Friday, September 30, 2005

 

Listening Down

Okay, I’ll admit having done this a couple of times. Somebody proposes a complicated but good idea. The boss responds, “that’s a great idea for you to do.”

There are times when this isn’t completely evil. It can amount to calling a bluff. Certainly, there have been times when people (okay, senior faculty) have made comments along the lines of “if only we could change the entire national culture at once, it would cut down on cheating in class.” I invite them to try.

Other than serving as an occasional reality check, though, I’m convinced that this technique is more destructive than helpful.

At the most basic level, it punishes initiative. If I know that stepping up to the plate with an idea to help the organization will simply result in more work dumped on my desk, I’m not likely to step up very often.

Beyond that, it represents an abdication of one of a manager’s basic jobs, which is deciding how best to use the resources at hand. I’ve found (through sometimes-embarrassing trial and error) that my first thought on any given topic is frequently wrong. It takes some bouncing around, usually with trusted and thoughtful people, to whip an idea into shape. (I’ve used the blog the same way sometimes, with wonderful results. Keep those ideas coming, people!) Disposing of an idea quickly, with what amounts to little more than a snappy comeback, flunks this test.

In some ways, it’s a variation on shoot-the-messenger (which I’ve never understood). Both involve not listening. What it gives you in speed of decisionmaking, it takes away in quality of result. When a manager adopts shoot-the-messenger, or “that’s a good idea for you to do,” she pretty much guarantees that the savvier people will stop being honest with her. (I’ve seen variations on this everyplace I’ve worked. It’s an unconscionable waste of talent, especially when, as in colleges and universities, the talent at hand is so impressive.) If you get the incentives wrong by punishing honesty, you will soon be knee-deep in well-rewarded horseshit. This is not good.

The best trick I’ve learned, which I learned very early at my previous school, is ‘listening down.’ Listen to the folks low on the food chain. While they’re as prone to urban myths and personal vendettas as anyone else, they also frequently carry a clarity and memory you won’t find at higher levels. If you show yourself to be a respectful listener, they’ll tell you incredibly valuable stuff. (One generic piece of advice for every grad student and junior professor out there: never, ever, under penalty of great gnashing of teeth, ever disrespect the department secretary. Never, never, never. Grapevines are real, and they can kill. And forms have a way of getting lost...) Too many people listen attentively to people above them on the food chain, and dismiss those below. Big mistake. Secretaries have saved me more than once; they wouldn’t have bothered if I’d been an arrogant jerk to them.

(The usual objection to ‘listening down’ is that conversation is supposed to be reciprocal, and there are certain things you just can’t share. That’s true, as far as it goes, but a simple “I can’t talk about that” when something sensitive comes up allows you to maintain necessary confidentiality while still showing respect for the intelligence of your interlocutor. In its way, it’s actually honest, and I’ve had good luck with it.)

The other downside is that it takes a lot of time. I’ve been feeling that this week. Still, time spent listening pays off in mistakes avoided. Hillary Clinton had it right: a listening tour is a fine thing. “That’s a good idea for you to do” isn’t listening.

Thursday, September 29, 2005

 

Irony

I tried the 23:5 meme that’s going around – take the fifth sentence of your 23rd entry, and see what it says – and mine was

(Insert forehead-slap here.)

Apparently, the “only sane guy in the room” pose is a consistent theme. (This probably explains my affinity for Bob Newhart.) This hit home yesterday when one of my chairs, a high-maintenance type who tends to consume most of the oxygen in any given room, declared (in a moment of unimpeachable self-awareness) that she respects anybody who can work with someone like her. She asked, directly, how I do it. Without thinking first, I replied, “irony.”

In administration, irony is incredibly important. People come at you in states of high emotional dudgeon, from whatever provincial perspective, and need some major change executed RIGHT NOW. Or at least, they think they do. Maintaining enough emotional distance during the conversation to avoid getting caught up in the speaker’s drama – without seeming either cavalier or dismissive – ain’t easy. Depending on the conversation, I’ll either ask a lot of questions (if the issue is confusing) or simply wait for the emotional storm to blow over before proceeding (if the speaker is venting). The same applies when students come to complain, actually.

I have to remind myself constantly that by the time someone has resolved to go see the dean, the problem already seems beyond repair to them. If it were easy, they would have handled it on their own.

Nobody can wear the mask all the time, so figuring out when it’s safe to let the mask slip, and by how much, is a major challenge. Certain things are safe: cute kid stories can elicit laughs, as can the local running jokes. (Yesterday one of the union firebrands declared facetiously “Far be it from me to criticize the administration!” We both had a good laugh at that one.) Displays of real frustration can occasionally be constructive, but you don’t want to go to that well too often.

This is why I get uncomfortable running into work colleagues in my civilian life. When I’m out on the town, I’m usually dressed casual/shabby and riding herd on the kids. There’s no time for irony with a four-year-old, so it’s all just out there. “Dean Dad” isn’t an oxymoron, exactly, but the two roles are very distinct; I mix them as little as possible, except on this blog.

Many years ago, there was a cute parody of Star Trek (something like Star Trek XXXVIII: So Very Tired), in which a geriatric Kirk and his geriatric crew saw a Klingon ship decloak nearby. Kirk sighed, “Again with the Klingons.” I could definitely see how that could happen. The moment your crew sees that, you’re done. From below, exhaustion looks like arrogance. I respect my faculty enough to make the effort to wear the mask. But yes, sometimes, you’re just So Very Tired.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

 

Temporary Bachelorhood

The Wife, The Boy, and The Girl are flying out to West Nowhere today, to visit The Wife’s Sister (hereafter, The Aunt). The Aunt hasn’t met The Girl, and hasn’t seen The Boy in two years, so it’s a big deal. They’re flying out today, and coming back on Monday.

This makes me a temporary bachelor.

While I won’t indulge in certain of the traditional bachelor activities I remember, like hitting on women or staring at the wall at 3 a.m. in quiet but intense despair, there are a few indulgences I’m looking forward to:

- “The game is on. Any objections? Hearing none,...”

- Finishing the Sunday morning papers on Sunday morning, like God intended.

- With a grotesquely-oversized mug of coffee, like God intended.

- Spaghetti. The Wife objects to my spaghetti technique. Like many women of my acquaintance, she fails to appreciate the sheer visceral joy of the long noodle-suck. Note to self: wear dark t-shirt.

- Shams? I don’t need no steenking shams...

- Sleeping past 6:30 a.m. on both Saturday AND Sunday. Almost unimaginable glee!

- Uninterrupted, serious reading. God, I miss that.

I’ll miss them, of course, and I’ll be incredibly glad when they get home. But a few days of bachelorhood won’t be so bad. The best part is that I know that, and when, it will end.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

 

Purgatory

I was discussing my struggles with the honors program with a veteran professor recently, when he dropped a bomb. He said that we don’t get very many high-achieving students as a cc in an affluent area, and those we do get are usually there as punishment.

