Friday, March 31, 2006

 

Work, Slack, and Dorm Room Debates

In passing, someone mentioned today that most of her students work 40 or more hours per week for pay, in addition to carrying substantial courseloads. Something about the way she said it struck me. I’ve heard that before, but the tone has changed. Ten years ago, it was usually said in a “can you believe it” tone. Now, it’s just matter-of-fact.

If you’re taking, let’s say, four or five classes, and working forty hours a week on top of that, when do you do homework? When do you study, or read, or just do the daily stuff of life? When do you decompress?

It’s a sticky subject. It’s easy to use it to justify whatever ideology you bring to the table. Some students are single moms, burning the candle at both ends to give their kids better lives, and some are spoiled little brats who care more about maintaining their membership at the tanning salon than actually cracking a book. Honesty compels me to admit that I’ve seen both. Most are somewhere in between, making what they believe is a reasonable effort at doing well in their classes while also saving up for beer and clothes, paying for car insurance and textbooks, and daydreaming about boyfriends/girlfriends. Honesty compels me to admit that at 18, I spent a non-trivial amount of time thinking about girls, sometimes even in class. I don’t think this generation is much different as far as that goes.

Assuming that human nature hasn’t radically changed, I would guess that was has changed is the purchasing power of their jobs, relative to their lives. Tuition and textbooks have gone up much faster than inflation for thirty years now; entry-level wages haven’t. Financial aid is more geared to loans than to grants, compared to a generation or two ago. Cars are necessary, given the sorry state of public transportation in most of America. And yes, there are the stupid money mistakes 18 year olds have always made, and will always make. (The letter home asking for money is a hoary epistolary genre for a reason.) But now those mistakes are easier to make, and harder to rectify.

So granting upfront that reasons for working so many hours vary from noble and inarguable to vain and stupid, I still can’t help but wonder at the long-term educational impact of a generation of college graduates who spent their entire college careers working 40 or more hours a week. Historically, that’s a relatively new thing. (Yes, there have been strivers, but they used to be the exception.)

For all the wonders of technology and the supposed fluency in multitasking that we’re told characterize the ‘millenial’ generation, I wonder when they get the chance (or the obligation) to shut the world out and do battle with a long, difficult, challenging book. When do they get the chance for those self-indulgent, ridiculous, yet useful late-night dorm room arguments about the nature of the universe, the corruption of the government, and how organized religion is a vast conspiracy to keep you from getting laid? (Not that I ever had any conversations like that...) Yes, the substance of those gabfests is usually naught, but they’re the cognitive equivalent of puppies play/fighting. They build skills.

When do they have the confined leisure that generates the kind of productive boredom that leads to breakthroughs? They’re often tired, but when do they get restless?

In talking with some folks who’ve been around longer than I have, one of the defining characteristics of the millenials is that they’re the least rebellious cohort of young people in living memory. That’s not always a bad thing – heaven knows, plenty of campus radicals need nothing more than to get over themselves – but again, at least radicalism reflects taking the time to think. This group doesn’t rebel, I suspect, because it doesn’t have the time to think about such questions long enough for rebellion to occur to them.

It’s not for lack of opportunity. The Bush administration gives plenty of reason for rebellion. On the other side, if David Horowitz were anything close to right, conservatives on campus would be in open rebellion against their radical commie professors. Yet, not.

I’ve written before about productive slack in the context of organizations. This generation of students gets less slack than any before. Aristotle noted that contemplation requires leisure. Do these kids get the leisure to contemplate? If they don’t, will whatever we do during those 15 hours a week of class really mean all that much? If they’re just rushing from class to job to party to sleep to class again, they’re missing something crucial. And they’re much too busy to notice.

We need to cut them some slack. And to have the wisdom to not mind when they use it for what looks like loafing.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

 

Ask the Administrator: For-Profits vs. CC's

A reader who teaches full-time at a for-profit college writes:
-----------
I know you have mentioned that you worked at a for-profit at one point. I am a FT instructor at a for-profit right now, and sometimes think about jumping ship and trying to teach at a CC, mostly because I'm tired of the low salary as well as the courseload (6 classes this semester). Am I just kidding myself that it would be any different?

Could you write a post about the differences between a for-profit and a CC? I know it depends on the institution etc but I'm just interested in your take on it.

Thanks!
You can sign me-

If It's For Profit, Where's the Profit Sharing?

---------
I should have addressed this directly a long time ago. Thanks for the question!

Yes, I’ve worked at both. I was first faculty and then administration at a for-profit college, then moved to a deanship at a cc, where I’ve also taught a class.

Stipulating up front that not all for-profits, or all cc’s, are the same, I’ve noticed some basic genre differences.

At the for-profit at which I worked, and at every for-profit I know, the academic calendar is 12 months. I don’t mean there’s a summer session; I mean the full schedule runs all year long. The financial benefit is obvious; you get the full use of your fixed facility cost, rather than letting much of it lay fallow for months. There are also marketing benefits: a student who can take three semesters a year can graduate faster (8 semesters would take less than 3 years), and there are more points of entry during the year for enrollment. (With the advent of accelerated classes, there are new entry points every two months, year round.) The admissions rep can close the sale quickly.

The group that suffers the most under this arrangement is the faculty. Although I suppose it would be theoretically possible to have faculty teach two semesters a year and stagger them, in reality, full-time faculty teach full loads twelve months a year. (At my school, the longest break of the year was three weeks, from late June into mid July.) My teaching load was 45 credits per year: 15 per semester, 3 semesters per year. By contrast, a full-time load at my cc is 30 credits per year, made possible by the summer break.

The for-profit flirted briefly with sabbaticals, but they were among the first things cut when the tech boom imploded. Faculty development there was light, and lightly used, given the incessant teaching.

Salaries for faculty were fairly comparable at the low end, although the benefits at the cc are better (and summers are off). The ceiling for faculty salaries was lower at the for-profit. Salaries for administration were lower across the board at the for-profit.

The for-profit for which I worked was a campus of a national (actually, international) chain, with a command-and-control office in another state. This led to no end of headaches trying to mesh dictates from Home Office with the state regs for our state. Obviously, at a cc, these issues don’t arise.

I was one of the liberal arts faculty at a school that sold itself to students as unadulterated employment-preparation. As a result, student attitudes in the gen ed classes were frequently toxic. At the cc, many students come specifically to take their gen eds, preparatory to transferring to a four-year school to major in whatever. So the students are much easier to handle here.

The for-profit school had academic rank, but it didn’t have tenure. Faculty were evaluated annually, and raises were based on merit. That didn’t make the faculty docile, by any means, but it did mean that the truly horrible ones could be fired, even with seniority. (I remember one who had a habit of nodding off during class, in front of students. After several years of trying in vain to get him to improve, he got fired. Honestly, I didn’t mind.) The definition of merit was always an issue, but student attrition rates were definitely considered. At the cc, we have both a tenure system and a faculty union. Raises are across-the-board and contractual, and independent of performance. It rains on the just and the unjust alike. Most faculty here more than earn their keep, and many are outstanding. But anybody who denies the existence of deadwood is delusional.

One of the biggest day-to-day differences is the pace of change. The for-profit grew too quickly, then shrunk too quickly, and redefined curriculum almost every semester (I’m not kidding). It had a sort of institutionalized attention deficit disorder. More than anything, that drove me nuts. (True and frequent example: Home Office would change a course number the week before classes started, but the registrar’s computer didn’t know that. Chaos ensued.) At the cc, we’re at the opposite extreme. The rule of thumb here is that nothing should ever be done for the first time. The average age of faculty in my department at the for-profit was 40. Here, it’s 59. When I left the for-profit after six years, I was at the midpoint of seniority in my department. Here, the midpoint is about 30 years.

