Wednesday, July 01, 2015

 

Like a Phoenix from the...oh, wait…


The University of Phoenix continues to shrink.  It’s on the downside of the same dynamic that propelled it upwards so quickly.  And it’s paying for a bad call made about ten years ago, that may take another ten years to undo.

Phoenix grew by serving a niche that traditional higher education usually ignored.  And its business model was based on three major factors: the availability of financial aid, charging more than the marginal cost of production, and feeding investor expectations.  The last two are different enough from what non-profits do that they’re often misunderstood.

For-profits generally eschew many of the “student life” trappings that many people blame for the tuition spiral. (I’ve never seen a for-profit with a football team, a climbing wall, or a lazy river.)  They charge more than community or state colleges, but often less than elite nonprofits.  They keep non-marketing expenses as low as they can, and sell the prospect of growth to their investors.

When enrollments are climbing, all is well.  Because they charge more than the cost of production, growth more than pays for itself.  It isn’t a cost, as it often is in the public sector.  That means that when a hot opportunity comes along -- IT in the 90’s, say -- the for-profits can swoop in much more quickly, and at greater scale, than publics can.  They have private investment capital for infrastructure, and the prospect of steadily increasing profits keeps the capital flowing in.

Phoenix hit the limits of its niche in the early 2000’s.  Historically, it had required students to be at least 21 or 25, and to be employed.  By being relatively selective, it was able to ensure at least some level of quality control.

But by the early 2000’s, the 90’s tech boom had subsided, and the publics were starting to make their presence felt with online and weekend programs.  In other words, UoP’s niche was getting crowded.  Because it only makes sense when it’s growing -- “stability” reads as “stagnation” in the capital markets -- it decided to throw the doors open to keep the growth moving.  That “worked,” for a while, in the narrow sense that it allowed enrollments to keep growing for a few more years and keep investors happy.  But it eviscerated what quality control the institution had.  Over time, higher attrition and unhappy graduates (and employers of graduates) chipped away at the reputation.  Add an administration with a bone to pick, and suddenly the underpinnings of the business model started to fail.

When non-profits decline, they often have sources of income other than tuition.  (Sweet Briar’s alumnae fundraising drive leaps to mind.)  For-profits don’t have that; when enrollments flag, investor interest flags even faster.  Investors behave differently than alums.  Rather than bailing out the sinking ship, they flee.  Instead of blunting the impact of decline, they magnify it.

The real mistake, I think, was when it chose the wrong path for continued growth.  It tried to compete with community colleges, which have significant cost advantages.  (At a basic level, they’re subsidized and untaxed.  It’s hard to compete with that.)  Instead, it could have used the boom times to focus on getting more selective and improving both retention and reputation.  During the boom, they wouldn’t have had to choose between growth and improvement; they could have had both.  Then, when the boom ended, they would have been in a very different market position.

In most other sectors of the economy in which for-profit and public entities compete, the for-profits take the high end and the publics take the low end.  Most for-profit higher ed has focused on the low end, and now, they’re watching community colleges eat their lunch.  They missed a chance to legitimize themselves.

They still have the option, of course, but it’s harder now.  The much-maligned statement that they’re expecting enrollment declines actually gives me hope; it suggests that they’re in touch with reality.  Getting selective will likely cut short-term enrollment even more than otherwise, but over the long term, it’s the best chance for survival.  And frankly, if for-profits were to compete on quality and force everyone else to raise their game, there wouldn’t be much reason to object to them.

Good luck, Phoenix.  It’ll be a rough ride, but it’s possible.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

 

In Which I Discuss Political Economy With a Ten Year Old


The Girl is ten -- almost eleven, she would prefer I say -- and curious.  The book she was reading last night contained a reference to the Great Depression.  I was in the room at the time.  Conversation ensued.  In my defense, this was entirely impromptu.

TG: Dad, what was the Great Depression?

Me: It was a period of about ten years when the economy really didn’t work well.  There weren’t enough jobs, and lots of people were poor.

TG: Why?

Me: It’s complicated.

TG: Tell me!

Me: Okay, well, people sort of ran out of money, so they stopped buying things.  When that happened, businesses couldn’t sell things, so they stopped making things and they fired the people who had made things.  Then those people couldn’t buy things, so it got worse.

TG: How did they run out of money?

