Friday, April 28, 2006

 

Limelight

As my regular readers know, my cc is trying to increase its enrollment to compensate for declines in public funding. (The other option is serious internal cutting, but that tends to become self-perpetuating, as depleted programs attract fewer students.) One of the ways we’re trying to increase our visibility in the community is by directing resources internally to programs and departments that are good, active participants in public outreach. By getting out there in the community, the thinking goes, we will raise our profile and, over time, enrollments.

I’m with the program on this one, generally speaking. Incentives matter, so it’s important to think through the incentives facing individual departments to make sure they align with larger college goals. Some departments really go the extra mile for community visibility; others can’t be bothered. It seems reasonable to me to reward the former, and let the latter connect the dots for themselves. And in some cases, the results have been what we had hoped: programs that have gone the extra mile have seen increased enrollments, which we have faithfully rewarded with increased resources (to the extent we can).

Now that the program is beyond the embryonic stage, though, it’s starting to get complicated. Simply put, some programs lend themselves to Big Public Displays more easily than others do, through no fault of anybody. A program like Theater or Hospitality Management naturally lends itself to public display. Sociology or History, not so much.

Naturally, my trusty sociologists and historians picked up on this, and have asked how they’re supposed to compete for the limelight with disciplines that (in some cases literally) have their own limelights. (They’ve also asked just how they’re supposed to help build enrollment when their own courses are already stuffed to the gills.)

I’ve suggested inviting speakers to campus, and they’ve tried that a few times. (As a cc, we don’t have the budget to bring big names.) The events have been reasonably successful on their own terms, but they just don’t compete with plays or catered receptions. A sociology speaker we can afford might bring 25-50 people from the community, along with people who work here. A play might bring 200 a night for several nights. It’s just not the same.

To make the inequality worse, staging productions or receptions is an organic part of the curriculum for programs in theater or hospitality. Bringing speakers is an add-on for sociology or history. So they believe, with some justification, that they’re being doubly penalized simply for being who they are.

A few questions for my wise readers: do you know a way for the more traditional academic disciplines to raise their local public profiles without breaking the bank? And how can we reward outreach without inadvertently punishing programs that, by their nature, tend to be lower-profile?

Thursday, April 27, 2006

 

Virtual Standing Ovation

If you have a few minutes, check out "The Wunderkammer of Teaching" at Slaves of Academe. It's extraordinary, graceful, and true.

 

Rubber Chicken Week Safety Tip, or, The Theological Meaning of a Pain in the Neck

A public service announcement from Dean Dad:

If you’re at a huge public event, and the room is wider (left-to-right) than it is deep, and you’re going to spend most of the event sitting in a chair watching speakers at a podium in the middle, sit in the middle. If you can’t do that, sit in the back. But whatever you do, don’t sit in the front row way off to one side.

I forgot this rule last night, and my neck is paying for it. The Wife bravely came with me, and now we both have podium whiplash. Two hours of looking to your left, maintaining good posture and an upbeat and professional appearance, equals pain. I think it’s God’s way of saying “sit in the middle, dumbass.”

Neck pain can sometimes carry meaning. I remember in grad school, when I was about 25 and sharing an apartment with two other guys, coming into the living room one morning and detecting a smell I couldn’t identify. Turns out the one roomie had been out head-banging at a local metal club the night before, and had applied generous dollops of Ben-Gay that morning to ease the pain in his neck. I told him that if he needed Ben-Gay, it was time to stop head-banging. Years later, I stand by that rule.

(There’s also the dreaded circular table rule. For reasons I will never understand, many large public events occur in huge rooms dotted with circular tables, with a dais at the front. The poor attendees have to sit in circles, but all face forward. If you’re at the six o’clock position, all is well. If you’re at twelve o’clock, there’s no graceful way to both respect your tablemates and watch the dais. You’d think somebody would have figured this out by now. Since turnover at my college is so slow, most of us who attend these events have attended enough of them by now to know this rule. Serious jockeying goes on to get one of the better seats. It’s worse than trying to call ‘shotgun.’)

There’s no Ben-Gay in the house, and tonight I have a circular-table event. I call shotgun!

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

 

Telephone

Five Weeks Ago:

(in passing)

Dean Smith: Do you think this elective would fit in this program?

Dean Jones: Yeah, probably.

Dean Smith: Thanks.

Four Weeks Ago:

Dean Smith: Thanks for taking the lead on this with the curriculum committee. Dean Jones said the elective looks fine.

Prof. W: No problem. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Three Weeks Ago:

Prof. W: Dean Jones said this elective fits in this program.

Prof. X: I don’t think so. Besides, faculty owns curriculum. Who does he think he is?

Prof. W: (shrug) I don’t know. That’s what Dean Smith said.

Prof. X: They’re all in this together.

Two Weeks Ago:

Prof. X: The Administration is dictating curriculum!

Prof. Y: The bastards are at it again!

Last Week:

Vice President: I just heard from Prof. Y. You’re overstepping your bounds.

Dean Jones: Huh?


And so it goes…

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

 

Fit

I’ve had occasion recently to think seriously about ‘fit.’

If you haven’t seen Bitch, Ph.D.’s brilliant keynote address, check it out. Although we accent different syllables, I really like her recognition of the clumsiness of fit when you try to squeeze three-dimensional people into a one- or two-dimensional profession.

‘Fit’ has been used, historically, to exclude people according to race, gender, etc., and it’s that kind of pernicious use that gives the concept a suspect scent. But it’s real, even if it usually shouldn’t be used from the top down.

As someone who went directly from working in an ice factory in Northern Town to Snooty Rich Private Liberal Arts College, I became aware of ‘fit’ pretty quickly. As an introvert in an extroverted culture, there’s a chronic lack of fit that, while it can sometimes fade into the background, never really goes away. (Once, and for the record: ‘outgoing’ is not a morally positive trait, and ‘reserved’ is not a morally negative one. They are morally neutral; they are simply different ways of being. I wince every time I hear somebody praised as ‘outgoing.’ Just imagine what a lovely world it would be if more of us, Americans in particular, actually thought before we spoke. But I digress...)

That’s not to say that I don’t sometimes stare in wonderment at people who didn’t get one of the unwritten cultural memos. Male readers will understand this one: at my previous college, there was a high-ranking administrator who violated the sacred rule of the buffer urinal. If I was at urinal five, and the others were empty, he would sidle up to urinal four and try to strike up a conversation! I think he was raised by wolves. Every guy knows this rule. It’s part of what separates us from the animals. I mean, sheesh...

(From what I’ve seen, women have many more unwritten rules like this, and they’re much more complicated. When two women with different conceptions of these rules meet, you can actually feel the charge in the air, like when magnets repel each other.)

But most unwritten rules are subtler than that, and many of them are specific to location.

For example, at my previous college, there was a weird rule about ‘face time.’ Staying late counted in your favor, but arriving early didn’t. Leaving early counted against you, but arriving late didn’t. I don’t know why, and it isn’t as true at my current college, but it was pretty dramatic there. It wasn’t written anywhere, but you figured it out pretty quickly, and there was no court of appeals for special cases. Either you fit or you didn’t.