The upside of the for-profit, other than the fact that it actually hired young people for a time, was that the constant churn created opportunities for innovation. For a while, I team-taught a course there that rivaled anything I ever took as an undergrad at my snooty private liberal arts college. Interdisciplinary work was normal, and full-time faculty were called upon to be utility infielders. It was exhausting, but at its best, we were able to get at some educational nitty-gritty there that we just can’t touch here. The tightly-focused mission of the college put a premium on pragmatism, rather than politics, so it wasn’t at all weird to have cooperation between student services, career services, academics, and financial aid at any given moment. (It also meant that amenities like a drama club, or athletics, or a music program, didn’t exist. Too peripheral to the mission.)

At the cc, departmental boundaries are hard, and the mission is diffuse. Combine that with tenure, and internal politics frequently trump pragmatism. An entrenched and difficult personality can defeat a good idea simply by indignant huffing and puffing.

If it were up to me, I’d love to see a college combine the best of both. Keep the summer vacations and the broad mission of the cc, but pick up the pace a bit. Having learned management under the for-profit system, I still sometimes get the bends here. From a faculty perspective, though, there’s no question that the cc is a more hospitable place to be, if it’s actually hiring. There’s the rub.

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

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

 

Octotoothy

The Girl is usually the stoic one. She inherited my repressed-WASP temperament, among other things, and she’s lower maintenance by far than The Boy ever was.

Mostly.

For the last few weeks, though, she’s been much fussier than usual, and hitting some pretty high notes. The diva fits have been mighty. We couldn’t figure it out until The Wife noticed something yesterday.

The Girl is getting eight – yes, eight – teeth at the same time!

I’d be cranky, too. Can you imagine?

That just ain’t right. This has to be some sort of record. She’s got a bed of nails in her gums, poor kid.

The good news is that once they’re in, she should be home free for a while. The bad news is, it’s eight teeth.

We’re normally not big fans of the pacifier, but sheesh. There is such a thing as force majeure. In her shoes, I’d demand rum.

This stage ends, right?

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

 

The Boy Discovers an Unfortunate Truth

The Boy, at dinner:

“You just can’t say no to a donut.”

Sigh...

 

Statistics and Stereotypes

As a social scientist, I’ve taught classes that involved data. Not math, per se – I never really taught them how to manipulate the data in any meaningful way – but just references to percentages, proportions, etc. (Yes, I’ve also taught composition. I’ve had a weird freakin’ career.)

Anyway, if I can ever solve this one (or steal a solution from my faithful readers, hint, hint...), I might actually get through to a cluster of students I’ve never really reached. Oh, faithful blogsophere, I ask your assistance...

In the extended triple overtime after the 2000 election, a student asked me why the red/blue map was so red, if the election was so close. I considered that a great question, and responded that one reason was that Democrats are likelier to live in cities, so a lot of votes are crammed into a small space. She asked why Democrats are likelier to live in cities. I responded that one reason was that party affiliation often correlates with race, and so areas with high concentrations of African-Americans could be expected to vote Democratic, and that usually means cities. The exchange after that:

Student: So you’re saying black people are Democrats?

DD: No, but the Democrats usually win 80 to 90 percent of the black vote. So if a city is mostly black, you could be pretty confident that it would vote Democratic.

Student: That’s not true. I think it’s up to the individual.

Huh?

I’ve had variations on this conversation many times, and that student response always brings me up short.

Is there a reliable way to prevent this apparent confusion of description and prescription? Is it that they don’t understand what percentages mean? I’m perplexed. I think the student is trying to be morally virtuous and reject stereotyping, which prevents her from actually trying to understand what I’m saying. Once the student decides that you’re evil, of course, no amount of explanation is going to work. Is there a way to describe demographics without triggering a defensive anti-stereotyping response in students?

Monday, March 27, 2006

 

Abortion and Logical Consequences

(To my readers: yes, this one is a political post. Those who don’t want to hear that from me might want to skip this one; I promise to get back to my usual subjects tomorrow.)

I’ve been following the fallout from the South Dakota abortion ban, albeit frustratedly. The debate, such as it is, seems to veer between intensely personal life stories and political meta-strategizing. Those are both valid, but I haven’t seen much discussion of the logical consequences of taking the pro-life position seriously on its own terms. What if we held that, at the moment of conception, a full rights-bearing person is created?

A few thoughts:

- If a fetus is a person, then any miscarriage must logically trigger a criminal investigation. Was the woman negligent? If so, it’s textbook ‘criminally negligent homicide.’

- A woman who contributed to a miscarriage by smoking, or drinking, or being stressed out, would be a felon. She would have to go to prison.

- Of course, to know whenever a miscarriage happens would require tremendous surveillance. (Many miscarriages happen very early, sometimes before the woman even knows she’s pregnant.)

- Women would figure this out, and not report pregnancies. This would result in foregone prenatal care, with predictable medical consequences.

- To create an exception for miscarriages would be to jump-start DIY abortions. This is not a flippant point. Women would show up to their doctors after the fact, claiming miscarriages. The smarter pro-lifers know this, and would move to close the miscarriage loophole.

- Obviously, if abortion is murder, it’s first-degree murder. After all, it’s premeditated. In most states, the penalty for first-degree murder is death. We would have to execute millions of women.

- The only way around that argument is to say that abortion is somehow less than murder. But once you concede that, the entire ‘pro-life’ argument falls to pieces.

If you know anybody who has miscarried (I do), you know just how invasive, hurtful, and barbaric a criminal investigation would be at that moment. But, by the logic of the pro-life position, there is no way around it. The only way around it would be to concede that the embryo isn’t a full rights-bearing person, at which point, the pro-life argument is kaput.

I have female friends who have had abortions, and male friends whose girlfriends had abortions. I have had these people over to my house. In my heart, I don’t consider them murderers. In my heart, I know that at other times in my life, under other circumstances, I would have done the same thing.

This isn’t my favorite issue. In a more civilized country, we’d treat it as the private matter that it clearly is, and reserve public discussion for public matters. But I’ll be goddamned if I’ll let some plutocratic jerk pass a law that forces my beautiful daughter someday to make a terrible decision. Some things are just too important.

I don’t think most pro-lifers (regular people, not the True Believers) would endorse the logical consequences of their position. They see abortion as a transcendent moral question, something that transcends analysis. So they haven’t seriously analyzed it. I honestly believe that many of them, if confronted with the reality of what their position actually entails, would recoil. Why the pro-choice side has left these arguments mostly unspoken, I have no idea.

Tomorrow, I’ll get back to my usual topics.

Friday, March 24, 2006

 

Faculty Governance

Stephen Karlson’s recent piece over at Cold Spring Shops prodded me finally to try to address faculty governance. This is one of those topics, like tenure, that can really get people going. As a thoughtful academic, I am supposed to genuflect before the altar of faculty governance, and to dismiss any questioning of it as know-nothing business-model authoritarianism. The blogosphere is chock-full of very self-confident tenured faculty opining that management is theft, and that faculty governance is all that stands between us and perdition.

The more I think about it, though, the less I understand the concept.

I think the core idea behind faculty governance rests on the assumption that faculty are experts in their individual fields, and that they therefore know best how a college should be run. The non sequitur there is enough to cause whiplash.

I’ll grant without argument that faculty know their individual fields better than administrators do, with exceptions for administrators who came from faculty. (I know my scholarly field better than a professor of astrophysics knows my field, and certainly vice versa.) To me, that’s an argument for academic freedom in the classroom and in research, for faculty autonomy on grading, for homegrown (as opposed to standardized) outcomes assessment mechanisms, and for all manner of decisions specific to given departments.

When you cross departments, though, and matters come up outside one’s area of scholarly expertise, it’s not clear to me why faculty should govern. Why should the art historian decide whether equipment funding goes to chemistry or to engineering? If departments vote on which departments will get new faculty lines, I’d expect to see little more than interest-group politics at work, with the rich getting richer.

The claim to special competence is discipline-specific. It’s not universal.

Worse, there’s a glaring, fundamental, catastrophic conflict of interest in faculty governance. Tenured faculty are bulletproof; they are the group least affected by the fortunes of the college as a whole. If the college’s fortunes wane, the college will respond with hiring freezes, administrative consolidations, and increasingly-frantic searches for operational efficiencies; the worst that might happen to tenured faculty is a reduction in travel money.