Me: Well, they borrowed too much, and couldn’t pay it back.  Then they stopped buying things, and the companies that make things went out of business.  Then the people who worked at those companies lost their jobs, so they stopped buying things, and so on.

TG: It’s like a spiral.

Me: Exactly.

TG: How did we get out of it?

Me: World War Two, mostly.  And the New Deal.

TG: World War Two?  How did that help?

Me: The government borrowed a lot of money, and used it to pay soldiers, and to pay people who worked in factories making planes and guns.  Once people had money, they spent it, which created demand for stuff.  Then companies had to hire more people to make stuff, and the spiral moved upwards.

TG: So a war did something good?

Me: Unintentionally, yes.

TG: What was the other thing?

Me: The New Deal?

TG: That!

Me: A lot of programs.  It was when Social Security started.  That’s where the government gives money to retired people or old people.  The idea is that they’ll spend it on stuff.  That will create demand for stuff, so companies that make stuff will have to hire people.  

TG: But didn’t they always do that?

Me: No.

TG: So what did retired people do?

Me: Lived with their kids, mostly.

TG: That’s stupid.  Where do they get the money for Social Security?

Me: Taxes, mostly.  And some they borrow.

TG: Why?  Why can’t they just print money?

Me: It doesn’t work like that.

TG: Why not?  They have machines that print money.  I saw them at the mint!  Remember?

Me: Well, yeah, but if they print too much, it becomes worthless.

TG: What?

Me: Some countries tried that, and it didn’t work.  You needed a wheelbarrow full of money to get a cup of coffee.

TG: But the government is money!  Why do they have to tax people for it?  They can just make more!

Me: Imagine if everyone had all the money they wanted.  Would anyone go to work?

TG: Oh yeah.  I guess nobody would make anything.

Me: Exactly.  With lots of money but nothing to buy, money is worthless.  They can’t just print it whenever they want more.

TG: Oh.  I wonder what’s in Area 51...

Monday, June 29, 2015

 

You Make the Call: Nevada Edition


It’s time for another round of everyone’s favorite game show, You Make the Call.  Today’s edition is brought to you by the state of Nevada.

You’re a senior official at a public college.  You’re feeling besieged by unfavorable demographics, distracted and/or unhelpful legislators, and a local media prone to oversimplification and drama.  A study is about to come out highlighting some things -- substantially true -- that could hurt your college.  But you know that before everyone else does.  What do you do?

  1. Take a deep breath, grit your teeth, and hope for the best
  2. Do whatever needs to be done to bury the report
  3. Prepare a nitpicking rebuttal (“the methodology is flawed…”)
  4. Get ahead of it, own the truth of it, and put its findings in the context of plans for improvement

Here’s a hint: folks at the Nevada System of Higher Education apparently picked B.  Academics, as a breed, typically pick C.  The best answer is D.

D is risky, of course.  It involves admitting the existence of issues, and in some contexts, people with other agendas will read that as weakness.  But it’s the only option that maintains your credibility, without which you’re in deep trouble over time.

A can work, if you get lucky, but luck isn’t a plan.  The sophisticated version of A is the Friday afternoon news dump, in which agencies or companies with bad news to report release it late on Friday, so by the time anyone is paying attention, it’s old news.  It can work, but the stars have to align.  Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t.

C may be technically correct, as far as it goes, but it comes off as evasive and defensive.  IPEDS graduation rates for community colleges are the classic example.  Everyone in the sector can rattle off several reasons why the IPEDS graduation rate is a preposterous way to measure community college performance, and many of the arguments are spot-on.  But the public doesn’t hear that.  It hears a clear, low number, and a series of excuses.  In a perfect world, that wouldn’t be true; the best reasoning would carry the day.  This isn’t a perfect world.  To non-specialists, the difference between a solid technical rebuttal and a smoke-and-mirrors attempt to evade may boil down to who you trust more.  When one side has a paycheck at stake and the other doesn’t, I don’t like our chances.

B may once have worked, but in the age of the internet, well, good luck.  When the information gets out -- not if, but when -- you suddenly have two things to answer for: the original report, and the fact that you tried to cover it up.  At that point, you’ve gone from an unpleasant one or two day story to a seriously distracting multi-week story, with allegations of unethical behavior, lawbreaking, and general scandal.  The public might not have noticed, or cared much about, the initial report, but if it catches whiff of powerful people engaged in a cover-up, the interest level jumps.  Instead of ruining your whole day, it may ruin your whole career.