!!!!!!!!

Their parents punish them for (whatever) by sending them to cc until they’ve learned whatever lesson they’re supposed to learn, at which point they gleefully decamp for ‘real’ college.

As much as I’d like to deny it, it fits with what I’ve seen, and explains a lot.

I’ve heard of policymakers touting college as an alternative to jail, but apparently, parents do something similar. This is a morale killer of the highest order.

Obviously, the kids who are (quite literally) serving time don’t carry a lot of intrinsic motivation, so the argument that they should risk lower grades by taking harder courses is an absolute non-starter with them.

I’ve heard of safety schools, but this is much worse. We’re purgatory.

I’m not sure how to get past this reputation. As a cc, we reject selectivity, so we’ll never carry the cachet of exclusivity. Quite the opposite: we fall prey to Groucho Marx’ old line about never joining a club that would accept him as a member.

Has anyone out there at a safety school (or a purgatory school) found a way around this?

Monday, September 26, 2005

 

The Boy Stumbles Upon an Eternal Truth

"Daddy, why do girls like boys who play music?"

I've wondered that myself, actually. I asked him where he heard that.

"Watching Oprah, with Mommy."

Okay...

 

A Fine Weekend

This weekend The Wife and I went down to D.C. to visit my brother and his wife. (The Boy and The Girl stayed with their grandparents, so we could have some adult time.) Saturday’s event list:

- Antiwar rally on the ellipse

- Book fair on the mall lawn

- Air & Space museum

- Nationals game

Highlights included:

- Signs at rally: “Make levees, not war.” “If the war is noble, let the nobility fight it.”

- Seeing the Apollo 11 command module.

- Participating in loud and lusty booing when Brit Hume threw out the first pitch.

- Having actual adult conversations.

Now back to the regularly scheduled blog...

Friday, September 23, 2005

 

Getting Good At It

This week we had a meeting that touched on, among other things, ways to encourage more faculty to take the leap and try either doing an entire course online, or at least supplementing their classes with material on the web. A comment by our local web guru reminded me why so many faculty resist.

“A new version of (our web platform) is coming out this Fall, and it’s completely different from the current one. Everyone will have to be trained on the new one.”

Ugh.

The folks who are already offering courses online will have to go through the same training as the folks who aren’t sure about this newfangled ‘electricity’ thing. It has ‘morale killer’ written all over it.

I saw the same thing, magnified, at my previous school. At one point, we had used three different platforms in three consecutive semesters. The faculty were livid, since they spent all of their time in the low-payoff part of the learning curve. They didn’t have enough time to get good at it.

I’m wrestling with a similar issue at home. The Wife bought me a nifty, cool, way-fun object of techno-geek lust, and I’m trying to figure out how to use it. It will probably be a blast, once I figure out how to make it go. Until then, it’s an annoying time-suck. Thirtysomething that I am, I keep analogizing it to earlier technologies, incorrectly. Damn that historical memory.

It’s futile to ask innovation to slow down, I know, and probably a bad idea anyway. But from a faculty perspective, time spent learning to use the new web platform is time wasted. They want to be able to get good at it right away, to spend time on actual course material, and they’re right.

Hell is a series of workshops.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

 

"Community" College

Every so often I’m reminded that the term ‘community college’ is less transparent than I’d like to believe.

There’s an ongoing debate here about how to handle ‘undocumented’ students. It flared up again this week.

A little background: our funding comes from the county, the state, and the students. (There are limited subventions from some federal programs, like Perkins and Title IV, and a few from private philanthropists, but the basic point stands.) What that means is that tuition covers less than the full cost of the education the students receive, even if they pay full tuition out-of-pocket. Taxpayers make up the difference.

Like many public institutions, we charge lower tuition for residents of the areas we rely on for tax support. The theory is that residents have already paid to support the college, so they should get something back, like discounted tuition. People coming in from other jurisdictions are charged higher rates, to make up for the taxes they didn’t pay in our county.

The system works tolerably well with typical students from neighboring counties. A student who decides that my cc is stronger than the one in his county has the option of attending mine, as long as he’s willing to pay a higher tuition rate for the privilege. Many do, which I take as a sort of institutional compliment. (The premium is waived if the student’s home cc lacks the major he’s taking with us.)

The system breaks down, though, with students who are in this country illegally.

Many of those students were brought here as young children by their parents; they’ve grown up here, and gone to high school here. Since they aren’t legally county (or even state) residents, we have the option of charging them our out-of-state tuition rate (which is even higher than the out-of-county rate), or even of excluding them altogether. Or, we could simply look at their current domicile, and decide that they’re in-county.

The K-12 system doesn’t look at immigration status, so these kids can (and do) go all the way through public high school without issue. Come graduation, they may find themselves stranded, depending on how the local cc interprets the rules.

In the past few days, I’ve heard multiple permutations of this issue. Honestly, I see merit in every one of them, which makes me damn glad that I’m not in charge of this policy.

The argument for letting local undocumented students in as local students is simple: if they got local high school diplomas, they’re local. If they came here as young children, it hardly seems fair to punish them for what was, in reality, their parents’ decision. As a society, we don’t believe in a caste system, so we shouldn’t confine entire populations to working at Burger King for their entire lives. It’s a waste of talent, it’s an immoral visitation of the sins of the father upon the son (in these cases, that’s literally true), and it’s not as if our federal immigration system makes sense anyway. Let us educate, which is both our mission and our human inclination; other branches can worry about the niceties of green cards and the rest.

The argument for letting them in but charging extra is also simple: they shouldn’t be confined to a low-wage ghetto forever, but they also shouldn’t be rewarded for breaking the law. If a kid who was born in the neighboring county, went to public school there, graduated, and comes to us gets charged extra, then surely the illegal immigrant shouldn’t get a discount! It’s bizarre to suggest that the kid from Ecuador has a higher claim on local tax dollars than the kid from the next town over.

The argument for banning them altogether is also, alas, simple: we shouldn’t reward breaking the law. More coldly, we shouldn’t tax the folks who play by the rules to enhance the earning potential of folks who don’t. If they want to get naturalized, then fine; if they can’t be bothered, for whatever reason, then let them live with the consequences of that decision. Depending on how one reads the federal statutes, it’s possible to argue that this is a mandatory position.

Most of the people on campus I’ve discussed the issue with have clear, firm opinions. They seem to believe that the logic of their view is self-evident. While I’ve been accused of that in other contexts (smirk), I have to admit lacking confidence on this one. On humanitarian and educational grounds, I’d like to side with the open-door policy. But it’s an awfully hard policy to defend to the angry parent of a kid from the next town over who has to pay double tuition, or the angry politician looking for explanations for runaway budgets. As a community college, we’re bound, in meaningful ways, to the community. We just need a defensible definition of who that community includes.