As a dean, I’m accused of arrogance every time I open my mouth. But at least my fortunes are tied to those of the college as a whole. I have to take the big picture into consideration, or pay the price in my career. Tenured faculty can simply plant a flag on their little patch of ground, and tell everyone else to go to hell. (And they do.) They don’t have the same sort of accountability. Power without accountability leads to abuse, inevitably and predictably.

One common and very frustrating instance of that abuse is in the current model of evaluating transfer credits. I’ve had more than my share of conversations with four-year colleges, trying to negotiate seamless transfers for students who don’t switch majors. Vice Presidents, Provosts, and Deans are eager to talk; department chairs balk, claiming the moral high ground of faculty owning the curriculum. Frequently, there’s nothing more to it than turf, but the idea that faculty owns curriculum makes coordinating curricula between schools effectively impossible. Students pay the price, literally.

In fact, any attempt to treat a given state’s higher education system as a system will run into faculty governance issues. If each college is its own independent fiefdom, run by people with lifetime tenure, well, good luck with that. Managers who try to rationalize a given college’s offerings with those of the rest of the state are accused of running roughshod over process, by which is meant trespassing on turf.

Faculty unions, I understand. They can be good and bad, but at least I know where the lines are drawn, and I can grasp the concept behind it. Faculty governance, by contrast, increasingly strikes me as archaic. And colleges that have both leave me completely bewildered: are the faculty labor (and therefore union) or management (governing)? After all, managers can’t unionize. You can’t have it both ways.

(In fairness, I’ll draw a distinction between input and governance. A competent manager will solicit input from stakeholders in decisions, and sometimes that will include faculty. I’m all for input, when it’s relevant. Governance means actually making the decision. I think that should fall to someone who’s actually accountable for the outcome of the decision.)

Is there a coherent theory of faculty governance out there somewhere?

Thursday, March 23, 2006

 

Capital, Fat, and Arresting Decline

For a whole series of reasons, my college is facing a revenue shortfall next year, and it looks likely to worsen for the next few years after that. As a cc, we can’t just pass on our costs to our students, so we have to find fat in the budget to cut.

This is no fun at all.

Republican rhetoric to the contrary notwithstanding, ‘fat’ isn’t a budget line. It isn’t an isolated expense, easily cut if you can just work up the gumption. It’s a judgment. It’s a judgment that a given expense isn’t worth it, at least at that level.

In higher ed, the major operating expense is labor. Most of that labor is either tenured, and therefore uncuttable, or adjunct, and therefore too cheap to be worth cutting.

Major budget cuts require either eliminating entire programs, and therefore compromising our mission, or watering-down the full-time faculty with a greater percentage of adjuncts, which compromises quality over time.

That’s old news. What people on the outside may not realize is that what little slack that does exist in the budget is what makes it possible to pursue new initiatives.

Over the long term, I can’t help but think that our fiscal fortunes will reflect (broadly) how well we serve our community. Our easiest measure of how well we’re meeting the needs of our community is enrollment. One of the best ways to maintain and increase enrollments is to keep developing new programs that reflect emerging needs or trends. The budgetary slack that gives us room to take a bath on a new program in its first year is exactly the ‘fat’ that gets cut when there’s a budget crunch. It’s like a tech company sacrificing research and development to balance its budget when sales drop. Yes, it works for a little while, but it’s long-term suicide.

The dynamics of decline are hard to stop, once they get moving. We’d like to develop a new program to attract new students, but we don’t have the money to buy the equipment the program needs (buh-bye, Perkins!), or the room in the budget to hire the faculty. So we don’t develop the program. Enrollment stagnates or drops, leading to greater fiscal pressure, and more cuts. So it becomes hard even to stay current with technology in the programs we do have. As those start to fall behind the curve, enrollment drops more, and so on.

As any good capitalist can tell you, growth requires capital. Our capital is being cut, because, in the political rhetoric of the day, it’s considered ‘fat.’ For-profit businesses borrow capital, and pay it back (or not) as the profits roll in (or not). We aren’t allowed to borrow, so we have to glean capital from government support, philanthropy, and internal efficiencies. Of course, ‘efficiency’ involves cutting out fat, which is precisely what enables innovation in the first place. The reaction to budget cuts, which makes sense in the short term, makes future shortfalls even likelier.

As an expat of Northern Town, I’m a student of decline. I’m fascinated by the lesser works of great artists, like Miles Davis’ early 1970's albums. I suspect there’s an absolutely great book in the subject of how colleges handle decline. (Has a college ever cut its way to greatness? Has that ever happened?) I’d just rather read about it than live it.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

 

Ask the Administrator: A Tale of Two Campuses

A cc student writes:

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

How can a school with drastically different campuses bring them together? One of our campuses is in the middle of a very "diverse" city that has a bad reputation in the region (the city, not the college). The other campus is located right off of the highway and is in a more isolated, suburban setting. The suburban campus has a brand new building and is home to the health professions programs at the school. The city campus is run down and since it is in the city it's in, it is seen as crime-ridden. The city campus also has a large portion of the minority students at the school compared to the suburban campus where an entire class could contain only Caucasian people. Students usually pick their campus and never go to the other campus even though they are only 20 minutes away from each other. These things have fostered resentment between the campuses students and sometimes even the staff. Have you heard of this happening at other cc's and do you know how they fixed the problem?

-----
This one is more complicated than it appears.

Since accessibility is a key part of our mission, and one element of accessibility is geographic convenience, many cc’s have either branch campuses or off-campus centers where classes are held. (The difference is that a branch campus has most or all of the services of the regular campus – financial aid office, library, etc. – if in a scaled-down form. A center might have classrooms and labs, but little else. Students conduct the ‘business’ of being students at the main campus.) Sometimes the expansion is a result of demand, and sometimes it’s intended to produce demand. Sometimes it’s the result of historical legacies or political compromises. Sometimes nobody can really explain it, but it seems to work, so it’s left alone.

It’s not unusual for different campuses to specialize in different programs. (You mention health sciences, but one could also specialize in IT, or automotive repair, or anything else relatively capital-intensive.) When a college does that, some degree of student sorting is to be expected.

Still, I think you’re right to be concerned about racial and class segregation. If one campus is seen as the stepchild, the effects on the college culture are likely to be corrosive. Students won’t get the chance to learn to deal with people from other kinds of backgrounds (and that works in both directions).

It’s a tough nut to crack. On paper, the easy fix would be to schedule classes in such a way that most students would naturally have to commute between both. In reality, students hate the inconvenience, and what should generate diversity instead generates attrition. Nobody wins when that happens.

A common approach is the feelgood event. Have something like “Community Day,” have speakers from various virtuous nonprofits, display ethnically diverse artwork, and publish pictures in the school paper. I’ve found the ratio of self-congratulation to actual achievement at these things to be a little out of whack. In reality, with rapid turnover and a commuter population, any gains from something like this are ephemeral. The cost of an event like this is that it allows campus leadership to feel like it has addressed the issue, but the reality on the ground is unchanged. That’s actually worse than doing nothing.

My own campus isn’t a terribly useful case study in this regard. The county is sufficiently monolithic (in demographic terms) that the student body at the main campus looks pretty much like the student body at the branch campus.

Faithful readers: have you seen an effective solution to this?

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

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

 

The Closest We Will Ever Come to Polyamory

Last night, The Wife held another man’s Emmy. She pronounced it large.

I actually enjoyed it.

...........

We made an astonishingly long trek using every mode of transport other than dogsled to see “The Colbert Report” last night. It was a hoot. We were in the front row, so we got to do the high-fives with him. The highlight was the pre-show q&a, during which Colbert took a few questions from the audience. He called on The Wife.

TW (Coquetteishly): Can I touch your Emmy?

SC: Touch my Emmy?

TW (Blinking seductively): Yes, please.

SC: It isn’t insured for other people’s skin oils. Oh, hell. You want to touch my Emmy?

TW: Yes.

SC: What about the Peabody?

TW: The Emmy.

SC: Yeah, nobody cares about the Peabody. (Brings her the Emmy from the mantle)

SC: Don’t hold it inappropriately.

