Tuesday, October 31, 2006

 

Remediation and Vision

IHE has a fascinating little article this week about how students of different ages fare when assigned to remedial courses. Broadly speaking, older students who are placed 'remedial' have much higher success rates, both at the course level and in terms of graduation rates, than do traditional age (18-19) students who place remedial. Weirdly, the article then suggests that colleges should therefore change how we do remediation for older students.

Um, no. That's the part that's working. What it should suggest is that we change how we do remediation for the younger students.

In my faculty days, I always liked having a cluster of older students in any given class. (Every semester I volunteered to do a night class, specifically to get some adult students.) They might or might not get the best grades, but they always had the most focus. College can be a 'default' choice for an 18 year old; it's a conscious choice for a 28 year old. For those who just slogged their way through high school and are coming to college only grudgingly, all the old self-defeating behaviors are still there. Usually, if somebody in her thirties or forties comes back to school, she's on a mission. There may be some academic rustiness and some odd gaps in preparation, but the drive is there. As any teacher can tell you, drive means a lot.

To be fair, a need for remediation can suggest different things at different ages. An 18 year old who needs basic math somehow managed to dodge learning math in high school. (In my area, at least, the high schools are generally good enough that it's safe to assume the kid had a shot in the first place. I'll admit upfront that this is not universally true.) A 38 year old who needs basic math may well once have been able to pass it, but has lost the techniques to the sands of time. (I passed calculus in college, but have long since forgotten how to do a derivative.) There's a difference between 'reminding' and 'introducing.' When remediation involves revisiting past successes, rather than rubbing noses in past failures, it shouldn't be surprising that it works better.

(For purposes of this entry, I'm not defining 'ESL' as remediation. ESL is a different issue.)

How do you inspire 'drive' in 18 year olds who just escaped high school, for whom college is just a more appealing alternative to slinging burgers? Or do you?

I was reminded this week of just how overwhelming a 'total institution' can be. I spent about half a day in the hospital for tests that involve gazillions of wires and electrodes attached to me, monitors everywhere, etc. When they were finally detached, I couldn't get out of there fast enough. There was something terrifying about being observed that closely, monitored, judged, prodded. It was demeaning and dehumanizing and creepy. Even though I could tell myself that it was all for my own good, which was true, I still couldn't get out of there fast enough.

College doesn't usually involve that level of prodding, but it's easy to forget the feeling of being constantly judged. If your recent experience as a student in high school was usually of being judged stupid and/or lazy, and you're right back in a classroom at 18 in a course that 'doesn't count' because you aren't yet up to 'college level' work, I could see the emotional response of heading out the door at the first opportunity. (Several years ago I went back to my alma mater, Snooty Liberal Arts College, for a wedding. Just walking around campus, I felt that gut-level nervousness that I used to feel every single day for four years. Like pain, it's easy to forget, but that doesn't make it any less real.)

Although I could get drummed out of the dean's union for saying so, there are some kids, I think, for whom college is the right call at 25 but not at 18. Some kids need to get the fire in the belly, and a few years of crappy seven-bucks-an-hour jobs can light a fire in even the most determined slacker. Some will find routes to a satisfying life that don't involve college, and that's fine; others will determine that they need a degree to get where they want to go, but they have to figure that out for themselves.

I don't want to be tasked with figuring out, when they're 17, which kids are which. That's one reason I'm grateful for the open-admissions model – sometimes it's hard to tell the late bloomer from the dedicated slacker. And sometimes the shock of academic failure can serve as a needed wake-up call. Just because a kid failed a class doesn't necessarily mean that the college didn't accomplish something.
A kid who managed to get through high school on a diet of youtube and weed probably needs a wake-up call as much as, or even more than, he needs a course in basic algebra. If that wake-up call involves dealing with personal issues and bouncing around the seedier side of the economy for a few years, well, that's what a vision quest looks like these days.

How do you motivate the disaffected teenager?

Monday, October 30, 2006

 

Ask the Administrator: Knee Jerks

An occasional commenter writes:

In my department we have been asked to do several things for a recent
accreditation visit that have been generally resisted by all. This
resistance is based out of a knee-jerk negative response that our faculty
have to any new thing, especially if it is imposed by the upper
administration. It's also short sighted because a failure to comply will
ultimately make the accreditors hang around longer and make more demands
which will be generally resisted. There are also quite a few faculty who
habitually complain about the many things we are asked to do as "unfunded
mandates" - additional tasks that take sometimes inordinate amounts of time
but come with no resources attached. I suspect that there is a link between
these two things - the recalcitrance of the department and general
negativity make it difficult for them to bargain with upper management for
resources in an effective way. Is there a subtle way I can encourage them
to think about the advantages of surface compliance and help them explore
the option of saying yes(-but we need xyz to do what you ask) rather than
No! to just about every administrative decree?


That's a tough one.

I had a department here that was mired in just that kind of negativity for some time. Even the most routine requests – i.e. Please ask your secretary to show up on time more than once a week – would generate the predictable gnashing of teeth and accusations of administrative overreach. In that case, switching department chairs made a huge difference. The former chair had been good buddies with an earlier VP, and had learned that as long as he kept the VP happy, lesser mortals (such as deans and faculty) could be safely ignored, and he would be chair-for-life.

He was wrong.

The new chair came in with actual plans to make the department better. He and I meet frequently to try to align resources with initiatives, and to make sure that the folks who are actually doing constructive work for the college get both the resources and the public 'attaboys.' A couple years into that, some of the former cynics are starting to get jealous of the attention going to the productive ones, and they're even starting to flirt with the possibility of lifting the occasional finger, if only to get some of the praise and resources for themselves.

Of course, that worked because I had an alternative for the chair position, and I could be counted on to hold up my end of the bargain when people actually produced. Those conditions don't necessarily hold in all cases.

Accreditation should be a no-brainer; you comply, or you endure a shitstorm of monstrous duration and pain. It's sort of like when you're driving on a highway and you see a cop behind you – whatever your usual attitude toward speed limits, you comply when the cop is behind you. The accreditors are in your rear-view mirror, so the rational thing to do is to behave. If your department is so far gone that it can't be bothered to at least fake compliance, you have a major problem.

Several options suggest themselves. If you're in a position to attempt to take over leadership of the department yourself, go for it. If that's not an option, you can volunteer to lead a committee to work on the nastier elements of the accreditation task. Chances are, the department will be grateful to off-load it to you. If that happens, do a little reconnaissance and go to the administration with exactly what you proposed: gee, we'd love to hit this one out of the park, but we need some new bats. If your administration is reasonably sane (and yes, I know that's a big 'if'), you should be able to swing something (swing, bats, get it?). Then go back to the department and show off the bacon you've brought home. (I'm a trained professional – don't mix metaphors like this at home!) Rather than criticizing, you can lead by example. “I'm playing the game, and look what I got! You can, too!” It takes time and multiple iterations for lessons by example to sink in, but once they do, you're golden.

Alternately, if both the department and the administration are too far gone, there's always the “too pure for this world” option of just stepping back, letting everything crash and burn, and trusting in the good graces of Providence. In practice, this is sometimes a very attractive option, but I'd recommend it only as a last resort. Purifying conflagrations are adolescent fantasies; in real life, people have to clean up the mess afterwards. The aftermath will be much uglier than what you see now.