I understand the temptation.  In the moment, it’s easy to construct ethical arguments for any option.  “The information will do more harm than good.”  That may well be true, but it rests on the assumption that “Make It Go Away” could actually work.  It can’t.  Detailed rebuttals are perfectly ethical, to the extent they’re correct, but they rarely work.  

The key, I think, is in recognizing the new context, and distinguishing between substantial truth and perfect accuracy.  The public doesn’t require perfect accuracy; instead, it deals in general impressions.  If the critique is substantially true, there’s no point in nitpicking it or denying it.  Instead, place that truth within an even larger one.  Maintain your credibility.  Otherwise, you may wind up as fodder for an industry blog.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

 

Better Than They Had To Be


Late last week, the erstwhile political theorist in me got a double dose of idealism from high places.  It was restorative.

First, of course, was Justice Kennedy’s opinion recognizing same-sex marriage under the banner of the equal protection of the laws.  The final paragraph of his opinion was extraordinary.

He was clearly swinging for the fences, but I’d say he succeeded.  The language of dignity and inclusion wasn’t strictly necessary to justify his reasoning, but it served both to sell the result and to elevate the discussion.  When talking about a narrow intellectual property dispute, go ahead and be dry and technical.  When discussing fundamental questions about the ways people live their lives, though, that kind of narrowness comes off as disingenuous, if not deceptive.  At a really basic level, this decision was about fairness.  That doesn’t need to hide under legalisms.

(Kennedy’s piece stood in notable contrast to Scalia’s dissent, which could charitably be called “dyspeptic.”  Over the course of his career, Scalia has moved from tragedy to farce; “ask the nearest hippie” is as close to an admission of intellectual bankruptcy as I’ve seen from the Court. At least “I know it when I see it” had a certain wit to it.)

I’m just old enough to remember the Bork hearings in 1987.  For younger readers, Robert Bork was nominated by President Reagan to fill a vacancy on the Supreme Court.  Bork had a track record as an outspoken conservative.  Liberals went after Bork at the confirmation hearings -- at the time, the Senate Judiciary Committee was chaired by an ambitious young Senator from Delaware named Joe Biden -- and managed to block the nomination.  A new verb came into being -- getting “Borked” -- and Anthony Kennedy got the seat.  For a while, it seemed like Kennedy was a Bork in sheep’s clothing.

Knowing that Kennedy wrote the majority opinion, there’s a strong argument to be made that “Borking” was the right move.

That same week, President Obama gave his eulogy for the murdered prayer circle at Emanuel A.M.E. Church.  If you haven’t seen it yet, watch it.  It’s the best speech Obama has ever given, to my knowledge, and he’s given some good ones.  It’s extraordinary.

For all of the “secret Muslim” talk, Obama is clearly comfortable in, and familiar with, the A.M.E. church.  The media focused on his singing, and I get that, but follow his use of “grace” as a theme.  It was brilliant, and I don’t mean that cynically.  When he used “grace” as a Christian form of Hegel’s “cunning of history,” noting that the killer had no idea that the effect of his actions would actually be to move equality forward, I gasped.  Everything about that move was perfect.  It was both inclusive and superior, both accessible and sophisticated.  It allowed a broader perspective while still striking a note of humility.  It made taking the high road both morally fulfilling and tactically devastating.  As a longtime student of political argument, I tip my cap.  It was elegant, memorable, situationally appropriate, and affirming.  It was how political speech should be done.

Following politics -- partly by training, partly by vocation, and partly by virtue of working in the public sector -- it’s easy to dismiss political speech as little more than advertising.  It’s an unsatisfying mix of code words, evasions, and cynicism.  As our politics become steadily more libertarian, the very idea of a “public” to be addressed can seem quaint.  Those of us who believe in the “public” as a real thing -- served, for example, by public higher education -- the reduction of public speech to horse-trading and coded tribalism can be dispiriting.  Over time, it’s easy to forget why we bother trying.

But Justice Kennedy -- a Republican appointee, for those keeping score -- and President Obama each offered a more-than-welcome reminder of what public speech can be.  At its best, it reminds us of the reality of aspirational ideals.  It affirms us as capable of more than what we’ve done.  It validates hope, and shows that progress is real.  

