Thursday, October 13, 2016


Friday Fragments

Math parable: Did you know that subtracting a negative number has the same net effect as adding a positive one?  


The Boy has become a fan of the University of Michigan teams, so we took the opportunity to catch the Michigan-Rutgers game last Saturday.  It was my first college football game since college.  (I still haven’t been to a pro game.)  

I remembered why I never attended Rutgers games in grad school.

Michigan won, 78-0.  When we left, late in the third quarter, I think it was 57-0.  At that point, it seemed like the only decent thing to do was to look away.  At that point in the game, Rutgers had yet to make a first down.  We were rooting for Michigan, and even we were embarrassed.

The students on the Rutgers side left en masse after halftime.  I couldn’t blame them.  Half the stadium was wearing maize and blue.  

I know that teams have ups and downs, but this wasn’t even competitive.  The previous week Rutgers lost to Ohio State by more than 50 points.  Rutgers simply has no business competing at that level.  If it had been a boxing match, the referee would have stopped the fight.  I actually wished for a mercy rule.  After a while, the Michigan fans even stopped singing the fight song after each touchdown; by the eighth time, it just seemed mean.

The stadium was nice, and it was a blast walking with TB through New Brunswick and giving him the tour.  He’s getting close to the college search, so it made a nice rough draft.  I even got him a “fat cat,” a New Brunswick delicacy in which the french fries are part of the sandwich.  I’m well past the age at which a fat cat appeals, but he’s right there, and he loved it.

We had a great time despite the game.  But I really wonder why the game even happened.


Okay, I’ll admit being a little obsessed with electoral college maps.  This week, Twitter cut loose with some brilliant ones.  Here’s what the electoral college would look like if it wore pants.  Here’s what it would look like if only Florida voted, and Illinois had fraud.  Here’s what it would look like when “all the stars in the universe burn out and matter decays into nothingness.”

At home, we’re planning to do electoral maps of our own, to see who comes closest.  I’ve found that it’s possible to create a semi-plausible tie, if you manipulate Maine and/or Nebraska right.  (The electoral college being an even number probably isn’t our best idea, as a country.)  Kristin Soltis Anderson, from The Pollsters, even found a way to make a 269-263 vote, with Evan McMullin carrying Utah.  That one’s actually more interesting, since a dead tie would go to the House and thereby to Trump, but a 269-263 Clinton plurality would raise issues.  One “faithless elector” and that’s that.

This is how poli sci nerds have fun on Twitter.


Program note: next week I’ll be at the Aspen fellowship, so I won’t be filing dispatches from there.  I’ll be back in the saddle on October 24.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016


A Target-Rich Environment

I’ve been struggling with the details of a guided pathways concept lately for a really basic reason that I’m guessing many others struggle with, too.  I’m hoping that someone has found a reasonably smart way to handle it.

Maricopa Community College has been able to implement guided pathways relatively cleanly, in part because the overwhelming majority of its students who go on for bachelor’s degrees go to the same place (Arizona State).  With a single target at which to aim, it’s easy to know where the pathways should go.  I don’t mean to minimize the work involved in constructing the pathways, or the usefulness of the achievement, but it’s easier to hit one target than to hit several.

My own college has the mixed blessing of being in a relatively target-rich environment.  On the upside, that means we have more options to offer students.  It also tends to correlate with more highly educated populations, as it does here.  But a target-rich setting has challenges of its own.  The most basic one, of course, is competition for students.  As the number of 18 year olds in the area declines, that competition is getting fiercer.  For purposes of guided pathways, though, the issue is complexity.  A pathway implies a destination, and the entire point of the guided pathways approach is clarity.  WIth multiple destinations that disagree with each other on admissions and transfer requirements, it’s much harder to achieve that simplicity.

Some states handle the issue by having a relatively prescriptive (or dictatorial, if you prefer) state system.  I’m told that Florida does that, for example.  The advantage of a state system is that it can mandate consistency across campuses.  If every public college and university in the state defines the same majors by the same courses -- even using the same course numbers -- then you can build pathways without worrying overly much about whether students are transferring more to Northern Campus or Eastern Campus.  

But we don’t have that.  Each public college here sets its own course numbers, course descriptions, and definitions of majors.  (To be fair, there is some statewide coordination of general education requirements, which helps.)  Rutgers alone has several campuses that operate separately from each other, and that define the same degree differently.  And that’s before counting the private colleges, which are more common in the Northeast than in much of the country, and which can each set their own policies.  