It would be easy to defer the dilemma by kicking it upstairs – blame the federal government for arcane, inconsistent, and downright weird immigration rules, call for reform there, and wash one’s own hands of it. There’s certainly some truth to that position, but it doesn’t help when a kid shows up in the Admissions office.

My previous school was a proprietary, so the issue of differential tuition didn’t come up; since the local taxpayers were no more burdened than any other, they got no special break. As a cc, we don’t have the option of flat pricing.

I think this is a painful variation on one of the eternal dilemmas of the left – how to reconcile universalist ethics with local allegiances. When ‘community’ is in both your name and your mission, this conflict can’t be brushed away lightly.

How does your school handle this? Are there angles/arguments that could help clarify the issue? I’m honestly conflicted, and the issue is getting harder to ignore.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

 

Did He Make It? Bring In the Chains!

In response to yesterday’s entry about mission creep, a friend on the tenure track at a midtier school wrote:

----------------

...the research expectations at this place are on the rise. A large percent of my department members, especially the younger faculty, have at least one book, for example. At the same time, we are expected to teach well. What’s been getting me is the steps being taken to determine if we are teaching up to par. First, there are the repeated ‘peer evaluations’ of your teaching, or when a colleague sits through your course. I’m in the middle of that, and besides being annoying, it very much feels like a bureaucratic hoop. My colleague was required to show up to every one of my classes (all three of them), and the requirements say that she has to make ‘repeated’ visits. And I need another person to do the same. Second, I’m supposed to put together a teaching portfolio...[that] will be hundreds of pages. Third, for every single course, I’m supposed to read my course evaluations and use them to write a self-analysis that describes strengths and weaknesses as well as discusses how I would improve on mistakes. Of course, I always find out about these rules secondhand, because the people who come up with them consider them self-evident.

The point being: The problem is only partially that we are being pulled in two directions. It’s also the bureaucratic enforcement. If this were still primarily a teaching institution, all this crap would be more tolerable. But, when you lose valuable research time and energy creating meaningless documents and sitting through other people’s classes, it seriously sucks.

--------------

Yes, it does. It sucks from the management side, too. Let’s say your institution values teaching, and someone you know to be a far below-average teacher is coming up for tenure. You want to deny, since you’re reasonably sure you could hire someone much stronger. (Assume, for the sake of argument, that you’re reasonably sure you won’t lose the position altogether.)

How do you prove that the candidate isn’t up to snuff as a teacher? What can you use? (And yes, in this litigious climate you have to assume that any negative decision will be challenged.)

Peer evaluations don’t work, since they’re subject to all manner of bias. In colleges with ‘consensus’ cultures, the unwritten rule is that no professor ever speaks ill of another to a dean. So the Lake Woebegone effect kicks in, and everybody is far above average, rendering the evaluations worthless. In a conflictual culture, the evaluation will reflect the political fault lines of the department – more interesting to read, but still useless as signs of actual teaching performance.

Evaluations by chairs are subject to both personal whims and political calculations, so their worth is frequently suspect, as well.

Student evaluations are less likely to reflect internal departmental politics, but they have a somewhat justified reputation for being manipulable. More disturbingly, I’ve read that student evaluations correlate with both the physical attractiveness of the teacher (particularly for male teachers, oddly enough), and the extent to which the teacher plays out the assigned gender role (men are supposed to be authoritative, women are supposed to be nurturing – when they switch, students punish them in the evaluations).

Other than evaluations, what should count? Outcomes are tricky, since they’re usually graded by the professor being evaluated. (My previous school used to fire faculty who failed ‘too many’ students. You can imagine what happened to the grading standards.) Outcomes also commonly tell you more about student ability and interest going into the course than about what went on during it.

Attendance isn’t a bad indicator, but it’s hard to get right. If the students hate the class so much that they simply stop showing up, something is probably wrong. But good luck getting that information in a regular, reliable way. And it, too, often reflects time slot and local culture.

Bad measures aren’t unique to academia. On those rare occasions when I actually get to watch football, I always get a kick out of the moments when they aren’t sure if the runner made quite enough yards (meters) for a first down. The referees put the ball on the ground where they think it should be, then march two poles onto the field, each supporting one end of a ten-yard chain. They plunk the first pole down by sort of eyeballing it, then pull the chain taut and use the location of the ball relative to the second pole to see if the runner made it. I’ve seen decisions hinge on inches (centimeters).

The false precision always makes me chuckle. If they can just eyeball the location of the first pole, then exactly how precise can the second pole really be? It’s just the initial eyeballed spot, plus ten yards.

Measuring the quality of teaching, sadly enough, is sort of like that. We use ungainly and even weird measures because we need to use SOMETHING, and nobody has yet come up with a better, practicable idea. Bad teachers rarely confess, so we need evidence. It’s fine to condemn the evidence we use – I certainly think my friend’s school is going way, way overboard – but I don’t foresee any change until we have an alternative.

Question for the blogosphere: how SHOULD we measure teaching quality? Put differently, what evidence would be fair game to use to get rid of a weak, but not criminal, teacher? If there’s a better, less intrusive way to do this that still gets rid of the weak performers, I’m all for it. Any ideas?

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

 

Mission Creep and Job Satisfaction

A big Thank You to Academic Coach for calling my attention to a new study that shows that community college professors, statistically, are more likely to be satisfied with their jobs than are professors at four-year schools.

Honestly, I think community colleges are the best-kept secret in American higher education. We’re so far below the prestige radar that we don’t even merit mention in most popular discussions of higher ed. The media are consumed with the Ivies and the top ten state universities, as are the disciplinary associations. Community colleges (or, my pet peeve, “junior” colleges) are treated, when at all, as the red-headed stepchildren of academe.

Yet we enroll more students than every other sector of higher education, combined.

Our students are more likely than others’ to be female, over 21, minority, working full-time, first generation college students, and from struggling high schools. A surprising number of our students are immigrants themselves, often brand new.

Faculty at cc’s teach more credits per year than their colleagues anywhere else except the proprietaries. That said, they’re more satisfied with their jobs.

Clarity of mission is the key. I would guess that faculty are happiest at the top research schools and the cc’s, and least happy at those schools stuck in the middle that can’t decide what they want to be. Top research schools know their mission, and follow it either aggressively or ruthlessly. Publish, bring in grant money, or get out. If you’re a research machine, you will be happy there; if not, you won’t. On the flip side, cc’s know our mission, and follow it clearly. Teach a lot, and well, and you’ll be valued.* Research is nice, but it’s not the focus; sports are fun, but they’re not the focus. I heard a speaker once describe the students who attend cc’s as falling into three categories: those who need a first chance, those who need a second chance, and those who need a last chance. That’s about right.

