Wednesday, November 30, 2005
The Entrepreneurial Option
Academia isn’t really like that. If I can’t find the right college or university for me, it’s not like I can simply start my own. The barriers to entry are much higher than in many other industries, both for regulatory reasons and by virtue of simple curricular coverage. I suspect that this is one source of the malaise so common among academics – unlike so many others, we can’t really go into private practice without starving, and we can’t start our own enterprise. If an established shop doesn’t fancy our wares, we’re out of luck.
A few for-profit chains have sprung up, but they usually did so either with tremendous initial private backing (the U of Phoenix, with John Sperling) or by coming under the wing of a major corporation (DeVry, for many years under Bell and Howell). These weren’t the academic equivalent of a few kids in a garage hitting it big; they were more like Lucas and Spielberg financing their own movies ‘independently’ of the studios.
As my regular readers know, established shops have both limited funding and tremendous blind spots. That’s before we even get to the standard human frailties, the constraints of tenure, etc.
Writing doesn’t have quite the same barriers to entry, but academic publishers are relatively few and far between, strangely persnickety, increasingly fad-driven, and very lightly read.
I suspect that part of the chronic academic anxiety about blogging has to do with the unprecedented lack of barriers to entry. If knowledge isn’t certified, how will we know if it’s good? We’ll actually have to read it!
A blogger like Bitch, Ph.D. or Aunt B. (of tiny cat pants) attracts attention solely through her writing. Not through institutional prestige, personal fame, or the intimidation factor of being Important; just through writing well enough (and often enough) to be worth reading. That’s all. Just through sheer craft. (Danigirl, of Postcards from the Mothership, has just been nominated for a well-deserved writing award for her blog. You go, Danigirl!)
I started blogging out of frustration with the literature of managing higher ed, most of which is sheer drivel. I had no intention of dutifully footnoting all of the drivel to try to add another unread article to the pile; I actually wanted answers to the dilemmas I face every day on the job. I wanted to read something useful. Whether it brought a vita line or not wasn’t (and isn’t) the point. In order to get that conversation started, I hung out a virtual shingle and started posting. Now people actually send me ideas (at ccdean at myway dot com! Keep ‘em coming!) for posts, which is both useful and incredibly gratifying.
Note the irony: in order to pursue new knowledge, I had to do an end-run around academic publishing. This raises the question of the point of academic publishing.
The folks on the outside who constantly chide academia for not running like a business are welcome, at any point, to suggest ways to lower the barriers to entry enough to make real competition possible, to let the underemployed but highly talented youngsters compete on a level playing field with their tenured elders. Seriously. Send any ideas to ccdean at myway dot com. I’ll even post them, if you permit.
Google succeeds so brilliantly by capitalizing (pun intended) on the wisdom of crowds. The blogosphere applies the wisdom of crowds to ideas. It breaks the lone-genius-in-the-library model, and replaces it with something like conversation.
So I’m throwing down a challenge to the crowd. How do we take the next step: to apply the wisdom of academic crowds to actually teaching students, and getting paid to do it? Even idea mcnuggets are welcome, since one of the side benefits of the blog format is that people can synthesize other people’s contributions into something new. Anything useful is welcome!
A Four-Year Old Postmodernist?
"Dad, when I'm bad, I don't mean it!"
Tuesday, November 29, 2005
I want to comment on your discussion of the lack of positive incentives (or
presence of perverse incentives) throughout academia and the futility of
trying to run a college like a business. It applies to staff, too.
You'd think that it would be easy to run the business office (controller,
cashier, student loans, etc.) of a college like a business, but it doesn't
seem to work in practice. The "corporate culture" of academia seems to
pervade even the business-like staff areas. In summary, good work product
is rewarded with more work assignments, while bad work product is rewarded
with fewer work assignments with no loss of pay or prestige. Tidy work
areas are stuffed with more people, files or stored items to the bursting
point while those who keep untidy work areas are rewarded with more space.
Efficient use of resources (people, equipment) causes fewer resources to be
allocated to the efficient employee, while profligately wasteful use of
resources causes more and more resources to be allocated to the wasteful
employee. All the while raises are a flat percent across the board and
there is no hope for advancement.
"Well," you think, "just get a job somewhere else. At least you have more
options than someone with a Ph.D. in history." Unfortunately, that's not
really the case. I'm an accountant and not-for-profit and governmental
accounting is a very small niche. If you work in the field long enough to
gain any expertise, you have resume stain. Skill at writing university
financial statements and completing IRS form 990 (for not-for-profit
corporations) does not translate to employment writing corporate financial
statements and completing IRS form 1120 (for for-profit corporations).
Since I come out of the academic side, I admit that I hadn’t thought of this, but it’s consistent with what I’ve seen. Generally speaking, nonprofits pay less than for-profits for comparable work. (The only exception to this that I’ve seen, annoyingly enough, is for-profit higher ed, which pays terribly. I received a substantial raise, with the same title, going from a for-profit college to a cc – possibly the only case in recorded history in which a cc was the more lucrative option!) Nonprofits attract qualified employees in other ways: agreement with the mission, certainly, but also a more relaxed and/or stable work environment. A high-stress nonprofit will have a terrible time keeping anybody who has other options, since if you’re going to be stressed out anyway, you might as well go to the corporate sector and at least be paid better.
At least in the U.S., a substantial percentage of the non-profit side of higher ed is public (either county or state – as far as I know, our only federal public colleges are the military academies). That means that employees of these colleges are, technically, government employees. Government work is famously lower-paying than private sector work, but the traditional offsetting benefits of more time off and greater job stability/security tend to keep people around despite the salaries.
The downside of enhanced job stability, of course, is decreased job mobility. Less churn means fewer openings, so folks disenchanted with East Podunk State College have a tough time finding similar openings at other colleges. (It also places an unhealthy premium on conflict aversion, since simmering resentments could simmer for an awfully long time.) What my correspondent noted, that I hadn’t fully appreciated, is that certain kinds of work are sufficiently different in the corporate world that refugees from academia aren’t taken seriously.
At my college, on the rare occasions when a staff member leaves (usually upon retiring), there’s always an exit interview. I’m told that the most frequent gripe at the exit interviews is the lack of room for advancement; since nobody ever leaves and the institution isn’t growing, most employees have no realistic prospect of moving up. Again, the contrast with the corporate world is striking. There, your job is never really secure, but advancement can happen fairly quickly in the right circumstances.
(It’s sort of like the children’s table at family Christmas dinners. Until a few years ago, the cutoff for leaving the children’s table in my family was 65. A single generation held on for a long, long time, and nobody could move up until it moved on.)
Locally, the mechanisms that have evolved for keeping staff happy in the face of relatively low salaries and very low ceilings are time off and evaluation inflation. Since we don’t have merit pay, managers routinely rate average performance as excellent in order to boost morale. Over time, ‘excellent’ becomes normal, and criticizing people becomes nearly impossible. Add a union to the mix, and meaningful supervision is pretty much only by the grace of the supervised.
Although tenure doesn’t usually exist in staff positions, I’ve seen the culture of tenure bleed over into them. I’d love to change that, but the initial investment of substantially increasing salaries is concrete, and the long-term payoff of increased efficiency is (mostly) hypothetical and hard to capture. It could be done, with extraordinary political leadership and loose purse strings, but I’m not holding my breath.