Two community colleges in New Jersey solved the dilemma by merging with a single public university.  One of them, Rowan at Burlington, has gone so far as to ban other four-year colleges from coming to campus to recruit.  The merits of that strategy are debatable, and that debate is for another day.  But for a college like mine that wants to give its students more options for transfer, the question stands.

One option is to build a separate pathway for each destination school.  That’s de facto what we’ve done over the years.  University A requires U.S. History for its Psych program, but College B requires World History.  One has a foreign language requirement, others don’t.  Addressing each destination school separately is labor-intensive and complicated, and it tends to defeat the simplicity that’s the selling point of guided pathways.  

Another is to default to the most rigorous destination school.  That’s better, to the degree that it simplifies things and ensures that students will be well-prepared.  But sometimes the differences aren’t really a matter of rigor; they’re just differences.  And forcing our own students to meet higher standards than their destination schools do can wind up being exclusionary, often along the usual demographic lines.  That defeats our mission.

We could try to bend the destination schools to fit us, but there are obvious political limits to that.  Any system that involves giving up autonomy tends to fall prey to the “you first” problem.  Massachusetts convened some statewide meetings across sectors, calling together faculty by discipline to harmonize curricula that way.  It was a bold and clever step; we haven’t done that here.

Wise and worldly readers, have you seen a reasonably elegant solution to the dilemma of trying to build simple and clear guided pathways in a decentralized, target-rich environment?

Tuesday, October 11, 2016


States and Cycles

Anyone remember Keynesianism?

Bueller?  Anyone?


At its core, Keynesianism was a branch of macroeconomics that assumed that recessions or depressions were caused by periodic and inevitable dips in demand, and that governments could deliberately adjust their spending to counteract those dips.  During recessions or depressions, governments could borrow money and spend it in ways that would stimulate demand.  That new demand would create jobs, which would stimulate demand among the newly employed, whose new spending would generate more demand, and so forth.  When the economy got going too fast, it could siphon off the excess in taxes to pay off what it had borrowed.  The idea was to make the cycles less extreme, and thereby prevent both suffering and revolution.

To put it in a single word, it’s about being countercyclical.  When the economy goes down, public spending should go up.  When the economy goes up, public spending should go down.  Having a counterweight would prevent the economy from tipping over.

Unemployment insurance is a Keynesian program.  Spending on unemployment goes up when the economy goes down.  That spending enables the unemployed to keep consuming, thereby preventing more people from losing their jobs.  Wars are sometimes Keynesian, though Keynes himself wasn’t a fan; military production helped pull us out of the Great Depression, for example.  President Obama’s “stimulus” spending (ARRA) was Keynesian, as has been the steady decline in deficits as the economy as recovered.

Community colleges are profoundly Keynesian, but most higher education policy proposals don’t account for that.  They should.

Community colleges rely primarily on variations of combinations of state, local, and student funding.  (There’s often some ancillary income from facility rentals, bookstores, summer camps, and the like, but it doesn’t come close to the big three sources.)  Student funding -- tuition and fees -- comes from a combination of private funds and financial aid, which is mostly federal.  

State and local governments generally aren’t allowed by law to run deficits.  That means that when tax revenues go down, as they do in recessions, state and local governments have to cut spending.  Their spending matches the economic cycle, albeit with a delay.

But community college enrollments are countercyclical.  They go up when the economy goes down, and they go down when the economy goes up.  

Cyclical funding and countercyclical enrollments go together like hot fudge and tunafish.

Any plan for “free community college” needs to take account of the function of tuition in the current system.  State and local aid are cyclical at best.  (Sometimes they don’t come back as the economy does; the cycle only moves in one direction.)  But the federal government has the borrowing authority to spend countercyclically.  That means that when enrollments go up and state and local funding go down, the only way for a college to make the numbers work is to shift more of the expenses to the feds, via tuition.  That happens both through pricing and through volume.  Tuition is the countercyclical stabilizer.  It’s the counterweight that keeps the institution from tipping over. Whatever replaces it would have to perform the same function.

New America is pushing a solution that it thinks would solve the federal/state problem, though it fails to address the Keynesian issue.  (Still, points for the Hamilton reference in the title.)  My concern with proposals like the one from New America is that they rely on the federal government nudging the states, often through “maintenance of effort” requirements.  That assumes several things.  First, it assumes that states are the most relevant actors.  That’s not always true; for example, at my own college the county’s allocation is much larger than the state’s.  (By contrast, the Massachusetts system has no local funding at all.)  Second, it assumes that states have the discretionary funding during recessions to meet maintenance of effort requirements.  Recent history suggests that they don’t, or won’t.  When tax revenues fall off a cliff, states aren’t going to increase discretionary spending.  Third, it doesn’t account for the sheer political spitefulness of states that will turn down free federal money to make a point.  The fate of Obamacare in red states should have taught us that.  