I didn’t know how badly I needed that.  For a couple of days, America showed its best.  It did what it does in its finest moments: it expanded the circle of “us,” and opened up the high road.  Sometimes, we can be better than we have to be.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

 

Friday Fragments


The kids’ school year finally ended this week.  They’re leaving Agawam in style; The Boy won “Most Likely to be President of the United States,” as well as top student in science.  The Girl won “Outstanding Achievement in Reading,” as well as another recognition of her science fair project.

We aren’t completely sure yet which NJ school district will get them, but if they were free agents in baseball, I’d expect a bidding war.  The school that gets them will be lucky to have them.  And yes, I’m biased, but they’re handling the move with uncommon grace.  Here’s hoping that remains true...

--

Apparently, Americans rate the quality of education at two-year colleges as comparable to that at four-year colleges.

Sounds to me like an argument for seamless transfer…

--

According to a study published at Project Muse, Algebra II does not independently affect college degree attainment.  It’s a proxy for self-selection.

--

Say what you will about Taylor Swift, but the argument she made to Apple was correct.  

I’m consistently impressed at just how good she is at being a pop star.  She plays the game like she invented it.  Well done, Taylor.

--

My browser is spying on me?  Creeeeeepy.  

You’d think this would be a bigger story.  

--

You know that feeling when you read something that makes the argument you’ve been carrying around in your head, but fills in the gaps and takes it farther than you have?

I’m reading Rise of the Robots, by Martin Ford, and it’s creeping me out.  It’s about the increasingly rapid advance of labor-saving technology, and its increasing effects on middle-class employment.  Bluntly, Ford argues that as technology gets more sophisticated, the jobs it will displace will be progressively higher on the skill ladder.  Worse, the jobs created are far fewer than the jobs lost.  As more labor is displaced by machinery, the economic rewards will flow disproportionately to the owners of the machines.

I’ll take a crack at a full review when I’m finished, but I’ve already had several readerly moments of “deja vu” in which Ford completes thoughts I’ve been unwilling to complete.  

You know you’ve crossed a certain threshold of “policy nerd” when a dense, nonfiction piece of political economy is your version of a summer page-turner.  Alas...

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

 

Gainful Employment for Graduate Schools?


Sometimes to really understand a story, you have to read it against another one.

This week, a couple of stories came out that didn’t seem all that surprising individually, but that clanged together in an unexpected way.

The first noted that Ivy Tech, the statewide community college system in Indiana, is coming under state scrutiny for low graduation rates in certain workforce training programs.  

The second was about a judge upholding the newer version of the “gainful employment” regulation.   That regulation, which applies mostly to for-profit colleges and community colleges, punishes colleges (or programs) of whom a significant number of graduates don’t make enough money to pay off the student loans they took out to get the training.

In both cases, institutions that provide services to the riskiest, lowest-income students are required, with varying levels of realism, to prove their worth.  Meanwhile, institutions that serve wealthier students have the benefit of the doubt written into law.

For example, I read recently that 40 percent of outstanding student loan debt comes from graduate study.  Yet graduate programs are exempt from the gainful employment rule.  Offer a one-year certificate in Accounting to train bookkeepers?  Prove your worth.  Offer an open-ended Ph.D. program to pour still more adjuncts into a saturated academic field?  No problem.

To which I say, hmm.

If I were an enterprising sort without a conscience, and I wanted to make serious money in higher education, I’d avoid the low-income students; there’s just too much scrutiny.  Instead, I’d go after the high end.  You can charge more, and you’ll get a free pass, so to speak.

Ivy Tech may or may not be doing a good job; I honestly don’t know.  But I’m not at all surprised to hear that the graduation rate goals legislators set for the programs were divorced from reality.  Given an exclusively high-risk population, even a brilliantly-run program will struggle to produce the kind of numbers that flagships, with exclusive admissions, produce as a matter of course.  Students with preparation gaps and complicated lives are harder to get through than students who are well-prepared, undistracted, and attending full-time.  That is not a reflection on the quality of instruction in either case.  Judging the former by the standards of the latter is setting up programs to fail.

I’d flip it around.  Want to hold programs accountable?  Great; start with the most expensive, and work your way down.  Make M.A. and Ph.D. programs -- and law, and MBA, for that matter -- prove their worth first.  That’s where the serious money is.