Monday, November 28, 2005
Who Would You Hire?, or, Merit in Action
But merit is always contextual. Put differently, it’s not just about the candidate.
I’ll make it concrete. Assume you’re the hiring decision-maker at Hypothetical State. You’re hiring for a tenure-track position in English. The position involves some teaching of composition, though the majority of the courses are literature and/or film. The department search committee sends you three finalists:
Earth Mother: ABD from Respectable State, “almost done,” lots of composition experience at multiple colleges, great committee work and collegiality, likable personality, teaching awards, a few conference papers.
EuroDude: Ivy Ph.D., book contract, references from gods, great job talk, contacts/experience in film industry, slightly icy personality, minimal teaching experience, has never breathed the word ‘composition’ or taught outside Ivy U.
Sisyphus: M.A. from They Have a Graduate Program? State, longtime internal adjunct, trailing spouse of bigshot at Nearby U, faithful to the department for 15 years, plays well with others, taught everything from soup to nuts, no plans for a doctorate, never published.
Which one has the most merit?
The only intellectually honest answer is: it depends.
In a community college setting, I’d lean towards Earth Mother. Student success is our reason for being, and she is the likeliest to improve that. If Hypothetical State is mostly about teaching, and especially if it has retention issues, she’s the best.
At a research institution (or, more commonly, a wannabe research institution), EuroDude is the easy winner. Degree in hand beats ABD every time, and a book contract beats a sharp stick in the eye. Arrogant? Who cares? He’ll need it to navigate the snakepit of departmental politics. Besides, he’s the only one who has shown the potential to get tenure.
Sisyphus could carry the day in a fractious department. If the department is divided into warring camps, or if the dean and the department are engaged in a war of attrition, Sisyphus could emerge as the dark horse, compromise candidate. The department won’t meaningfully advance (or even change) with that hire, but a political firestorm could be avoided. There are times when this is the most prudent route. A manager might be saving political capital for some other high-risk, high-reward project coming up, and might elect to keep his powder dry by taking the safe route here. If hiring Sisyphus makes another, more important decision possible, then Sisyphus is the best choice for the college as a whole. (Sisyphus would also be a compelling choice if the college had recently been burned by a few ‘flight risks’ flying. At least s/he could be assumed to be place-bound).
Alternately, you could look at it negatively: what would a manager be accused of in each case? In hiring Earth Mother, I’d be accused of ignoring both excellence (EuroDude) and loyalty (Sisyphus). In hiring EuroDude, I’d be accused of ignoring teaching (Earth Mother) and loyalty (Sisyphus). In hiring Sisyphus, I’d be accused of lowering standards and inbreeding.
Comes with the job.
A few key points:
- The needs of the department are usually defined, in part, by hiring decisions made 20-30 years ago when the market was a very different animal. In a true meritocracy, incumbents would have to defend their positions against newcomers. Since incumbents have tenure, they don’t have to.
- Needs depend on the self-definition of both the department and the college. Is the college changing its mission? Is it “raising its academic profile,” or focusing on retention? Does the college even know its mission? (Most don’t.)
- Geography can play a role. A trendy urban school might take a flyer on EuroDude, figuring that location would cancel out ‘flight risk.’ A suburban or rural school that hired EuroDude would have to assume that he’d leave when something better came along. If a department can’t be sure that it would keep the line when he left, his candidacy would be doomed.
- I haven’t even mentioned hiring for diversity. That variable makes this exercise even more fun.
- Two of the three candidates will think that something they did caused them to fail. They will both be wrong. It’s Not About You.
Who would you hire, and why?
Friday, November 25, 2005
I Could See That...
The Boy insisted, repeatedly, that Peppermint Patty is a boy.
I could see that...
Wednesday, November 23, 2005
Over the River and Through the Woods...
So, two entries today. Tomorrow, we feast.
Best wishes to all for the holiday.
Ask the Administrator: How to Measure Advisement?
Some measures are fairly easy, if indirect. Does the professor usually show up for office hours? Do we ever see students there? Does the professor show up on in-person registration days? Do we ever get that professor’s signature on change-of-major forms or course-substitution forms?
The problem with these measures, of course, is that they’re vague at best. It’s possible for office hours to consist of social chatter, rather than real advisement. It’s possible that advisement can be erroneous, causing more problems than it solves. Change-of-major and course-sub forms could show active advisement, earlier mistakes, or even new mistakes.
(We also have a group of faculty who get stipends for showing up at in-person advisement sessions during the off-contract times of year. Presence in that group is generally smiled upon, although one could certainly argue that extra pay is its own reward.)
These measures worked tolerably well when advisement and registration were entirely in-person. Now that registration is increasingly on the web, though, measuring advisement is trickier. I certainly don’t want to start snooping through faculty email accounts to see how much they’re helping students that way – the issues there are too many, and too ugly. But without some sort of monitoring, I have no way of knowing which professors are actually carrying the load, and which free-riding. (Confessions of free-riding are few and far between.)
Failing to monitor, effectively, leads to failing to reward. Failing to reward, over time, leads to failure to bother in the first place. I’m concerned that we’re kind of running on historical momentum, force of habit, from the days when everything was in person. That’s fine, for now, but it’s probably not sustainable.
Does anyone out there have a system that effectively rewards faculty for active, distance advisement? How does it work?
How Economics Did It (as near as I can tell)
- Greater external (non-academic) demand for graduates. The deregulation of the financial services industry led to the development of all manner of new financial institutions, many of which rely on academically-trained economists. If industry started snapping up English Ph.D.’s, that market would improve, too.
- The rapid rise of Business schools. They snapped up economists for their faculty, drawing from the same pool that economics departments did. Again, an external, local spike in demand works wonders.
- The inherent dreariness of economics as a discipline. It draws fewer people in than, say, literature or history, so the opening of the pipeline is smaller. Add to that the lesser popularity of Econ 101 (as opposed to Lit 101 or History 101), and you have less call for adjuncts to cover endless numbers of intro sections. Since graduate departments in economics don’t have to bring in as many t.a.’s to cover the intro courses, they don’t. (To be fair, much of the ubiquity of freshman composition derives from its status as a gen ed requirement. Very few places list econ 101 as a gen ed requirement.)
- A reduction in external ‘soft’ funding in the late 70s and early 80s led to a reduction in the number of grad students admitted, and the departments never really recovered.
Maybe. These are certainly more plausible than the ‘cartel’ theory, which would require both implausible foresight and an implausible lack of cheating.
Still, none of these explain why other disciplines continue to overadmit so drastically. The only compelling explanation I’ve seen, which several commenters volunteered, is that departments need the cheap labor of t.a.’s, whether there is any realistic prospect for those folks to eventually land faculty positions or not. (To the extent that’s the case, the ‘apprenticeship’ model for grad school is moot, and the argument against grad student unionization is equally moot. If they’re admitted primarily for their labor, then they’re workers, with a consequent right to organize.)
A few correspondents took issue with my Easter Bunny scenario (in which external forces, such as states or accrediting agencies, force a reduction in graduate admissions) on the grounds of implausibility. I rather thought that referencing the Easter Bunny was a way of acknowledging implausibility. Perhaps not. One of my pet obsessions, which regular readers are probably tiring of by now, is the lack of positive incentives (or presence of perverse incentives) throughout academia. As long as individual institutions see the economic benefit of overadmitting, they will. As professionals, I think we have a moral obligation to the next generation to disabuse it, lest it be abused. The most effective way to stop overadmitting is to stop overapplying. That’s probably whistling in the wind, overall, but we might be able to save a few bright young minds from going over the cliff. (Don’t mix metaphors like that at home!)