To its credit, the New America proposal ties federal support to enrollment, much like a tuition-based system does.  But then it adds a requirement for state funding to do the same.  In the context of a nasty recession, the odds of states doing that are close to zero.  As states fall short, one of several bad outcomes would happen: states that step away would be forgiven, thereby creating a race to the bottom; colleges would take brutal cuts; or states would opt out of the system altogether.  It’s too fragile.

Yes, federal-state relations matter.  But if you leave local funding out, you miss an important piece.  And if you leave recessions out, you’re setting it up to fail.  Depending on the results of the election, free community college may get some attention; let’s not waste our shot.

Monday, October 10, 2016


When Departments Falter

When you go from graduate school to working at a community college -- or from one college to another -- you’ll quickly notice that departments are configured differently from place to place.  But almost every college thinks its own idiosyncratic arrangement is right, if not holy.

One college will merge history and poli sci.  Another will merge sociology and anthropology.  Sometimes ESL will be in English; sometimes in Languages; sometimes alone.  Some break out Reading from English.  I’ve seen geography as its own department, as a subset of sociology, and as a discipline that doesn’t even get its own designation.  

Coming out of grad school, the sudden reconfiguration of departments can be disorienting.  Graduate programs are resolutely discipline-focused, and departments tend to follow.  But at teaching-focused institutions, especially smaller ones, sometimes there isn’t critical mass in a given discipline to make a freestanding department practical.  Over time, disciplines get mashed together out of a mix of scholarly propinquity -- you’re more likely to see poli sci with history than with automotive tech -- and local personalities.  

Discipline-based departments offer clear advantages.  They’re consistent with industry-wide practice, so people tend to find them intuitive.  They consist of a group of people engaged in a relatively common project.  They make it easy to know who to put where.  They concentrate content knowledge in one place, so we can have confidence that new hires will know their stuff.  By the time faculty job candidates get to me, I can assume they’ve been vetted by the department for content expertise.  For fields in which I don’t, that’s no small thing.

But they fall prey to a predictable set of dangers, too.  Robert Weisbuch’s piece in IHE offers a few, though he doesn’t really get to causes.  I’ll take a shot.

At a really basic level, smaller departments are subject to the issues that plague any small group with minimal change over time.  A single toxic personality can dominate the climate.  Interpersonal feuds based on who-knows-what can last for years, often growing tendrils that envelop other issues.  Groupthink can trump critical thought, allowing dogma to go unchallenged for decades.  

Size can help, which is why departments of two people are suboptimal.  Take chairing.  Chairing a department requires a different skill set -- and a different tolerance for bureaucracy -- than teaching.  Some people have both sets of skills, and that’s great, but many don’t.  I’ve seen some excellent teachers really crash and burn in administrative roles, and I’ve seen some merely competent teachers do quite well in them.  In a large department, there may be several people who are good at both, so it’s possible to have a good chair most of the time.  In a really small department, though, someone who really shouldn’t chair may be pressed into service by default.  That leads to poor performance, frustration, and rippling consequences.  

Even with greater size, though, there’s a danger of siloing.  Academics seem especially prone to that.  If the members of a single department talk mostly to each other, they can easily misread the larger institutional picture.  It’s accidental, rather than malicious, but in some ways that makes it harder to stop.  From the outside, the distinction between “this is right for the students” and “this is what I personally prefer” may be obvious, but from within the silo, it may be hard to see.  A small group of smart people telling each other how persecuted they are for years on end can construct a pretty tight box for itself.

When I went from Rutgers to DeVry, I went from a poli sci department with several large factions (IR, Comparative, Theory, and Theory had its own subdivisions…) to a single “general education” department that encompassed everything in the humanities, social sciences, math, and science.  Department meetings included the resident physicist, the English folk, the math people, the historian, and the various social scientists.  It was a different world.  While I sometimes missed having others around who knew what I was talking about, it was an amazing opportunity to get outside of my own training.  It proved to be effective, if accidental, training for administration.