I've heard variations on the “unfunded mandates” argument everywhere, and it's not always wrong. What people tend to forget, though, is that they themselves are usually the beneficiaries of uncompensated work by other people. Yes, there is such a thing as exploitation, and yes, sometimes managers use phrases like “other duties as assigned” in horribly inappropriate ways. But the phrase exists for a valid reason. Nowhere in my job description does it say that I have to show up for every student performance, every gallery exhibit, or every faculty presentation, but I do. I do because it sends a message about valuing extra effort. I get it back in the extra effort that some folks put forward when they know it's appreciated. If nobody went above and beyond, remarkably little would get done.

Faithful readers – have you seen a negative department turn around? What worked?

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

Friday, October 27, 2006

 

Bloguettes

There's been some drama on campus recently that's just way too raw to blog about, but it's taking most of my mental energy. So some end-of-the-week bloguettes:

- T-shirt seen on campus this week: “It's so cute how you think I'm listening.”

- I decided, in a fit of Virtuous Eco-Guy, to start putting compact fluorescent bulbs in the lamps around the house to save electricity. They 'work,' in the sense that they give off light, but the light makes the room colors look different, and not in a good way. Everything is a sickly yellow. You'd think the bulb makers would have compensated for that. Couldn't they tint the glass, or something?

- The new Tanya Donelly CD is shockingly good. There are moments on it that are so good that I actually feel guilty listening to them, like I'm not worthy. (“Littlewing,” especially.)

- Kudos to New Jersey for taking steps to recognize the basic human dignity of its gay citizens. With Massachusetts already on board, only 48 more states to go!

- I've found some common ground with my cultural-conservative brethren. Having had two scarily close encounters in the last three weeks, I'm now solidly pro-deer-hunting. As it stands, their only natural predators are cars. They spread lyme disease and cause accidents. If it comes down to the deer or me, well, Bambi gets it.

- I'm flirting with the idea of getting Vonage at home. For those who've tried it, how well has it worked?

- With all the technological advances, why can't we get cable channels a la carte yet? I'm happy to pay for Comedy Central for me, Bravo for The Wife, and Noggin for the kids, but I have no desire to pay for Fox News or Telemundo or QVC.

- It's been disheartening to watch the Democrats completely drop the ball on the new David Kuo book. Bush White House insider reveals that the Republican leadership openly refers to the religious right as yahoos. Dems respond by yawning? Rub that sucker raw! Imagine the ads: “They've killed our sons in a war even they don't believe in. They've protected predatory pedophiles among their own ranks. And they think you're an idiot. Hit back.”

- Speaking of Dems, I foresee precisely two possibilities for 2008: Barack Obama, or crushing defeat. An Obama-Mark Warner ticket, or something close to it, would be tough to beat.

- Charles McGuire, of UnitedHealth, just retired with a 1.6 billion dollar package. (That's on top of his hundreds-of-millions annual salary.) Just for fun, I crunched the numbers. Rounding up the college's budget significantly, and assuming zero compound interest, his retirement package alone could fund the entire college for 32 years. This for the leader of a health care company that cut benefits to its own workers, its subscribers, its doctors, and its hospitals. It cured no one, researched nothing, and provided no care. Those who say that socialized medicine is inefficient have some pretty significant inefficiencies to explain away themselves.

- Sean Casey's between-pitch ritual at the plate reminds me of Mike Hargrove, or even, in a different way, Luis Tiant. It's entertaining, but I don't know how he can focus with all those steps.

- TB and TG are already committed to wearing their costumes three times this weekend, for various occasions. Whether the costumes will make it to Halloween intact is anybody's guess.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

 

Like a Family

There's one department in my area that consistently gives me fits (and gets them right back). The instincts of its leadership clique strike me as consistently and mysteriously wrong. It's as if they're right-handed kids stuck using left-handed scissors – despite their best efforts, everything just gets mangled.

From what I hear in the grapevine, the reverse is also true. They have absolutely no idea how to read me, and it's making them crazy. I violate as many of their unspoken assumptions as they do mine. Of course, they all got tenure during the Nixon era, so there's a limit to how many issues I can force.

A chance comment by one of its leadership clique this week helped me start to bring it into focus. She mentioned, proudly, that the group is like a family.

Eureka!

She's right, and that's wrong.

Although I spent years in feminist theory seminars learning that the public/private distinction works to the detriment of women and other excluded groups, I've found in practice that a good public/private distinction actually works to preserve sanity. Mixing the two is when things go haywire.

Family relationships are permanent, developmental, complicated, binding, and particular. Families have internal traditions that are both arbitrary and enforced, and that's fine; some take an annual group vacation, some have annual drunken brawls over long-simmering resentments, and, most embarrassingly, some willingly eat lutefisk. It's part of what defines a family. Families have their quirks and rhythms based on a generational life-cycle.

Work relationships are temporary (tenure aside), ephemeral, role-based, and restricted to grownups. Although you wouldn't know it from the way some people talk, none of the professors here was raised in the office from infancy. In a work setting, arguing from data should trump arguing from loyalty. In a family setting, not so much. In a work setting, judging performance is not only permissible but mandatory. In a family setting, it's hard even to define what 'performance' is.

For whatever reason, I've got a cluster that honestly thinks of itself as a family. So when “outsiders” show up, requesting “change” for the sake of “improvement,” they see it as interloping. Would you add a new grown sibling to your family for the sake of affirmative action? Of course not. When the colorful misanthropic uncle blows off work, the family rallies around him to hide his shortcomings and deny any damage. When an “outsider” starts asking about it, the outsider is the problem.

That's fundamentally sick.

I don't know about their home lives, and I honestly don't want to. I don't want to be the son-in-law or oddball family friend. I need them to step up and work like the work matters, and to deal with professional relationships professionally. It's one thing to juggle 'dean' and 'dad,' but quite another to confuse them.

This is a very difficult set of assumptions to change, since most of them regard the 'family' ideal as both desirable and a reflection of years of hard work. Disenchantment of the world is a hard sell. It's no fun to tell a close-knit group that their beloved father figure hasn't lifted a finger since 1982, or that the compromises they've worked out on several procedural matters stink to high heaven and stand to get us slammed at the next reaccreditation visit. Their first reaction is to unite against the common enemy, since that's much easier than confronting reality.

Add the fact that I'm dramatically younger than most of them, and their visceral discomfort starts to make sense. There's no room in their family narrative for the youngster to outrank them. The only way that should happen should be when they're on the decline. The way to prove they're not on the decline is to beat the crap out of the youngster who doesn't know his place.

But I do. My place is in the dean's office. Their place is at work. A department is not, and should not pretend to be, a family. Leave the dysfunctions at home, where they belong. We have work to do.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

 

The Chronicle and Community Colleges

The October 27 issue of the Chronicle of Higher Ed has a special section devoted to community colleges. I'm always happy when the Chronicle takes a break from its all-Harvard-all-the-time default mode and notices the single largest sector of higher education in America. We're so important, we actually rate the 'B' section!

The articles in the supplement vary in quality, and there's definitely something to be said for them as a group. But if you read the whole thing cover-to-cover (I seriously need to get a life), you'll get a very confused view of what community colleges are and should be.