That’s the tyranny of unwritten rules. At least with written rules, there’s often an avenue for appeal. With unwritten rules, you just have to suck it up. And if the unwritten rule consistently works against you, for reasons you either can’t or won’t change, then you don’t fit. You’re the problem, whether the unwritten rule actually makes any sense or not.

Upon checking out a prospective new job, it’s hard to know what the key unwritten rules are. You can ask, of course, but one characteristic of a really good unwritten rule is that it wouldn’t occur to people to mention it; it just is. You don’t know it’s there until you break it (or you see someone else break it). A site visit helps, but some rules (men wear ties) are more obvious than others (praise must be delivered via coded sarcasm). Some rules only make themselves felt over time, or aren’t initially applied to rookies.

I have to maintain some abstraction here, so I’ll shift the gaze outward. What are some weird unwritten rules you’ve encountered?

Monday, April 24, 2006

 

Tiny Dancer, or, A Diva in Diapers

On Saturday, we went to a surprise birthday party for my sister-in-law, whose age will be withheld for reasons of family comity. Her husband rented out the fire station where he volunteers, hired a band, had it catered, and really did a nice job of organizing a party for a HUGE Irish family. (The downside to marrying into a HUGE Irish family chock-full of ridiculously-attractive people: it’s hard not to feel like a mutant. The upside: they’re way too upbeat and sociable to mind.)

All four of us went. The Boy had a great time, taking to the dance floor with his girl cousins, showing off his patented ‘Grand Mal’ moves, and displaying a complete lack of self-consciousness that I often wish I could recover. (Among other things, he independently discovered Pete Townshend’s ‘windmill’ move, which is singularly unsuited for the dance floor.) The girls were good sports, even dancing with him when, in the words of one, “eeewww- you’re so sweaty!”

But The Girl stole the show.

The Girl, or Miss Thang, as I may have to start calling her, spent the first hour or so of the party going from grandparent to aunt to uncle to grandparent, basking in the attention. Then she discovered the dance floor.

The band had a pretty good bar band/cover band sound, focusing mostly on danceable 70s and early 80s chestnuts. (“That’s What I Like About You” was about as contemporary as they got.) The Girl went onto the dance floor by herself, and just started bouncing up and down, immediately finding the beat. She stayed out there whether there were other people with her or not. At a few points, The Wife tried to dance with her, but The Girl pushed her away. She was doing her own thing, thank you very much.

For someone who isn’t yet two years old, she has a dance-floor presence of a true diva. As the evening continued, the other adults started noticing her, and she attracted quite a following among the younger Moms. One teenage cousin’s boyfriend tried to dance with her, doing some cheesy moves while bending down to her level; she blew him off. (It warmed this Dad’s heart.) Some of the Moms danced with her a bit, which she tolerated, but it didn’t bother her in the least just to do her own thing.

The show-stopper was during an unpopular song, when all of the adults had left the floor. The band was still playing, and TG was still bouncing. The guitarist came out onto the floor, still playing, and started bouncing right along with her. She kept right on going, synchronized with him, as adults quickly ran to the floor with cameras. He was almost doing a duck-walk to get to her level, and she just kept on doing what she was doing, laser-beam focused on the guitarist. I’ll admit to having disturbing visions of her at sixteen giggling “I’m with the band,” but she was having sooo much fun that it felt churlish to do anything but watch with a big goofy smile.

As we left, the band waved to her, and she waved back. A few Moms even had their pictures taken with her.

When we got home, she didn’t fight the trip to the crib, which is unusual. True to form, though, she woke up at about 3:30 a.m., pitching a diva fit worthy of the ages. I think she finally realized she was home.

I had thought The Girl was placid and serene. Turns out she’s just bored, a party animal waiting for something exciting to happen. Who knew?

The teen years could be scary. But for now, Miss Thang is a delight. You go, Girl!

Friday, April 21, 2006

 

Administration Haiku

Dying grandmothers
Transportation, job, bad grades
The ‘withdraw’ deadline

I need it all, now!
Budget lines are for sissies
Close of fiscal year

Tuesday, Wednesday night
Thursday, Friday, Saturday
Rubber chicken week

Have a nice summer
Professors say, packing their stuff
The lucky bastards

State aid flat again
Tuition already up
Time to make donuts?

Miniskirt and scarf
Ugg boots, sweater, baseball cap
What season is it?

Perkins funding gone
Always more for Iraq war
Be all you can be

Why cut higher ed?
Prisons don’t charge tuition
Something is wrong here

Thursday, April 20, 2006

 

Moral Dilemma

I’m up against a moral dilemma. I know which way I’m leaning, but vox blogosphere, vox dei, so I’ll put it out there and see if there’s something good I haven’t thought of yet.

Some local homeschoolers have banded together to rent a room in a church for occasional group classes in subjects the parents aren’t capable of teaching themselves. This group’s bond is an extremely conservative brand of Protestantism. The students are high school aged, so their parents still have tremendous sway over what goes on in the ‘classroom’ they’ve rented. For the sake of simple verbiage, and in honor of Bitch, Ph.D., I’ll call this group The Peeps.

Anyway, The Peeps have contacted the college to have us teach a few classes to the high school kids this Fall, at their facility. Since we occasionally teach classes at other high schools, this is not out of the question. While we’ve had some give-and-take over which subjects would be appropriate – Calculus is fine, but they’re not entirely comfortable with General Psychology since it addresses sexuality – we’ve pretty much settled on some courses that they can accept without any watering-down on our part. (To our credit, I think, we have insisted that anything we teach will be taught the way we normally would. No alternate assignments for delicate sensibilities.)

One of the courses we’ve settled on – I’ll call it Plain Vanilla 101 – is usually taught by any of a half-dozen faculty. All of the faculty who teach it are highly capable instructors, with years of experience teaching diverse groups of students. No problem there.

Here’s the catch. One of the relevant faculty – I’ll call her Jen – is, um, very conspicuously committed to some lifestyle choices that this group would believe would land her in Hell in short order. Really, really conspicuously. If you met her, you would pick up on it before she said a word.

On campus, the reaction to Jen has been remarkably (and creditably) blasé. She’s an excellent teacher, and she has been accepted as such. There may be an offended student here or there, but any student who takes offense is free to drop the class. Very few have, and none have given her lifestyle as a reason (not that they would).

Based on what I know of The Peeps, though, they would blow some cerebral fuses if Jen showed up to teach their section of Plain Vanilla 101. Even if the students accepted her, the parents wouldn’t. (In my experience, parents are usually much less tolerant than students.) It could quickly escalate into a major public brouhaha, and what was supposed to be a bridge-building exercise in the community would become yet another casualty of the culture wars. Since the county as a whole is pretty conservative, the college would wind up getting punished for it. In that circumstance, nobody wins.