Since then, I’ve been a bit agnostic on the configurations of departments and divisions.  They weren’t handed down from the mountain.  They’re administrative contrivances to get certain kinds of work done.  To the extent they help with that, and don’t cause too many side effects, call any given arrangement good.  To the extent the silos have hardened, some occasional silo-busting is probably to the good.  A new set of colleagues can be like bringing a new lamp into an old room; suddenly you notice dust that you never noticed before.  It’s good for you.

I reject the idea that a dysfunctional department is the inevitable and unchangeable cost of doing business.  It can be changed.  Just going from college to college is enough to prove that.

Sunday, October 09, 2016


Disaster Recovery

Last Friday, I had a planning conversation with the senior leadership of the college around contingency plans for what to do if Hurricane Matthew struck New Jersey hard.  It’s not an entirely theoretical discussion; a few years ago, Hurricane Sandy did major damage here.  

With Matthew, we were luckier than many colleges in the Southeast.  Flagler College, in Florida, apparently sustained major damage, and many colleges and universities in the region had to do evacuations.  For a university that draws students from around the country, that’s no small task.

Every disaster is local, in certain ways, and some of the dangers vary by region.  In the Northeast, we worry about ice storms and blizzards, and, in coastal areas, hurricanes.  In the Midwest, it’s blizzards and tornadoes.  In the South, hurricanes and floods probably take the top spot.  Along the west coast, I’d guess that earthquakes are the greatest fear.  (I still haven’t recovered from the New Yorker piece last year about the Cascadia fault line, and its possible effects on the Seattle area.  Scary stuff.)  

Those are just the natural disasters.  Manmade ones are even worse.  Abrupt violence is a fear everywhere.  What happened at Umpqua Community College could happen anywhere, at any time.  

And yet, disaster management and recovery tend to get neglected in most leadership development programs.  The people who abruptly find themselves needing to make decisions in a crisis are generally forced, by default, to wing it.

I mentioned last Spring a panel featuring some of the people who helped Umpqua in the immediate aftermath of the killings.  It was extraordinary in both senses of the word: it was excellent, which is great, but it was also uncommon.  I’ve attended conferences of the League for Innovation and the AACC for years, but have seen very few presentations on disaster management and recovery.  I’d rather learn some of these lessons in advance from people who have learned them the hard way than make preventable mistakes myself.  

Let’s say that an evacuation-level disaster strikes just before the tenth day of the semester.  What do you do about financial aid reporting?  Or a similar event happens during exam week.  How do you get back on track?  Or my singular nightmare, a killing on the order of Umpqua happens.  How do you decide when to come back?  What’s the best way to work with a college full of people who handle grief and fear in different ways?  

Obviously, context matters.  But having a sense of where to begin can only help.

As colleges grow more complicated, and budgets grow tighter, the questions get harder.  How do you do an abrupt evacuation when you have students or employees with limited physical mobility?  What about students who rely on public transportation, which may or may not be able to adjust quickly?  

I’d rather have provisional answers to these questions before I need them.  

I haven’t found much in the way of “how-to” resources.  

Wise and worldly readers, have you found anything helpful?  

Thursday, October 06, 2016


“But What About”s

As a kid, I remember the frustration when, say, a football game would run long, and the network wouldn’t adjust the shows that came after.  Instead, you’d hear the dreaded “you are now joining the (name) show, already in progress.”  Depending on the show, it could take a while to get up to speed on what was happening.

That’s how management works in a mature organization.  At whatever point you start, you’re joining a program already in progress.  

That’s inevitable, at some level, and it can be a great time-saver in certain ways.  But it also means you never really face the blank sheet of paper that people tend to assume is the starting point for planning.  Instead, you face a bunch of moving parts, and any new plan necessarily involves getting some of those parts to move differently, to stop entirely, or to be replaced.  That’s much more complicated than a flow chart.  

It typically entails dealing with a series of “but what about”s.

BWA’s are references to pre-existing moving parts, and the potential effects that a given change could have on them.  The idea is to prevent unintended consequences.  They’re necessary, but they can also be paralyzing, because they’re potentially infinite.

BWA’s fall into several categories.  First, the mostly good ones:

The Obvious.  Depending on context, being reminded of the obvious is either insulting or life-saving.  

The Prudent.  These are the best ones, and I try not to cut these off.  

The Clarifying.  It can be easy to conflate different ideas in the heat of battle.  Sometimes taking a moment to step back and make sure we’re talking about what we actually mean to talk about is well worth the time.