One commenter even accused me of being anti-education, on the grounds that surely no thinking person could possibly advocate fewer advanced degrees! I spat my coffee when I read that one. That’s just wrong. I’m not anti-education; I’m anti-abuse. The graduate education system in America has become abusive. It needs to be changed. Education is supposed to be about developing untapped potential, not about training for marginality. If we can get the structure right, then people will be free to go about their studies without worrying constantly about finding jobs.
Tuesday, November 22, 2005
Three Words That Strike Terror in my Heart
I swear The Boy is made of lead.
It's okay, I didn't need those vertebrae anyway...
Ask the Administrator: Inter-discipline and Punish
I'm finishing up my dissertation in an interdisciplinary grad
program, and I'm on the job market. My experience so far has been that
despite departments' talk about valuing interdisciplinarity, all of them
want candidates to have degrees in their departmental field. Additionally,
in the interdisciplinary programs where I might otherwise qualify to teach,
almost every job call emphasizes a certain fashionable subject that has
nothing to do with my dissertation or extensive teaching experience. What's
an interdisciplinary (and apparently unfashionable) applicant to do?
This is one of the most annoying traits of the academy. While research is supposed to be new, groundbreaking, exciting, paradigm-shifting, high in fiber, and generally exquisite, it also has to fit into neatly-defined departmental boxes. A candidate defies the boxes at her peril.
Something very close to this happened to a close friend of mine from grad school. He did a dissertation that blended subfields of our discipline that don’t usually get blended. As a result, he has had a bear of a time on the job market – the folks in subgroup A think he’s really from subfield B, and vice versa. Since jobs are allocated according to pre-existing slots, someone who falls between them doesn’t make the first cut. Despite having a dissertation topic that made some very smart people sit up straight, he frequently lost out to mediocrities with easily-defined research.
In my own case, a certain (okay, inborn) indifference to fashion meant that even though I had studied all the fashionable folk, I didn’t do my research on them. I found an idiosyncratic topic that appealed to me, and apparently to almost nobody else. A peculiar career has followed.
From a dean’s perspective, the motivation for hiring the clean fit is simple: risk aversion. If I need someone to cover courses in, say, medieval Europe, am I better off hiring someone with a doctorate in medieval history, or a cultural-studies grad whose dissertation topic included medieval Europe? The question answers itself. I can’t trust the interdisciplinary one to stay on the reservation. Given tenure, her research could veer off in a completely different direction (always a risk with independent thinkers). The mindless thought-bureaucrat, on the other hand, won’t leave me high and dry. The courses will be covered. All will be eerily still.
If I knew I could keep every ‘line’ in my budget no matter what, I could afford to roll the dice on some offbeat hires. If they don’t work out, just deny them tenure, replace them, and move on. But when replacements are spotty, I can’t afford to get cute with hires. A bad hire might not be replaceable, and then I’m really in a bind. (Ironically, that means that the elite, affluent places are the only ones that can take risks. Transgression becomes a class prerogative. This is the kernel of truth to the ‘liberal elite’ canard.)
In a way, this is similar to the eternal, annoying undergrad question always asked of liberal arts majors: what are you going to do with that? Choosing to take the intellectual high road by following a topic wherever it leads, regardless of the disciplinary boundaries, involves a certain short-term risk. The first job will be harder to get.
Does that mean all is hopeless?
Not really. Folks of an interdisciplinary bent seem to find homes on the extremes: either very large places, or very small ones. Very large ones often have ‘centers’ that focus on particular subject areas without disciplinary boundaries. Very small ones need people who can cover multiple fields, since they’re so short-staffed. It’s the mediocre middle that won’t know what to do with you.
If you manage to break in, though, you will have a higher ceiling than your more traditional peers. Unlike most others, you’ll be able to talk across fields. You’ll have at least a glancing familiarity with the ways in which other disciplines see the world. Although you may have a hard time getting that first job, the path to management should be easier, if you should choose to take it.
(That’s why so many baseball managers are former catchers. Broadly speaking, there are two camps in baseball: hitters and pitchers. Hitters don’t understand or like pitchers, and pitchers don’t understand or like hitters. Catchers have to understand and like both to succeed. Catchers aren’t usually the star players, but they’re disproportionately represented in managerial ranks, since they alone can talk across camps.)
In the short term, I’d recommend focusing on the extremes, and emphasizing range. Show the small school that can’t hire very many people what a bargain it’s getting by hiring someone with range. They tend to care less about fashion, anyway. At my old school, when I was on faculty, I taught courses in several different disciplines; that’s what got me the job in the first place (and that exposure has been invaluable as an administrator). It will make for a tricky and often frustrating search, but the long-term payoff could be quite high. Good luck out there!
Have a question? Ask the Administrator at ccdean (at) myway (dot) com.
Monday, November 21, 2005
Ask the Administrator: I Want Kids!
I graduated from one of those smarty-pants New England schools and moved to the Midwest to attend a Ph.D. program in sociology at State University (this was such a perceived “step down” that someone at my undergrad school accused me of making the school’s degree less prestigious by virtue of the fact that I was attending SU). However, now, several years later (and with a master’s degree in sociology), I am on the verge of leaving SU’s program for (surprise!) a teaching credential program with a concentration in secondary ed social studies.
I am a very strong student in the sociology program (publications, conferences, etc), but I’ve been struggling privately the last few years. I had real trouble with my prospectus - I simply couldn’t find a deep theoretical conflict around which to frame my research, although I was interested in a growing subfield of sociology. My advisors were of little help, and my prospectus defense was a disaster. Several months after that, I admitted defeat with the first idea and resolved to try again with a slightly different tack, also with little help from my advisors…
During this time I also married my grad school classmate. I really felt that things changed for me in the department after that. I felt like other professors saw me as a future trailing spouse more than a future colleague. Instead of talking about my dissertation, I found myself discussing job market strategies with professors who weren’t even on my committee (I never initiated these conversations. Ever).
And, of course, the job market is grim, etc. Worse, our department suffered a TA-ship funding cut after several years of large entering classes, which meant that I might have to take out loans to pay my tuition. In our department, younger students get funding preference, which leaves the older students bereft just as they need the money most in the dissertation writing years. The small probability of finding an academic job meant that I would run a significant risk of being unemployed when the loans came due. Add to that the lackluster dissertation idea, and changing directions seemed more and more attractive.
Additionally, I wanted a family (without the stigma of being a junior faculty mother) and time without the constant publish-or-perish stress of a tenure-track job. Teaching high school social studies would allow me to marry my interests in social science, working with young people, and a desire for a more sane life.
All the same, I feel like a total and absolute loser and failure for leaving graduate school. I come from a family where everyone has an advanced degree (many lawyers and doctors), and my family definitely disapproves my decision to leave (or “quit,” as they say). None of them has a degree that required a dissertation, and they all seem to feel that I am “so close to finishing.” While I don’t feel like this is the case, and I still don’t have a dissertation idea, I sometimes wonder if I am making a terrible mistake by leaving. I’m sure I could force myself to write a passable dissertation, but I wonder what the point of such misery would be when I know now that I do not want an academic career. Should I just buckle down, get a dissertation idea, and write? Nothing seems less appealing to me right now, but I wonder if not completing the Ph.D. is something I’ll be regretting personally and professionally for the rest of my life.