TW cradled it like a baby for several seconds.

SC: Give it back! (Grabs it)

Connie Chung was the guest, which was a pity. We were hoping for someone interesting. The only point of interest there is that she is amazingly short. A wee thing, really.

The show was great fun, and The Wife got to hold an Emmy. Even though we got back home last night (after picking up the kids) at an absurd hour, and we spent most of the day in transit in various ways, it was worth it. And I’m secure enough not to be threatened by another man’s Emmy. No matter what size. Really.

Monday, March 20, 2006

 

Howler of the Year, or, Shame on Tamara Draut

I just finished Strapped, by Tamara Draut (Doubleday, 2005). It’s supposed to be about why 20- and 30- somethings are uniquely disadvantaged in the contemporary economy. She’s not entirely wrong: she correctly notes that housing inflation is hardest on the young, since they didn’t own something in the first place, and she also notes correctly that student loan burdens are higher than they used to be, even after inflation. The double-whammy of housing inflation and increased reliance on student loans puts new entrants into the workforce at a disadvantage, relative to the last few generations.

True so far.

Then, she gets to the details.

Her chapter on higher education starts promisingly, noting that the increased wage premium for bachelor’s degree holders over college grads reflects not higher wages for college grads, but lower ones for high school grads. People go to college to play economic defense. Okay. Then she notes the increased levels of student loan indebtedness of today’s grads, which she traces, correctly, to a combination of rapidly-rising tuition and decreased reliance on grants. So far, so good. Then she gets to community colleges, which enroll nearly half of all college students in the U.S. The subchapter heading is...and I swear, I’m not making this up...

Better Than Nothing: Community College (it’s on page 35)

Astonishingly, she manages to top that on page 36:

“Unlike universities, community colleges aren’t geared solely to the needs of undergraduates.”

Although it’s only March, this is a strong contender for Howler of the Year.

If you’ve ever been to a university, you would have noticed graduate students. You also would have noticed faculty who only teach graduate students, and graduate students who teach undergraduate students. You would have noticed faculty jockeying to avoid lower-level undergrad courses like the plague. You would have noticed gargantuan sums of cash going into football stadiums, and research labs, and student centers with climbing walls.

If you wander around your typical community college, you would find actual faculty teaching lower-level undergraduate courses. You would not find a football stadium. You would not find substantial research labs. You would not find climbing walls. You would also find much lower tuition levels, reflecting the no-frills atmosphere and allowing the non-wealthy to attend.

Draut goes on to complain that it’s a travesty that millions of ‘college-ready’ students are shunted into community colleges, rather than ‘real’ colleges.

This, from someone bemoaning the rise of student loan debt. Give. Me. A. Break.

Although you wouldn’t know it from Draut’s book, many students who start at cc’s transfer to four-year schools upon receiving their associate’s degree (or even before). Our stats show that our grads graduate their four-year schools at higher rates than their own ‘native’ students do, which I suspect is at least somewhat a reflection of how seriously the upper-level schools take intro courses.

(As near as I can tell, cc’s exist in her estimation solely to remediate. Yet, in the real world, we catch flak for remediating too much, and not catering enough to the ‘college-ready’ student. I think she spent too much time in Manhattan.)

In fact, there are states in which the entire public higher education system is built on transfer. In Washington state, for example, the U of Washington doesn’t even teach freshman or sophomore courses. Students are expected to transfer them in from cc’s, and to start as juniors. Of course, to know that, she would have had to have done her research. You know, like they do at universities.

The shame of it is that such catastrophic failures mar what could otherwise be a useful book. The topic of the book as a whole is a good one. The ‘housing bubble’ in the areas where the jobs are puts young people in a bind: go where you can find work but not housing, or go where you can find housing but not work. In my area, house prices have roughly doubled in the last five years, and they were high before that. If I were just breaking in now, I’d be hosed. This is a real problem. Real solutions are hard to imagine. Draut’s book does absolutely nothing to help, and it could actually hurt, if anybody important actually reads it. Shame on Tamara Draut.

Friday, March 17, 2006

 

Ask the Administrator: Tailoring the Application

A new correspondent writes:

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

I am writing to ask about the new job search I am initiating. I was a graduate student at a top tier reseach university for five years. I wound up leaving my program (for a variety of reasons - and with no real regrets) without a PhD. I did receive a master's degree so I have something to show for my five years of toil! I was primarily interested in teaching when I came to graduate school and so my goal post-quitting was to teach at a local private high school and see where that led me. But I was super lucky to get offered a position running a program specifically for undergraduates interested in pursuing research careers in (my field). I have had this position for (several) years now and it has been wonderful. I've been able to teach at a university (always my dream job) and I have gotten a taste of administrative type things since I coordinate the use of our teaching space and develop new aspects of the program that might help pre graduate students. I have also been involved in some community outreach type efforts including assisting with a high school teacher continuing education workshop.

There are several things that aren't main parts of my current job, like outreach and more planning/oversight for the program, that I would like to do more of in the future. And there are several parts of my current job (like the assumption that I will do research whenever I'm not teaching even though I was hired as a lecturer and not a scientist) that I'd like to do, well, no more. Because of this I've decided it's best to get out of my current job, so I am applying for new jobs (with the blessing of my current employer, thankfully!). I am applying for positions in Academic Affairs, mainly, since these seem to fit my interests and are similar to the one I have now (like Director of XXX Program for Undergraduates).

I am struggling with how to convert my CV (or should it be a resume?) into an appropriate form for this new type of position. I had always maintained my CV in a fashion similar to the ones I had seen before - which were all for tenured faculty in the hard sciences employed at major research institutions (the kind where teaching is just barely valued). My instincts tell me this is not the type of resume I should submit for these jobs - but then the only other examples I have to go on are for positions in departments totally unrelated to mine (like Recycling). So I am wondering if you have any basic advice on what types of things a CV/resume should look like when applying for these administrative positions: should I include an "objectives section"? Should I even discuss my research experience? Do you think I should describe my current duties in a lot of detail or should I leave that to the cover letter? And speaking of cover letters - is it appropriate to explain that I would like to move to (the new desired region)? Would this help them take my application more seriously? I understand that the main point is to get them to understand what I am doing now and how that will make me the ideal person to do what they are looking for. But I'm just not sure style-wise how best to accomplish this and everyone I know well is a grad student or a post-doc (yikes!).

--------

Congratulations on finding a career path that has made you happy! I have a theory that the happiest people are probably those without any self-awareness, but the next happiest are those with quite a bit. (It’s the ones in the middle who trip over themselves. That’s why adolescence sucks.) Your clearsighted awareness of your likes and dislikes is a real asset.

My rule of thumb for job applications is to think like your prospective employer. Let’s say you’re a manager of a science division at a mid-sized public university, and you need someone to step in and run a subset of your area. What are you looking for?

Beyond certain minima (degree requirements, subject matter fluency), you’re looking first for someone who actually wants that kind of job. You don’t want someone who really wants a faculty position, and is falling back on this, taking an ‘any port in a storm’ attitude. You want someone who has shown the ability to handle ‘administrivia,’ or the constant stream of little nagging details that comprise a distressing percentage of most admin positions. (You’re hosting an open house for high schoolers? Great! Did you put in the work order to get the lab tables moved? Did you move the money from ‘off-campus professional’ to ‘food’ last week so you could cut the purchase requisition in time? Have you cleared school bus parking with Security? Will the money for the handouts come from your budget, or Admissions’?) Big Thinkers often fail at this, since they think details are beneath them and they get impatient and/or sloppy.

A traditional faculty-style c.v. tells me, in the absence of other information, that you’re still in the faculty mold. You’re settling. I don’t want someone who’s settling. (Is it a flawed indicator? You bet! But if I’ve got 25 applicants, 22 of whom I’ve never met, I have to winnow down the pile somehow.)

Don’t tell me about the research prominence of your advisor. I don’t care. Tell me about projects you’ve coordinated, admin duties you’ve performed, details for which you’ve been responsible, and abilities you’ve developed. If you know you have some gaps, sign up for some workshops to address those gaps and list the workshops on the resume. Lead with this, and put the traditional academic stuff at the end of the resume. That way, you will communicate that you have made a career change, and you’re committed to forging ahead on your new path.