Alternately, hold state legislatures accountable for ensuring that community colleges and public four-year colleges are appropriately funded to achieve the increasing number of tasks they’re being asked to achieve.  Performance funding assumes a base level of funding high enough to enable good performance in the first place; absent that, it’s merely punitive.  Sometimes, in the rush to look tough, legislatures lose sight of that.  A good, strong Federal push to ensure that they don’t lose sight of that would make it possible for performance funding to reflect actual performance, rather than student demographics.

None of that is likely, of course.  In this climate, we have to get tough on people without money, so people with money can feel better about themselves.

That clanged.  It always does.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

 

The Advancement Problem


In higher education, we often use the term “advancement” to refer to fundraising.  Here, I’ll use it in the sense that the rest of the world uses it, meaning career advancement.

Higher ed has a severe advancement problem.

It has for a long time.  The well-documented malaise of the Associate Professor, I think, is a symptom.  I was reminded of it over the weekend, when I had the chance to visit High School Friend on Right Ocean.  HSFRO noted that in many departments, if you didn’t know titles, and just watched faculty day to day, the only way you could guess who had which title would be by their ages.  The duties really don’t change much.  

Which is weird, if you think about it.  Getting into the full-time faculty ranks is a task in itself, but it involves a pretty rigorous (and often quick) climb up the occupational ladder.  These are people who have been climbers since high school, if not earlier.  They move from high school to college to grad school to postdoc or adjuncting to full-time faculty, changing venues every few years and outcompeting peers along the way.  They advance to tenure, and then…

For most, there’s really nowhere to go after that.  They can spend thirty years or more doing the same thing.

That’s especially true at teaching-intensive institutions.  At research universities, even if the teaching doesn’t change much, the research does; there’s always a new question to work on.  But at a teaching-intensive place, you can easily be looking at multiple sections of “Intro to…” every semester for the rest of your career.  After a couple of decades, keeping it fresh can become a challenge, particularly in fields in which the basics don’t change much.  The Pythagorean theorem hasn’t changed much in some time, and probably won’t.

This isn’t about “deadwood,” exactly.  Deadwood is a symptom.  It’s about a structural flaw that both encourages and enables deadwood.

Some people get around the advancement problem by going into administration.  There are good reasons to do that, and some of us -- hello -- find fulfilling careers doing that.  But it’s a fundamentally different job than what faculty do.  The Venn diagram of skill sets for the two jobs will show some overlap, but a whole lot outside the shaded area.  Some people have both sets of skills, but that’s more a matter of personality and serendipity than training.  (For reasons I still don’t understand, higher ed doesn’t seem to believe much in management training for its own people.)  I’ve known some wonderful professors who made terrible administrators, simply because the tasks are so different.  For an ambitious professor at a teaching-intensive institution who has no appetite for administration, the ceiling comes early.

Professional development is crucial, of course.  I’ve seen some professors who had grown a bit stale reinvent themselves when they started teaching online.  Sometimes team-teaching, or picking up an entirely new course, can shake things up productively.  But at a basic level, professional development works only when the professional being developed wants it to work.  By the time he has thrown in the towel, it’s too late.

I’ve seen plenty of articles advocating “phased retirement” plans for senior faculty, to allow them to stick around longer.  But as an industry, we seem weirdly reluctant to discuss what to do for mid-career faculty who are solid performers, but who are looking at decades more of doing exactly the same thing.  As near as I can tell, that’s actually the much more common problem.

Wise and worldly readers, have you seen effective institutional responses to the advancement problem?  I’m particularly interested in solutions that make sense in a teaching-intensive setting.

Monday, June 22, 2015

 

Can you imagine alumni of Corinthian Colleges rallying to save it?


Can you imagine alumni of Corinthian Colleges rallying to save it?

I can’t.

The contrast with Sweet Briar College is striking.  Sweet Briar alumni (alumnae?) have apparently earned a stay of execution for the college, cobbling together $12 million in donations and getting judicial permission to free up another $16 million from the endowment to fund ongoing operations.  That’s obviously not sustainable, but it could buy some time to try to create something sustainable.  Making changes radical enough to defeat shifts in demographics will take vision, courage, and considerable luck, but it’s possible.  