The schools in between (i.e. if the name ends in “State,” or has a compass direction in it) often want both, and resolve the contradiction by demanding that their faculty, like Mary Poppins, be practically perfect in every way. That’s insane. Most of these schools started as teachers’ colleges – a perfectly worthwhile mission – and gradually grew in whatever direction seemed to make sense at the time. Mission creep, driven by politics, fashion, and funding, set in, and the near-impossibility of actually eliminating programs meant that change was usually additive, rather than transformative. Got an idea for a new program? Just glom it on. Over decades, the underlying shape gets harder to discern, and the add-ons make governance clunkier. Since these schools can’t attain excellence by focusing their resources, which would require actually saying ‘no’ to some programs, they try to get there by just raising the bar for tenure higher and higher, while cutting professional development money and stuffing class sections ever fuller. Let the faculty figure it out. Do more with less. Seek efficiencies. Form public-private partnerships. Charge faculty for parking.

We aren’t immune to mission creep; some community colleges have started awarding four-year degrees. The appeal is obvious: keep the students enrolled longer, get the tuitions, get the prestige, etc. Mine doesn’t do that, and I’m glad it doesn’t. Doing our core mission well (which we do, I think) is HARD. Let’s not muddy the waters. Keep it simple, stupid. Let the rest of higher ed worry about the upper-level courses, graduate education, and the like; we’re happy teaching the intro courses (and, yes, the remedial courses), acclimating people to academic life, and having time to spend with our kids when we get home. If you aren’t a research machine, and prefer a balanced and happy life to a chaotic stress festival, you could do a lot worse than a cc.

Your thoughts?

* The shift towards a permanent, heavy adjunct presence in the faculty violates this mission, and for that reason (among others) strikes me as a slow-acting poison. If we, of all places, don’t value teaching, then it’s not clear to me why we exist.

Monday, September 19, 2005

 

Talk Like a Pirate and Stop Global Warming

Avast, ye scurvy swabs. This be National Talk Like a Pirate Day.

According to the Pastafarians, the flying spaghetti monster likes pirates, and has subjected us to global warming as a direct consequence of the decline in the number of pirates. Talking like a pirate will appease his noodly highness, and buy us some time. Aarrrr!

Speaking of guilty pleasures...

 

Textbooks

I’m in the wrong business.

Some students have been complaining about the price of textbooks for certain classes. Curious, I went to the bookstore and roamed the stacks, seeing just what they’re paying.

Wow.

The students are right. The costs are absurd.

Intro to [a popular foreign language] -- $200. (That’s roughly $250 Canadian, I think.) That ain’t right. At $200 per course, a student taking a full load would spend $1,000/semester just on books. When these students work 30 hours a week outside of class (for about $7 an hour), that’s real money. It’s almost as high as the tuition for the course.

As a community college, we sweat blood to keep our tuition as low as possible, so low-income students will still have access to higher education. Apparently, publishers have no such reservations; any money we leave on the table, they happily hoover.

They’re getting craftier about it, too. Where once a given edition of a textbook might last for four years, now it lasts for two. (That way, they can short-circuit the market in used textbooks, which is their main competition.) Change the pagination, add a bell here and a whistle there, and suddenly students who would otherwise have saved money buying used are forced to buy new (or to go without). (Another trick is the ‘free’ add-on. This textbook comes with a free workbook! The point of the add-on is to disqualify used books. Too many faculty fall for this.)

If they sign up early enough, crafty students know to book-shop on the web and avoid the on-campus markup. It helps, but even without the local markup, these things cost too much. The shame of it is compounded by the general lameness of most textbooks. Complaining about the unreadability of textbooks is a longstanding faculty and student pastime, and for good reason. Most of them, well, suck.

When I was in college, I recall my friends in the sciences complaining about textbook prices (and rightly so), but at least those could be explained by the number and detail of illustrations. Now, the virus has spread, and no discipline is safe. Textbooks with no need for fancy or detailed illustrations, in plain-vanilla intro courses to mainstream disciplines, routinely go for three figures.

Parents complain, naturally, but they complain at us, instead of the publishers. So we cut costs wherever possible, carrying a higher percentage of adjuncts on the faculty and only putting the course schedule on the web (instead of printing it), and publishers blithely hike prices by double digits annually. The students and parents don’t see the economic benefit of our frugality (or brutality, if you prefer), since ‘total cost’ is the relevant number to them. If more of that total goes to publishers and less to us, it makes no difference to the billpayer.

An editorial in the Times recently suggested that colleges simply bundle the textbook cost in with tuition, and provide the textbooks to the students free of charge, like high schools do. I can’t even begin to describe the ways that idea would fail. Departments would come under pressure to choose the cheapest books, regardless of quality. Book prices go up much faster than institutional budgets do (or will, or could), so we’d wind up eating more of the difference ourselves (read: more adjuncts, bigger classes). A kid who failed a class once and retook it would be forced to pay for the book a second time, which would benefit nobody but the publishers. The market for used books would crater, because students effectively would be forced to pay full price for books; now, at least the savvier ones have the option of buying used and saving money, or trading with friends, or book-shopping online, or using the library. Bundling books with tuition would render those options irrelevant. Finally, and most damningly, have you looked at a high school textbook lately? College texts have their shortcomings, to be sure, but at least they don’t have to get approved by central committees. Start bundling the texts for the huge intro classes, and the central committees will become relevant.

I don’t know the solution to this. I’ve encouraged my department chairs to keep cost in mind when they select textbooks, but in many areas, there are only a few acceptable choices and they’re all costly. E-books seem to have natural limits, and those pesky copyright laws make the old damn-the-torpedoes-photocopy-everything approach untenable. The library isn’t going to purchase and keep anywhere near enough copies to be a solution. Custom publishing our own textbooks offers at least the possibility of getting around royalties (and insisting on paperbacks), but it can create issues with course transfer. We live and die by transfer, so we really can’t play games with that.

Any ideas out there?

Friday, September 16, 2005

 

Guilty Pleasures, and Their Opposites

My literary crush, Sarah Vowell, said in an interview recently that one of the themes of her work is the gap between the stuff we like but aren’t supposed to, and the stuff we’re supposed to like but don’t. Guilty pleasures, and their opposites (guilty pains? guilty annoyances?).

Like most of what she says, it got me thinking. Why, exactly, are guilty pleasures guilty? I don’t mean the obviously harmful ones, like mistresses or heroin, but harmless ones. Why do I feel bad about liking minor-league baseball, or sausage pizza, or Pat Metheny (whose music one ex-girlfriend memorably described as “good for the digestion”)? And why do I feel vaguely bad about finding the Godfather movies slow and self-indulgent, or finding much of the scholarly work in my field unspeakably turgid and pointless? Haven’t I earned the right to opinions? What’s going on here?

I don’t know this, but it wouldn’t surprise me to find that academics are particularly prone to this sort of thing. So much of grad school is about acquiring taste for, well, acquired tastes, that we get used to thinking that way. Failure to acquire a taste is a sign of failure to do your work. The sophisticates believe that Authority X is the cat’s meow, so if you don’t, you just aren’t sophisticated. Since grad school is all about entering the ranks of the certified-sophisticated, the sense of guilt or inadequacy is real.