The Obscure But Important Technicality.  These are the “that would be great, but subparagraph seven, section a, of the latest state reg says we can’t.”  I’ve found the accuracy of these objections to be pretty uneven, but when they’re right, they’re right.

Then, the less-good ones:

The “I Don’t Wanna But I Don’t Want to Own It” objection.  Often presented through passive aggression, this is a form of evasion.  It attempts to hide a mood behind a reason.  Sometimes the speaker’s body language will give it away.  You’re dealing with this when you get a series of objections, defeat them all, yet they still keep coming.  After a while, you realize you aren’t really talking about what you’re talking about.

The Third Derivative, or The Reach.  These can be well-intended or not, but they rely on the assumption of omniscience.  “If we do that, and this happens, and then that happens, and so-and-so sees it this way, and Jupiter aligns with Pluto, then AWFUL STUFF will happen!”  Yeah, maybe.  But followed to its logical conclusion, this mode of thinking is paralyzing.  It also fails to consider that inaction is a choice in itself.  It’s close cousin to…

The Clean-Hands Fantasy.  This is perfectionism applied to a complex moving machine.  It usually starts with Prudent or Obscure objections, but then keeps going.  Eventually, you realize that the person bringing them up is trying to think of every single possible permutation that could ever happen.  The exact boundary between conscientiousness and paranoia is disputed, but it exists.  In my experience, this is the mental habit that academics have to break when they move into administration.  Anything can be nitpicked; the idea of a completely airtight proposal coming to fruition is a fantasy.  If you want to get something done, at some point you have to cut off the BWA’s, make the best call you can, and move on.  Accept that retroactive self-righteous criticism is a cost of doing business.  For people highly trained in criticism, this can be a daunting challenge.

Administration is a never-ending exercise in joining programs already in progress, and the right blend of BWA’s can be valuable in minimizing the damage that comes from not knowing everything.  But there comes a point where you just have to accept that you’ll never know enough, and have to act anyway.  The BWA’s will change, but they’ll never go away.  With a long-running show, there’s no such thing as a clean start.  But there is such a thing as stagnation.

Wednesday, October 05, 2016


Useful In-House Professional Development

I have to confess to deeply conflicted attitudes about in-house professional development programs.

In theory, I like the idea a lot.  Everyone working at the same place means you can tailor the content to the realities of that place.  There’s already a comfort level among the group, since people already know each other.  And you don’t have to deal with flying.  I’m old enough to remember when flying was merely a nuisance, as opposed to the soul-crushing nightmare it has become.  At some level, it still surprises me every single time.  The ability to learn something of professional value without having to deal with airlines is not to be sneezed at.

But empirically, in-house professional development can be terribly uneven.  In my DeVry days, the campus once brought in a motivational speaker.  I endured the morning so I could have lunch without guilt.  After lunch, he started laying down ropes in the cafeteria for some sort of ropes exercise.

No.  Just, no.  I walked out.  My dean asked me why.  In my calmest, politest, most measured Bob Newhart-y mode, I told him that I didn’t get my doctorate to do rope tricks.  He smiled and let it go, which was the right response.  But sheesh.  

Workshops led by internal people are usually better, since they feel a moral obligation to their colleagues to provide something of value, and they’re coming from the same environment.  But sometimes there’s a topic on which nobody internal really has expertise.  

When the topic is relatively specialized, I’m a fan of roadtrips.  By that I mean sending a department -- whether an academic department or an office -- to meet its counterparts at another college within driving distance, to learn about something interesting that they’re doing.  The key is to have peers meet with peers.  It’s a low-cost, high-payoff approach, because peers will find the right level of detail almost without trying.  

On academic topics, it’s always fun to have faculty present to the college as a whole.  Seeing professors in their natural habitat, doing what they do best, is gratifying.  It can also be striking to see how different somebody’s in-class persona may be from their walking-around persona.  Not everyone is like that, of course, but it’s amazing to see when someone who’s usually circumspect suddenly comes alive in front of a group.

Some topics are trickier, though.  A colleague recently raised a question about serving students who seem to be on the autism spectrum.  She does her best, but has never been trained in it.  That’s not the sort of thing that necessarily lends itself to grow-your-own presentations.  I don’t imagine making everyone into experts, but some basic tips there may go a long way.  Even better, they’d be relevant across most areas of the college, from faculty to financial aid to counseling.

I’m hoping that some of my wise and worldly readers have seen or experienced particularly good in-house professional development around working with students on the spectrum.  I don’t want to waste anybody’s time with a trite or poorly done presentation -- let alone rope tricks -- but this seems like the kind of topic tailor-made for thoughtful support.  Any ideas out there?

