course sections among themselves?

I’ve seen a number of different models, most of which work tolerably well when enrollments are either growing or stable.  But with enrollments dropping, the gaps in some of the models are starting to show. I’m hoping that some wise and worldly readers have seen, or thought of, models that might fit the current situation better than many.

For the sake of argument, let’s assume that we’re talking about departments with more than three or four full-timers, and a number of adjuncts.  Let’s also assume differing levels of seniority among members, and overlapping but non-identical preferences. Just to make life interesting, let’s assume unevenly declining enrollments over time.

When enrollments and staffing were relatively stable, I used to see the “rollover” model a lot.  In that model, a department would take the previous year’s schedule as the starting point, and just roll over the vast majority of it.  The burden of proof was on any change from the past.

That model offers both transparency and simplicity.  But it tends to lock inequities into place -- whoever got the crappy schedule last year gets it again this year -- and can lead to de facto fiefdoms.  It can lead to decisions being made on the basis of horse-trading, rather than student or departmental need. It also falls apart when enrollments slip.  Prof X likes back-to-back classes on Tuesday, so she’s willing to take the late afternoon section to get the prime time class. Then her prime time class doesn’t run.  Chaos ensues.

Seniority-based models come in several flavors.  For instance, a “vertical” model has the most senior member pick all of her courses, followed by the next most senior, and on down the line.  Professor Senior has picks 1-5, Professor Next Senior has picks 6-10, and so on. It’s a pretty sweet deal for the most senior member, but the rookie gets the dregs.  

A “horizontal” model works like the NFL draft: it works in rounds.  Professor Senior gets the first pick in the first round, followed by Professor Second Senior, and on down the line.  Then it starts over at the top for round two, until everyone has a load. The most senior person gets a better set of options than the most junior, but not by nearly as much; the rookie’s first choice is higher than the senior’s second.  

I’ve also seen what I think of as “squatter’s rights” models, in which seniority inheres in each individual section.  In that model, whoever had a given class last time has first dibs on it this time; overall seniority applies only to new or orphaned sections.  This method works well at first, but over time, entropy kicks in. Say that the department chair position turns over. The former chair lost the classes for which she had release, and only has the dregs from which to choose now.  It’s a powerful disincentive to chair.

Seniority isn’t necessarily the only consideration, either.  Depending on the department, there may be times when it makes sense to encourage people to cross-teach, so you have depth on the bench if someone should fall ill.  One-person departments make me nervous for exactly that reason. The cross-training model works better in some areas than others, but as a general rule, it’s good practice to ensure that people are prepared to pick up coverage if something happens.

Similarly, there are good moral and practical reasons to ensure that even the rookies get a reasonable share of the desirable assignments.  Hiring people who are excited to be there, and then relegating them to the margins, is a pretty good way to kill that excitement.

Of course, there’s a larger question about adjunct faculty and their roles.  Depending on local rules and culture, some departments take their wishes into consideration, and some don’t.  That’s a much larger question. I’ll just suggest that some adjuncts are so wonderful and crucial that ignoring their preferences amounts to malpractice.

Wise and worldly readers, have you seen an allocation method within a department that left everybody reasonably satisfied, made some kind of sense, and didn’t collapse when enrollments dropped?  If so, what was it?

Sunday, January 06, 2019

Some Eds are more Gen than Others

Shenandoah University has apparently adapted Chico State’s version of a “town hall” gen ed class, in which students work with faculty in their areas of expertise to tackle current policy issues.  It sounds like a terrific model for student engagement, democratic citizenship, and renewed teaching.

Too bad we can’t try it.

I’d love to build interdisciplinary seminars into the gen ed bloc.  They can be great fun to teach and to take, and they can lend themselves to all sorts of subject matter that standard classes don’t.  Done well, they can bring together people who don’t always come together, to the benefit of all. And as an erstwhile poli sci guy, it warms my heart to see that format used in the service of public issues and democratic engagement.  It’s good stuff.

But in the two-year sector, gen ed has to transfer.  In practice, that means that our offerings have to match everybody else’s pretty closely, and each class has to fit cleanly into a pre-defined slot.  For instance, a course can count as a social science or a humanities, but not both. (History gets its own category, but it also counts as humanities.)  Courses that don’t fit cleanly either don’t transfer at all, or transfer with “free elective” status, which is effectively the same thing.