Perversely, in some circles, some lowbrow pleasures are signs of sophistication. In the political press, liberals are taken to task for failing to appreciate NASCAR. Well, excuuuse me. NASCAR is traffic. Fast, circular, right-back-where-you-started traffic. If I want to see traffic, I’ll drive to work. I’m not going to try to double back on my opinions and acquire a guilty pleasure in organized traffic as some sort of populist gesture. True NASCAR fans, I’d imagine, wouldn’t want any part of anyone who did.*

Stuff I’m supposed to like, but don’t: Jane Austen (get jobs, people!), Beethoven (sorry, but pompous is pompous), Hip-Hop (melody exists for a reason, people…), Scotch/Bourbon/Whiskey (I know paint thinner when I smell it), the films of Tim Burton (okay, okay, you’re skinny and goth and misunderstood, I GET IT).

Stuff I like, but I’m not supposed to: grilled cheese sandwiches with tomato soup (you scoff, but is there anything better for lunch on a dreary gray day?), Courtney Love (probably insufferable in real life, but great fun to watch), Bob Newhart albums from the 1960’s (the bus driver routine reduces me to helpless laughter).

I’m not saying that these opinions are right, or that anyone else needs to hold them; I’m just saying that I don’t know why I’m supposed to feel bad for holding them.

Two questions for the blogosphere: what are your guilty pleasures, and what’s the term for the opposite of a guilty pleasure (something you’re supposed to like, but don’t)?

*My satellite radio service has a NASCAR channel. Can you imagine? “vroooom. vroooom.” That’s almost as bad as radio golf.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

 

Overheard in the Hallway

Conversation fragment, between two students, in the hallway today:

"What time do the 10:00 classes start?"

...

 

First Steps!

The Girl took her first steps yesterday! She took them when I was at work, prompting an absolutely giddy phone call from The Wife, but then took some more (towards me!) when I got home.

Three little shuffle-steps, followed by an outstretched-arm, smiling fall into my hug.

Perfect.

 

In a Nutshell

Yesterday, in celebration of Constitution Day, my campus brought a guest speaker who had been a professor of mine in grad school, at dear old R1. He’s a good egg, and it was fun to catch up. He was fascinated by my job, and wanted details. The conversation:

Visiting Big Shot: Do you carry academic rank?
DD: No.
VBS: So do you have tenure?
DD: No.
VBS: But the faculty you supervise have tenure?
DD: Yes.
VBS: So they can just tell you to jump in a lake, and you have to take it?
DD: Yup.
VBS: So how the hell do you manage them?

Exactly.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

 

Ask the Administrator: Trapped on the Turkey Farm

An ambitious new department chair wrote to ask:

-------------
What do you do, as a new, rather young head of department, with professors who are twenty or thirty years older than you, have been working there since before you were an undergrad, and who aren't doing their job - or, more precisely, who want to teach (and have got away with teaching) courses that really aren't what your department is supposed to be teaching?

It seems that my institution's main strategy in personnel management has been to move complicated people to other departments. Unfortunately, as a smallish, cross-disciplinary department, we seem to have received a few more than our fair share of these cases. My superiors call them "resources" and so we don't get other resources (a.k.a. staff), but since they literally CAN'T teach the courses our students are supposed to be being taught, this means either the rest of us teach more or we spend a lot of money on adjuncts. Which is basically what happens. One of them has previously been damage controlled by having him mostly do supervision rather than run courses, but of course we're getting soo many complains from the students - and students who don't complete their degrees, which is costly for us.

Any ideas?

--------------------

‘Kicking upstairs’ (as happened with your damage-controlled character) is a common, and unbelievably stupid, method for dealing with unsuccessful teachers. The short-term payoff, such as it is, is that it gets the low performer out of the classroom, at least some of the time, and it avoids immediate conflict. The long-term damage, though, is thorough: it rewards failure (and thereby generates more of it), it breeds (legitimate) cynicism among other faculty towards administration, it encourages the low performer to think of himself as successful, and it hogs resources that could have been used, well, any other way.

More common is the ‘turkey farm’ approach. A given department or unit gets the turkey farm tag, and serves the organizational purpose of being the place to send the tenured turkeys. (One college I know, that shall remain nameless, established a ‘history of science’ department specifically to have a place to dump the burned-out biologists and chemists until they retired.) Instead of kicking a low performer upstairs, a flummoxed administration will just transfer him to the turkey farm, on the theory that he’ll do less damage there.

It sounds like you’re running the turkey farm.

Although running a turkey farm can look like a no-win situation, it actually carries the considerable advantage of low expectations. If you can turn it into a reasonably well-functioning department, you will win the gratitude of your superiors (unless they’re turkeys, too). You don’t have to make it great; you just have to make it work.

If you have the kind of relationship with your superiors that allows for (at least some) candor, have conversations about damage control. Lower the already-low expectations, then come in above them.

How to come in above them? First, get the incentives right. Assuming you have some people who actually are capable, direct the goodies (coordinatorships, release time, friendly schedules, etc.) their way. Make the good ones comfortable, and the bad ones uncomfortable, and don’t be shy about explaining why (i.e. it’s not about friendships). If they’re as old as you say, some of them will decide that sticking around just isn’t worth it anymore. Don’t make the turkeys comfortable by enabling them (“the rest of us teach more”). More importantly, you’ll send a message to the capable ones that even if the Administration doesn’t think much of the importance of your department, you do. This is crucial to earning respect.

(This may seem cruel to the students, but in the long run, it will actually strengthen the department and its offerings. As for the short run, consider it one of the many costs of tenure.)

Forming a turkey farm is usually a sign of surrender. If you improve it even modestly, you will earn major stripes as a manager. In fact, even if some of your initiatives fail, you will earn respect from above simply for trying.

I ran into similar issues of age and respect at my current school; I’m substantially younger than most of the faculty in my division, many of whom have occupied this office in the past. For the first semester I was here, the jokes and jabs were constant. They’ve pretty much faded away, though, and they probably will for you, too. Take the high road, and own your position. If you’re the chair, be the chair. Being young isn’t a sin (nor is it permanent). If you do your job well, the respect will follow from most, and where it doesn’t, it won’t be because of age (even if that’s the preferred excuse). In fact, you can work your age to your advantage; an older chair is only a chair, but a young chair may be a future dean, vp, or president, and nobody wants to be on the bad side of someone like that. Some people just have a problem with authority, no matter who the authority is, and age just happens to be the button they think they can push with you. With another chair, it would be something else, but it would be something. Take the high road, don’t take the static personally, and you should be okay.