Second, I’d *really* like to have a child, but I am not sure when the best time to do this is. Assuming I don’t continue with my Ph.D., I’ll be entering ed school in the fall. Should I:
a. Have a baby in the six months after ed school ends and before the next school year starts, and as my husband is completing his Ph.D. [I’d try to find a full-time teaching job for the fall, unless my husband had found an academic job, since one of us will stay home with the baby]. The downsides of this plan are that I’d be pregnant while in school, I might have to student teach while pregnant, and that I might have to do job interviews while pregnant (and I worry about employment discrimination). The upside is that my husband could provide the childcare if I were working as a teacher, and we’d get to have the baby earlier (which is a big plus).
b. Complete ed school and work as a teacher, while waiting for husband, now with Ph.D., to get a job, first through an academic job search and then (if unsuccessful at that) a private-sector job search. At which point I’ll be, well, older than I am now.
If you were my dean, what would you advise me to do? Would your advice be different if you were not speaking as a dean, but as a father?
There are really two issues here: whether to bail from the Ph.D. program, and how to plan having a child.
My answer to the first question is yes, you should bail from the Ph.D. program. You’re obviously unhappy there, the dissertation isn’t exactly calling you, and the world doesn’t need another uninspired sociologist. Does that make you a failure? Let’s see: you got an advanced degree, you figured out what you really want in life, and you met the love of your life, with whom you established a nourishing relationship. I know a lot of people who would kill to fail that well. Family pressure is real, but you’re the one who would actually have to live the consequences of your decision. Besides, taking out more loans to finish a dissertation without a topic doesn’t make sense at all.
The question about having kids is tougher. It’s really, truly not for me to say what you should do, but since you asked, maybe I can offer some ideas to consider as you think about it.
First, have a talk with someone at the Ed school about how portable their particular state certification is. I know that certifications are often state-specific, so a credential earned at Midwest U may or may not be worth much wherever you end up. If your husband is planning the usual 50-state search (or anything close to it), rolling the dice on a state-specific credential may not make sense. (You might also want to ask about sociology as an acceptable discipline for social studies. Since No Child Left Behind changed the definitions of ‘qualified,’ some districts may insist on history instead.)
Second, keep in mind that timing a pregnancy to a particular month is a tricky business. You can certainly pick the moment to start trying, but there’s no guarantee that the first try will succeed. It might, but it might be the second, or the fourth, or the tenth, that finally works. Building a scenario as delicate as trying to hit (say) the beginning of summer assumes that absolutely everything will go right on the very first try. It might, but there’s no guarantee.
From my own life, I will just say that there’s no such thing as the perfect time. All else being equal, times when there’s a steady income, health insurance, and a committed partner in the picture will almost certainly be easier than when they aren’t, but beyond that, it’s a crapshoot. (The ‘no perfect time’ rule holds for career decisions, too. I took my first administrative position when The Wife was pregnant with The Boy; in some ways, it was a stupid thing to do, since my hours increased just when I was most needed at home. That first year, it wasn’t at all clear that I had made the right decision (and TW would back me up on that!). But I knew I was trapped otherwise, and administration was my way out of a dead-end teaching career. Had I waited for the perfect time to move up, I’d still be waiting.) For what it’s worth, I say that if you both really want to have a child, have a child. You’ll find a way, as parents always have.
I’m just old enough to remember when people still argued about women entering the workforce. One of the arguments in favor was that taking the moms out of the houses would force workplaces to become more family-friendly: shorter hours, good quality day care on site, etc. Anyone else remember that? It (mostly) hasn’t happened, of course, and parents are forced to make some awful choices. My impression is that it’s worse for women than for men – the biological clock certainly ticks faster, and it’s easier for a man to hide an impending birth – but the work speedup of the last twenty years has hit us all.
If the endless speedup is going to change, it will have to come from people (both women and men) being willing to reject unreasonable circumstances, and insisting on being both professionals and parents (both deans and dads). If that means enduring some static from the uninformed, well, it’s worth it. Good luck!
Have a question? Ask the Administrator at ccdean (at) myway (dot) com.
Friday, November 18, 2005
Graduate Admissions, or, Economics and the Easter Bunny
In a nutshell: in response to a question from an ambitious undergraduate, I strongly discouraged pursuing a career as a history professor. My reasons were several, but they boiled down to the terrible odds of having anything approaching a decent life. Dr. Crazy, in her response, correctly pointed out that dissuading folks from less-advantaged or less traditional backgrounds from pursuing academic careers would have the effect of reinforcing the lack of demographic diversity on college faculties. That’s not good, but it’s not good to keep graduating 10 candidates for every job, either.
Bardiac hit the nail on the head by calling out graduate admissions as the most promising place to start making change. As long as we keep overproducing Ph.D.’s, the law of supply and demand tells us that they will be paid poorly. (And the law of supply and demand is especially unforgiving when current incumbents have life tenure. The worst of both worlds!) If we care at all about making it possible for people without independent wealth to make livings as scholars and teachers, the first thing we have to do is correct the labor market imbalance. And the most logical way to do that, barring the abolition of tenure, is to severely restrict the number of candidates graduate programs can admit (and, equally importantly, severely restrict the number of graduate programs in existence).
How to do that?
First, we need to recognize why colleges want to be universities, why third-tier schools want to be second-tier schools, why Master’s programs want to be doctoral programs, etc. There are very, very powerful incentives for individual institutions and departments to “raise their academic profile.” A department that ‘moves up’ gets lighter teaching loads for incumbent faculty, more graduate student labor to do the scut work (freshman composition, survey courses, lab work, etc.), more prestige, and more money. Faculty in that area are freed from tedious undergrad courses, and allowed to teach graduate ‘seminars’ in which they essentially have talented, eager-to-please apprentices to help them do their research. What’s not to like?
Institutions that move up gain prestige (which pays off in a higher caliber of undergraduate, which leads to higher retention rates, which leads to higher tuition revenue…). They also gain research funding, but most importantly, they gain cheap labor. The big state universities couldn’t survive if they paid full-time salaries to everybody who teaches freshman comp.
What makes this system so insidious is that getting to be exploited is presented as a sign of personal merit.
I don’t mean to sound conspiratorial; this wasn’t part of some nefarious master scheme cooked up by evildoers to waste as much talent as humanly possible. It just worked out that way.
To Dr. Crazy’s query about the ethical responsibility of anyone dispensing advice within this system, I second her goal of transparency, and I’ll add one. We have an ethical responsibility to stop rewarding the production of what the market tells us is useless labor.
We need to storm the accreditation agencies, the legislatures, and the talk shows. If you really want to talk about wasted tax money, talk about states that have ten different graduate programs in the same discipline. I’ll take it farther: other than the really huge states (say, California), limit the public Ph.D. granting universities to one per state. (California, two.) And refuse all public resources (financial aid, etc.) to private universities or colleges that add new graduate programs.