It’s possible to do more ambitious classes, but they either have to fit in an existing gen ed slot, or fall into the major.  The latter allows greater specificity, but also necessarily limits applicability. Within, say, an English major, we could try something more specific, but only English majors would take it.  That’s a far cry from what Shenandoah is able to do.

The recent push to reduce “wasted” credits has had the semi-intended effect of limiting innovation.  Innovation within the gen ed bloc is rapidly becoming a prerogative of wealth. At the cc level, we have to hew pretty closely to transfer guidelines or risk having our students’ credits denied; four-year schools can offer what they want.  Over time, we’ll see pedagogical innovation become more of a class privilege than it already is. That means more training in democratic citizenship for those who are already more affluent, and more standardization for everyone else.

That seems backwards to me.  At this level, where teaching is the coin of the realm, we could -- if we so chose -- favor pedagogical innovation.  After all, pedagogy is what we spend most of our time doing. And it happened now, within individual departments and pre-existing disciplines.  The Accelerated Learning Program, for instance, came from the English department at the Community College of Baltimore County. But what made that possible was that it was working within widely accepted, pre-defined English courses.  

My last college had a strong Learning Communities program, in which faculty from different disciplines came together around common themes.  For instance, an environmental scientist teamed up with an English professor to do a course on the science fiction around climate change (“cli-fi”).  The students who were able to take it enjoyed it, and I was proud to be able to offer it.  But scaling something like that requires gen ed status. Four-year schools don’t have to think that way, because they don’t have to build for transfer.  

(There’s an argument to be made that they should.  Some of our biggest “sending” schools are local four-year schools.  But the default system only runs in one direction.)

I’d love to see four-year schools, and statewide systems, allow community colleges more leeway within gen ed blocs.  Four-year schools have that leeway now, and sometimes they use it to terrific effect. We could, too. Innovation shouldn’t be a privilege of rank.

Thursday, January 03, 2019

Friday Fragments, Aging Gen X’er Edition

I’ve hit the age at which I discuss financial aid paperwork at parties.

We were at a New Year’s party thrown by some family friends whose kids are the same ages as ours.  They also have a high school senior who’s in the process of applying to schools. She got into her first choice via Early Decision, so that’s where she’s going, but they’re still wrestling with the financial aid paperwork.  

For context, the parents there were all college grads, and many had graduate degrees.  These are folks whose cultural capital should be more than enough to handle some forms, and they struggled.

This is the difference between formal and informal exclusion.  The forms don’t literally require a college-educated parent to fill them out.  But they’re complicated enough that if you don’t have someone at hand who’s relatively fluent in legalese, and both willing and able to comply with the various records requests, well, good luck to you.

Judging by the income distribution of students at many exclusive colleges, informal exclusion is remarkably effective.

For a student under 24, non-compliance by parents (or parental figures) can be a deal-breaker.  That’s true even though the student may be a legal adult, and might not be a dependent for tax purposes.  (I’m not sure if that’s still a thing with the new tax laws, but I’ll find out soon enough.)

When I applied to college, it was a one-step process: try to get in.  Now it’s at least a two-step process: try to get in, and then compare financial offers.  If it seems harder now, and more tilted in favor of folks with access to capital, that’s because it is.


As someone who used to teach writing, and who does a fair bit of writing in public, I have to applaud John Warner’s interview about the tyranny of the five-paragraph essay.  The line that brought it home for me was “[p]rofessors lamenting about student writing is as old as professors and students.” Yes. I’ve heard plenty of complaints about the alleged effects of smartphone use on writing skills and attention spans, but I’m also old enough to remember before anyone had smartphones.  You could replace the word “smartphone” with the word “television” and the complaints were the same. Prior to that, you could substitute “comic books.” Prior to that, maybe radio or the penny press...

Language evolves, and so does its written expression.  My kids laugh at me for using punctuation in texts. I’ve informed them that the Oxford comma is what separates us from the animals.  We’re both right.

I’ll admit being a recovering prescriptivist when it comes to written language.  I’m on board with the idea of language being what people say it is, and yet, I adhere to pretty strict rules around semicolons.  I rationalize it as being similar to enjoying multiple genres of music, but still not liking it when somebody plays off-key.