(If this approach gets you into hot water, but you still want to move up in administration, you might want to refresh your c.v. and start reading the ads in the Chronicle. Some workplaces are just too toxic to transcend.)

Got a question? Ask the Administrator at ccdean (at) myway (dot) com.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

 

Late Afternoon Crickets

In telling you this, I’m not really helping you narrow down where I work. That’s scary.

At my college, the classrooms are pretty much empty by 3:00. They stay empty until the evening classes start – most at 6:00, some at 6:30. That’s an awfully long dead period five days a week.

At 4:00, you could bowl in the hallways and not hit anybody. Sometimes I think I hear crickets, or the gentle sound of tumbleweeds blowing in the distance.

We’ve tried running classes in the dreaded ‘twilight’ hours, but other than a few nursing labs (we have so much demand in that program that students will take whatever they can get), we’ve had too few takers to make it worthwhile. So the classrooms sit.

As a cc, sports are a limited presence, so that’s not really the issue. Day students like to get out by the early afternoon to go to their jobs, or just to go home. Night students usually have day jobs, so they really can’t get here before 5:30 or 6:00.

Has your college found a way to use its facilities productively in the late afternoons? I’m stumped, and we’re hurting enough financially that it seems silly to let all these fixed costs quietly mount.

Monday, September 12, 2005

 

Sprinting vs. Marathoning

In the last entry, I slipped in a metaphor that I’ve used privately for years, without bothering to explain it. My bad. I’ll try to explain it.

Teaching is like sprinting. (Okay, if I’m using ‘like,’ it’s a simile, not a metaphor. The point still stands...) A really obtuse observer might say, of a sprinter, that she has an easy job: 10 seconds of work, max, and she’s done for the day. How easy is that?

The joke, of course, is that the real work goes into preparing for those ten seconds. The race itself is just a small part of the picture.

Something similar (though less extreme) is at work with teachers. A really obtuse observer could say that college professors have it easy – just 6-15 hours a week in class (depending on the school), and that’s it. Not like the 40 that civilians do. Plus summers off! What a scam!

Deaning is closer to distance running. When I teach a class, I try to give it all I have, planning to rest and recover later. Leave it all on the field, as the sports guys say. Deaning doesn’t work like that. I’m in the office for civilian-job lengths of time, or more during rubber-chicken-circuit season, so constant sprinting just isn’t an option. I can’t leave it all on the field, every day, or there wouldn’t be much left to leave after a while.

The hardest semester I ever had was the first time I moved into administration. I moved mid-semester, so I had to carry my regular courses for two months while performing the admin job full-time. I felt like someone had dropped a piano on me. Since all of my previous academic experience had been on the teacher or student side, I initially approached the new assignment that way. Big mistake. After the first month, I wasn’t doing either job well, and I was dangerously tired. I had to learn to downshift, to pace myself more deliberately while in the dean’s office.

That’s not the same as slacking, any more than it’s slacking when a marathoner runs 100 meters more slowly than a sprinter would. It’s just pacing.

In some ways, I think department chairs have harder jobs than deans do. Chairs have to switch between sprinting and distance running, since they carry a teaching load every semester. I find switching back and forth much more draining than either by itself.

The academic calender is relatively well-suited to sprinting: intense bursts of activity, with significant downtime for recovery. The administrative calendar is incessant, but usually lower-intensity; the successful administrator figures out a sustainable pace, and devotes actual mental energy to preserving it. (This may be why, to professors, deans seem preternaturally unflappable: we can’t let ourselves get ‘flapped’ at every new piece of news, or we’d flop.) A professor can afford to ignore the vast majority of what goes on on campus, concentrating her passion on a pet cause or two; for a dean, the opposite is true.

The dilemma for colleges, of course, is that the best sprinters don’t always make the best marathoners. The skills and temperaments each requires are different. Yet we set up successful sprinting as a prereq to marathoning.

Research is something else altogether – I haven’t figured out a good metaphor yet. Any ideas?

Friday, September 09, 2005

 

Calendars

One of the constant challenges of deaning is mediating between the faculty/academic calendar and the twelve-month administrative calendar. Most of the non-academic side of the college – fundraising, noncredit, back office functions, business & finance, facilities, etc. – works on a twelve-month schedule. The faculty is attuned to the September-to-May calendar, with predictable peaks (December, early May) and valleys (late September, February, summers).

This isn’t a big deal when the two sides work separately, but it makes collaboration difficult. Returning from summer break, the faculty are brimming with ideas for ways to improve the college, and many of those ideas are damn good. (Some of them are so good, I’m not even going to share them yet. Must protect delicate orchid from cold wind of reality...) For the next month or so, they’ll be eager to work with whomever they need to, to make those ideas happen. Then midterms will hit. Then drop week, Thanksgiving, and the don’t-talk-to-me rush to and through final exams.

What this means is that if these ideas are to have any hope of becoming reality, I have to work like a crazed ferret for the next month or so, before the window closes. Impressing upon the rest of the college the need to pay attention to these (annual, predictable) academic rhythms isn’t easy.

The mutual lack of understanding comes out in different ways. Class schedule deadlines are determined not by when it makes sense for department chairs, but by how long it takes the printer to make copies. So it’s not unusual for the department chairs to be asked to proof the schedules during the first week of classes, when they’re usually struggling just to deal with adjuncts who vanish (it happens every semester) and students desperately finagling their schedules. Faculty searches, when they occur at all, occur when the budget people tell us that we really, honestly, truly have the money; if that happens in May, so be it. I’ve made arguments upwards about the need to attune our searches to the (annual, predictable) faculty hiring cycle, but with limited success.

To my mind, this is the chronic problem with ‘faculty governance,’ or even ‘consensus,’ as a model for running a college. For valid reasons, the amount of attention faculty can and will pay to institutional housekeeping will wax and wane over the course of the year. This is not true for the rest of the college. When the faculty turn their attention elsewhere, one of two things happens: either the idea simply falls off the desk (at which point we get the standard complaints about The Administration not listening), or it gets implemented by other people, with the changes one would usually expect when delegating tasks to other people (at which point we get the standard complaints about adminstrative power grabs). If I’m not careful, too many of the wonderful ideas that develop when intelligent people return from extended breaks simply won’t come to pass, and the hoary complaints about ‘nothing ever changes’ or ‘nobody listens’ will surface again.

It’s the difference between sprinting (the faculty model) and distance running (the administrative model). Academic deans do both. This is why we’re always tired.

Maybe I should stash gatorade in my desk...

Thursday, September 08, 2005

 

The First Day

This morning was The Boy’s first day of official, public, real-thing preschool.

He looked dapper in his striped shirt (with nametag!), shorts, and absurdly large sneaks. He was eager to get there, and happily chatted up another kid while we waited for the teacher to march them off to class.

The parents held it together, while the kids were still in view. Walking out of the school, another mom confessed “this is why I didn’t wear mascara today.” The Wife responded, “this is why I wore sunglasses.”