(I’ve personally always found “Objectives” statements on resumes insulting. The objective is to get the job. Leave the narrative for the cover letter.)

As far as stating geographic preferences, I’ve seen it done many times, and it always leaves me cold. I’ve never seen a committee swayed positively by it (though I have seen the opposite). At best, it’s neutral, but it could hurt. Like leading with academic credentials, it casts doubt on your motivation. Are you applying because you want this job, or because you want to move here? If it’s the latter, how motivated will you be six months or a year into the job? If I’m going to hire you, I want to believe that you really want to do this job. If you want to mention an affinity for a geographic area, save that for the interview.

This may seem obvious, but coming out of grad school it isn’t: the job application isn’t about you. It’s about the employer. It isn’t about your life story, or putting your best foot forward. It’s about showing the institution how well you fit its needs. Which means it’s about the institution’s needs.
Write for your audience.

(The cover letter that got me my first full-time faculty position included a list of the courses in that school’s catalog that I could teach, using that school’s course names and numbers. The dean who hired me specifically mentioned how impressed she was by that. Since moving into admin, I’ve never seen anyone do that, and for the life of me, I don’t know why. Show the employer that you can solve her problems.)

Good luck! And kudos on having the courage to chart a new path.

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

Thursday, March 16, 2006

 

How To Be Lied To

There’s a cute piece in IHE about how professors learn to respond to the inevitable dead grandmothers around exam time. It got me thinking about how learning how to be lied to is one of the prerequisite skills for administration.

I get lied to several times per day, with a certain wax-and-wane depending on the rhythm of the semester. Immediately after the deadline for dropping classes without ‘extenuating circumstances,’ student liars crawl out of the woodwork. In my sixth year of deaning, I shouldn’t still be surprised by what some students consider extenuating, but it still happens. (Best Excuse Ever: “I’m in love.” My response: “How nice for you.”) Since there’s no penalty for the student for a frivolous appeal, a student who knows he’s failing has every incentive to take a shot at a mercy withdrawal. After all, the worst that can happen is what was going to happen anyway. Since ‘extenuating’ is in the eye of the beholder, students line up to try their luck at competitive whining. What they learn from this, I’m afraid to know.

Still, student lies are much less disturbing to me than faculty lies. Having spent years as a full-time professor, I’m acquainted with student lies. They’re usually fairly benign, the goals are short-term and obvious, and even the most unpleasant students eventually go away.

Faculty lies are much more demoralizing.

They’re worse for several reasons: faculty stick around much longer, the tenured ones can lie with impunity and know it, a certain gamesmanship surrounds faculty/administration interactions, and the difference in available information to the parties in the conversation means that statements that I might consider too stupid even to rebut will be taken as gospel by the faculty union rep. Worse, sometimes the facts that would discredit a lie are confidential. So the lie stands uncontradicted, leading the ignorant to find it credible. Very annoying.

To preserve my self-respect, I’ve come up with a few strategies to avoid lying myself. Changing the subject is a classic, but I get more mileage out of a simple, truthful “I can’t talk about that,” or “there’s more to it than that.” They’re both true, as far as they go, but they both allow me to imply doubt where necessary without actually revealing anything.

What’s harder is maintaining my self-respect when the tenured so-and-so in front of me is feeding me crap, knows he’s feeding me crap, is enjoying feeding me crap, and there’s not a damn thing I can do about it.

In all but the rarest of cases, simply calling bullshit on them is out of the question. As soon as you do that, the initial lie becomes irrelevant, and the conversation shifts to process: how do you know it’s bullshit? Have you had a formal hearing? I didn’t know I needed my union rep with me! You’ll be hearing from my lawyer!

Ugh.

Since my personality doesn’t allow me to try to engage in competitive lying, and my position in the org chart doesn’t allow me to penalize lying, I instead go out of my way to make lying irrelevant. It may still be low-risk, but if it’s also low-reward, it may become less attractive.

That means maintaining a poker face, responding slowly, mastering the noncommittal grunt, putting things in writing, and always looking for the positive. To a professor who has the luxury of “thinking critically” all the time, it probably looks vapid. But I don’t have the luxury of being able to make myself look smart; I have to keep the organization running. If that involves me looking smart, great; if not, not. (Honestly, sometimes the blog is an outlet for the critical-thinking side I don’t get to show on the job.) The smarter faculty figure out pretty quickly that they get much more from me by being truthful, so they shift to truth as a strategic move. But some just can’t accept the idea that an administrator cares about truth, or are so wrapped up in their own little political obsessions that they just can’t escape. I drive those folks nuts. They just can’t figure me out.

I endure being lied to by trying to place it in the big picture. At the end of the day, if telling me tall tales makes Professor X feel better so that he can actually focus on his job, then my patient endurance has improved the college. If listening through the twisted paranoid fantasies of Professor Y gives me some insight as to what makes him tick, I have a better chance of getting what I need from him later. I have to have faith that I can see the outlines of a pony beneath all that horseshit. I don’t reward emotional manipulators by taking the bait. I keep enough distance to avoid getting sucked into other people's psychodrama.

And I curse like a sailor on the drive home.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

 

Questions

I’ve got a few questions (from various sources) to which I don’t have answers. Faithful readers, I seek your wisdom!

- (From a reader) Does it make a difference (when hiring faculty) if the candidate got all of his degrees from the same place? At the cc level, it really doesn’t, but I can’t say how it plays at more research-driven places.

- How does your school handle student advisement over the summer? The faculty likes to claim advisement as its bailiwick, but it also hates to come in during the summer. Students trickle in all summer long. Have you found a way to square this circle? (I know I’ve asked this before, but new readers have come along since then, and I still haven’t solved it.)

- (From The Boy) What holds the water in the toilet bowl? I mean, if there isn’t some sort of barrier, why doesn’t the water in the bowl just drain out the hole? (At least the tank has a valve. The bowl just has a hole.) Especially when the bathroom is upstairs? I’m embarrassed to admit that he stumped me on this one.

- Is the Krispy Kreme Donut Burger (with bacon and cheese!) the worst idea in the history of food? A minor league baseball team, the East St. Louis Gateway Grizzlies, has inflicted this on the world. I suspect this is why the world hates America. (Via MBB)

- Does anybody else get dizzy when running on a treadmill, or is it just me? I can’t even use the moving-arms things on the elliptical without getting dizzy. Am I alone in this?

- Why couldn’t the IRS just put a basic free tax prep program online? Just put an Excel-like program behind a pdf of the 1040. Could it really be that hard?

- Why, in the name of all that is holy and good, do SUV’s get a tax deduction? Is there a dumber deduction in the entire tax code? My little four-cylinder compact pays full fare, but someone driving a Ford Excursion gets a subsidy. Is Bin Laden behind this?

- Medical imaging technology has made great strides. Yet prostate exams are still conducted by the old finger-up-the-wazoo method. Why? Why? There’s a Nobel Prize in it for whoever puts an end to this barbarism. ASAP, please.

- Does your college have a phys ed requirement? Is there any talk at your school of adding/dropping such a requirement? What are the arguments?

- Why aren’t post offices open in the evening? I mean, people work.

- What do two-career couples with kids ages, say, 5 to 12 do over summer vacation? If the kids are too young to work or stay home alone, and both parents work, what do they do?

- For that matter, why is almost all of academia still on an agricultural calendar? I appreciate the need to help with the harvest, but it’s hard to grow much on quarter-acre lots.

Any wisdom you could spare would be greatly appreciated...

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

 

Succession Planning

There’s a piece in the Chronicle berating academia for failing to do enough ‘succession planning.’ Succession planning is the practice of designating heirs apparent for positions in the food chain in advance, so internal candidates will be prepared when the time comes. It’s gaining traction in the corporate world.