Yet, if I pre-emptively rule Jen out of consideration, how is that different from discriminating against her? A church group is free to set its own boundaries, but the college isn’t governed by a church. It’s a public institution.

It’s not a given that Jen would even want the class. There are several other instructors who teach the course, none of whom would raise the red flags that she would. But she might, and I’m not thrilled with either ruling her out or starting a stupid political fight that the college would lose.

My leaning is to tell the department of the opportunity, and of the nature of The Peeps, and then to ask for a volunteer. If Jen steps forward and nobody else does, I’d give her the course, but I’d also meet with the Chief Peep in advance to give a heads-up, and essentially give an ultimatum: either take the course with Jen, or don’t take the course. If Jen is a deal-breaker, I’d rather find out in May than in September.

Loyal readers – is there a better way that I haven’t figured out? If neither ‘cater to the most intolerant’ nor ‘go down in a blaze of glory’ is an option, and we actually do want to serve this underserved (and rapidly growing) part of the community, what to do?

 

Meaningless-Yet-Measurable Milestone

Today my site counter passed my odometer!

Woo-hoo!

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

 

Summer Jobs

This time of year, as tenured faculty thoughtlessly start asking me about my summer plans and sharing theirs, I can tamp down any incipient bitterness by reflecting on one of the very best parts of having a real job: not having to find a summer job.

Finding summer jobs in high school and college was bad enough, but at least it felt age-appropriate. Since summer teaching gigs were few and far between in my graduate program (I got my first one after my fifth year in the program), I was still looking for summer jobs at 25. That’s just wrong.

The summer job panic usually started in April. By early May, I’d usually be in a combination of depression and panic.

There isn’t much good to be said about most summer jobs. They pay badly, you’re almost always the peon, and (almost by definition) they involve doing work you really don’t want to do. They can help forestall any undue sense of entitlement, since daily degrading combined with low pay will do a number on any excess self-esteem with which you might be burdened.

Crappy non-academic summer jobs I’ve held:

- Dishwasher

- Parking lot attendant

- Door-to-door canvasser (An awful job, but you do develop a pretty good sense of real estate.)

- Piston ring tester (We used Scotch tape. I’m not making that up. This is why I’ve never bought an American car.)

- Receptionist

- SAT Prep instructor (twice)

- Supermarket stock boy (I got fired from that for stacking canned beets too slowly. The shame!)

- Customer Service Rep (I drank more that summer than in the rest of my life, combined.)

- Mover

- AIDS Walk recruiter (lots of compliments on the little blue baseball cap we had to wear)

- Intern (where I learned I didn’t want to be a lawyer)

And the ultimate depression-inducing, college-motivating, holy-crap-if-I-had-to-do-that-for-a-living-I’d-kill-myself job...

- The Ice Factory

The ice factory bears explanation. You know those 8 pound bags of ice in convenience stores? The ones you buy for parties? Someone makes those. My job, for 8 hours a day at $3.50 an hour (minimum wage at the time was $3.35), was to pick up the 8 pound bags of ice off a lazy Susan and stack them on a wooden pallet, for the forklift to take to the saran wrapper, and then to the truck. Naturally, this entailed working in a freezer, so the ice wouldn’t melt. For 8 hours a day.

I learned a lot that summer. Lessons of the ice factory:

- If you work in a freezer 8 hours a day lifting heavy objects, you burn an astonishing amount of calories. Everybody brought huge lunches, and we all lost weight. Calories are actually units of heat. If you want to lose both excess weight and your will to live, I can’t recommend this enough.

- People whose actual, not-just-seasonal jobs are in the ice factory are prone to odd enthusiasms. One guy spent his time developing an intricate theory explaining that Phil Collins was actually a space alien. (“Sussudio? What’s that? Space code! Abacab? Space code!”) Another had what I would call an unhealthy fascination with the guitarist Allen Holdsworth.

- Different brands of bagged ice come out of the same vat. One brand’s bag memorably claimed that its ice melted more slowly than other brands. We checked. It didn’t.

- As of the mid-1980's, feminism had not yet made meaningful inroads into the culture of ice factories.

- Some people can discourse knowledgeably about the relative merits of the food in the various jails throughout their home county. These people make your food. I’m just sayin’.

- Just because a guy is five-foot-four, short a few fingers, and Vietnamese, doesn’t mean he can’t slam-dunk an 8 pound bag of ice in the middle of a stack fifteen bags high.

- Disgruntled workers have ways of Sticking It To The Man. Among these ways is peeing in the ice vat. There’s a reason I don’t buy bags of ice. If you do, first, hold the bag up to the light. If the ice isn’t perfectly clear, don’t buy it. Trust me on this one. Seriously.

- $3.50 an hour adds up to...let’s see, carry the seven...I think the mathematical term is “dick.”

Compared to that, deaning isn’t bad at all. It’s all about perspective...

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

 

Quote of the Day

From Tiny Cat Pants:

Whoever said "knowing is half the battle" is an asshole. All I do is know.


Preach on, B.

 

There's Hope for The Boy

Last night, as The Boy and I were waiting at the deli counter at the grocery store:

The Boy: Hey, we’re wearing the same color shirt!

DD: That’s true.

TB: But yours has those letters on it.

DD: Those letters are (name of Grad School U). It’s where Daddy went to grad school.

TB: ewwww!

Yup.

 

Is It Just Me?

How does your college handle scholarships?

For reasons I still don’t understand, my cc awards scholarships almost entirely as students graduate. For all intents and purposes, they’re contributions towards tuition at other places.

The advantage of this system, to the extent that there is one, is that it’s easier to base scholarship awards on college G.P.A.’s and majors. Given how specific many of the donors are (must be an x major from town a, b, or c, with a GPA of at least 3.z…), the only way to meet some of the criteria is retroactively. Let students go through two years on their own dime, then see who fits and give them a pat on the back as they walk out the door.

Still, for a college that’s struggling for enrollment, this strikes me as bass ackwards.

It strikes me as a high school model. For a public high school, it makes sense to award scholarships as the kids graduate, since there’s no tuition (or charge for books) in the first place. But we charge tuition, and our students buy their own books.

Don’t most colleges use scholarships for recruitment? Isn’t that typically their primary function?

Is this typical for cc’s? Am I the only one who finds this strange?

Monday, April 17, 2006

 

The Gap

We’ve been talking with a local high school about a program to allow some motivated seniors to take courses at the college, in lieu of AP courses. The high school benefits by saving money on an AP course, and we benefit both by increased enrollments without giving up a classroom, and quality control over the credits that many of those students would bring to us next year anyway.
Good idea all around.

The sticking point is placement exams.

The high school doesn’t want its students to have to take our placement exams. If students place ‘developmental’ (that is, remedial) in either math or writing, they are barred from college-level courses in relevant disciplines until those deficiencies have been addressed. (I say ‘in relevant disciplines’ because we allow students with shortfalls in math to take, say, drawing.) Although the high school claims that it will subject any students in the program to rigorous criteria, they don’t want to risk the placement exams. I consider this revealing.