“Lump in my throat” doesn’t quite cut it.

He’s on his way…

 

The Boy Bridges the Gender Divide

The Boy, last night, describing his new friend:

“Ashley is a girl, but I don’t mind.”

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

 

Ask the Administrator: The Secret Search

A fellow blogger in a one-year position (that may convert to tenure-track) at a cc asks:

--------
Here's the thing. I really like teaching at a CC. I like the class sizes, the community, the emphasis on teaching, and the feeling that I'm giving something back. As long as I have summers free, I can continue to do research and write. The college has a study abroad program and a decent amount of ProD money for going to conferences on alternate years (although we can still go at other times if we pay our own way).

But I'm also a bit frightened. How will it look to my colleagues when I say I'm on the market this year, even though I'm going to be doing my best to be the best candidate for their search? And will they believe me that I'd be happy at a CC, if I'm applying to 4-years?

The truth is, I see advantages to both. And I can see that there will be trade-offs. I also don't want to sabotage myself, though, and am scared that actually having a writing agenda -- something I MUST have to get a job at anywhere other than a CC -- might put people off.

Also, are FT fill-ins better for extending the sell-by date?

----------------

First off, if your current position is a one-year, you’d be insane NOT to be on the market. Since your current employer hasn’t pledged its troth to you, you shouldn’t pledge yours either. Oddly, you may increase your chances of converting your current position by showing that it isn’t your only option. (If they think you’re stuck, they may calculate that they could keep you around without shouldering the budgetary burden of salary and benefits.) The calculation changes once you’re on the tenure track; at that point, the big fear is ‘flight risk.’ I say, apply freely until you’re on the tenure track; at that point, unless you’re really miserable, focus on the task at hand.

You aren’t under any obligation that I can see to tell your current colleagues exactly where you’re applying, unless and until offers materialize. No need to raise any anxieties there. Just let them know that you would love to continue where you are, but your commitment is contingent upon theirs.

It’s good that you have a writing agenda, and I certainly wouldn’t advise hiding it. The anxieties that Ph.D.’s can sometimes trigger among cc faculty should be reduced, in your case, by familiarity. It’s harder to fear the unknown when it isn’t unknown. If your current colleagues know you as a good teacher and colleague, the threat of being used as a port in a storm by a young research machine should fade away.

On a personal note, let me say ‘congratulations’ on being able to look past the academic hierarchy to see that it is, in fact, possible to be happy someplace other than a research 1.

On the sell-by date: yes and no. Yes, it helps with teaching institutions; no, it most likely doesn’t with r1’s (and those awful midtier places that style themselves as r1’s in the making, which are much worse). When I’m looking at prospective hires here, I certainly value full-time teaching experience more than adjunct, simply because it suggests that the person has had experience with both a full-time courseload and departmental politics. It also suggests that someone else thought highly enough of the candidate to pick her for a spot. In a research-driven place, though, there’s just no getting around the fact that you’ve had your degree for several years and have yet to break through.

In this job market, I see absolutely no shame in switch-hitting; apply to both the four-year and the two-year schools, if you honestly believe you could be happy at either. Until you’re on the tenure track, failing to apply is a high-risk, low-reward gamble. Just make sure that you’re aware of your audience at each, and you should be fine.

Got a question? Ask the Administrator at ccdean (at) myway (dot) com.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

 

Late, Late, Late Registration

Sometimes I fantasize about working at a college that doesn’t accept late-registering students. The kind of place students fight to get into, and where if they’re kicked out, there’s another kid outside just itching to take his place.

Alas, not the case. Both my previous school and my current one register(ed) students through the first week of classes. While I understand financial desperation, and the need to make the numbers work, it’s hard not to feel pangs of conscience helping a struggling kid sign up for a full slate of classes when he’s already missed the first meetings of each.

The rule of thumb on the staff at my old school was ‘last in, first out.’ My current school doesn’t share the gallows sense of humor, but I can’t help but wonder if the same rule applies.

Signing up for classes is, and should be, a big deal. It’s not something you can just roll out of bed and do, and expect to succeed.

Aside from the obvious, like stepping up to the educational plate with one strike already called against you, the logistical concerns at this point become overwhelming. The most convenient and popular time slots are already full (with students who actually went to the trouble to sign up on time), leaving only a patchwork of sections that most people wouldn’t want, and certainly wouldn’t want together. For reasons I will NEVER understand, federal financial aid regs require a kid to sign up for 12 credits, so the kid who might have a fighting chance with two or three classes is forced to fail with four. (Even worse – we have some accelerated classes that start in late October, to catch the kids who attended another college for a month and came home. For financial aid purposes, late-starting classes don’t count.)

It gets worse with students who need remedial courses. They’re a part of the cc mission, to be sure, but they’re harder to schedule, since many courses have as a prerequisite the passing of any remedial coursework. (This is true even where you wouldn’t expect. Intro to Chemistry bans students in remedial English, for example. There were ‘incidents’ in labs in the past, and they want to make sure that everybody in the class can understand safety instructions. It makes sense, even if you wouldn’t immediately think of it.) Finding 12 credits of open sections that make sense, that don’t violate prerequisites, and that work with the kid’s job hours can be horribly difficult.

Honestly, though, the parents are the worst. Memo to parents: let the kid register. Or not. If the only way he’s showing up is with you leading him by the nose ring, exactly how many classes do you think he’ll attend when you’re not there? (And when that happens, don’t get mad at me over FERPA rules. I didn’t write ‘em.)

Although we’d take an initial hit, I’d like to try an experiment whereby we close ALL registration three weeks before the start of classes. I’d bet large sums of cash that the attrition rate would drop substantially. Give every kid time to work out his job hours, transportation, etc. And tell the hardcore procrastinators to come back in a few months. Or not.

In the words of John Belushi, but nooooo....

Monday, September 05, 2005

 

A Farewell to Rachael Ray

I wanted to like Rachael Ray, I really did. On paper, she has it all: a brunette Meg Ryan who can cook. What’s not to like?

Alas, the food.

We’ve been burned before. Last year I bought one of her 30 minute cookbooks, hoping to find something I could actually make that would expand my (admittedly basic) repertoire. The Wife and I each tried a couple of recipes, and came away wondering what the fuss was about. It wasn’t terrible, but it wasn’t anything either of us felt any need to have again.

For her birthday, The Wife received a second RR cookbook (not from me). Last night we tried two recipes: an entree and a dessert. The entree wasn’t awful, but was certainly boring, and I’ve done far better with less effort. The dessert, well, sucked. The concept was good – fluffernutter brownies (or, as The Boy calls them, fluffernutting brownies). Take brownies, put peanut butter chips in them, and melt marshmallows on top. Fire up the insulin, I’m goin’ in!