Sweet Briar has some serious strikes against it, and the judicial decision doesn’t change any of them.  It’s still rural, at a time when that’s out of favor.  It’s still focused on liberal arts, at a time when private four-year liberal arts colleges below the elite level are struggling.  It’s still single-sex, at a time when that, too, is harder to sustain.  It’s in an area of flat or declining population, meaning that it can’t simply ride a demographic wave to growth.  And it sent out a signal to the world that it’s precarious at best, which might well scare away people with other options.

Still, I have to be impressed by the vigor of the alums who pulled together to save it.  They’ve organized nationally, retained lawyers, contributed time and money, and put real personal passion into saving it.  It must have been doing something right for a long time to generate that kind of loyalty.

I haven’t seen anything similar for Corinthian.  Corinthian actually had certain traits more in its favor than Sweet Briar did: it had a clear career focus, it had locations more in touch with current demographics, it was coed, and it was cheaper.  (People who assume that for-profits are the most expensive options sometimes forget to compare them to private four-year colleges.)  It had a significant online presence, and it didn’t have the overhead costs of dorms or horse stables.  

And yet, for all those advantages, it neglected quality control of its product.  And its alums know it.  

Corinthian alums have been active, but in a very different way.  Instead of trying to save Corinthian, they campaigned -- also successfully -- for loan forgiveness, arguing in essence that they never got what they paid for.  

Now, one could argue that for-profits don’t have foundations, in the traditional sense, so there’s no avenue for alumni giving anyway.  When I was at DeVry, the CEO used to say that instead of an endowment, it had market capitalization.  That was true, in a sense, but it missed the other key role of alumni.  Yes, alumni can be valuable sources of donations.  But they also wield power, both in numbers and in connections.  A good alumni network can make things possible that otherwise would not be.  DeVry -- and probably the other for-profits as well -- never made much visible effort to court alums.  It didn’t see the reason to.  But stockholders are fairweather friends; when things get bad, they don’t rally the troops.  They abandon ship.  Replacing alums with stockholders works tolerably well when the stock is rising, but when the stock drops, they won’t be there to save you.  

Community colleges, as a sector, have been slow to reach out to alums as support networks.  That’s changing, though we still lag our four-year counterparts.  If the whole Sweet Briar episode teaches nothing else, I hope it teaches the incredible value beyond money that an engaged network of graduates can offer.  

Wise and worldly readers, have you ever seen or heard of alums of a for-profit rallying to save it?  I can’t think of a single case.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

 

A Well-Kept Secret


I love the news that Cuyahoga Community College received a ten million dollar grant from the Jack, Joseph, and Morton Mandel Foundation to establish a humanities center.

Humanities and social sciences at community colleges have become incredibly well-kept secrets over the last ten years or so, and that’s unfortunate.  In some ways, community colleges are their natural habitat.  But they tend to fly below the radar, disguised as “general education.”

“General education” covers the distribution requirements that most students have to complete on their way to a degree in a given major.  Even Nursing students have to take English 101.  The idea is that certain skills -- and in a more classical sense, certain cultural references -- should be common to all college graduates, regardless of major.  The old “canon” has largely fallen out of fashion, not least in the departments where it used to find a home, but the skills argument remains.  To the extent that higher education moves more aggressively to a competency-based format, I’d expect to see the last vestiges of the “canon” school fade away, but the “skills” school can coexist quite nicely with the competency-based format.  

That’s not necessarily good.  Back in the canon wars of the 80’s and 90’s, it was commonplace for people on both sides to assume that any argument from a “canon” or “common knowledge” was a stalking horse for political conservatism.  It isn’t.  It’s possible to be conversant in, say, Plato, and still hold any of a host of political viewpoints.  In fact, I’d go so far as to say that the turn away from large-scale attempts to theorize politics is a symptom of a larger surrender; at its best, theory offers the chance to look at things as they are and say “it doesn’t have to be this way.”  “Theory” comes from “theoria,” meaning “to see” -- it offers the possibility of a bird’s-eye view.  

I sometimes wonder if part of the appeal of tech-gadgetry-fandom is its implicit utopianism.  That’s almost entirely absent from our politics now.  Utopianism has its drawbacks, heaven knows -- nobody can look at twentieth-century political history and not see that -- but its absence tends to leave existing power not only uncontested, but naturalized.  The spirit of “it doesn’t have to be this way” is alive and well in tech startups, even if it’s largely absent from our politics.  