For example, a featured piece, “At a Growing Number of Community Colleges, Fund Raising Is No Longer Optional,” notes (correctly) in passing that

While four-year colleges often solicit donations to pay for new buildings or to endow faculty chairs, community colleges have historically focused on raising money for scholarships.


Since tuition is a fraction of what it costs to educate a student, the net impact of scholarships on our bottom line is negligible.

Several pages later, an opinion piece by a fund-raising consultant (!) titled “Why are Community Colleges so Slow to Jump on the Fund-Raising Bandwagon?” answers its own question by blaming, in order, “inbreeding,” “identity,” “equity,” “introversion (?),” “weak trustees,” “weak presidents,” and “inadequate fundraising staffs.” Notably absent from the list is any discussion of what the fundraising actually achieves for the college. As long as the funds have to go to student scholarships, the net financial gain for the college is not worth the effort (in cold financial terms).

Having been exposed to colleges of all different genres, I can say with confidence that cc's have no monopoly on inbreeding, identity, introversion (?), or weak internal leadership. What we do have a monopoly on is incredibly cheap tuition. Lower tuition means lower value to scholarships. Since most cc's, as a matter of policy, don't raise funds for construction or endowed chairs or operating budgets, the net payoff for us for fundraising is nothing close to what it is for four-year colleges or universities. Ad hominem attacks usually betray a lack of understanding; if you want to understand, look at the incentives.

The confusion doesn't stop there. In terms of curriculum, two articles laud study abroad and honors programs, respectively, suggesting that they convey academic respectability on cc's. A few pages later, a former cc president has an article (“The 4 Lessons that Community Colleges Can Learn from For-Profit Institutions”) suggesting that we drop all that “general education” crap and develop pure employment degrees, just like the incredibly impressive for-profits. So we should be more like four-year colleges, except that we should be less like them. Alrighty then.

(Unlike the author of that piece, I've actually worked as a dean in both a for-profit and a cc. He paints an unrecognizably rosy picture of the for-profits. For one thing, he assumes that all the major for-profits have rigorous dress codes for students. Um, no. Nope. Huh-uh. He also neglects to address the very real pressures to maintain and improve student retention at for-profits; he takes the “employers are the real customers” argument entirely too seriously. In this, as in so many things, an anonymous informant will show us the way: Follow the Money. For-profits are purely tuition-driven, and they behave accordingly. Employers are nice, but students write the checks. In my days at Proprietary U, I received a weekly spreadsheet listing the highest-attrition sections, with instructor names, and with instructions to get rid of instructors who showed up on that list too often. You don't hit your profit targets by dismissing your customers. Maybe if the Chronicle commissioned writers who had actually worked in both settings, it would get more of the details right. But where to find such a person?)

So the problem with cc's is that we're not something else. We're not four-year colleges, and we're not for-profits. Apparently, we're supposed to be both. And charge less than either.

Harumph.

Here's a thought: we're a genre unto ourselves. As implied in the name 'community' college, cc's vary tremendously based on the communities in which they're located. In the more affluent communities, we have a heavier 'transfer' orientation; in the more strapped communities, by and large, we have a more 'vocational' bent. Some cc's have tenure and academic rank and faculty unions; some don't. What we all share is unrealistically cheap tuition, open-door admissions, and close ties to our local communities. We don't spend money on football teams, lavish dorms, climbing walls, or the other late-Roman ornaments that festoon so many four-year campuses. We spend it on teaching, and we're proud of that. To that extent, maybe the other sectors should imitate us!

I'm not actually taking issue with some of the recommendations in the supplement. Regular readers of this blog know that I like Honors programs, I like merit scholarships, and that I've been recommending for some time that cc's start raising money for purposes other than scholarships. (The real danger there, which none of the articles addressed, is that revenue-strapped state and local governments will use the availability of outside funding as an excuse to cut ours. Perhaps one reason cc's foot-drag on fundraising is because we see it as long-term suicide? My cc actually had its funding cut a few years ago when its reserve got “too big.” The incentives were loud and clear. Follow the Money.) And if the Chronicle manages to get some serious discussion going on ways to make cc's both more viable and more valuable, I'm all for it.

A little attention to detail might be nice, though.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

 

Round and Round We Go

At dinner:

The Wife: Would you like some more lasagna?

The Girl: Uh-huh!

TW: Say 'yes, please.'

TG: Yes.

TW: Yes, please.

TG: Please.

TW: Yes, please.

TG: Yes, please.

TW: Good! Would you like some more lasagna?

TG: Uh-huh!

Monday, October 23, 2006

 

Everybody Knows

Everybody knows that the boat is sinking
Everybody knows that the captain lied

- Leonard Cohen, "Everybody Knows"
(though Concrete Blonde's version is better)

Continuing with my “C.K. Gunsalus' The College Administrator's Survival Guide is easily the book of the year” theme, she has a nifty aside on things that “everybody knows.”

Strictly speaking, something that 'everybody knows' needn't be said, since everybody already knows it. Realistically, it's hyperbole indicating that 'further inquiry is useless, since the conclusion should be obvious to any sentient being.' Everybody knows that Bob is a dick, so whatever he's complaining about can safely be ignored. Alternately: even if Bob is right, he's right for the wrong reasons, since everybody knows he's a dick.

I've been in several situations over the last few years in which what 'everybody knew' was wrong.

Usually, it's based on a feedback loop. At my previous college, there was one professor in my area who was chronically out of favor with the President. He had a preternatural talent for saying the wrong thing in the wrong way at the wrong time. Over time, it became an article of faith within the administration that this professor – I'll call him Steve – was a Problem to be Dealt With (PDW). Once you hit PDW status, it's understood that your dean's job is to get enough dirt on you either to get you fired or to get you exiled to outer Siberia. Every so often, Steve would let fly with something that would send the President into conniptions. A ripple effect would ensue, in which various managers would say to each other 'what is DD going to do about Steve?' (I know this because they told me.) They'd also ask me point-blank.

The first few times, I more or less blew it off with the classic “I'll look into it.” But the pressure mounted, and eventually it got to the point where blowing it off wasn't an option. So I started asking my interlocutors just what, precisely, Steve had done that was so bad. I got “everybody knows” for an answer. I played dumb*: no, I don't know, tell me. What, exactly, has he done? What rule has he violated?

(Insert sound of crickets here.)

As I asked around, it became clear that each iteration of “Steve is a PDW” counted, in the administrative imagination, as a fresh violation. Echoes counted as inputs. Every time the topic came up, no matter from whom or for what reason, he got a fresh demerit.

It took a while to dissipate the effect. I had to go to each person individually (I didn't bother with the President, since he wasn't burdened with listening skills) and make my case for debunking the myth that Steve was a PDW. I'd concede that he could be maddeningly tone-deaf, which was true, but point out that there was no rule against that. Several years later, Steve is still there.

When I came to my current college, I found the same dynamic. Since so many people had been in their positions for so long, certain 'everybody knows' assumptions had gone unchallenged for years. The catch was that, having come in from the outside, I hadn't already built up the credibility capital to play dumb. So I had to stage frontal assaults, which are harder, more draining, and less effective.