What data I’ve seen suggest that the high school’s fear is well-founded. We have a special scholarship program for students who graduate in the top x percent of their high school class. A distressing number of those students test as ‘developmental.’

Community colleges take a lot of flak for teaching remedial courses. But as open-admissions institutions, what choice do we have? As long as students show up with legitimate high school diplomas, we’re mission-bound to accept them. If they show up with trouble writing a sentence or solving an equation, well, I don’t see how that’s our fault. We do our best to fix the educational deficits with which we’re presented. Sometimes it works, sometimes not, but I don’t think we’re wrong to make the attempt. In fact, I’d argue that we represent the last, best chance for many students.

Still, it bothers me that students who graduate in the upper echelon of their high school cohorts test developmental. That shouldn’t happen.

I don’t think it’s the tests. We use a common math test across the state, and part of the writing test is standard. Our cut scores are in the same ballpark as everyone else’s. In fact, there’s a move afoot now to make placement tests entirely uniform across the state. I’m a little wary about what kind of test would lend itself to that, but it should certainly put to rest any accusations of self-dealing. The questions on these exams are quite a bit easier than on, say, the SAT. (We also have an SAT cutoff that exempts a student from placement exams.) They’re not out of line.

Taxpayers in some states (so I’ve heard) have drawn a line in the sand, refusing to reimburse cc’s for remedial courses. The argument, to the extent that one exists, is that they shouldn’t have to pay for the same education twice. The flaw in the argument is that it punishes the wrong institution. If a high school didn’t teach a kid to write a paragraph, the high school still gets paid. The cc is punished for the sins of the high school. This is a basic confusion of categories.


I don’t know how to fix K-12 education. (If I did, I wouldn’t do this job.) Part of me suspects that the problem isn’t so much educational as economic; if there were more living-wage jobs out there that didn’t require a college degree, we could give up the fiction that every kid belongs in college without thereby consigning entire groups to poverty. There have always been kids who were, well, screwups. This is not new. In the past, those kids might join the Army, or get a union job at a factory. Now they’re afraid to join the Army for fear of going to Iraq (or they can’t get in due to entrance exams, obesity, drug use, etc.), and those factory jobs are long gone. So some of them find their way to us, despite long and uninterrupted records of struggle with (or indifference to) formal education. Then we get called wasteful for trying to teach them basic math and writing.

Sometimes I suspect that the insistence on education degrees for teachers is the culprit. Our high schools require education degrees, and are laggards on international comparisons. Our colleges and universities don’t, and our higher education sector is the best in the world. Correlation may not prove causation, but it’s awfully hard to argue that education degrees are necessary for quality control when the institutions that don’t require them are more successful than the ones that do.

More basically, housing segregation by income (and, indirectly, race) probably plays a major role. If an entire town is devoid of college-educated parents, the teachers in that high school will face an uphill battle even on good days. Since it’s not politically realistic to fail entire classes, they pass students who, by any objective measure, haven’t mastered high-school level academic skills. Then we get blamed for noticing.

I’ll admit to being an amateur in this area, and there is a vast scholarly literature devoted to it. But from the perspective of a manager in the trenches at a cc, I’m getting a little tired of being bashed for trying to help students whom other institutions have failed. The gap between what gets a kid out of high school and what equips him for success in college is dramatic, wasteful, disturbing, and sometimes fixable. If it deep-sixes our new program, I’ll be disappointed, but we can always catch those kids next year, when they come to us to learn what they didn’t learn in high school.

Friday, April 14, 2006

 

Ask the Administrator: Should I Cross Over to the Dark Side?

A quasi-admin reader writes:

I have a quick question for you: if you could do it all over again, would you? I ask because I’m facing a choice similar to one you seem to have made several years ago: I have 10 years teaching and quasi-administrating at a SLAC and now two as a 75%administrator at an R1. I’ve been offered a full time administrative position at a CC in my home town.

Here’s how I’m seeing the debate:

Pros:
--focus on education and teaching and not research and grant-getting;
--work with a huge variety of students, some just starting, some returning, some hoping for a last chance;
--chance to give something back to my home town (my mother graduated from this same CC 25 years ago);
--better job/life opportunities for my wife & daughter (my wife, highly educated and credentialed, has not, in two years, been able to find work out here)

Cons:
--lower pay for more work (they are offering roughly what I make here in 10 months for a 12 month contract);
--no time for research/writing (this I don’t know, only assume);
--crushing workload? (Again, this I don’t know)
--no chance to ever return to the world of 4 year schools (rumor or fact?)

Any thoughts would certainly be appreciated.


Well, there are really two questions here. Would I do it again, and what should you do? These are not the same.

I often think that if I knew at 21 what I know now, I would have taken a different route. That said, there was no earthly way I could have known that at 21. By the time I finished my Ph.D. (1990’s), the great job crash had hit. I took a faculty job at a for-profit tech school to support myself, tolerating a 45-hour annual teaching load. After several years of trying to get out, I realized that a 12-month, 45-hour teaching schedule just didn’t leave me the energy to write my way out of there. So I decided to administrate my way out of there. When a position opened, I went for it. Eventually, the strategy worked, and now I’m a full-time administrator at a community college, despite neither administration nor community colleges even being on my mental radar in grad school.

Then again, had I taken a different route, I might not have met The Wife, which would mean The Boy and The Girl would never have been born. A guy can make himself bonkers thinking like that.

Your situation is different. Since you don’t specify the nature of the position at the cc, I don’t know if it’s terminal (i.e. director of a center) or progressive (i.e. a deanship, a vice presidency, etc.). The position you have now sounds like it’s probably terminal, especially if your research productivity hasn’t been competitive with folks who’ve been doing that full-time for years now.

Although you wouldn’t know it from Tamara Draut’s book, it’s true that cc’s focus on teaching. If you believe strongly in teaching, that’s a legitimate plus. Don’t be misled, though; as a full-time administrator, you’re helping others teach. You have to satisfy your love of teaching vicariously. It’s still fulfilling, but it’s not the same as having your own classes. If you ever forget that, faculty will be more than willing to remind you, over and over again.

I’d discount the romantic reasons (“give something back”) and look more at the reality of the day-to-day job. At your current job, as you describe it, your wife’s talents are largely wasted, and your daughter’s life opportunities are constricted. I’m guessing from your summary that those are likely to be less true at the cc. Your current position is probably terminal, so your own career opportunities are also constricted. Whether the workload at the cc is backbreaking or not is situational; honestly, my cc is a much more civilized workplace than my previous college.

I don’t know whether cc experience forever bars you from returning to the four-year realm. (I haven’t tried.) If the statistics I’ve seen about administrative pipelines are true, I’d expect that taboo to fade quickly, if it hasn’t already. Since so many academic management positions come out of faculty, and so few f-t faculty have been hired for so long, many colleges are having terrible luck finding acceptable candidates for administrative positions. Given the length of the faculty hiring drought, I expect this trend to accelerate. As it does, barriers based solely on prestige snobbery will probably start to fall, since, at the end of the day, a good manager is a good manager. If you’re still fairly early in your career, I wouldn’t view the prospect of resume stain as a deal-breaker.