According to Brad DeLong and Cold Spring Shops, Economics as a discipline did something close to this twenty or thirty years ago. By somehow establishing an informal cartel and drastically limiting graduate admissions, they were able to prevent a job crunch for their grads. (To be fair, I suspect there’s more of a private-industry market for econ grads, too.) Question for the economists out there – you know who you are – how did your discipline do that? Are there techniques that other fields can/should copy? (And aren’t economists supposed to loathe protectionism and cartels? Hmm…)
To address Dr. Crazy’s valid diversity concern, we could mandate class-based affirmative action at those institutions that are allowed to have graduate degrees at all.
So Flagship U could keep its doctoral programs, but Eastern Teachers State U couldn’t. Faculty at Eastern Teachers State U would actually have to teach undergraduates. Graduates of Flagship U would eventually actually have chances to get jobs. Ambitious undergrads who get turned away at 21 could find something more productive to do. We wouldn’t need as many unread journals, the hideously-exploitative teacher factory would shut down, and undergrads would actually get taught by the faculty their tuitions pay for.
Also, the Easter Bunny would serve cookies. But a dean can dream…
Thursday, November 17, 2005
Ask the Administrator: Stopping the Cycle of Abuse
I am a History-Secondary Ed major at Midwest State and will be finishing my student teaching next fall.
As this is early in my career, I still have many options open to me. I know I will teach high school history for a few years, but already think I’d like to pursue a career somewhere in higher education, either at university or a junior college. I’m fully aware that grad degrees are requisite, but outside of that, I’m really in the dark about entering the higher ed world. So, my questions are:
What advice do you have for someone considering these areas,
at this early stage in their life?
What would you have done differently?
What books, journals, magazines or people should I consult to prepare me?
At the risk of alienating my entire readership and everybody with whom I work, I’d strongly advise against targeting a career as a college history professor. That’s not to say that adjuncting would be out of the question – those opportunities look to be plentiful for the foreseeable future – but I wouldn’t give up the day job.
The reasons have nothing to do with your ability, about which I know nothing. They have to do with the job market in the field, the length of training involved, and the opportunity costs.
The job market for history professors is dreadful, and has been for a generation. In fact, you can strike the word ‘history’ from that sentence and replace it with any liberal-arts discipline without invalidating the meaning. It’s absurdly difficult to find full-time work on which you could make an adult wage. I consider that unlikely to change, since the combination of increased vocationalism among students (the single largest undergraduate major in the US is business), cost pressures on colleges, and the repeal of mandatory retirement for tenured faculty means the only way for colleges to cut substantial costs is through hiring freezes.
Oddly, the same is not true of high school teachers. Since (at least to my knowledge) there’s no such thing as an adjunct high school teacher, and since high school curricula are much more prescribed and classic than college curricula, history teachers who retire actually get replaced. (There’s a GREAT dissertation in this for some ed.d. I’m just sayin’…) Your chances of finding an actual job as a high school history teacher are far better, and tenure in public high schools usually comes much faster than at most colleges.
The length of training for college professors is dysfunctional, archaic, and abusive. Ph.D.’s in liberal arts disciplines usually take about 7 years (including the master’s), though that can range anywhere from 5ish well into the double digits. That’s after four years of college. Master’s degrees are much quicker (2 years or so, usually), but it’s increasingly difficult in many states to get a tenure-track job with only a Master’s, even at the two-year level. (Admittedly, this impression may stem from my location in the Northeast. Credential creep may not have hit the heartland quite as hard, yet.)
During those (let’s say, 7) years of graduate school, you will live on a pauper’s income, falling farther and farther behind your peers who got real jobs after college. If you go straight through, let’s say you hit the market at 28. Even if you score a tenure-track job your first time out (which is highly unusual), that’s 7 fewer years during which you were building up equity in a house, stashing away money for retirement, and generally enjoying life. (The cost of income foregone is what economists call ‘opportunity costs.’ Most academics try very hard to repress this knowledge, since it’s profoundly depressing.)
(A more realistic scenario would have you hitting the market multiple times, bouncing from one-year temp gig to one-year temp gig, before landing a tenure-track job. Each new job would involve a substantial geographic move, often across time zones.)
So at 30 you finally land a tenure-track job that pays about the same as what you could have made as a high-school teacher at 23. Of course, if you became a high school teacher at 23, you’d have tenure by 30, and probably several years’ worth of equity in a house.
A more life-friendly option that would still allow you to teach in a college would be to get the high school teaching gig, use tuition remission to get a Master’s degree in history while you’re working there, and then sign on as an adjunct at a nearby college. It’s not unusual for high school teachers to adjunct at cc’s in the evenings or on weekends; it gives them some extra income, and a chance to stretch their pedagogical wings. More importantly, it allows them to have lives.
I know that one of the first commandments of academia is Thou Shalt Reproduce Thy Own, but I can’t in good conscience. If you manage to get a fellowship to Harvard, then by all means, knock yourself out. But if your graduate institution is likelier to be Midwest State or its equivalent, don’t. Just don’t.
I don’t know what I would have done differently. Had I not moved to the state in which I went to grad school, I wouldn’t have met The Wife, and my life would be unimaginably different. My career path has been idiosyncratic enough that to generalize from it would be silly, so I won’t. But I certainly don’t recommend this to anyone who could imagine himself happy any other way. The chain of abuse has to stop.
Have a question? Ask the Administrator at ccdean (at) myway (dot) com.
Wednesday, November 16, 2005
The Boy Stops Me Cold
The Wife: DD, get in here!
TW: You want to handle this one? (Points to The Boy)
TB: Why doesn’t grandma live with grandpa? Grandmas need grandpas.
DD: Well, they used to, but it made them sad. So now they live apart.
TB: Why did it make them sad?
I have no idea how to explain that to a four-year-old.
Bless his short attention span, he somehow segued to a monologue about volcanoes.
Tuesday, November 15, 2005
Ask the Administrator: What Should I Take?
I am in my Junior year at a huge research university of 30,000 students. I am 20 years old, I have a 9-month-old baby boy, and am married to a full time working man in the midst of his career. We moved so that he could pursue his dreams and receive a promotion. I worked tremendously hard to get into the university Broadcasting Journalism program which has a 30% acceptance rate, and the program's degree serves virtually as a shoo-in for job proposals upon graduation. I refused to drop out of school, so I commute four hours round trip every day to take classes and finish my degree. I have 1.5 years left and I am home free, yet suddenly I am getting overwhelming pangs of distaste and boredom for Journalism.
Originally, I wanted to go to school for nursing but after falling in love with journalism - and having a genuine talent for it- I pursued a career in my current program. I have, since my freshman year, felt feelings of regret for the decision that I made, but my peers and family consistently told me it was just a "phase" and I should persevere, so I have. Finally upon a true epiphany just recently, I have realized that I don't want to do journalism anymore and would LOVE to be a nurse. I come from a long line of doctors and nurses whom continue to inspire me every day and only fuel my passion for the field. My husband is completely supportive. He says I should do what makes me happy, no matter what it is. Still, I am sure you can imagine my hesitance as I am so late in the college game and to switch majors now would tack on another good three years of course work before I got my degree.
I have sought the guidance of my college dean, my advisors, professors and mentors and surprisingly each and every one told me to yet again ignore the desire for nursing and finish journalism. They contend that if I still have these feelings after my graduation I can join an accelerated nursing program and still have journalism to fall back on. I am shocked at this advice because I don't know if I should really spend the next 1.5 years of my life wasting time and money on a degree I no longer feel passionately about. I think my four hour commute proves that I am serious about my education, so serious that I can't afford to waste my precious efforts on something I will not pursue. My heart tells me to go for nursing, but my mind tells me that if I leave all that I have accomplished behind I will have even more regrets than I already do....if you were my dean, what would you advise?