Within the first week on the job, my (since-departed) supervisor gave me none-too-subtle clues that two professors were PDW's, and that I would be judged in part on how I handled them. When I had the chance to see for myself, I didn't see a problem with either one, and said so. At first, that was held against me; everybody knows these two are PDW's, so DD's failure to see it must mean that DD isn't very perceptive. After a while, I realized that this supervisor had a feedback loop in his own head: any time he thought about these two counted as a new input. It's hard to argue against the echoes in somebody else's head. Even mounting a defense involves raising the issue, thereby defeating the defense. Had that supervisor not left for another position when he did, I might never have recovered. As it was, he did, and the eventual successor shared my view. The two are now considered among the stars of the division.

Given that colleges are chock-full of highly educated, intelligent people, you'd think that glib 'everybody knows' sentiments would be subject to some kind of scrutiny. Even after six years of deaning, I still find myself surprised when they aren't.

You can lead a dean to facts, but you can't make him think.

* Paradoxically, playing dumb only works when people assume that you are, in fact, playing. Otherwise, it can be suicidal.

Friday, October 20, 2006

 

Victim Bullies

I just finished reading The College Administrator's Survival Guide, by C.K. Gunsalus (Harvard U Press, 2006), and I'm utterly taken with it. Gunsalus gets so many of the details right, and in such an unpretentious way, that I expect to keep it around as a reference.

In the meantime, though, a few of her neologisms deserve posts of their own. One of these is the notion of 'victim bullies.' Gunsalus distinguishes between traditional, assertive bullies, who throw their weight around with bluster and force, and 'victim bullies,' who use claims of having been wronged to gain leverage over others.(pp. 123-4) Unlike simple passive-aggression, victim bullies use accusations as weapons, and ramp up the accusations over time. Unlike a normal person, who would slink away in shame as the initial accusations are discredited, a victim bully lacks either guilt or shame, honestly believing that s/he has been so egregiously wronged in some cosmic way that anything s/he does or says is justified in the larger scheme of things. So when the initial accusations are dismissed, the victim bully's first move is a sort of double-or-nothing, raising the absurdity and the stakes even more.

Yup.

Gunsalus also notes, correctly, that in academic settings, bullies have a way of escaping supervision. Between the protections of tenure and the personality types who self-select to be in academe, department chairs and deans often deal with bullies by either mollifying them or isolating them. Either way, the bully is, essentially, rewarded.

Yup.

Victim bullies thrive in the no-man's-land created by the deadly combination of slow and cumbersome processes, and failure of managerial nerve. Because defeating a victim bully takes tremendous endurance, most people don't try. Victim bullies know this, and are able to intimidate others into leaving them alone to do pretty much as they please.

I've had some experience with these, and I can say without reservation that they are, by far, my least favorite people to manage. It's not just that they're unpleasant and batshit crazy; they're self-righteously unpleasant and batshit crazy. They're implausibly persistent.

They test your patience, and seem to enjoy it. They read every bylaw, every handbook, and every contract front-to-back, but all one-sidedly. They LOVE hearsay. And anything at all that happens, no matter how far afield, is really about them. Their narcissism is so fully developed that sane people find them unpredictable; their logic is so convoluted as to be inscrutable.

Sadly, some of them have tenure.

Gunsalus makes the obviously correct point that the key to defeating these folks is the classic administrative pincer movement of process-and-time. Easier said than done, but still right.

I just can't tell you how heartening it was to see such a frustrating part of my life described so correctly. It's not just me. There's hope. This book gives me hope. I can't give much higher praise than that.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

 

Parliamentarian Wanted

Parliamentarians are the thankless creatures whose job it is in large, formal organizations to keep track of the rules and procedures, and to decide whether given actions are in compliance. They aren't supposed to pass judgment on the merits of a given bill or debate; they just function as traffic cops, making sure that wherever you're going, you're obeying the rules of the road.

These could come in very handy at colleges.

Despite (or maybe because of) the significant levels of seniority at my college, not a day goes by that I don't hear some relatively senior person ask “what's the procedure for...?” Procedures have been changed, forgotten, invented, improvised, amended, and sometimes ignored over the years, so we're at the point know where half the battle is figuring out how to have the other half of the battle. Between old rules from the State that may or may not still apply, the several union contracts, “past practice,” personal recollections, Board of Trustee votes, offhanded comments by previous vice presidents, an ever-changing external legal climate, and the conflicting-but-confident memories of senior staff, it's often anybody's guess what the next step is.

Of course, when the rules themselves are murky, folks who want to score cheap political points can always find some contrary example, or cite some imaginary memo, to claim that whatever is being done violates some-or-other Sacred Rule that they may or may not have made up on the spot. Since there's no guidebook or central umpire, the rules are whatever the more persuasive group at any given moment says they are. This is not good.

There's a reason batters don't call their own strike zones: they'd never call strikes. The conflicts of interest would be too overwhelming, and the game would be destroyed. In some ways, that's where we are. There's no umpire, or even a commonly-agreed-upon set of basic rules. So we spend inordinate amounts of time chasing our own tails. In practice, that usually means delaying needed actions until we can finally get the procedure right (frequently waiting an entire academic year), or finding out months after agreeing on a decision that nothing happened because some crucial step was skipped because somebody didn't know to take it, or figured it out past some obscure-but-binding deadline.

I used to love playing the computer game “Civilization.” (This was back in the mid-1990's, when the game was basically stick figures and text, and my computer was powered by an ambitious hamster. Good times...) It's a sort of build-your-own-world game, in which you play one 'civilization,' racing all the others for either world dominance or, I think, space travel. As the game progresses, you develop 'inventions' and build cities, and try to fend off invaders while adding territory yourself. It was a nifty way to procrastinate dissertating, but I found that I rarely actually finished a game. There was a trajectory to it: in the early phase, things come fairly quickly and easily, and it's great fun. Then a sort of middle age sets in, and you find yourself frantically trying to patch holes and just maintain. I'd usually lose interest somewhere in that phase, since building is way more fun than maintaining. (Early “Sim City” had the same dynamic, with the same result.)

That's kind of where we are now. The heady days of building are behind us. We're trying to maintain, but the environment is getting steadily more hostile and the leaks are springing faster and faster. Measures that should be 'stopgap' become permanent, because we don't have the resources for anything better and more leaks are springing along the way. Rules that may or may not have once cohered are now scattered in fragments, and we're frantically trying to make sense of them in the face of whatever is blowing up now.

I didn't expect the job to be easy, and it isn't. But it would be a lot easier if there was at least a reasonably clear and consistent set of rules. At least then we wouldn't create new emergencies in the course of fixing existing ones. Maybe we could even get a little ahead of the curve and create something.

Sigh.

In the corporate world, rules change all the time, but it's usually clear who's in charge. In competitive sports, nobody is really in charge, but the rules are very stable and there's an umpire or referee to settle disputes. In academia, it's all sort of up for grabs. Since there's no single imperative driving the organization (like, say, profit), there's no clean and easy way to prioritize one rule or procedure over another. We muddle through, sometimes fairly well and sometimes quite badly. But it would be awfully nice sometimes to have an umpire (or a sherpa!) to tamp down the drama, so we could focus on something constructive. Any underemployed parliamentarians out there looking for a gig?