Maybe it’s the Gen X’er in me, but if you can live with the proportionately lower salary, I’d take the cc job. Your wife and daughter will have better shots at decent lives, which can only be to the good (and which will almost certainly improve the quality of your life, too). You’ve most likely topped out where you are now, so whatever dissatisfactions are driving you to look around won’t go away. If you can get past any internalized prestige snobbery (for the love of all that is holy and good, don’t talk about ‘giving something back’ at the interview! It’s insulting beyond belief.), and the pay is acceptable, the cc job probably puts you in a better long-term position, in terms of both career and family. That ain’t bad.

Faithful readers – your thoughts?

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

 

Open Call

A reader asked a question about which I know exactly nothing, but I’m hoping some generous and knowledgeable readers have something productive to share:

My husband and I are looking for thoughts from academic professionals on
the general repercussions and/or benefits of delayed entrance into
kindergarten. Is research available? Is there a general consensus from
the academic and research communities regarding this issue? How will the
delay affect his high school and further educational experiences? Is the
age difference with peers long term less important than the short term
"success" of another year in preschool and an older kindergarten start?
His birthday is in January, which would have him turing 7 in the middle
of the school year. How would this 18-24 month age gap affect his
interactions with peers? He is not testing at 18-24 months below his age
level. 9-12 months on average, less in some areas. Above grade level in
academic areas. (letter recognition, pre-math, pre-science) There are
other issues to consider as well; The possible prevalence of a PDD
spectrum disorder (Asperger's)- we are in the process of having this
assessment completed. Diagnosed expressive speech issues particularly in
pragmatics, diagnosed sensory processing delays, very mild attention
issues as stemming from the difficulty in integrating sensory input. I
would appreciate any information you or your readers may have.

I've posted our dilemma here:
http://amthomas718.blogspot.com/2006/04/decisions-decisions.html


Any thoughts?

Thursday, April 13, 2006

 

Can't Buy Me Love

Evaluating faculty is one of the most important parts of my job, yet some of the most basic information needed to do it right isn’t available.

We have student evaluations, of course, and formal observations by a peer, the chair, and the dean. The rest is mostly self-generated by the professor.

I’ve never seen a peer observation that was anything less than glowing. While I understand the impulse, the sheer abundance of superlatives renders them quite useless as evaluative tools. It falls victim to the ‘you first’ problem – the first honest peer evaluation would expose both the observer and the observed to all manner of awkwardness. Any ideas out there on how to make peer observations meaningful? Ideologically, I like the concept, but the execution just hasn’t been helpful.

Among the info I don’t have, though I had at my previous college, are student grades and course attrition rates.

From asking around, it sounds like student grades stopped being considered about ten years ago. I don’t know if it was at the behest of the faculty, or just as a byproduct of some long-forgotten IT change, but it’s the way it is. When I’ve suggested gathering that information, I’ve received the “what planet are you from?” look. But it’s important, and not just in an evil way.

At my previous college, grades and drop rates were reported each term in (relatively) easily digested form. It wasn’t that hard to spot patterns, which gave a context for student evaluations. Some professors graded hard but got student respect; I knew they were the real deal. Some graded generously and got student respect, and some graded hard and generated student antipathy; in those cases, I relied more on observations. And, memorably, some graded generously but still generated student antipathy. They couldn’t buy love. They were, uniformly, train wrecks.

Then you have the cult favorites – hard grades, glowing evaluations, but only about half of the students make it to the end of the course. Again, without numbers, it’s hard to tell.

It was useful to have that information, since all but the most egregiously incompetent could usually pull it together long enough for a decent observation, and, in the absence of context, low student evaluations could always be explained by (hypothetical) high standards.

I’d love to develop a way to do a speedy-but-thorough content analysis on the written comments on the back of student evaluations. Some of them are self-refuting (The prof is a mean ass dude how come he dint give me an a what an asshole this school suxxx). Some are revealing of serious issues (chronic instructor lateness particularly brings out student snarkiness, and I have to say, I don’t blame them). Some are unintentionally funny (one of mine from several years ago – “Now I write more clearer.” Uh, thanks.) But most are fairly vague and positive, and therefore not terribly useful. When you’re plowing through thousands of them, it would be helpful to have some way to separate the banal from the revealing.

Measurement issues again. This is becoming a theme. Or is it a motif? Sigh.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

 

The Cruel Torment of Unattainable Beauty

Yesterday was an utterly glorious day, which put me in a truly foul mood.

I’m not usually a contrarian when it comes to weather. Part of the motivation for escaping Northern Town was its perpetual cloudiness. Although I like the song, “I’m Only Happy When it Rains” doesn’t usually describe me.

But when you’re stuck in the office all day, in a suit and tie, and it’s a slow day, and it’s the first obscenely beautiful day of the year outside, well, that’s just cruel.

I found myself constructing excuses to run errands across campus. It was the kind of day that provokes even the better students to ask if they can have class outside. The kind of day that makes administrators, who have to keep at least 9-5 hours (usually longer) particularly crabby at faculty. The kind of day when normally-conscientious faculty who have made appointments with you call to cancel, citing mysterious, sudden-onset colds.

To make matters worse, the tv in the student center (one of my contrived errands) was tuned to the Washington Nationals’ home opener. At 2 o’clock in the afternoon! On a slow day! That’s just adding insult to injury.

The closest parallel – some of you may know how this works – is when you’re 17, and hopelessly smitten with a pretty young thing, and you’re sharing a tender moment, and you’re screwing up your courage to make your move, and she says you’re like her brother.

Not that I would know anything about that.

By June or so, the torment isn’t as great because the beautiful days aren’t as rare. The pain of missing one is dulled by the reasonable certainty that another one will follow, and another. But the first one really hurts.

I wonder if I could move my desk outside…

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

 

The Visiting Expert

At my college, as at many others, we have a routine cycle of program reviews. Each degree program has to bring in an outside expert in its own field every few years to evaluate our offerings to make sure that we’re up to snuff.

Yesterday we had one of those for a smallish program that’s relatively technology-intensive. The guy was from a private research university where, judging by his comments, the faucets pour money.

It was disheartening. For over an hour (at lunch), the expert opined on how a few hundred thousand here would help, and a few hundred thousand there would help, and how we’re really only a few million away from really having a quality program. Of course, we’d have to commit to keeping that funding level going indefinitely, given the rate of technological change in the program, unless we’re knuckle-dragging mouth-breathers who don’t care about the students.

I hate conversations like that.

Part of the tragedy of administration is that, by definition, the closer you get to actual power, the farther afield from your area of scholarly expertise you get. I don’t know enough about this particular area to know how much of what he said was true, and of course the folk on campus in that area are always ready to argue for more. There’s no such thing as a disinterested expert.