Tuesday, October 04, 2016


The Punch You Don’t Throw

Many years ago, I used to teach a debate class.  It quickly became my second-favorite course to teach -- after American Government -- because I never had to spend much time on “when will I use this?”  I’d tell students that at some point, they’d have to argue with their bosses about paying for something expensive, whether it was a piece of equipment, a conference, or whatever.  The boss would balk at the cost.  If they could marshal a good argument with relevant evidence, one of two things would happen: either they’d win, and that’s lovely, or they’d lose but look good doing it.  Either way, they put themselves in a good long-term position.

Debates come in different flavors and formats.  We usually went with two-on-two or three-on-three “policy” debates.  The “affirmative” would argue in favor of the proposition, which was for some sort of legal or political change.  The “negative” would argue against it.  The burden of proof was on the affirmative.  

The beauty of the format is that it requires several skills: public speaking, careful listening, and good research all paid off.  Over time, the best ones learned that public speaking involves a particular kind of poise.

Students frequently came in loaded for bear, only to find quickly that their enthusiasm could actually get in the way.  If they couldn’t control themselves, they’d say something they regretted, or they’d lose a potentially valid point in a hail of undisciplined words.  

Watching the first Trump-Clinton debate brought it all back.  Both are experienced public speakers, and both can be effective in their own distinctive ways.  But one was able to resist the bait, and the other wasn’t.  The difference was obvious.  Trump lost his composure, and his effectiveness, because he couldn’t restrain himself.  Clinton was savvy enough not to respond in kind, but instead to (mostly) rise above it.  As he self-destructed, she didn’t stop him.  He did far greater damage to himself than she ever could have done to him.

Barack Obama made a similar move against Mitt Romney in 2012.  His “please proceed, Governor” was quietly devastating; it was a knife wound so elegant that the blade emerged shiny.  I actually gasped.  That was the debating equivalent of landing a perfect triple axel while juggling.  From a standpoint of pure craft, I had to tip my cap.  That was textbook.

When the opponent is starting to self-destruct -- when he just can’t contain his own worst impulses -- it can be tempting to move into full-throated attack mode.  But that can interrupt the spiral and give the opponent a chance to recover.  Worse, if you do it wrong, you suddenly become the issue.  

When the opponent is in free fall, the most effective move can be to step aside and let him go.  

That’s a tough lesson for students to learn.  It requires excellent timing, and a confidence that’s hard to fake.  You need to be really sure you’re right, and you can’t let on that you’re doing it.  

But when it works, it’s lethal.  There’s really no response to it.  It leaves you unscathed, and looking classy by contrast.  And the opponent doesn’t merely lose the point, but his credibility.  

Yes, sometimes, it’s about brute force.  But sometimes it’s the punch you don’t throw that does the most damage.  If you don’t believe me, ask Mitt Romney.

Monday, October 03, 2016


Empowerment or Abandonment

“Why won’t he just give us the answers?”

I used to get that question in my teaching evals.  It always struck me as partially false -- I gave some answers -- and partially off-point.  My job, as I saw it, wasn’t to fill heads with answers.  It was to empower students to find their own answers.  Sometimes, that meant waiting for them to connect the dots for themselves.  Some students rebelled against that, using the sort of language and attitude that one might direct towards a lazy customer service rep.

At the time, I felt confident in my overall philosophy, even if not necessarily in every single moment.  My job, as I saw it, was to create students who didn’t need professors.  At some level, I still believe that.  After all, when they graduate, they won’t have professors or t.a.’s around to decode things for them.  

From a distance, though, and in a very different institutional setting, I see a different possible interpretation of what I was doing.  Students with some cultural capital, and some academic confidence, could respond to that sort of teaching as a challenge, and some did.  Students without much cultural or academic capital could read it as indifference, and respond in kind.  That wasn’t what I intended, but intentions only get you so far.  If you’re a student with a relatively fragile sense of belonging in college in the first place, someone refusing to help you could look like a sign of hostility, or as confirmation that you don’t belong.  

The teaching style with which I started was the one I had seen quite a bit as a student.  I cobbled together a general theory behind it and went with it.  And at the flagship research university where I was in grad school, it worked tolerably well.  The students generally were well-enough prepared in traditional ways that they could work with it.  They didn’t always like it, but they could work with it.

Upon moving to a very different setting, it took a while to make the adjustment.  