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

 

Adjuncts and Retention

There's been a dustup this week about a forthcoming journal article about the relationship between adjunct teaching and graduation rates at two-year colleges. Having read the IHE and Chronicle accounts but not the journal article itself, it appears that the research has found a significant correlation between high adjunct percentages on the faculty and low graduation rates.

Most of us can rattle reasons off the top of our heads: lack of student advisement, lack of connection to campus culture, frequent turnover leading to relationships not forming, freeway fliers not having time to hold office hours. On the flip side, I suspect that the optimal number of adjuncts is non-zero, given the insights that working professionals in their fields can offer, and the inevitable semester-to-semester enrollment fluctuations that affect all but the very top tier schools (what a social scientist I knew once called “the squiggle”).

We can also easily fall into the predictable round-robin of claiming that a preference for full-time faculty constitutes a slap in the face to adjuncts, who are well-qualified and hard-working, and why don't they get credit too, and blah blah blah. The reason this debate perpetually goes nowhere is that it's the wrong debate. When looking at the trend toward adjuncts, don't look at adjuncts. Look at the institution hiring them.

Over at Cold Spring Shops, Stephen Karlson ups the ante by pointing to the pressure on adjuncts at many schools to get glowing (or at least non-complaining) student evaluations as a condition of contract renewal. Let the Darwinian process work itself out over the years, and you'll gradually get a dumbed-down level of teaching, presumably leading to higher fail rates. Unless, of course, the dumbed-down teaching occurs all the way through, at which point you'd presumably get lower fail rates. It's not clear to me why the former is obvious and the latter impossible. If anything, in my days at Proprietary U, it was an article of faith that if you staffed the faculty with enough people who passed enough students, retention would increase. (Whether that's a good thing or a bad thing is another issue.) You may or may not pay a long-term price in prestige, but that's not the same thing.

I'd add another variable (which, to be fair, the actual scholarly article may or may not address). Beyond a certain minimum, you can probably take the percentage of adjunct faculty as a pretty good indicator of the financial health of a college. (This may not apply in very rural areas, or in colleges with very narrowly-focused missions.) Broadly speaking, the higher the adjunct percentage, the more the college is hurting financially. Since the study specifically looks at community colleges, for which the economics of the local community are broadly determinative of the economics of the college, I'd take the next step: when you're looking at the adjunct percentage of a community college, you're looking at the level of wealth of the community it inhabits (allowing some fluctuation for political climate, such as the presence or absence of a TABOR-like law).

If that's right, then what we're saying is that more affluent communities have higher graduation rates than less-affluent ones. Well, yeah. That holds true in the high schools; it seems plausible that it would continue to hold true in community colleges, since they're almost as place-specific as high schools are.

For reasons I still fail to understand, most community colleges don't have endowments in any meaningful sense. To the extent that we get private donations, they invariably go to student scholarships. I'm all for student scholarships, both for need and for merit, but I'm also for providing the funding base for a college to do its job right. Our operating funds come almost entirely from a combination of dedicated taxes and/or government subventions, and tuition.

To answer a perceptive question from Dr. Karlson, yes, community colleges generally price our tuition well below the market-clearing or profit-maximizing level. We do this deliberately, out of a sense of mission. Since cc's exist to provide access to higher education to those who otherwise might not have it, we struggle to keep tuition low enough for the struggling working single Mom to be able to afford to take classes. Does that mean that we leave money on the table sometimes, charging some folks much less than they would have been willing to pay? Yup. Could we conceivably use that money to, say, hire more full-time faculty? Yup. Would that make my life immeasurably easier? Yup.

Were it up to me, we'd take some pages from the four-year school playbook. We'd develop endowments for purposes other than scholarships, and use the interest income to improve the quality of what we do. We'd shift from 'everyday low prices' to a 'higher-price, higher-aid' strategy. (Obviously, that assumes a considerably streamlined financial aid system.) We might charge different tuition for different majors, based on the extraordinary differences in institutional cost between, say, Nursing clinicals and Intro to Sociology. We'd embrace merit aid, both out of general principle (let's tell high school kids that good grades, as well as a good jump shot, will pay off) and out of a realistic recognition that part of what makes a good education is good peers. Done properly, the wealthier kids would benefit from having another high-quality option, and the poorer would benefit by having a new high-quality option. Yes, there would be more financial aid paperwork, and that's a pain. But it strikes me as far less painful than the continued watering-down of the only option realistically available to many people.

This could all be wrong, of course, but I'm thinking some prospective Ed.d. could generate a pretty good research project out of it. Hint, hint...

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

 

Phys Ed

Should there be a college-wide Physical Education requirement for all degree programs?

The question is about to break big on campus, and I'd like to get my thoughts in order before that happens. (One of the downsides of deaning is that 'thinking out loud' is taken as 'waffling.' Better to be certain and wrong than uncertain and right. See Bush, George W.)

The argument 'for' that I've heard most often is that students are increasingly obese, and phys ed is our best and most direct hope of addressing that.

I'll admit, I consider this argument obtuse. Students vote in perilously low numbers, but we don't require Intro to American Government. Many students have dysfunctional family lives, but we don't require courses on Marriage and Family. Many students lack the foggiest idea about how to handle money, but we don't require any sort of Lifetime Economics. Besides, anybody who took phys ed as a requirement in college knows that it's possible to get through it with a minimum of exertion, if you know what you're doing. (Full disclosure: I met one unit of phys ed in college with badminton. My inner eight-year-old still smirks at the word 'shuttlecock.')

The argument 'against' varies, but usually comes down to two points: the courses don't transfer to four-year schools very well, if at all, and those credits could be more productively used in other ways.

To those I'll add: phys ed doesn't work well for adult students, evening/weekend students, students with childcare issues, or students taking lots of 'distance learning' classes.

The broader question, I guess, is what is important enough to be considered part of the foundational 'general education' of any college graduate. (I have no issue with a phys ed requirement in majors where it's integral to the major itself – kinesiology, say, or dance. I also have no issue with it in a major like Criminal Justice, since the profession for which the students are being trained has some pretty intense physical requirements.) Are college graduates expected to be athletic?

Well, no.

They're expected to be literate, and to have some general historical sense, and to be capable of real-world math, and to be able to spot crappy arguments, and to have in-depth training in at least one area. I think there's a serious argument to be made about foreign-language acquisition, and I'm open to suggestions about scientific method or Great Books or diversity awareness or lifelong learning. If they happen to be athletic too, well, great, but I see it as an extra.

Questions like these are frustrating, because the reality is that we only have so many credits to play with. (The state is very particular about the maximum number of credits in a two-year degree program.) Adding a requirement for x means subtracting credits from something else. Typically, we have to devote a certain number of credits to broad 'general education' requirements (English Composition, a math course, etc.), and a certain number to the major, so the actual room to tend to other desired goods is quite small. Adding a 'diversity' course means eliminating a history or a language. Adding a course on 'character education' means subtracting one from math or the major. And so on. It really is zero-sum.

For reasons more instinctive than thoughtful, I can't help but see phys ed requirements as anachronistic, like the two-lap swim test I had to pass to graduate Snooty Liberal Arts College. There may be a certain charm in them, but when you're trying to achieve new goals within the same number of credits, it strikes me that something has to give.