There’s something to be said for good succession planning. It can act as an incentive for good people to stick around; it can be an incentive for a college to invest in professional development; it can reduce the trauma of change; it can almost guarantee short learning curves; it can preserve institutional memory and continuity; and it can reduce the likelihood of change for change’s sake. These are not to be sneezed at.

Still, on a visceral level, the entire concept makes my skin crawl.

Most obviously, it’s not at all clear how succession planning and affirmative action can exist in the same universe. Affirmative action done right is about looking for candidates who don’t fit the traditional mold, but who have real strengths that could still allow them to be effective. Succession planning is very much about perpetuating the traditional mold. In practice, it’s often hard to distinguish from the old boys’ club.

Beyond that, it strikes me that greater stability is the last thing that most colleges need. By virtue of tenure and tenure-based culture, the great danger facing most colleges isn’t so much the lack of institutional memory as the trap of it. When a college is dominated by a single generational cohort that has been together for decades, the value of a fresh set of eyes is considerable. The new guy has license to ask why things are done a given way, and to arch his eyebrows at the response “because we’ve always done it that way.”

In that sense, much of traditional higher ed is very different, culturally, than much of the private sector. In the corporate world, where personnel churn is significant and sustained, a conscious decision to place a premium on stability makes sense. In the academic world, where the weight of history bears down on even the most trivial decisions, the occasional infusion of new blood is to the good.

That’s not to say that internal candidates are always a bad idea. It’s just to say that the good ones will win fair fights anyway, so why not have fair fights? Throw the searches open, and let the strongest applicants win. At my college, we’ve recently had some incredibly good internal candidates win fair fights, with the result that nobody begrudges them their new positions.

Succession planning can lead to a culture in which brown-nosing and office politics trump actual performance or ability. (In academia, we usually prefer to confine that culture to grad school.) Worse, once someone has been anointed, there’s a temptation for the anointed one to slack, and for the non-anointed to simply tune out. Neither is fair, and neither is helpful.

Professional development is great, but the goal should be to create candidates strong enough to win fair fights. Anything else is just extending the monopoly of the current group.

Monday, March 13, 2006

 

In the Abstract...

The Boy was in the dining room with The Girl and his cousin, who was visiting for the day. The Wife and I were in the kitchen, getting dinner ready. The Boy announced, loudly:

"Sometimes I think I feel the need to scratch my butt."

No good can come of this...

 

Common Textbooks

A reader wrote in asking for input on the perennial humanities issue of whether to choose a common textbook for every section of a course. I’ve been chewing on that one for a while, since it pits two of my instincts against each other.

The question is liveliest in disciplines in which consensus is low, sections are many, and adjuncts are legion. English composition is the obvious case, but it would apply as well to many of the humanities and social science disciplines. A given instructor might not like the textbook ordered by the department for Comp 1, and might want to select her own. Should she be able to do that?

Educationally, I want to say yes. I’ve been saddled with lousy textbooks in the past, and it’s an anchor you have to drag through the entire course. Given how expensive textbooks are, it’s certainly preferable to get ones the instructors will actually use.

That said, though, and at the risk of honking off a great many readers, I’ll vote for common textbooks, unless a given instructor can show a bleeping good reason (such as a pilot project) to deviate.

At the cc level, we’re driven substantially by transfer considerations. Four-year schools aren’t always as forthcoming with recognizing transfer credit as they should be, he says diplomatically, so it’s important for us to have some sort of quality control across sections. If we use the same textbook for a 101 class that the four-year school uses, we make it harder for the four-year school to label our course unworthy.

From a cost perspective, a common textbook avoids the dreadful scenario of a kid buying a book for the ‘wrong’ section, opening the shrink wrap prior to class, and being stuck with an unreturnable purchase. I’ve seen it happen, and it’s just not right. A standard book also makes the sale and resale of used books easier, which can reduce the cost pressure on students. (If Professor X is the only one who assigns book Y, his students will have a terrible time selling it back.)

From an educational perspective, the internal battles over textbook selection can actually be quite healthy. A department choosing a common textbook has to lay its cards on the table in terms of what it expects from a given course. It forces the issue of quality.

I’ve seen a couple of pretty good mechanisms for forging consensus on a textbook in the face of wildly disparate opinions. The classic, of course, is the anthology. If a reader for (say) comp 1 has 25 essays in it, any given instructor will probably pick the 8-10 s/he likes best. Those 8-10 don’t have to be the same across sections. If the anthology is paperback and reasonably cheap, this strikes me as fair.

More ambitious departments can go the way of custom publishing. At my previous school, the composition instructors did that, putting together a very good anthology that they’d keep using for several years between revisions. Since it was paperback and relatively unchanging, the cost to students was low, and since every piece in it was selected by the faculty personally, the anthology actually got used. The work involved in going this route is significant, but if you have the right group, it can work brilliantly.

In my scholarly discipline, textbook selection is a constant process, because the information changes so rapidly. The best one I ever found (in terms of usefulness to students, as opposed to quality of writing or depth of analysis) had multiple choice reading quizzes for each chapter in the back of the book. Each chapter quiz had something like 25-30 questions. I’d tell the students that, on any given day, I’d take 3-5 questions from there and use that as my reading quiz. The students loved it, because they knew that if they did the reading they wouldn’t get ambushed. I loved it, because most of them actually did the reading, and it was terribly obvious if they didn’t. (Experience suggests that reading quizzes posted online separately, or in a separate workbook, don’t do the trick. They want one-stop shopping.) I used to nag book reps from other companies to include this feature in their editions, to no avail.

Colleagues in disciplines with much more consensus (like math) tell me that the major issue in textbook selection for them is the number of errors. I find that disturbing beyond belief, but apparently, it’s a major issue. You’d think that publishers would at least take care of that.

Has your department/school found a good approach for textbooks?

Friday, March 10, 2006

 

Shards, or, Life in a Northern Town

I grew up in a backwater city, the kind of place where it’s always cloudy and cold and everybody is short and wide and the economy peaked a few generations ago. It’s one of those black holes of humanity from which not even hope can escape. The kind of place where the high school kids with ambition set their primary ambition as moving.

If you didn’t grow up in a place like that, it’s hard to convey what it’s like. As a kid, of course, you really don’t notice. But as you move into your teen years and the world gets bigger than your street, you start to notice that all the really interesting stuff happens in other places. Travel is difficult, since your city isn’t really on the way anywhere. The good bands don’t come; going to a concert is a many-hour drive. The ‘celebrities’ from your town, D-listers anywhere else, get an embarrassing amount of local coverage. Anything that’s happening is happening somewhere else.

It was worse back then. In my teen years (the 80's), there was no such thing as the web. TV choices were limited, and satellite radio was science fiction. Local culture was defined by a weird mix of local ethnic quirks (there was a weird amount of Southern/country/redneck culture for a Northern town – for years, I thought .38 Special was a local band) and secondhand mass media.

For the smarter kids, as we thought ourselves, it was suffocating. We knew there had to be more options out there, but we didn’t have a clue what they were or how to find them.

Anyway, even in that steaming dungheap of a city, that tumor that lacked even the ambition to metastasize, a few shards of alien culture managed to turn up. I clung to those shards fiercely, not really understanding them, but sensing that they were different, that they portended the possibility of something else.

I still remember the first time I heard “Marlene on the Wall,” by Suzanne Vega. It was 1985, cloudy (naturally), and I was completely floored. It didn’t sound anything like .38 Special. It was literate, cool, ironic. Educated. Urgent, yet distant. I didn’t know that was possible. I was in high school, and had never heard a woman sing like that. I found a store that carried the album, which wasn’t easy, and quickly memorized the whole thing.

A few of my fellow frustrated-geek friends and I started making regular treks to the one art theater downtown, watching movies we didn’t understand just to see something different. I remember a fellow geek (and lifelong friend) introducing me to the music of Pat Metheny, via a pirated tape in the cassette player of his parents’ Toyota Tercel on the driveway of my duplex. It didn’t sound like anything else I’d heard, and that was what I liked about it. We made the multi-hour drive to catch a Metheny concert, which is still a cherished memory.