Of course, by virtue of his role, he was allowed to call for millions for a single area, without having to address just where, exactly, those millions would come from. So he gets to climb on the high horse and preach about Excellence and Virtue and the evils of administration, while I try not to choke on my salad at the figures he spews.

After the lunch, I had a brief chat with the chair of the relevant department. When he asked my impressions, I asked which programs he thought I should eliminate to pay for his wish list. The Expert didn’t see fit to mention any.

I’m not naive enough to take his suggestions literally, but in a way, that’s the most depressing part. The whole point of bringing in experts is to get the truth; if they’d rather play political games and build castles in the air, then it’s not clear to me why we should bring them in at all. I have plenty of able practicioners of office politics on campus. There’s no need to import them.

A statement I’ve never heard, in my six years of deaning: “This program has more money (or resources, or faculty) than it can handle. I recommend reallocating some to an area of greater need.” Never heard that. Not a single time.

When the mission of a college is as diffuse as ours (the word ‘comprehensive’ gets thrown around a lot), it’s hard to measure one claim against another. In a perfect world, I’d have no problem throwing state-of-the-art equipment at every program. Motivated students would appear from the woodwork, working closely with self-starting faculty on a crowded-yet-roomy campus with both rapid growth and plenty of free parking. But that’s just not reality.

Since we lack consistent, objective, measurable criteria for success, we rely instead on (self-interested) departmental pleading, buttressed by the occasional department-selected Visiting Expert. I base judgments on what I know, what little I can measure, my guesstimate of the likelihood of any given grant program surviving any given year, and a fairly steep discount for rhetoric. It’s more than nothing, but it’s less than enough.

The Expert ate well and went home. I’ll receive his report in a few days. I’ll get called on the carpet by the VP to explain why the material needs he identified exist. And I’ll be told to reduce next year’s allocations some more. To suggest connecting the dots would be bad form.

Maybe it’s not too late to chuck it all and start a band. I still think Johnny and the Postdocs would be a great name. We could do all academic-themed lyrics: “(I Want To) Mentor You All Night Long,” “One Postdoc, One Diss, One-Year,” “(Let’s Do It) MLA-Style,” “Shake Your Endnotes,” “(I Got Some) Hard Data,” “It’s Hard Out Here For a Dean.”

You know the difference between higher ed and show biz? Show biz is a growth industry...

Monday, April 10, 2006

 

That's My Boy!

The Boy went to a classmate’s birthday party this weekend. I’ll call the classmate Britney.

Britney’s Mom told The Wife that Britney was very particular about who she invited – only five of the kids at the party were in her preschool class (with the rest from around the neighborhood). She chose her invitees based on who wouldn’t be a rival for The Boy’s attentions. She is smitten with The Boy, and wants his attentions to herself.

I was inordinately pleased at this.

Britney’s Mom even quoted Britney telling her that she loves The Boy.

This shed some light on a comment The Boy made the other day to The Wife. They were in the car.

The Boy: Mom, I have a secret about Britney.

The Wife: What’s that?

TB: I love her.

TW (surprised): Oh! What about Christina? I thought you loved her.

TB (in an ‘of course’ tone): I love her, too.

That’s my boy!

I’ll admit surprise at Britney’s social calculation skills, given that she’s just turning five. I don’t remember that age being quite so Machiavellian. Still, if someone is going to be the George Clooney of the preschool set, why not The Boy?

Sunday, April 09, 2006

 

Sure Enough...

Just a couple of weeks ago, I did a post on the logical consequences of taking the pro-life position seriously on its own terms. I made the point that do-it-yourself abortions would look like miscarriages, the pro-lifers would figure this out, and miscarriages would necessarily prompt invasive and humiliating criminal investigations.

Turns out I was right. According to this story in the Sunday New York Times, these very consequences have come to pass in El Salvador since it passed a strict pro-life law. A few key excerpts from the story:

Today, Article 1 of El Salvador's constitution declares that the prime directive of government is to protect life from the "very moment of conception." The penal code detailing the Crimes Against the Life of Human Beings in the First Stages of Development provides stiff penalties: the abortion provider, whether a medical doctor or a back-alley practitioner, faces 6 to 12 years in prison. The woman herself can get 2 to 8 years. Anyone who helps her can get 2 to 5 years. Additionally, judges have ruled that if the fetus was viable, a charge of aggravated homicide can be brought, and the penalty for the woman can be 30 to 50 years in prison...

To begin with, when a woman might face jail time for an abortion, she's less likely to discuss her pregnancy at all. According to a study on attempted suicide and teen pregnancy published last year by academics at the University of El Salvador, some girls who poison their wombs with agricultural pesticide (its efficacy being a Salvadoran urban legend) would rather report the cause of their resulting hospital visit as "attempted suicide," which is not as felonious a crime nor as socially unbearable as abortion...

Most women with some education or access to the Internet quickly learn about misoprostol, she said. It is an ulcer drug that, when inserted in the vagina, can provoke contractions and cause bleeding that looks, in an emergency room, just like a miscarriage.
"I show people how to put the misoprostol in and tell them that when they go to the hospital just to say, 'I started bleeding,"' this doctor explained. "There is no way that can be detected..."

As they do in any investigation, the police collect evidence by interviewing everyone who knows the accused and by seizing her medical records. But they must also visit the scene of the crime, which, following the logic of the law, often means the woman's vagina.
"Yes, we sometimes call doctors from the Forensic Institute to do a pelvic exam," Tópez said, referring to the nation's main forensic lab, "and we ask them to document lacerations or any evidence such as cuts or a perforated uterus." In other words, if the suspicions of the patient's doctor are not conclusive enough, then in that initial 72-hour period, a forensic doctor can legally conduct a separate search of the crime scene. Tópez said, however, that vaginal searches can take place only with "a judge's permission." Tópez frequently turned the pages of a thick law book she kept at hand. "The prosecutor can order a medical exam on a woman, because that's within the prosecutor's authority," she said.
In the event that the woman's illegal abortion went badly and the doctors have to perform a hysterectomy, then the uterus is sent to the Forensic Institute, where the government's doctors analyze it and retain custody of her uterus as evidence against her...


The physical evidence in a case can be supported by other clues. Vargas said that in medical school she read in a gynecological textbook, published in the late 1990's in Chile, that the doctor should listen carefully to the patient's story. If the woman is "confused in her narrative," Vargas said, that could well indicate that she'd had an abortion.



This is horrifying, inhuman, and utterly predictable.

Enough is enough. Anybody who advocates a legal ban on abortion must answer for this. It is a necessary, unavoidable, inevitable, and inherent consequence of the pro-life position. It cannot be evaded.

Friday, April 07, 2006

 

Friday Fragments

I’m limping across the finish line of this week, so a few thoughts that aren’t really full postings unto themselves:

Just for a hoot, try this: transfer the audio CD of Sarah Vowell’s Assassination Vacation to your mp3 player. Then, set it on ‘random.’

I did that, without knowing I had set it on random. Despite switching tracks about every three minutes, a half hour went by before I realized anything was amiss. And I’ve read the book!