What do you think? Should history majors have a phys ed requirement?

Monday, October 16, 2006

 

Picky the Pumpky

This weekend, once we determined that I was safely ambulatory, we took The Boy and The Girl pumpkin picking. We have a little song that goes with it – picky the pumpky, the pumpky the picky – and a ritual we follow every year.

We pick a weekend in mid- to late-October and make the trek to a working farm near the condo in which The Wife and I lived when we first got married. The farm makes most of its money from a sort of farm tourism, rather than, say, crops or livestock. It has a large pumpkin patch, and it offers hayrides out to the patch on big rickety metal carts with haybales for seats, pulled by huge tractors. Hayride tickets are four bucks a pop. Then we disembark in the patch and, using a top-secret algorithm which I am not at liberty to disclose, pick the two best pumpkins. We catch another hayride back, whereupon we get the pumpkins weighed and pay for them. (No, the pumpkins aren't included in the hayride price. Did I mention it's a revenue builder?) There's also a hay maze, a few cute props for photos with the kids, and lots of food and knickknacks for sale. (Did I mention it's a revenue raiser?)

It's a fun outing, and this year was particularly good because it wasn't too wet or too cold. (There have been years in which each step in the pumpkin patch landed with a disheartening squish.) The jury is still out on whether The Girl will let her pumpkin be carved; when he was her age, The Boy wouldn't let me come near his pumpkin with the knife, for fear of hurting it.

The Critical Thinking Academic in me sees all sorts of issues with the pumpkin ritual. If farms in this area have become, economically speaking, more about entertainment than about food,* then why are they entitled to such dramatically preferential property tax treatment? Or subsidies? And what's with the romanticization of the rustic in the first place? The guy taking tickets at the hayride stand was in communication with the tractor drivers via cell phone. Is that how our ancestors did it? Is it really important for The Boy and The Girl to experience farm life, given that we're several generations removed from it? Wasn't the point of the twentieth century to liberate us from farm life? Besides, why do we automatically give cultural deference to people who accept staggeringly huge public subsidies, and then vote Republican to get tough on welfare? Who do these people think they are? Isn't the whole 'open space' fetish really just a way to keep low-income people out of the suburbs? A few years ago the teenager taking tickets was reading one of the Left Behind novels. I'm supposed to defer to that? Since when does mucking around in manure convey deep insight? Wouldn't the first insight be “I don't like mucking around in manure”? That was certainly my experience with the ice factory.

But then I tell my Critical Thinking Academic side to take a deep breath and put a sock in it. The hayride is fun, being outdoors with the kids is a blast, the kids LOVE picking their own pumpkins, the people-watching is outstanding (this year's highlights: an 80-ish year old woman who sounded like she spent the last 75 years ingesting nothing but cigarettes and whiskey, yelling “toodles!”; and a young boy holding up a piece of hay and announcing proudly “this is wheat. It's what corn comes from!”), the parts of the farm that don't smell like manure smell good, and there's something fun about an annual tradition. TB and TG, I hope, will remember the picky the pumpky trips fondly as they get older. There's something to be said for historical continuity, even if you sometimes have to choose not to look too deeply into the hay maze.


* Eventually, most of the fields yield clusters of four-bedroom colonials arranged around cul-de-sacs, which I believe is French for 'crop circles.'

Friday, October 13, 2006

 

"Again!"

I've spent most of the last day and a half or so semi-conscious, fighting off some super-nasty virus that decided to make me its bitch. No fun at all. This morning, I'm finally returning to the land of the living.

This morning I was both home and relatively alert, and The Boy was at school, so The Girl decided to take the opportunity to have me read her approximately 1000 books, most of them about Curious George. The Girl LOVES Curious George. Her favorite word is “Again!,” so I've had a chance to reacquaint myself with CG's oeuvre.

For the uninitiated, Curious George books come in three epochs. The first, of course, is the original series, by H.A. Rey and (sometimes) Margaret Rey. These are quite good, but they tend to be long (48-64 pages) and politically incorrect. (In the first book of the series, George calms down before bed by smoking a pipe!) The second was a collection of much slimmer volumes published in the 1980's, taken directly from a cheaply-produced tv cartoon series. These are terrible. The pictures are washed-out, the language is without craft, and even the printing is cheap. The third is a surprisingly-good series by “Vipah Interactive,” whatever that is, published from the late 1990's to now.

The Girl is wild about the first and third series. This morning we read CG Goes to the Library, CG goes Camping, CG Wins a Medal, and CG Goes to the Beach, each one several times and to The Girl's unending delight. (Given the chance, she would have had me read more.) I think the appeal, other than the cuteness of the drawings, is the innocence of the chaos. CG invariably triggers an out-of-control series of events, but not maliciously, and he never gets in trouble. All is forgiven and CG is a hero. From The Girl's perspective, I'm guessing, it's a reassuringly safe adventure.

(Both The Girl and The Boy love The Monster at the End of This Book, starring Grover. I think the appeal there is that Grover gets visibly flustered, but there's no real conflict and it's played for laughs. Characters in children's books rarely show real emotion, so Grover's obvious over-the-top frustration is both funny and surprising. At least the first dozen times.)

Since The Boy started school, The Girl's language development has exploded. I think she was just waiting for her turn in the spotlight. Now that she has Mommy (and sometimes Daddy) to herself for extended periods, she needs a larger repertoire. It's fun to watch.

I'm going to make some more hot tea now...

Thursday, October 12, 2006

 

Reflections on One Hundred Semesters

I just finished reading One Hundred Semesters, by William Chace (Princeton U Press, 2006). Chace is the former President of Wesleyan and Emory Universities, and he had also been a Dean at UC-Berkeley. (I don't know him, and he doesn't know me.) The book is a combination of autobiography and implied critique of higher ed.

It doesn't really lend itself to a full-blown review, since much of it is so personal to him, so I'll just share a few reactions.

Obviously, Chace and I write from very different positions in the academy. He spent most of his career at very prestigious places, and the bulk of the book takes place during his two Presidencies. I'm a community college dean who has also been a dean at a proprietary college. So I'll just stipulate that from the outset.

Still, I was struck by how much of it was recognizable.

By Chace's telling, which echoes my recent post about interviewing Presidents, the constant challenge for a President is mediating between the actual college/university and the ideas the trustees have of it. In an unintentionally-funny passage, he describes one especially entrepreneurial trustee at Wesleyan whose brilliant idea was to just eliminate the social sciences. Coming out of the private sector, he was used to making quick and drastic decisions, scorching earth if necessary. To Chace's credit, he dissuaded this trustee from this particular mission, but the fact that it would come up at all shows just how out-of-touch Trustees – who are almost never academics – can be.

Reflecting on Emory and Wesleyan, Chace does a nice job of encapsulating the necessary tension between trustees and the institutions they oversee. As research generators, he notes, universities are supposed to question the status quo; trustees are supposed to conserve it (p. 284). The roles won't always conflict, but they'll conflict often enough to become a running theme. The unenviable job of a President is to mediate between the trustees and the college.