Back then, there were very few cracks through which shards of non-mainstream culture could fall all the way to my city. There was a generally horrible college radio station (I still remember the newsreader pronouncing “Protestant” with the accent on the second syllable), occasional dropped comments from adults who had been other places, and that’s about it.

I think about my old Northern town sometimes when I hear about the latest breakthroughs in blogging, or podcasting, or satellite radio. Now, a reasonably ambitious kid in dear old Northern town with access to the web could access cutting-edge stuff. Now, a kid who gets tired of living in a milk jug (as the saying went) can get a much clearer idea of other places. The provinces need not be as provincial.

So why don’t the breakthroughs happen in Buffalo? Why isn’t Scranton the next Seattle? These places have educated people, internet access, incredibly cheap housing, and not all that many distractions. These should be the places the breakthroughs happen. Yet, not.

Richard Florida has built a career on the observation that success breeds success, that cities with creative people already in them draw more, who in turn come up with breakthroughs that power the economy. There’s certainly some truth to that, and anybody who can make tolerance of gays into an economic-development policy has earned my respect. But anybody who tries to make a living in Seattle or Boston or New York as a creative type will notice quickly that the cost of housing has become prohibitive. Until recently, they may have put up with it anyway, on the grounds that there was no other place where they could come in contact with creative people. Now, that shouldn’t be true. As long as you can get a good internet hookup, you’re good to go. And housing is inarguably cheaper in the provinces.

So why can’t Binghamton be the next Austin? Sure, it’s cold, but it’s cold in Minneapolis, too, and Minneapolis has a thriving creative community. The last time I checked, Madison wasn’t exactly Phoenix, but it seems to prosper. And I’ve never mistaken Boston for Miami.

I thought the web was supposed to make place less overwhelming. Yet the economic and cultural gulf between the coast and the inland cities is widening. Why?

I’m having a hard time squaring some conflicting beliefs. I believe that the gulf between, say, Rochester and Manhattan is even greater now than it was twenty years ago, and that’s saying something. (Comparative data on housing costs backs up this intuition.) I also believe that technology has improved access to cultural alternatives for folks in the Rochesters of the world. I just don’t know how those can both be true at the same time. If my 17-year-old self could access the same stuff from Northern town as the most tragically hip scion of privilege on the Upper West Side, then why is Northern town still sliding?

Any thoughts out there?

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

 

Retirement Letter Template

I’ve seen a few retirement letters recently, and I’m beginning to notice some conventions of the genre. If you’re a full professor and you’re getting ready to throw in the towel, feel free to borrow from this template to save time.

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After x years at x college, I am calling it a career. I will miss my colleagues terribly. We have bravely held the line against cultural decay in its many insidious forms, and I have relished the good fight.

The college is still a wonderful place, despite the efforts of its administration. The deans and vice presidents I have encountered have been, to a one, vermin, feeding on the waste products of academe. They are not fit to tie a scholar’s shoes, not that they would know a scholar if he bit them on the ass. I am certain to see them in hell. The President is a ratfink, a drunk, an adulterer, and a tragic waste of oxygen. I say this out of love.

The students, God bless ‘em, are as dumb as a sack of hammers. They just don’t have the moral fiber to do the reading anymore, and if they did, they wouldn’t understand it. All they care about is their ipods and their sex lives. Still, I’ll miss the dumb bastards. They remind me of my kids from my first marriage. I have devoted my career to education, and the little pricks’ failure to appreciate me is truly their loss.

As I spend my golden years with my grandchildren, or traveling all over the world, I will reflect fondly from time to time on my time here. Then, I will order another drink, one with an umbrella in it.

Fondly,

Prof. A. Pat O’saurus.

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For maximum impact, it’s a good idea to email this to the entire campus. Then sit back and feel the love come pouring in.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

 

Ask the Administrator: The Demented Dinosaur Is On a Rampage!

A "Frustrated Academic" writes:

---------

It's an emergency! Our deadwood, lame duck colleague is heading out
the door and the department's preparing to hire a new faculty member,
but the colleague's still raising holy heck!

Last year we replaced two other retirees and the outgoing faculty
members excused themselves from the hiring process, which is to be the
norm at our institution. Not this fella! He's trying to put his twenty
cents in at every level and protest the entire process from
challenging the job description to the makeup of the search committee
and the criteria used to select short-listed candidates. We've spent
some tense hours reviewing institutional and legal documents to
counter his charges which have also been cc'ed to the administration
and national organizations (fortunately, so far, without success).

In two weeks, we'll have the first of the short-listed candidates
arrive on campus and it seems clear that he's going to continue his
interfering ways. We're afraid he's going to try to contact the
candidates by phone or in person during their visit, outside of the
on-campus faculty meeting hours provided for in the schedule, in order
to try to push his agenda or pump the candidate for information he can
use to try to poison the process.

How do we warn off these candidates from his dangerous interventions
while, at the same time, not appearing as if we're a department full
of dysfunctional crazies?
----------

It must be nice to be able to replace people as they retire…(sigh)…

At this stage, I’d say you’re way past the “shovel praise and hope for the best” approach. It’s time to circle the wagons.

I’ve learned that you really can’t do much about people with tenure. If they’re receiving signals from the mothership, that’s just the way it is. I don’t know, from your message, if the Demented Dinosaur in question has always been nuts, or if his pending extinction has sent him over the bend. (I’ve seen both.) In some ways, it probably doesn’t matter. What you can do is prevent damage by inoculating those he might infect.

Build the visiting candidates’ itineraries so that Demented Dinosaur isn’t their first contact. Make sure that at least two people who escort the candidates early in the day warn them about the Dinosaur, and mention his retirement. If you can, try to schedule the “meet the faculty” times when Demented Dinosaur has class. If that’s not an option, at least put it at the end of the day, and bracket it with some sort of off-campus deadline – say, a dinner with Big Muckety-Muck who is Very Busy and Can’t Be Kept Waiting. Whatever you do, don’t build in too much ‘alone time’ for the candidate – predators strike when a vulnerable one is separated from the herd. Use scheduling to create ‘regrettable’ facts that just happen to cut short the Dinosaur’s opportunities for mischief. It’s not perfect, but it can at least contain the damage and give the candidate a sense that the rest of the department is relatively sane.

I’ve heard of cases in which Demented Dinosaurs were given movie money to catch a matinee that day, or roped into other campus activities that kept them occupied. Maybe a compliant Dean can schedule an emergency meeting with the Dinosaur at a strategic moment? That only works when the miscreant is wacky but not determined. If he’s determined, containment is your best bet.

And for heaven’s sake, don’t let him get phone numbers! If need be, have the search committee chair keep those confidential, and make any calls him/herself.

Faithful readers: how have you handled this (or seen it handled)?

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

Monday, March 06, 2006

 

Ask the Administrator: Threading the Needle

A new correspondent writes:

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I am a 32 year old married mom who is taking my generals part time at a cc. I am planning to transfer to a private 4 year university as a junior. There I will earn a B.A. full time in an artsy humanities type discipline. As of late I've been entertaining the thought of continuing my education and someday becoming a professor of this discipline. I have a couple questions for you:

#1) Assuming I would graduate with my B.A. at the age of 36, and then I'll have another 3 (or 4 or ??? not sure how long grad school is) years to get my grad degree, I will be around 40 when I am ready to look for a professing job. How do you think this would affect how employers view me for a tenure track job? Will I be looked at as too "unaccomplished" for my age?? Or will I be looked at as "older and wiser" than my younger counterparts also just out of grad school? I kind of figure that maybe it's better to give tenure to someone older so you don't have to keep them around as long??? LOL

#2) Is it silly to pursue a job as a professor if staying in your area is important to you? I haven't yet decided if I'd be willing to relocate or not, but if I decide I'd rather not, would it be best to give up my aspirations to be a professor?

Thanks for your help. Incidentally, if it makes any difference, my own children will be starting college and junior high just as I'm graduating with my B.A.
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The discipline in question usually tops out at an M.F.A., rather than a Ph.D., so the time estimate may be realistic – I really don’t know. M.F.A.-bearing readers out there: is four years realistic? For a humanities Ph.D., I would consider 4 years exceptionally fast, at least in the American system.