Now that I’m, well, eligible for my town’s over-35 softball league, 20 doesn’t strike me as all that old. If you have support on the home front, it’s certainly not too late to make a change, if that’s what you finally decide to do. But before you do that…
Like a good administrator, I’d first advise you to get more information. Right now you’re comparing a fantasy to a reality, which isn’t a fair comparison. Get some facts about the nursing program at the school closest to you (if you’re changing fields anyway, you might as well shorten your commute); ideally, schedule an appointment with the nursing department chair. When you meet with the chair, ask about the selectivity of the program, your odds of getting in, which courses would transfer, and what you’d need to take (if anything) before applying. At my college, for example, nursing students have to apply for the nursing program after first taking a full year of general education courses, including a year of biology (anatomy & physiology). In a way, this should make you feel better about the time you’ve spent already; the courses you’ve already taken will probably fill most, if not all, of the gen ed prereqs, so you won’t lose everything. Find out about GPA requirements, science and math requirements, criminal background checks, etc. If you don’t have those yet, you know what you need to do. (Keep in mind, those science courses have pretty nasty attrition rates. If two semesters of biology slap you silly, then nursing isn’t for you.)
If those all check out, have some frank conversations with the doctors and (especially) nurses you know about their daily lives. It’s obvious that family is important to you, so you should probably take stock of how each career would impact family life: nursing involves long, stressful shifts, for example, but allows you to stay in one place; broadcast journalism pretty much requires you to move around the country to move up in your profession. If your husband is place-bound, something would have to give.
The good news for you is that nurses are very employable, and that’s unlikely to change for the foreseeable future, as the baby boomers get older. The bad news is that slots in nursing programs are very competitive, and the programs are pretty unforgiving.
Either field makes sense, but my general belief is that you’ll be better at the things for which you have a sustained passion. Your university may have a good track record at placing journalism grads in first jobs, but it’s a very competitive industry, and a halfhearted journalist isn’t likely to go very far beyond that first job. Better a dedicated nurse than an indifferent journalist.
As far as the concern for wasted education, I wouldn’t get too focused on that. The communication skills you honed will serve you well, and may open up other doors in the future (i.e. management, medical journalism, grant-writing, public relations, fundraising). Your toolbox will have things others’ won’t, and that could work to your benefit. It’s no coincidence that liberal arts colleges are major feeders for medical schools; the abilities to communicate with patients, to write clearly, to synthesize disparate information, and to tell a story that makes sense come in handy in real-world medical practice. Good luck!
Have a question? Ask the Administrator at ccdean (at) myway (dot) com.
Monday, November 14, 2005
Because They're Fragile
On a personal level, it’s probably true. I got married relatively late, specifically so I could get married only once. I rush home to have dinner with the family. One of my great joys is tossing a nerf softball to The Boy in the backyard, so he can hit it against the house. (The Boy already hits for power, which pleases me to no end.) Yesterday, I wrestled the bike rack onto the car, and The Wife and I schlepped the kids to a local park, where we rode for hours. Watching football didn’t cross my mind.
The Girl has me wrapped around her little finger. Despite having only a few syllables at her disposal, we have extended conversations. “Where’s Grover?” “Ock.” “Are you sure?” “Ock.” “There he is!” “Doccum!”
It’s a great life, really. I’m as content as I’ve ever been. And it’s incredibly fragile. A single illness, an accident, a bad break, and it can all fall apart. It’s not timeless and given; it’s passing, carefully built, and delicate. I treat it with care, hoping not to tempt the fates.
Something similar is true of my country. The aspects of America that make it worth defending are delicate. Freedoms are fragile. Weirdly enough, knowing that is enough to make me a liberal.
Since Bush took office on his mission from God, we’ve lost two towers, one side of the Pentagon, the respect of the world, trillions of dollars, 2000+ American soldiers, the bill of rights, and a major Southern city. We’ve started a war we didn’t need to, for reasons that weren’t true, and committed felonies to silence those who blew the whistle. We’ve specifically targeted Social Security, which (not to put too fine a point on it) has been the single most successful anti-poverty program in the history of civilization. We’ve tortured the helpless, on camera, and smiled in the photos. We’ve resurrected Soviet-era gulags, in the name of freedom.
He doesn’t get it, and his supporters don’t get it.
Historically, the wisdom of conservatism consisted of pointing out how delicate the wisdom of the ages is, and how hard we should fight the temptations of immediate gratification in deference to their dictates. Contemporary conservatives believe that swagger is the solution to everything. Yesterday Bush actually had the gall to blame critics of the war for making it harder to fight! It’s as if an entire political party has suffered brain damage.
For believing that the big-swinging-dick theory of foreign policy is a bad idea, I’m a liberal. For believing that it’s a bad idea to leave 45 million people without insurance, I’m a liberal. For preferring to keep the National Guard closer to New Orleans than Fallujah, I’m a liberal. For believing that enshrining torture as policy is a bad idea, I’m a liberal.
This man, and this party, does violence to my country every day, on purpose, with a smile. For even noticing, I’m outside of the mainstream.
The Boy and The Girl deserve a country worthy of them. A civil country, a country that respects of all its inhabitants, is a delicate thing. It is not to be trifled with, taken for granted, or abused. Republics have been lost to arrogance before. I would expect conservatives to know that.
You don’t defend your kids, or your freedoms, because they’re timeless. You defend them because they’re fragile.
Sorry for the rant. I’ll return to academia for the next post.
Sunday, November 13, 2005
If you can, please drop by and send her a line.
Friday, November 11, 2005
Online Courses, Office Hours, and Cross-Purposes
We want to run more online courses, since students love them and they solve a nasty space crunch during ‘prime time’ (10 a.m. to 2 p.m., Monday to Thursday, pretty much). They’re especially helpful with meeting the needs of students with jobs, illnesses, children, or other unpredictable demands on their time. (The jobs open to our students frequently have unilaterally ‘flexible’ hours, meaning they change every week. How anybody is supposed to build a life around that is completely beyond me.)
To encourage faculty to develop more online courses, we’ve offered stipends for their development, on-campus tech workshops at all hours, limited use of online office hours (in place of office hours held physically on campus), and all the attaboys we can muster.
We also want to increase student retention, since enrollments are shaky and our entire fiscal structure is based on enrollments. (Tuition is over half of our operating revenue, and the rest, which comes from government, is also enrollment-dependent.) Since studies have shown that retention increases where there is more faculty-student contact, we’re encouraging faculty to be more available for student advisement.
(Astute readers may ask how it’s possible to have shaky enrollments and a space crunch at the same time. I’ve wondered the same thing. It pretty much comes down to two factors: ever-increasing claims on ‘dedicated’ space for specialized programs taking general purpose classrooms out of circulation, and students’ stubborn refusal to take classes outside of ‘prime time.’ At 4:00, or on Friday, we’ve got plenty of room.)
Online courses and increased student contact are both worthy, but they contradict each other.
Since you don’t have to be physically on campus to teach online (which has been one of the selling points we’ve used to entice faculty to teach them), folks who pick up multiple sections aren’t around that much. Which means that the burden of advising the students who come through the door falls disproportionately on their colleagues who are actually there.