In a disturbingly-familiar aside (p. 193), Chace comments that he realized several years into his Presidency that while his circle of acquaintances had grown exponentially of late, he hadn't added a single new friend in many years. I've seen managers make terrible mistakes out of a desperate desire to be liked. It's possible to be quite cordial with people, but the nature of the job is such that most interactions are at least potentially laden with multiple meanings. At least at the dean's level, I have a few other deans on campus I can commiserate with. At higher levels, you don't even have that. A solid sense of who you are, and a very supportive family life, and some carefully-tended long-term friends can keep you sane. At Proprietary U, I was struck, upon moving into administration, how former faculty colleagues' attitudes toward me changed. A sudden iciness crept into what had been some very easygoing interactions, and a few folks who previously never gave me the time of day suddenly found me endlessly interesting. Although Chace doesn't use the term, a sort of bullshit-detector is absolutely essential in administration.

He also captures the impossibility of administration in an aside that the major challenge is to be prepared for that which can't be prepared for (p. 220). To which I'll just add, yup. Much of the daily stuff of administration is either 'administrivia' or ceremonial, but you really earn your pay when, say, you get a local police report saying that one of your faculty has been calling a student on her cell and making death threats, or that a group of self-styled student radicals has firebombed the administration building. They don't teach you that in dean school. Maintaining an even keel on the outside, even if your internal monologue would be denoted with nothing but asterisks and ampersands, is a skill that most people either have or don't. Heaven help the college with a management team that doesn't.

Chace concedes many of the popular critiques of higher ed – inefficiency, slowness to adapt, skyrocketing tuition costs – but doesn't dig very deeply into any of them. He seems like a smart and engaging guy, at least by his prose. I'd love to sit down with him and prod him for some more aggressive attempts to explain the roots of such common – and largely valid – complaints. Does the trustee system make sense? How does a college measure success? Given the shift in faculty loyalty over the twentieth century from 'institution' to 'discipline,' are there intelligent and productive ways to get them to engage without expecting them to be superhuman? Does it even make sense to market universities to undergraduates based on their research output (and/or basketball teams)?

Still, it's nice to know that it's not just me. Even given such different positions and institutions, most of Chace's book was eerily familiar. I'm glad I don't have to deal with the pressures of big-time sports, and that nobody has firebombed my office, but other than that, regular readers of this blog will find plenty to recognize.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

 

Both

There's a circle of hell reserved for those who, when faced with a group dilemma, immediately try to claim the moral high ground by saying “it's not one or the other, it's both! Let's do both!”

It's the same move as “if we have money to spend on x, then we certainly have money to spend on y!” No, we don't. We spent it on x. By a process that mathematicians call subtraction, once you take money away, you have less.

Educated people make this mistake.

I've been working with a department that has a really basic choice to make. It has two fairly attractive options, and can only afford to take one. When I met with the department faculty last week, their first suggestion was to do both.

I managed not to throw anything, but it did cross my mind. While we're at it, why don't we just give ourselves 25% raises, install jacuzzis in our offices, and power our offices with perpetual motion machines? Sheesh.

Doing both would require thin-slicing the resources to the point that neither option would succeed. 'Both' would be a far less viable option than either. It's the proverbial hot-fudge-and-tuna-fish. They're fine separately, but combining them turns two good foods into one terrible one.

More maddening than the suggestion, though, was the tone in which it was presented. It was the patronizing/conciliatory tone of the peacemaker who saw the common ground between adversaries. “We don't need to argue about resources. We'll just magically conjure more! Silly little people.” Grrr. If I could magically conjure resources, would I do this job?

One of the old cultural-studies moves I remember from bygone days was the phrase “both/and strategy.” Should we first target racial or class discrimination? Both/and! Luckily, time and resources are infinite. Otherwise that would be messed/up.

I once heard 'growing up' defined as 'the process of taking various prospective futures out behind the shed, pointing a shotgun between their cute little eyes, and blowing their #%*@# heads off.' It's a bit dark and dramatic, but it gets one big thing right: sometimes you have to make choices. That means saying 'no' to perfectly fine and valid things. I've made peace with the facts that I'll never play third base for the Orioles or sleep with Winona Ryder, as worthy as both of those pursuits are. Choosing to pursue other goals crowded out the time that could have gone into chasing those. That's okay; there's a time to keep options option, and there's a time to get on with it. You can't say 'yes' to everything.

Why this basic truth eludes educated people, I still don't know.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

 

The Mysteries of Space, with The Boy

Last night, as we were reading a book about the solar system:

DD (from the book): The sun has another 5 billion years left to burn.

The Boy: Daddy, will all the people be gone by then?

DD: Probably.

TB: Well then who will watch the earth?

DD: God will.

TB: Will God make new people to watch the earth?

(pause)

DD: I don't know. That's up to God.

Later in the same book....

TB: What is water made of?

DD: Hydrogen and oxygen.

TB: What are those?

DD: Gases.

TB: Oh. Is it easy to make water?

DD: Well...

TB: It sounds easy, but I think it would be hard. Gases are hard to catch. They're like air!

Still later in the same book...

DD: Jupiter is a gas giant.

TB: Like Daddy! (roars with laughter)

I'm just glad he doesn't know enough yet to make Uranus jokes.

Monday, October 09, 2006

 

Happy Fog

I read somewhere that clinically-depressed people actually have more accurate views of most situations than do 'healthy' people, since they're immune to the 'happy fog' that most people apply to themselves. Most people, if asked, consider themselves above-average drivers, which is statistically impossible.* I have a game I play with photographs, wherein I consider any photo of me taken since about 1999 to be a bad picture. Signs of aging are, in fact, simply the symptoms of bad photography. And mirrors. And lighting. Intellectually, I know it's crap, but the rationalizations kick in every time I see a new picture.

What the happy fog costs people in accuracy, it usually more than makes up in confidence. If I had any kind of accurate conception of what I really look like, I probably wouldn't leave the house. My illusions make it possible for me to function. The outfielder and philosopher Lenny Dykstra was once quoted saying something to the effect that he believed that he could hit any pitcher at any time, and the minute he stopped believing that he'd lose his effectiveness as a player. There's something to that. Most small businesses fail in the first few years, yet people keep starting them anyway. It's a good thing they do, because the economy would be in terrible shape without them. But it takes a generous helping of happy fog for that many people to think they can beat odds that daunting. Happy fog may get individuals in over their heads, but it probably helps the economy as a whole.

(Is there a more textbook case of happy fog than the hordes of eager young grad students rushing into doctoral programs, each convinced that s/he will buck the adjunct trend? If not for their exploitable hopes and dreams, colleges would have to hire more full-time faculty, and would be even more expensive than they already are!)

Happy fog, like most intoxicants, shouldn't be used to excess. It can lead to grandiose and delusional behavior, and to a real antipathy to truth-tellers. (“You're doing a heckuva job, Brownie.”) Truth-tellers are the buzzkill that happy-fog addicts fear and loathe. That they're right only makes them more hateful.

I'm confronting a happy-fog vs. truth-teller issue, and I'm starting to get worried. Without getting too detailed or revealing, I'll just say that it involves the limits of what internal reform can accomplish in the face of negative external demographic changes. The happy foggers say that there is no limit to what internal reform can accomplish, as long as everyone stays focused. More darkly, they intimate, people who mention limits are saboteurs or malingerers, dooming the college with their self-fulfilling negativity. (To be fair, curmudgeons frequently like to style themselves truth-tellers, when in fact they're just bitter and nasty. So the intimations don't come out of nowhere.) The smarter truth-tellers actually support internal reform, but suggest that expecting too much to come of it can only end in tears.