Of course, failing to teach the history of ideas doesn’t make the thirst for making sense of the world go away.  It just cedes the field to the crackpots.  The idiots who obsess over “1488” think they’re solving something.  In the absence of better ideas, awful ideas sometimes find fertile ground.  In the absence of Nietzsche, angry young men find Ayn Rand.  I’d rather they found Nietzsche.

Community colleges, by definition, are open to everyone.  They reach people nobody else will reach, or at least, nobody else without predatory intent will reach.  Some of the people who show up here are angry -- for entirely valid reasons -- and looking not only to get a better job, but to make some sort of sense of the world.  

Humanities and social sciences at community colleges fulfill distribution requirements, yes, but they do more than that.  They offer a bigger picture to some people whose worlds have been kept small.  They offer a tantalizing sense of possibility -- a sense of agency in the workings of the world, or at least a sense that the dots can be connected in some meaningful way.  Over the years, I’ve heard repeatedly from students who enrolled just to get a job, but who had an intellectual awakening in a class they took just to fulfill a requirement.  Some switch focus, some don’t, and I like to think that some carry the newfound habits of mind with them wherever they go.  In my teaching days, one of my most satisfying moments came when a colleague who taught another discipline reported that a former student of mine had made a great point in class, and stayed later to talk with her about it; during the conversation, it came out that she had been chewing on something from my class for months, and couldn’t let it go.  That may or may not show up in a competency rubric, but it matters.

Bravo to the Mandel Foundation for recognizing that community colleges aren’t just workforce training centers.  Our students deserve exposure to the big questions just as much as anyone else’s.  Utopianism shouldn’t just be for tech startups.  It doesn’t have to be this way.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

 

When Public Speaking Works Best


I’ve never done improv comedy, but the recent piece in IHE about the benefits of improv training rang true.  I’ve seen it in my own public speaking.

At graduation this year, I introduced the recipient of the annual teaching award.  As it happened, this year it went to someone who teaches public speaking.

Publicly introducing someone who teaches public speaking for a living is a bit, well, intimidating.  She’s a professional.  Over the years,  I trial-and-error’ed my way to a method that mostly works for me.  

I say “mostly,” because sometimes it just isn’t in the cards.  Some days, for whatever reason, you’re just off your game.  On those days, it’s helpful to have enough technique that even in the absence of inspiration, you can at least come across as competent.  Inspiration can be encouraged, but it can’t be forced.

In my early teaching days, I discovered quickly that I couldn’t work from a script and still fill entire classes.  They were just too long, and a hastily prepared script read by a nervous t.a. sounds like, well, a hastily prepared script read by a nervous t.a.  It isn’t pretty.

But some of the early fails, as painful as they were, actually served a purpose.

Have you ever been at a pool, and seen someone do an unintentional, and presumably painful, belly-flop?  Do you remember how you felt when you saw it?

You probably didn’t heap scorn on the poor schlub.  You probably winced and felt bad for him.  He probably felt silly, and pained, for a little while, but then moved on.

The “moving on” is the important part.  Knowing, viscerally, that you can fall on your face in front of an audience and not die is liberating.  It makes improvisation possible.

The most annoying public speakers are the ones who simply ignore the audience.  That can take the form of endless droning, or, paradoxically enough, it can take the form of a hermetically-sealed performance.  One professor in grad school -- I won’t name names -- used to give remarkably smooth, canned lectures in the 300 student intro class.  I was impressed at his facility, and the complete lack of “um,” “uh,” or any discernible verbal tics.  Students hated him.  They saw him as an actor performing a part, utterly indifferent to them.  They were right.

My best moments as a speaker have consisted of a layer of improvisation on top of a prepared framework.  The words were substantially ad-libbed, but in a context that had been thought through in advance.  Having the safety net of a clear framework, the knowledge of where I was going, and the security of knowing that the worst that could happen wouldn’t do permanent damage, made it possible to follow the muse of the moment.  I could improvise knowing the direction I wanted to go, and having faith that I’d get there one way or the other.

The Boy is attending his first dance this week, squiring his crush.  It took him a little while to work up the courage to ask her.  I told him that the same principle holds when asking a girl out.  I got shot down plenty of times in my day -- not meaning to brag -- and it always stung in the moment.  But the next day, I was still there.  The world didn’t end.  It was okay.  I could shake it off and move on.  Realizing that the worst-case likely outcome wasn’t really that bad made it easier.  When he asked “but what if she says no?,” I could answer “well, what if she does?”  He didn’t have an answer for that, so he was able to ask her.