First of all, congratulations on managing to juggle marriage, work, kids, and college study! I never tried to do all that at once, and can’t imagine how people do it. One of the few moments of wisdom I had in my college years was the decision to go straight through to the Ph.D., since I knew that if I waited until I had a family, I’d never do it. I had to do it at 22 or not at all.
So I tip my cap to you.

That said, I think you’re focusing on the wrong question. As far as hiring goes, I don’t think age is the critical variable; age of degree is. If you have a newly-minted terminal degree, you’re new. That’s true whether you’re 27 or 47.

I’ve written before on the general unadvisability of targeting a career as a full-time professor in the liberal arts, so I’ll reiterate that, with a few points unique to your situation.

If your older kid hits college just as you’re entering grad school, I sincerely hope your husband makes megabucks. If he doesn’t, you’re in for a ridiculously rough ride, financially. Your kid’s tuition, plus your own (if any), plus the opportunity costs of your grad school (the money that you would have made, had you been working) could put most people under. Even if you get a fellowship, it won’t come anywhere close to what you would have made working, and paying tuition for your kid out of a fellowship just isn’t gonna work. Do some very cold math before making a decision here. Besides, paying off student loans into your forties or fifties makes saving for retirement, and the second kid’s college tuition, a little challenging.

(Anya Kamenetz’ new book Generation Debt is very good on these issues.)

To pull some numbers out of my keister: let’s say you and your husband make 40k each. Right now you’re going to a cc part-time, so maybe 2k of tuition. After tuition, your household has 78k. When you go to the four-year school (let’s say a public one), you’ll go full-time, so assume your earnings drop to 10k and your tuition moves to 5k. Now, your household has 45k. You graduate and hit grad school when Kid One hits college. Your earnings drop to zero, you get a tuition waiver, junior needs 5k tuition. Now, your household is down to 35k. That’s assuming a tuition waiver for you, and a cheap public college (while living at home) for junior, both of which are optimistic assumptions. With optimistic assumptions, you’re down to less than half of your current income. Not looking good. If junior goes away to school, or you have to pay tuition for yourself, it gets even worse. That’s not even mentioning the stress on the marriage, any layoffs or illnesses, the second kid’s eventual tuition, saving for retirement, etc.

Even if you’re willing to endure all of that, the academic job market (to the extent it exists) is national. It would require extraordinary luck to find a full-time, tenure-track position if you’re unwilling to move. (That’s even truer in the humanities, where the market tends to be the worst.) Anything is possible, but the odds are longer than I would ever advise betting years of your life on.

Honestly, I’d encourage you to explore different related career options while finishing your B.A. Although it’s wonderfully flattering for academics when bright students want to do what we do, from an ethical perspective, I can’t really be all that encouraging. The system is broken, the market horrific. You’re still early enough in your progress that many options are open to you. With the kind of drive you’ve demonstrated by juggling everything you’re juggling, you should be able to prosper in any field that isn’t broken beyond repair. This system is.

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

Friday, March 03, 2006

 

Transfer

As a cc in an affluent area, one of our major functions is providing the first year or two of general education courses for students who intend to transfer elsewhere for the four-year degree. We’ve done that for a long time, and judging by the success of our students at their destination colleges, we’re good at it.

(Usually, the transfer-oriented students are of or close to traditional college age. These are the kids who may not have the money for tuition at the four-year schools, whether by dint of poverty or birth order, or they may be kids whose high-school careers could be described as checkered, or they may have family issues that preclude leaving home just yet.)

I’m very comfortable with the transfer group, since they take the bread-and-butter, plain-vanilla, they’ll-go-anywhere classes. They pour into General Psych, which is fine by me, since it’s a chalk-and-talk class that runs perfectly well at 35 students per section. Everybody wins.

Until...

The evil, horrible, nefarious, scum-sucking transcript evaluators at the four-year schools get a hold of them.

A few months ago I had a meeting with peers at the nearby branch of Flagship State, to explore the possibilities for an ‘articulation agreement’ between our schools. I was all set to go, about to propose concurrent enrollment, when they hit me with the number of credits one of our students would lose upon transfer.

31.

That’s almost half of the associate’s degree. It’s a year, effectively. They’d lose a year of a two-year degree.

This at a public university, supported by the same taxpayers who support us. So the taxpayers get to pay twice for the student’s sophomore year, even if the student carried a 4.0.

Simply put, this is nuts.

Since my state faces some serious fiscal issues, this is doubly insane. We’re hitting the wall, financially, on all matter of really important issues, but we’re allowing Flagship State to get paid again for courses students have already taken at their local cc’s.

What makes it especially frustrating is how the result follows from the chain of command. Even if the VP or Dean of the area agrees to accept credits, the department chairs always balk. In effect, they overrule their own VP’s. The reason is always the same: they don’t want to “give away” too many credits (!).

I’ve heard that some states/provinces/countries have mandatory seamless transfer legislated into their systems. Question for my readers in those states/provinces/countries: does it work? I’m thinking it can’t be worse than what we’re doing...

Thursday, March 02, 2006

 

The Salary Taboo

I’ve started reading one of those “why young people can’t get ahead” books, and it reminded me of a question I’ve had in the back of my mind for years:

Why is it taboo to talk openly about salaries?

In the public sector, individual salaries are matters of public record. Anyone who wants to know my salary (assuming they know my actual name) can simply look it up. Hell, the faculty union includes deans’ salaries in its monthly newsletter to its membership. And raises are across-the-board percentages, so there’s no issue of internal competition. Yet, even here, you can feel the temperature of the room drop when the subject comes up.

It’s especially noticeable now, when prices of anything and everything are easily accessed on the internet. I can comparison shop for almost anything on the internet, and, depending on my price sensitivity, punish retailers for being 1% higher than their competitors. Yet if you ask HR what a given job pays, you get an answer like “that’s grade 15.” Undaunted, you ask what grade 15 jobs pay. “Between 40 and 80, depending on experience.” That’s helpful. Imagine buying cars that way. How much for the Civic? “Between 12 and 36, depending.” Uh, no thanks.

In my misspent youth, I hung around with some pretty ardent leftists. (One of them, a dear friend who has apparently fallen off the planet, introduced me to a hobby she called “shitting on capitalism.” When visiting Nearby Big City, you make a point of using the lobby bathroom at the swankiest hotels possible. I still consider it a fine gesture. Take that, Paris Hilton!) They explained the salary taboo as a divide-and-conquer technique used by evil capitalists to exploit the workers. There’s a certain logic to that, but it doesn’t explain why the same taboo holds at unionized nonprofits. If nobody is making a profit off the taboo, but the taboo still exists, then something else must be at work.

It’s even worse with neighbors. We’ll talk about house values, car purchases, and all of that without hesitation, but I wouldn’t dream of asking them what they make, and vice versa. It’s not about internal competition, since we have different employers in different industries.

Since I haven’t been able to crack this nut myself, and I’ve never read an explanation that made sense to me, I’ll cast it to the winds of the blogosphere:

Why is it taboo to talk openly about salaries?

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

 

Infinite Regress

1. We need to change this policy. The inherited policy makes no sense.

2. The forms we use are based on the old policy.

3. We need new forms.

4. We can’t just draw up the new forms. We need to run it by the union and the faculty governance group.

5. With multiple drafts.

6. Then we need to introduce the new forms at one of the three annual faculty meetings.

7. But they can’t take effect immediately. People need to know in advance.

8. So we’ll introduce them next year, to take effect the following year.

9. If we remember.

10. In the meantime, we’ll continue to use the forms that make no sense.

11. To respect the process.

12. While communicating that the forms will be changed.

13. But not yet.

14. But the union contract specifies the inherited form.

15. And the contract isn’t up for several more years.

16. So we’ll have to start the process then.

17. Or at least agree to start it. Coming to the table with a fully-formed form could be construed as bad faith.

18. So it’s resolved. We’ll fix the problem in five years.

19. (pause)

20. Oh, wait, there’s something else…

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