I just didn’t remember it being quite that…experimental.

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Is anyone else completely creeped out by that Burger King guy in the unmoving mask?

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This week a student told me he had to cut back to part-time school so he could keep his
full-time job to pay for his methadone. As excuses go, that ain’t bad.

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It’s a measure of how degraded our political culture has become that we devote more coverage to Katie Couric and Meredith Vieira than to the revelation that Bush actually ordered the leak of a CIA agent’s name to punish a political opponent.

I predict the usual conservative trolls will work their usual echo-chamber magic, and within a few days we’ll be heaping scorn on anybody who suggests that Bush doesn’t have the right, nay, the duty, to blow agents’ cover to protect his own approval ratings.

Nothing against Meredith Vieira, but I was rooting for Natalie Morales. Sigh.

------

It’s a good thing we have Homeland Security protecting us from the likes of the deputy of Homeland Security who just got busted for soliciting a 14 year old girl.

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I saw a poet speak on campus yesterday, which was a terrible idea. She was able to switch voices, narrative speeds, whenever it suited her purposes. That has never been one of my skills. It made me insanely jealous. There are topics I’d love to address, if I had the writerly chops to do them justice, but nooo. This must be how the guy who made “Logan’s Run” felt after seeing “Star Wars” for the first time. “Humbling” doesn’t quite capture it. Sometimes being completely outclassed is more incapacitating than inspiring.

-------

The rubber-chicken circuit is starting again. For the next few weeks, it’s all end-of-year functions, all the time. Better stock up on coffee and Diet Coke while I still can…

Thursday, April 06, 2006

 

Generation X Faculty (and Deans): A Response

IHE had a provocative piece yesterday about a study that claims that Gen X (born 1965-1980) faculty see the academy differently than previous generations.

Well, yeah.

As a card-carrying Gen X’er myself, I’ll just say, thank you for noticing.

Why would post-boomers take a different view of tenure, work-life balance, and loyalty to a given institution?

Did human nature change drastically? Doubt it. Is the reach of Dr. Spock finally taking hold? Nah, that would have hit the boomers more than us. Is this simply a misplaced way of observing that people in their thirties have different priorities than people in their sixties? Maybe in part.

Or, maybe, could it be that the rules by which we’ve played have been harsher, and we’ve adapted accordingly?

Hmm. Tuitions were much higher (even adjusted for inflation) in the 1980’s and 1990’s than anytime before, and paid for more with debt than ever before. So this group carried much higher student loans than any of its predecessors. Then add that we were told, as a group, that a ‘great wave of retirements’ would create a great academic job market by the time we got through. (Anyone else remember that?) Instead, we hit the worst academic job market since the Depression. We adjuncted, we temped, we did all the bouncing around it took to get real jobs. (Some of us even taught 45 credits a year at for-profit tech schools.) We endured well-meaning pep talks by tenured faculty whose qualifications didn’t match our own. We endured ad hominem attacks by tenured faculty whose qualifications didn’t match our own. We missed out on the tech boom completely, beavering away at dissertations just as academic publishers stopped publishing dissertations and hiring committees started requiring books. (Do these people even talk to each other?) We got hired at salaries that didn’t even come close to keeping pace with the rate of housing inflation, only to be asked by our well-meaning tenured colleagues why we live so far away. Those of us whose partners are also academics endure(d) long-distance relationships, and sometimes even competitions over which partner gets to have a job this year.

Add to that the increasing length of graduate school (to prepare students for more brutal job markets), the greater number of us who are children of divorce (and who learned early on, in a visceral way, that things change), and a more career-minded group of undergrads who shy away from the traditional academic disciplines, and you have a recipe for, well, a certain grumpiness with the way things are done.

Quick quiz: which of these trends looks likely to change for the millenials? None. The trends I’ve mentioned here have only amplified.

So I’m not shocked that educated Gen X’ers take the prospect of lifetime employment with a grain of salt – that just means we see what’s going on in the world. And I’m not shocked that we make work/life balance a priority – we saw what happened to our parents. And I don’t see why either of these attitudes is bad. To the contrary, they strike me as more in tune with reality than the standard tenured bloviating about ‘meritocracy’ (as if tenured faculty have to defend themselves against newcomers) or ‘loyalty’ (as if most colleges haven’t already established two-tiered pension and insurance systems, giving the young worse deals than the old).

I’ll admit upfront that I don’t expect to retire from the college where I currently work. That’s not at all a slam at my current college; it’s just a clearsighted recognition of reality. With budget pressures, periodic reorganizations, shifting political winds, and the random stuff of life, it would be incredibly arrogant to say that I can forecast where I’ll be in thirty years. That’s just not how it works.

As the post- boomers (much too slowly, given the repeal of mandatory retirement for tenured faculty) increase our presence in faculty and administration, I would expect to see considerably less posturing about Eternal Traditions of Excellence, and more discussion of (and eventual implementation of?) different ways of balancing work and family. And a good thing, too. Let’s drag academia at least into the twentieth century…

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

 

Ask the Administrator: Difficult Classmates

An older, returning cc student writes:

I'm in a class coded as both a history class and a Womens' Studies class called "Women in American History." I've looked forward to this class for weeks. Consider my chagrin when our classroom today contained what might possibly be THE most difficult personality I've encountered in the entirety of my life. I am not exaggerating. A friend of mine saw him gathering with the rest of us before the classroom was open, and muttered to me, "Oh, no. If he's in this class, we're so screwed." I told her I had tried to learn to deal with people I wouldn't necessarily encounter in other areas of my life, and she said, "Okay, I warned you. It's going to be bad."

Before the class started, he belittled his male "friend" for taking the class, loudly suggesting everything from the possibility of his friend obtaining a sex change before the quarter was up to laughingly proclaiming to all and sundry that his friend was "his bitch" anyway. During the class he used profanity at least three times. When the (cool, calm and collected) prof explained her use of the common symbols for male and female when putting notes on the board, he yelled, "That offends me," completely derailing the discussion and then laughing and saying, "Naw, naw, I'm just playin'." These are only a few examples of what this person has done to make me loathe him within the first 80 minutes of knowing him.

When I went to the prof to have a form signed after class and he let loose with another outburst (loud complaining about the amount of reading we'd be doing in the class, because 50 pages a week was far too much in a history class, apparently), I think I reacted with an "Oh my GOD" and she looked at me and said, "Do not worry, I'll be taking care of this right now." I'm hoping she did; she seems like a great prof and one who doesn't take a lot of guff from students. I'm looking forward to the outcome when class meets next.

I guess my question is this: In the past I've run into other students who are disruptive and had teachers not do anything about it. (Admittedly, they were nowhere near this guy's league for obnoxious and unruly, but still.) My question is, how does community college administration handle these problems? Is there an open-door policy for students to approach administration about problems that an instructor is unable or unwilling to handle? What happens when the disruptiveness of a student goes past merely a negative effect on his or her own participation grade and goes on to being so severe that every other student wants to run for the hills? I understand the ideal of the community college giving everybody a chance at an education, but where's the line for a-holes?