I was reminded of that recently in visiting a class of entering students and hearing them describe their own frustration at some institutional practices designed to empower them.  What was supposed to convey empowerment instead made them feel abandoned.  

The challenge in designing systems for students is in accurately picturing different students encountering it for the first time.  Does being told “it’s on the website” come as a relief -- “I don’t have to wait for you!” -- or as evasion (“why won’t you help me?”)?  Given the diversity of the student body at most community colleges, the answer is “yes.”  

The long-term answer (!), I think, is in conceiving of all of our processes as part of the learning experience.  Even if the eventual goal is to foster empowered, self-directed learners, some need more initial guidance than others to get there.  And that’s okay; people start in different places.  I can just imagine if I hired a personal trainer who started with “okay, let’s warm up with a five mile run.”  Um, no.  Not gonna happen.  Maybe someday, but not right out of the gate.  Replace “five mile run” with “five page paper” or “FAFSA workshop,” and the same principle holds.  If you don’t start within shouting distance of where people are, you’ll lose them.

That’s hard to do when you have to process the paperwork for thousands of people, quickly.  It’s that much worse when the rules in the paperwork only kinda-sorta fits the realities of students’ lives.  (Is someone who’s staying on a friend’s couch homeless?  Kinda-sorta…)  When staffing is tight, deadlines are looming, and the pressure is on, it can be hard to customize every process to every person.  We’ve done a good job of building classes as learning environments, but in some other areas, we tend to default to “they’re adults.”  And our definition of “adults” assumes the presence of cultural and economic capital that we can’t necessarily take for granted.  It isn’t entirely wrong, but it isn’t quite right, either.

The goal of producing graduates who are capable of teaching themselves still seems right to me.  Getting them there without feeling too abandoned is the hard part.  And a big “thank you” to the students who reminded me of the value of giving at least some answers.

Sunday, October 02, 2016


Which Matters More?

If free college required a dramatically higher adjunct percentage, should we do it?

Yes, that’s a loaded question.  It assumes that the meanings of both “free” and “dramatically higher” are transparent.  For the sake of argument, let’s say that “free” means “no tuition or fees,” and “dramatically higher” means half again as high as now.  (So a college with 50% of its sections taught by adjuncts would move to 75%.)  Assume general cuts to administration, just so we don’t get lost in pretending that it would be enough to solve the problem in itself.  

Still, the core of the question strikes me as valid.  Service sector costs go up more quickly than costs in the economy as a whole.  That means that over time, if we eliminate tuition as a revenue stream, the appropriations we’d need would increase more quickly than tax revenues.  Given the political history of the last forty years, that strikes me as unlikely to be sustained, especially when the next recession hits.  Some significant part of the revenue lost would probably have to come from spending cuts.

Over the last decade or so, public colleges have made up for public disinvestment by splitting the difference between tuition increases and service cuts.  Take tuition increases off the table, and accelerated service cuts strike me as predictable, at least in the long run.

I’d certainly welcome a long-term visit from the money fairy that would allow us to have both, but hope is not a plan.  

So, the question stands.  If making college free required significant cuts in service, including a dramatic acceleration in the trend towards adjunct faculty, should we do it?  Wise and worldly readers, what do you think?

Thursday, September 29, 2016


Friday Fragments

Marketplace’s story on Rochester this week really took me back.  It’s about the impact of the demise of Kodak as a local employer, both in terms of numbers (from over 60,000 to under 2,000) and in terms of perks and local clout.  

I grew up there in the 70’s and 80’s.  Most of my classmates’ dads worked at Kodak.  It was a simply dominant force in the area.  Now, the parts of Kodak Park (a sprawling complex of factories) that haven’t been torn down have been rented out.

In the 70’s and 80’s, the story goes, the top three local employers were in manufacturing: Kodak, Xerox, and Bausch & Lomb.  Now, the top three local employers are the University of Rochester, Strong Memorial Hospital, and Wegman’s.  That’s it, in a nutshell.

Hearing the local accent again was fun.  TW tells me the only time she hears it in me is when I pronounce “Rochester.”  People who aren’t from there pronounce the second syllable slowly, and like “chess.”  Natives pronounce it quickly, and like “chiss.”  If you hear the audio, the difference is between Kai Ryssdal’s pronunciation and the way the guys on the softball team say it.  I say it like the guys on the softball team.