A few years ago we tried scheduling more classes on Fridays, on the theory that we could decompress the space crunch at prime time; faculty were willing, but students weren’t.
The problem, in a nutshell, is that the more we accede to compressing everything into 16 hours a week, the less room we leave ourselves for growth. In fact, we pretty much guarantee decline.
I’m guessing mine isn’t the only college trying to square the circle of increasing retention while simultaneously increasing online teaching. Have you found something that works? Anything I should take special care to avoid?
Thursday, November 10, 2005
My Sick Fantasy
Drum roll, please...
Uninterrupted time to think!
I’ve had two opportunities in the last month to think, alone, during daytime hours. One was jury duty, while I waited to be called. The other was at a conference, during the weirdly extended periods between concurrent sessions.
Neither was at work.
And heaven knows, neither was at home. The Boy and The Girl are lovable beyond words, but it would be fair to describe them as high-maintenance. Comes with the age.
In the two recent cases, I was able to make connections between disparate things long enough to write them down. My brain snapped back to its original shape. I felt refreshed, and actually capable of completing a thought. Some of the thoughts actually had something like value.
I have no illusions about being left alone for hours a day in the office, feverishly scribbling master plans and cackling while mainlining coffee. (Not that I’ve thought about it!) But sometimes it’s like standing too close to a Monet – instead of the picture, I just see a whole bunch of dots, and they look random from here.
(Honestly, part of the appeal of blogging for me is that it gives me a chance – a self-imposed obligation, really – to step back briefly each day.)
What’s even harder to find – and this is where you readers are so unbelievably valuable – is unstructured, intelligent, semi-focused feedback from people who know what I’m talking about. Although I have plenty of meetings, it’s rare that I get the chance to spend an extended period talking one-on-one with someone smart about work matters we both understand. Those conversations are usually when the breakthroughs occur, since they force me out of my own little pet obsessions and provide needed reality checks. The hierarchy of work makes it difficult – most of the people I see are either above or below me on the food chain, and the few peers are as busy as I am.
So my sick fantasy – a day without purchase requisitions, faculty complaints, crabby students, weird financial issues, meetings, or the ever-present phone. Just me, at a conference table, with a whole bunch of paper, and some damn good coffee. Punctuated by one or two extended, open-ended conversations with thoughtful and interesting peers, to provide some helpful perspective.
Sigh. This is what I’ve been reduced to...
Wednesday, November 09, 2005
Why I Don't Grade on a Curve
"Things in France appear to be calming down. There were only 600 car fires last night, down from 1200 the night before."
Ask the Blogosphere: Stuck in a Monoculture with You
I received a very anxious question last week that required some back-and-forth for me to understand, and for which I still don’t have an answer. The correspondent apparently works at a college that is self-consciously dominated by a particular identity (race/ethnicity/gender) group (he didn’t say which one, but not his own), to the point that there’s a pretty obvious glass ceiling. Some fairly dreadful performers from within the group are essentially bulletproof. Very highly placed administrators at this college, who are (of course) in the preferred group, make no bones about promoting their own. (This includes the President.) Illegal Interview questions are standard, and favoritism in hiring and promotions is so rampant as to be simply second nature. His complaints of unfairness have fallen on deaf ears; among other reasons, the HR office is captive to the ingroup. What to do?
It’s a complicated problem.
When I suggested leaving, he responded that he’s comfortably tenured there, and has personal reasons to want to stay in the area.
I admit I’ve never been entirely comfortable with the idea of identity-based colleges, be they racial, religious, or gendered; pathogens thrive in monocultures, and building in a blind spot from the beginning strikes me as a high-risk enterprise. I don’t think anybody could argue that higher ed in America didn’t benefit substantially from coeduation or integration. That said, these colleges exist, and they raise the issue of treatment of employees who don’t fit the defined (preferred?) group.
My correspondent is flirting with the idea of some sort of whistle-blowing – he has mentioned an anonymous letter to the state’s Governor, which strikes me as a nuclear option. Other than leaving, sucking it up, or provoking a political storm, is there a better option? I’m stumped, so I’m counting on the collective wisdom of the blogosphere to come up with something better.
Tuesday, November 08, 2005
Ask the Administrator: What to Reveal?
I am an adjunct cc English teacher in (wherever). After getting laid off from my job as an editor, and after trying a few other jobs while waitressing to survive, I started working as an adjunct. I really like it and want to try to do it full-time.
My school has an English full-time position open, which I'm going to apply for. In between undergraduate and grad school, (some years) ago, I worked as an exotic dancer for about a year. A few years later, I wrote about my experiences as a stripper and had an article published at (a well-known magazine). If you Google my name, you can easily find my article.
I am not ashamed of my background, and I know that sex work has come into vogue in academia to a certain degree. I also pride myself on my professionalism, so this is not something that anyone guess from knowing me. What I'm wondering is if a hiring committee might come across my article and--if so--would that hurt or completely destroy my chances for getting hired full-time.
I realize it will depend on individual personalities of the people on the committee, I'm just curious what you think.
In the age of Google, I’d venture to say that if it’s online, under your name, someone will eventually find it. (Hooray for pseudonyms!) It may be someone on the committee, it may be a future student, but it’ll pop up. When it does, what would you rather have done now?
In politics, they say it’s not the crime; it’s the coverup. If you list the article on your c.v., and they hire you anyway, you’ve defused the issue. If a member of the campus morality patrol later finds the article and makes a stink about it, the department and the dean have already committed to you; the only way for them to deny knowledge, at that point, would be to admit that they didn’t look at your c.v., which would be admitting a failure of due diligence on their part.
Would the article kill your chances of being hired? Maybe, but you’d be surprised. My college is in a very conservative area, and most of the faculty are quite senior, but a few years ago a very senior department hired a youngish candidate who could have raised many red flags around related (not identical) issues. She disclosed it in her cover letter, defused the issue upfront, and has been a real asset to the college. The students don’t seem fazed in the slightest, to their credit.
Yes, it’s possible that someone on the committee (we’ll call him the Crabby Puritan) will have an issue, and that could doom your candidacy. However, I don’t think you’d avoid the issue by avoiding disclosure. When the article surfaces, which it will, then the Crabby Puritan has the high-minded excuse of saying it’s not the stripping, it’s the covering up (no pun intended). Best not to give the Puritan the ammunition.
I say, list the article on your c.v., and good luck!
Have a question? Ask the Administrator at ccdean (at) myway (dot) com.
Monday, November 07, 2005
I’ve heard that Southwest (one of the low-cost airlines) is as heavily unionized as any of the legacy carriers, so unionization isn’t the issue. Productivity is.
In academia, ‘legacies’ are unimpressive kids who get admitted to selective colleges because their parents were. It’s sort of affirmative action for underachieving rich white people.
In IT, ‘legacy systems’ are old systems that still work, that need to be worked with while changing over to new systems. ‘Migrating’ from one system to another is always, always, always a nightmare.
The common denominator is the dead hand of the past weighing down the present. Whether that dead hand takes the form of unproductive uses of labor, as in the airlines, stupid admissions decisions, or the evolution of IT, in every case the legacy is a burden.
Higher ed has major legacy costs.