Still, one of the consolations of getting older is seeing the same complaints get endlessly renewed, and realizing that if they’re hogwash now, they were probably hogwash then, too.  Yes, smartphones probably affect language; nearly everything does. The point is to use the language(s) we have in ways that help get, or make, the world right. Thank you, John Warner, for putting it so clearly.


Finally, as a card-carrying Gen X’er, I found Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’ dance tribute to The Breakfast Club utterly charming.  It holds up pretty well against Tucker Carlson’s or Rick Perry’s performances on Dancing with the Stars. Youthful exuberance is not a crime, and the idea that Molly Ringwald’s moves have crossed generational and racial lines is somehow comforting.  It’s even consistent with her politics; as Emma Goldman once put it, if I can’t dance, I don’t want to be a part of your revolution.

At the same time, I’m grateful that YouTube didn’t exist when I was in college. Nobody needs to see that...

Wednesday, January 02, 2019

The Collegiality Conundrum

I read with interest the piece in IHE about Fresno State’s attempt to craft an aspirational document about the ways it would prefer that people interact with each other.  The guidelines strike me as well-meaning, if probably ineffectual, and that’s probably the best that can be done in the short term. That said, one sentence jumped off the screen for me:

“Still, the survey revealed some concerns about ‘accountability, especially as it relates to the ability to deal with low performers, disrespectful behaviors, and the perception of favoritism…’”

Favoritism strikes me as the most solvable part of the sentence.  To the extent that favoritism results in skewed distributions of goodies, it’s relatively provable.  To the extent that it overlaps with protected class categories, it can be addressed through HR. But the issues of dealing with low performers and disrespectful behaviors are far harder.

(To be fair, sometimes the issues overlap.  The same statement that registers as “a vigorous challenge” when a white man makes it may register as “disrespectful” when a black woman makes it.  Perceptions of “appropriate” behavior are based in social contexts, with all of the biases that implies.)

Robert Kelchen tweeted out on Wednesday his frustration at the difficulty of doing good research among holders of high positions.  They can be hard to get access to, and even if you get on their calendars, their incentive for candor is typically somewhere between zero and strongly negative.  I’ve seen it personally; there’s a reason that I still have his writing niche to myself after all these years.

So without betraying any confidences, I’ll just say that I was not the least bit surprised when the (anonymous) IHE survey of college provosts last year found that a supermajority of provosts prefers a renewable-contract system to a tenure system.  See enough abuses of the system over enough time, and it’s hard not to focus on “low performers” and “disrespectful behaviors.” In many contexts, those people and/or acts are either sanction-free or, perversely enough, rewarded. Become known as a pain in the neck, and watch the service requests dwindle away.  Meanwhile, your peers with consciences are rewarded with more work. The same can even apply to teaching. The people who go out of their way to help students are rewarded with more papers to grade; the ones who drive students away through general crankiness get away with less work. Over time, some of the good ones turn, because they get tired of feeling like chumps.  

The collegiality code Fresno is proposing is an attempt to mitigate the symptoms without actually addressing underlying causes.  As such, it’s understandable, but it’s unlikely to get very far.

Collegiality may be devilishly hard to measure, but the damage done by its absence is real.  Robert Sutton’s book The No Asshole Rule shows clearly that in many contexts, a single jerk can drag down an entire department.  In academic settings, Sutton settled on “shunning” as a response to jerks, but that option isn’t really available to deans and provosts.  (Julie Schumacher’s novel The Shakespeare Requirement features a provost who is literally never seen on campus. At all. That’s championship-level shunning.  But it’s also satirical fiction.) On an individual level, that’s for the best; anyone can have a rough patch, and some conflicts are based on misunderstandings.  But when the jerks in question are dedicated, tenured, and unionized, uncollegial behavior can become an inescapable fact of daily life. In the absence of something actionable -- which, in this context, is pretty extreme -- general jerkishness can flourish for decades.  Worse, it can become contagious. Collegiality matters, but we aren’t allowed to act on it. That’s a nasty conundrum.

The folks at Fresno State are trying to solve a real problem.  But unless and until they make the code somehow enforceable -- whether by unimaginable clarity or by larger structural change -- I don’t see it.  Jerkishness is too hard to prove in court, even if, as Potter Stewart put it, most of us know it when we see it.