First, condolences.

From my desk, I see several issues here. The first is instructional: how should a professor handle a disruptive student? The next is line-of-communication: how should a student let her grievance be known, when she’s stuck in a class with Wonder Boy? Finally, there’s the larger issue of just how open an open-door college should be.

On the instructional front, I’ll have to ask my readers what they do. I’ve had limited luck in this area in my own teaching. Part of it has to do with my field – it’s one of those areas where controversial issues come up as a matter of course, and some people (usually older white men) feel the need to Set The Record Straight instantly, often by interrupting. When I correct their mistakes, which are legion, they accuse me of ideological bias.

Sometimes I’ve taken them aside after class and tried to clarify the difference between difference of opinion and simple rudeness. (I also make a big show of engaging constructive disagreements, even heated ones, to try to drive home the distinction.) It usually works for about a week, and then they backslide. Sometimes they just go away on their own accord, for reasons I choose not to investigate. The single worst case I ever had, early in my teaching days, was an older student whom I’m convinced went on and off his meds randomly. After several weeks of his making everybody’s life hell with random and extremely loud outbursts, some students snapped in class and really let him have it. I admit, I didn’t jump in to stop them quite as promptly, or as aggressively, as I otherwise would have. (Sometimes, a little frontier justice goes a long way.) He eventually went away, and the class improved palpably. It wasn’t my proudest teaching moment, and I like to think I’d handle it differently now, but the guy was just impossible.

Faculty readers – how have you handled raging jackasses in class?

In terms of lines of communication, I’d recommend first talking directly to the professor, either after class or during her office hours. Going over her head preemptively is rude, and could wind up solving the wrong problem. I know that I was emboldened to be much stricter on the very few occasions when students complained to me directly.

If that doesn’t help after a week or so, then try the department chair. But give it a week first.

(Oh, and a word on petitions. I hate petitions. For reasons I’ll never understand, some students seem to think that adding names to a complaint makes it more valid. It actually has the opposite effect. If I get a valid student complaint, I have no problem following through on it. If I get a petition, then I’m in an impossible position. If I follow through on it, I’m caving to pressure, and if I don’t, I’m ignoring the students. Students get better results from me when they don’t try to lead a movement or speak for the masses.)

From an institutional perspective, the issues are tricky. Since we’re open admissions, we naturally encounter a wide range of personal styles. One person’s disruption is another’s cultural difference. I saw this quite a bit at my previous school, where some faculty labeled students disruptive simply for being arrogant.

The line we try to draw is between simply being unpleasant and actually getting in the way of the class functioning. I’ve had students removed from classes for egregious misconduct, and I’ve backed up faculty on their right to kick students out of class to maintain basic order. Faculty have a basic obligation to manage the classroom within reasonable limits, and students have a basic obligation to be more-or-less civil in the classroom. Most people grasp this intuitively.

In a few recent cases, we’ve transferred very disruptive students to online classes. When the issue is severe ADD, that can actually work, since nobody minds if they get up and walk around every ten minutes when they’re at home typing. Even there, though, it’s a judgment call. I’ve had faculty tell me they’re spooked by students who dress Goth. I tell them to get over it, which may reflect a generational difference (half my high school dressed Goth at one time or another). And the issues get stickier when they cross racial lines. Still, institutions are on pretty firm ground if they can show that the conduct in question prevents teachers and students from doing their jobs.

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

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

 

This Is Not A Metaphor

Yesterday I approved a purchase requisition for seven rubber chickens.

Insert your own joke here.

 

Substitutions from Space

Every so often, I get a cluster of students whose graduation applications have been denied because they took the wrong courses. They come to me to get course substitutions approved.

Some of them are obviously valid – the college to which the kid is transferring wants a different pair of history courses, say, so the kid took those instead of one of our sequences. Fair enough; I want the student to get full credit when she moves on, so that’s fine. Some are trickier: a kid who has failed the second semester of a two-semester language sequence wants a lit class instead. That one depends.

And then there are the substitutions from space. American lit to replace chemistry, let’s say.

These really grind my gears, as Peter Griffin would put it. I’ve noticed an almost perfect correlation between the plausibility of the substitution and the courtesy level of the student when asking for it. If the substitution is reasonable, so is the student. If the substitution is wacky, the student is usually aggressive, loud, self-righteous, and a general pain in the neck. They usually try several moves, none of which work:

“But I have to graduate!” No, you don’t.

“But my transfer school expects me to have the degree!” Yes, as a sign that you were capable of completing a valid program correctly.

“My advisor told me to take that!” Who’s your advisor? “I don’t know his name. Some old guy.” Yeah, that narrows it down.

“You just want my money! This is all about the money!” Tuition doesn’t cover the cost of instruction. And I don’t work on commission.

And my absolute favorite...

“What difference does it make what courses I took? I took enough credits!”

When they say that, I ask if they would mind if their doctor’s degree was actually in poetry. That usually stops them long enough for me to get a word in.

The disheartening part of these exchanges, other than their eternal recurrence, is the complete lack of consequence for the student. Students can go absolutely ballistic, and nothing bad happens to them. Frequently, the savvier ones tell me to my face that they’ll appeal my decision to my VP. At that point I end the conversation and escort them from my office. (I haven’t lost on appeal yet.)

I try to remind myself that I get a skewed sample in my office. The kids who actually have their stuff together in the first place rarely find their way to my door, since they don’t have to. Still, the nasty ones make lingering impressions.

Although the worst offenders often claim misadvisement, the misadvisement they claim is usually so ridiculous (wind ensemble for calculus? Sure!) that I can’t help but suspect that they’re just trying to skirt undesired-but-required courses by creating emergencies. At my previous school, we (foolishly) required a college-skills course of all students, which the adult students would usually put off until their final semester and then make a big stink about not needing. In that case, I was sympathetic, since it was hard to tell a graduating senior that she needed a class she missed in order to do as well in college as she already had. Here, we don’t do anything like that, but students pull the same trick. And I’m the evil one for not rewarding cheating.

Grumble.

It’s gonna be a long week...

Monday, April 03, 2006

 

Ten Years

It was ten years ago yesterday that The Wife and I first met.

In a bar, of all places.

I almost blew it as the evening ended, when she saw me drive off in my grad-student hatchback. Apparently, “chicks dig hatchbacks” is one of those rules that’s only true in some alternate universe. On a subsequent date, I explained that some guys drive really big trucks to compensate for other shortcomings, and that’s why I only needed a hatchback. She was amused.

Ten years later, we’re married with two beautiful, silly, sweet children.

This weekend we went to a major social function for the college, attended by many a big muckety-muck. The tickets cost more than I made in a week when we met. We dressed like grown-ups (except for the pink fuzzy slippers she wore in the car, to spare her feet), schmoozed with Important People, and acted like Very Mature Pillars of the Community. But I still got a kick out of being with the prettiest girl in the room.

I’m guessing that will still be true in another ten. And another.

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