As a community college, the question of who to admit is moot – we take everybody. So we dodge that bullet. But our IT systems are constantly changing, and we can’t just wipe the slate clean and start over. Tenure decisions we made back in the 1970's are still with us now. Strange work rules in the union contracts have crusted over with layers of expectation over the years, so they survive despite nobody quite being able to explain them. Curricular choices made thirty years ago dictated hiring patterns twenty-five years ago, which dictate curricular choices now.
The Supreme Court’s arrogant and morally wrong decision to make tenure a lifetime entitlement, rather than have it expire at the normal retirement age as the AAUP originally intended, ups the ante on legacy costs for us.
We pay the legacy costs of a senior faculty by not hiring very many junior faculty, except as adjuncts. This, in the name of protecting the workers.
The ridiculous architectural choices of public sector schools in the 1960's are biting us now, as (unspeakably ugly) squat brick buildings start to fail. (Why, oh why, did educated people in snowy and rainy climes agree to flat roofs? Why? Was ‘gravity’ too abstract a concept?) Wiring, phone networks, power: all dreary subjects, all costing us WAY more than they should as the result of decisions made long ago, in very different contexts.
A startup college could be much more efficient, even if the caliber of management were no better, simply by virtue of the legacy costs it would be spared. The buildings could be designed for energy efficiency and computer use (and the roofs for intelligent drainage!). Nobody would have tenure yet, and a system based on long-term contracts from the get-go could avoid the harrowing abuses to which tenure is subject. Curricular decisions could be based on current patterns, with hiring decisions made accordingly. The IT systems could start with a blank slate. The library could be fully wired from the beginning. Parking could be allotted based on the number of cars people actually use.
Most private-sector companies are younger than most public colleges. (That’s the upside of the constant churn of a competitive economy.) Let us purge some of our legacy costs, and we could be much more productive, too. Until then, we just do what there is to be done.
Friday, November 04, 2005
Teaching in Context, or, All Hail Dr. Crazy
Graduate school is terrible preparation for teaching generally, but it’s especially bad for teaching non-elite students. In graduate seminars, as I remember them, teaching pretty much consisted of wild theoretical curlicues, name-dropping, and generous dollops of shame if you couldn’t keep up with either. Grades were beneath discussion; it was pretty much assumed that you got an A if you did the work competently, and an Incomplete if you couldn’t finish it on time. Grades were based on, to the extent they were based on anything, a single assignment (or, at most, two).
After years of that, teaching non-majors at some very non-elite places required major adjustments. For one, guilt simply didn’t work as a motivator. The students simply didn’t care if they didn’t know historical events, or big names, or anything at all in my subject area. They had been inured to teacherly imputations of guilt, having experienced so many of them in the K-12 years. Most never read books for pleasure, and didn’t see anything odd about that. Their reading comprehension was dreadful, when they bothered to read at all. And they weren’t at all shy about asking me, self-righteously, why they had to take this class.
I don’t remember the exact moment of the epiphany, but at some point I realized that the culprit was my grad-school-style syllabus. It was based on the two-major-assignments school of grading. Since the students couldn’t see the immediate numerical payoff of, say, doing the reading for a given day, they didn’t. Naturally, the class discussions lagged, and the papers (when they weren’t simply copy-and-pasted from the web) were just embarrassing. Desperate, I rejiggered the syllabus to break 100 points into about 20 chunks: weekly quizzes (3 points each), several exams (10-15 points each), papers with rewrites, oral presentations (these did wonders to combat plagiarism), etc. Every assignment had some point value, even if it was tiny. And I abandoned makeup exams, instead giving three exams over the course of the semester and counting the best two. (When I told them I would do that, I outlined the logical consequence: if you haul ass on the first two, you get to skip the final. They liked that a lot.) It cut down on the whining, and gave a student who tanked the first exam a reason not to give up hope.
The turnaround was dramatic. Given a tangible reason to read, more of them did. The connection between the reading and success in the overall course, which I had always assumed implicitly, became legible to them.
As a student, I would have been insulted by this approach. But they aren’t me. Kudos to Dr. Crazy for figuring that out too, for having the courage to reject what she had been taught when she found that it didn’t work. She isn’t being elitist or condescensing; she’s willing to accept the possibility that the students in front of her aren’t just younger versions of her. This kind of openness to reality is what separates the good veteran professors from the tired old professors; disappointed, closed-minded idealism (or narcissism) has a way of becoming orneriness over the years. Dr. Crazy has the insight and the internal confidence to change tactics when she saw what wasn’t working. Professors were (usually) very good students, and we sometimes forget that most students aren’t. Many of us started out with (however acquired) a sense of how the academic game is played, and that sense is so ingrained that it seems natural and obvious. We forget that non-elite students often don’t have that, and their previous experience of academia has been mostly negative. Making the rules legible, which may seem condescending to us, is actually making the game fairer. Well done, Dr. C.
Thursday, November 03, 2005
Term Limits for Department Chairs
At my college, chairs are appointed by the dean to year-long terms, infinitely renewable. As with Congress, what this means is that if you survive the first two years or so, it’s pretty much yours forever. We have some chairs who have held their posts for over twenty years, outlasting multiple deans. The culture of the college has come to accept this, so we’ve reached the point that replacing a chair who doesn’t want to be replaced is considered shockingly high-handed.
The dangers posed by a twenty-year chair are many. Whatever blind spot a given chair has will inevitably make itself felt, repeatedly, over that much time. Other members of the department will not bother to pursue leadership opportunities, on the theory that there’s not likely to be much point. Personal quirks will get written into the organizational DNA of the department. And most departments, unlike most colleges, are small enough that medium-sized fish can dominate them fairly easily.
The arguments against term limits are real: you’d lose the successful as well as the unsuccessful; you’d have to rotate in some people who really, truly don’t want the job; management talent is relatively thin anyway; and a lame-duck chair has little incentive to perform well. All true, but none as compelling as the need to dispense with chairs-for-life.
How are chairs chosen at your school? Does it work?
Wednesday, November 02, 2005
Carts, Horses, and IT
At my current school, we have a terrible time enforcing course prerequisites because our IT system isn’t very good about blocking students who don’t have them. We’ve actually rejected calls to tighten up our prereqs because the computer (broadly speaking) couldn’t handle it. The cart came before the horse.
(Why a student who isn’t academically prepared for a course would sign up for it, against the sage counsel of academic advisors, I still don’t know. When I ask them, they mutter something about ‘getting it out of the way,’ graduating quickly, or ‘who cares?’ Mystifying. Do they think we pick prereqs out of a hat?)
When I’ve complained about this, which is pretty much monthly, I’ve always heard the same answer: it can’t be helped. C’est la vie. Suck it up.
At this conference, almost as an aside, someone from another school mentioned that their IT system doesn’t have this issue. It enforces prereqs seamlessly, so the faculty is arguing over what the particular prereqs ought to be.
It’s almost as if the IT people are more concerned with other things...
Does your school have any weird academic decisions based on operational failures?
Tuesday, November 01, 2005
The Wife, The Lyricist
Let’s talk about snacks, baby
Let’s talk about you and me
Let’s talk about apples and crackers
grapes and pudding
Let’s talk aboowwwt snacks
Let’s talk about snacks
The Boy loves the song, but someday, he’ll hear the original and say ‘wait a minute...’
She did something similar when “Stacy’s Mom” was a hit. When it came on the radio, she’d sing along, customizing the lyrics to The Boy. We had to stop when he started asking for the song about “[The Boy]’s Mom, who’s got it going on.”
Which she does…