After three-plus decades of decline, it’s trying to reinvent itself with startups.  Admitting some hometown bias, I think it has a shot.  It always had weirdly good public schools in the suburbs, and Monroe Community College is a national leader.  (The U of R and RIT are nothing to sneeze at, either.)  It has a lot of place-bound engineers and techies who left, or were laid off from, Kodak or Xerox.  Heaven knows it has office and industrial space.  When I lived there, the culture could not be described as “entrepreneurial,” but that was a long time ago.  The winters are an acquired taste that I never really acquired, but at least there’s a strong and steady supply of water.

If it can let go of the past, it may have a chance.  I’m rooting for it.  The generation coming up has no memory of the big manufacturing years; if the city tries too hard to cling to the past, it will lose its talented young, just as it lost most of the best of my generation.  But if enough startups have enough room to move, and keep enough of the talented youth, the raw material is there.  Even if everyone else pronounces it wrong.


Last week I was able to provide a reference for one of the best people I’ve ever worked with.  There’s something satisfying about helping one of the good ones.  Hope it worked...


“Colleges are lavishing more financial aid on wealthy students.”

Two thoughts:

First, why do we accept without blinking that scholarships for a good jump shot are okay, but scholarships for good grades are not?  I’d rather reward the latter than the former.

Second, if you force public institutions to act like private businesses, then that is exactly what they will do.  Public institutions are institutions, with all of the obligations that term implies.  By dint of being public, they could be somewhat autonomous from the market.  To the extent that we take that autonomy away, we should not be surprised to see them behave like market actors.  They’re simply adapting to the environment.

If we want public colleges and universities to direct resources towards low-income students, we need to fund them accordingly.  At a minimum, that should involve directing more funding towards the colleges with the lowest-income students.  To the extent that we force colleges to get their funding from students, we reward them for cherry picking their students.  

Don’t just condemn the adaption.  Change the environment.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016


Teaching Autopilot

I had a chance on Wednesday to talk to a class of new students about ways to be successful in college.  It was structured as a q-and-a, so I didn’t know exactly what would come up, or what I would say.  At one point I surprised myself with an answer, so it seemed like it deserved a little more fleshing out.  

It was about the usefulness of autopilot.

This one took me years to figure out.  I don’t know if it’s a regular part of student success courses, but it should be.  

We usually talk about routine and creativity as if they were opposed.  And they can be; too much routine for too long can be deadening.

But for our students, too much routine is rarely the problem.  If anything, they have far too little.

Routine conserves mental energy.  When I’m driving a route I know well, I can lose myself in a fascinating podcast and be fine.  When I’m driving a complicated route I don’t know, I have to turn all sounds (other than the GPS) off.  I don’t have the bandwidth to handle both.

I noticed the efficiency of routine when it was missing.  When we moved back to New Jersey last year -- but a different part of it than where we had lived before -- I didn’t know where anything was.  I had to find a dry cleaner, a grocery store, and a post office.  Every new errand presented a new challenge.  And even when I did find them, I didn’t yet know the geography well enough to string them together in an order that would save time, so everything took longer.  

Individually, none of those is terribly important.  But they add up to a real tax on energy.  As I started to develop routines, I found that I was able to focus more on higher-level thinking.  It’s hard to focus on new challenges when you’re already tired just from getting there.

For students whose personal lives lack routine -- generally through no fault of their own -- it can be hard to focus long and hard enough on academic work to rise to new challenges.  Some do, and that’s great, but I suspect more could if they had steady hours, reliable transportation, predictable access to the internet, and the like.  

Put differently, routine isn’t the enemy of creativity.  Some routine actually enables creativity.

Writers know this intuitively.  No deadlines, no writing.  Athletes know it, too; if you wait until the spirit moves you to go to the gym, you’ll never go.  It has to become part of a routine.

But we don’t often communicate that to new students.  We talk about following dreams, checking with advisors, and being conscientious about schoolwork, and those are all true.  But we don’t necessarily talk as much about steady hours, consistent times of day for studying, and even finding reliable ways to get to and from school.  Minimize the mental energy that goes into certain daily tasks, and you’ll have more in the tank when you come face to face with a tricky math concept or a difficult reading.  

Minimum wage, part-time jobs often require a level of flexibility of hours that really works against constructing routines.  That amounts to an energy tax on strivers, though we don’t usually talk about it that way.  

That said, I’m not convinced that a suburban dad in his late forties is necessarily the best field guide to the construction of routines for today’s 18 year olds.  

Wise and worldly readers, have you found ways to help new students build routines that allow them to focus on school?

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