Sadly, RR apparently has no concept of the laws of physics and chemistry, as they apply to baking. The brownie package said to bake them for 55 minutes; RR said 20. What the hell, she’s the cook, so we did 20. Then 20 more, then 20 more.

At the end, they mostly just tasted burnt. A terrible waste of wonderful ingredients. Even The Boy didn’t like them, and he’s usually pretty tolerant of anything with way too much sugar in it.

Sorry, Rachael. I can only have my heart broken so many times. When your entree pales in comparison to barely-passable-even-by-bachelor-standards moi, it’s time to move on.

Friday, September 02, 2005

 

A Little Comic Relief

The news is unbearably sad to read and watch this week. Gunfire in the streets, rapes in the shelters, corpses everywhere, looting, disease – I’ve actually had to ration my news consumption as a mental health measure. (I did the same thing in September 2001.) For reasons I’ll probably never understand, I actually shed tears over Badger’s loss, but haven’t over New Orleans. At some level, incomprehensibility just numbs.

To stay sane, I’ve been paying extra attention to moments of comic relief:

The Boy uses ‘goodly’ as an adverb. “Look at how goodly I drew the dinosaur!” It makes sense, actually, and ‘goodly’ is an actual word (a goodly sum), so I’m not quite sure how to correct him.

The Pastafarians have constructed a perfectly wonderful, and very silly, response to the “Intelligent Design” movement. Check it out.

I’ll admit it – I stole the “Ask the Administrator” idea from Harvey, whose “Ask a Super-Villain” recurring feature always makes me laugh. This week’s interview with Modok is fun, as is this one with Magus, but my fave is this one with Batroc the Leaper (don’t ask). You don’t need to know anything about comics (I don’t) to get a kick out of these. You may make whatever academic administrator/super-villain comparisons you like.

In response to my request for knock-knock jokes, an intrepid commenter went on google and found a trove of them. There’s a zenlike simplicity to a well-formed knock-knock joke.

I recently stumbled across what must be the coolest team name in all of professional sports: a minor-league baseball team in Canada in the mid 1990's was called the Thunder Bay Whiskey Jacks. (A whiskey jack is a bird.) That’s even better than the Toledo Mud Hens!

Take care, laugh freely, and count your blessings. It’s been that kind of week.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

 

Reflections on The Wife's birthday

Two dozen years ago, I was a pariah. I was the geeky kid the other kids punish for existing. I was the common enemy that united my little adolescent world.

A dozen years ago I was single, poor, and despondent. I didn’t see a professional future, my relationships were bad jokes, and I didn’t know what I was going to do.

A half-dozen years ago I married a woman who outclasses me in every way. She’s a wonderful wife, and the kind of mother I wish every child could have. We’re lucky enough not to live in the path of a hurricane, or the shadow of a fallen tower. We’re healthy, and our children are healthy and beautiful. I look forward to coming home at the end of the day. Our son starts public preschool next week, and we couldn’t be happier about it. I like my job. I love my family.

Her name isn’t Grace, but it should be.

Happy birthday, honey.

 

Ask the Admin: Potemkin Committees and Passive-Aggressive Leaders

A smart Midwestern correspondent weighed in with a (sadly familiar) question/scenario:

-----------------
Our (administrative bigshot) asked the
governing boards of two research centers to do some
"strategic thinking" about the structure and
relationship of the two centers. Asked about resource
constraints, we got the "be creative" mantra.

It seems to me that there's a subtext here, which is
that there's already a decision that we can't support
both centers, that we need to combine them...The
centers have very different missions and areas, and
a single director for both makes no sense. Both
centers are supposed to be central to the "unique
identity" we're trying to develop.

My question is--Why do so many administrators play
around? Why are we being asked to spend (scarce,
precious) time and energy "thinking strategically" if
the decision has, as I suspect, already been made?
All it will do is use up a very scarce resource here
and [greatly annoy] later, rather than now.
-----------------------------

Ouch. A vp I previously worked for used to pull this kind of stuff all the time. He’d make a decision about what needed to be done about an issue, then appoint a committee to reach his conclusion. He judged the success of the committee (and the astuteness of each of its individual members) based on how quickly and enthusiastically it reached his conclusion. Once the faculty figured this out (which didn’t take long), it became nearly impossible to get people to serve on committees (for obvious reasons).

Bluntly, it drove me nuts. My sense (and just about everyone else’s) was that if the conclusion is foregone, then just put it out there and let’s get on with it.

I’ve been chewing on this, off and on, for some time.

As best I can guess, it serves two felt needs for certain personalities: it gives the appearance of consensus to what is actually a unilateral decision, and it allows the (real) decision maker to satisfy himself that he respected the process while still getting the answer he wanted.

It’s toxic. It’s toxic because it wastes time and energy in bad faith; because it creates a false consensus that allows the manager to explain dissent as a character flaw in the dissenter; because it rewards groupthink; and because it allows terrible ideas to go unchecked.

If asked directly, I suspect the manager in question would mutter something about respecting the process, but then argue that he was educating his constituency. Once the masses go through the reasoning process, they will, obviously, come to realize the brilliance and inevitable rightness of his conclusion.

I don’t mind something like that in, say, a math class – the professor assigns the problem, the students work on it, the professor knows the answer and waits for the students to figure it out. I don’t mind because it’s a class. That’s supposed to happen. In an active organization, though, it’s patronizing at best (and frequently much worse than that). It’s profoundly demoralizing for everyone below, since it teaches that independent thought is futile and dissent is unwelcome. In higher ed, which is comprised (by definition) of smart people with pronounced independent streaks, this approach is a disaster.

What’s especially sinister about the ‘false consensus’ style of control is that it’s passive-aggressive. Rather than simply asserting control, this kind of manager manipulates people to create a situation in which his favored outcome seems only natural. Those who object to being manipulated are then the problem children; the manager casts himself as the voice of reason, calming down the malcontents. Over time, the malcontents either bail out or shut up, and the collective IQ of the organization drops.

The contrast with a confident manager is striking. A confident manager will set the broad direction clearly, and have a strong and well-communicated sense of priorities. S/he will be willing to defend those priorities when challenged, both in public and in private. S/he will not need to micromanage details, allowing considerable debate on those. In other words, a weak manager will feel the need to control little details, and may construct elaborate mechanisms for false consensus as a denial mechanism. A strong manager will not mind give-and-take on details, but will have a clear and well-delivered sense of direction. Someone confident enough to own her own authority doesn’t have to create palace intrigue to get things done; she can set the direction, and encourage healthy debate on the best ways to get there.

Sorry to get so strident on this one, but this really hits a nerve. Academia doesn’t offer great financial rewards, much mobility, or a reasonably short training period (and these days, it doesn’t often offer tenure, either); what it does offer is autonomy in the work process. Take that away, and let’s just go work at banks.

(I’ll just go wipe the foam from my mouth now.)

Got a question? Ask the Administrator at ccdean (at) myway (dot) com.

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?