Preparation and improvisation aren’t opposites; the former actually improves the latter.  When you’re confident that you know what you’re doing, and that you could survive a face-plant, it’s easier to improvise effectively.  Besides, much “improvisation” is actually something closer to “set pieces.”  You may not have the words written out, but you have a relatively well-defined “bit” that you’re performing.  Sometimes it’s the connective tissue between the bits that requires the most planning.

I don’t know what a professional teacher of public speaking would say about that, but it seems to work.  

Monday, June 15, 2015

 

Do Climbing Walls Explain Rising Tuition at Community Colleges?


No.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

 

Kids, Conscience, and Consciousness


Anyone who doubts the tight connection between test scores and socioeconomic standing is invited to go househunting.

In preparation for the new gig at Brookdale, we’ve put our house on the market, and we’re looking for a place to live in New Jersey.  Putting our house on the market is labor-intensive and emotionally fraught, but elements of it are straightforward enough.  The buying part is more complicated.

We’ve both lived in New Jersey before -- TW spent most of her life there, and I was there for 18 years -- but not in Monmouth County specifically.   We had spent time on the Shore -- it’s where we got engaged -- and had caught a few concerts at the PNC Bank Arts Center in Holmdel, but we didn’t learn the local reputations of Monmouth school districts.  We’re learning them now, with some level of urgency and with outsiders’ perspective.  With The Boy starting high school this Fall, and The Girl starting sixth grade, we want to make sure they get schools worthy of them.

There’s no shortage of school rankings.  Some of them are done by the state, but the really influential ones are done by a private, for-profit magazine (New Jersey Monthly).  The magazine rankings are as powerful within the state as the US News higher ed rankings are nationally.  As near as I can tell, its power arises from a gap between the desire for information in easily digestible form, and the relative scarcity of information like that.  (In my time at CCM, I remember being told that NJ Monthly penalizes schools that send higher percentages of graduates to community college, even if they subsequently transfer and thrive.  True or not, I remember it a decade later.)  GreatSchools.com and homefacts.com also offer easily understood ratings, though their respective provenances aren’t entirely clear.

As a professional educator who’s relatively fluent in education policy debates, I can rattle off all the reasons to be skeptical of, if not openly hostile to, school rankings.  They’re proxies for economic class.  They reflect standardized test results, which are both narrow and skewed.  They can become self-fulfilling on the extremes, as wealthier people make strong districts stronger, and people with options abandon the districts on the bottom to the people who don’t have options.  I get all of that.

But I’m also a parent of two specific children.  Even granting parental bias, they’re great kids.  I want them to have great school experiences, both academically and socially.  

And that’s where kids, conscience, and social consciousness sometimes pull in different directions.

From a pure parental perspective, the argument for getting into the most high-achieving, “desirable” district we can afford is open-and-shut.  TB and TG are wildly smart kids who will rise to the expected level; I want the level to be high.  That strategy also has the benefit of higher resale value for a house, since other parents make the same calculation.  But it also involves pretending not to know certain things, or deciding not to care about them.  

That’s hard.  I want the kids to know that the world is larger and more diverse than the Honors track in a competitive suburban district.  And while I want my kids to “win,” I also know that the game is rigged in a host of ways.  

In a more perfect world, differences among schools would be differences of personality, rather than quality, and you could just send your kid to the local public school wherever and be confident that s/he would get a great experience.  If that happened, I think we’d see a great leveling of property values.  Those who paid a premium to get into a “good” district could be expected to fight any such leveling, on the grounds that they’d lose the premium they’d paid.  Which, in fact, they would.

In political discussions, we sometimes talk about school quality as if it were a pure win for everyone.  But “good” districts only carry premiums because of the contrast to “bad” districts.  Lose the latter, and the former will take a serious hit.  They can be expected to respond accordingly.

I adopted the “Dean Dad” label years ago to capture the two roles that occupy most of my waking hours.  (“Veep Dad” doesn’t have the same ring to it, so I’ll keep “Dean Dad” as my Twitter handle.)  The two roles are similar in some ways; when I started, the major conflict I saw was logistical.  But in the case of househunting, the two roles conflict conceptually.  I want to make a point, and I want to do right by my kids.  

Ultimately, I’d like for us not to have to choose.  That’s the world to work towards.  

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