We're at the point at which a significant number of painful internal reforms have already taken place, but their impact has been disappointingly small as against external changes. This is where the conflict gets tricky. Both groups agree that the payoff has been frustratingly small, but they offer different explanations. To the truth-tellers, the payoff was probably the best that could be expected in a hostile external climate. The next job is to face up to the reality of that climate, and start making some really unpleasant decisions. To the happy-foggers, the payoff was small because too many people don't like change, too many nay-sayers are running around, and too many people just refuse to get with the program. There's nothing wrong with the program; it just needs to be amped up.

One of the constant frustrations of adulthood is realizing that the good guys don't always win. In fact, many people don't even know who the good guys are.

In a recent conversation, I commented that I'm much more candid on my blog than I am in my office. In my office, there's only so much candor I'm allowed. Part of the job involves projecting confidence even when you have doubts yourself, since success is likelier when it's expected. I pick my battles, and not that many of them. I don't want to be the buzzkill who gets thrown out of the party. But I don't want the college to spend time and energy chasing shadows, either.

Socrates thought he was a truth-teller, piercing the happy fog of the citizens of Athens, and we know what happened to him.

Nobody said it would be easy...

Friday, October 06, 2006

 

Pop Quiz

Do you have what it takes to be an administrator? Take this simple quiz and find out!

1. A tenured professor makes a habit of skipping class. You find out about it, and confront her. She responds by ducking the question and impugning your motives. You
a. Suggest an anatomical impossibility
b. Repeat the question
c. Defend yourself against her countercharges
d. Stare at her impassively, take notes, and initiate a year-long process

2. A tenured professor bursts into your office, proclaiming at high decibel levels that “[t]he college fornicated me, and I got no pleasure from it!” You
a. Laugh
b. Dwell on a really unfortunate mental image
c. Ask “huh?”
d. Stare at her impassively, ask for specifics, and take mental notes

3. A department chair bursts into your office, declaring plaintively that we’re out of dirt. You
a. Ask him to repeat what he just said, because you must have misheard
b. Wipe that smirk off your face
c. Learn all about the many kinds of dirt
d. All of the above

4. A student corners you at registration and loudly declares how wonderful your college is, especially compared to that other college down the street, which he likens, variously, to an improvised latrine, a Disney character, and an asylum. You say
a. “Yeah, everybody knows they suck.”
b. “Thanks for noticing.”
c. “To each his own. Every college has its strengths and weaknesses.”
d. “Thanks. We’re proud of what we do here.”

5. A student is trying to pick a section of, say, General Psych. She asks you which professors are the best. You have a clear opinion. You say
a. “Personal taste.”
b. “They’re all good.”
c. “Prof. K is fantastic, but Prof. J is a train wreck.”
d. “I can’t express favoritism.”

The longer I do this, the more convinced I am that it’s mostly about keeping an even keel.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

 

Funny Because It's True

From Sherman Dorn:

Q: How many faculty does it take to change a lightbulb?

A: I've heard the administration tried to buy it out, but we're just going to live with it and let it figure things out from bad annual reviews.

 

Actions and Intentions

In the comments to yesterday's post about Rio Salado and the 99% adjunct faculty, someone asked:

Do you think that the emergence of adjunct exploitation is simply a rational management response, the only available avenue for restoring control over faculty that have been abusing their privileges? By radically reducing the body count of the tenured?


I can't speak for the leadership of Rio Salado, since I don't know them and they don't know me. But the point of the question, I think, goes beyond the individual case. It's really asking about the driving force behind the shift to adjuncts.

At my college, the percentage of classes taught by adjuncts has been creeping upward for several years. My college is not unique in this. Having been in the closed-door meetings in which decisions have been made to replace half of a given year's retirees with adjuncts, I can honestly say that the driving force has been financial. We've never had conversations about how nice it would be to stick it to the faculty union, or how we'd be relieved to get rid of people whose politics differ from our own, or how much we'd enjoy having an all-contingent workforce. I've never seen anyone rub his hands and cackle.

Quite the opposite. Each dean considers it a victory when s/he can hire full-timers. New full-timers are great, since we can select to fill the weaknesses we currently have. Since new full-timers, by definition, don't have tenure yet, we can pretty much assume that they'll be on their good behavior for the next several years. They bring new perspectives, they're eager to make good impressions, and, in the best cases, they can spur some overly-contented colleagues to action, if only to salvage their own pride in comparison. From an egotistical point of view, there's something profoundly satisfying about seeing 'your hire' emerge as a star. I take pride in knowing that, whatever else one might say about my record, I've hired well every time. As they say in show biz, casting is everything. Besides, we like to believe, the deadwood (not that we have any, of course...) was hired by previous administrations, who were clearly far less smart than ourselves.

Since every dean at my college has been a department chair at one time or another, we've all dealt with the reality of adjunct staffing. We've all, at one time or another, been at the point where classes start in two days, three full sections are still unstaffed, and all of the old reliables have been spoken for. As the percentage of courses taught by adjuncts creeps upward, those hit-the-wall moments become more common, and those last-minute gambles (“I hope this one will be okay”) more desperate. Full-time faculty are much less likely to simply blow off classes, or to walk away mid-semester. Good full-timers are a manager's dream, since you can assign them to classes and then not have to think about it. You know they'll be fine.

None of this is to deny that some tenured faculty retire on the job or otherwise abuse their positions, and those cases drive administrators batty. Regular readers have seen me vent on that repeatedly. It's especially maddening when you get a cluster like that, since they reinforce each other and usually turn what energies they do have to internal politics. They're parasitic on the organization, and they give tenure a bad name.

But I've never – never, not once, not ever – heard that line of argument make its way into administrators' discussions of who to replace. It's a separate issue. (I've heard the connection made by two groups: free-market idealists who object to tenure on ideological grounds, and faculty union leaders who are trying to rally the troops through demagoguery. I've never heard it made within the administration.)

The financial issue is real and daunting. With health insurance costs doubling every 5-6 years at a time when public-sector subsidies are flat or declining and significant tuition increases are politically verboten, it's impossible to balance the budget without cutting positions. Since education is labor-intensive, and our return on the increasingly sophisticated technology required in certain programs is negative, we shift to adjuncts for lack of any better alternatives. We don't like it either.

One of the frustrations of administration is that your choices are more constrained than most people realize, but people feel free to infer your intentions from your actions. So choices made as the least-bad options are taken to reflect your secret preferences. I take no glee in slowly hollowing-out my faculty. If anything, I take glee in the rare occasions I actually get to hire. Given my druthers, I'd hire much more often. I'm good at it, it's fun, and it's the right thing to do for the students. It's just not an option right now.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

 

Rio Salado

I first heard about Rio Salado at a conference about seven years ago. Now the Chronicle has an article profiling it, and it's profoundly disturbing.

Rio Salado college is a single campus of the ten-campus (!) Maricopa County College system, in and around Phoenix, Arizona. According to the Chronicle, and this gibes with my memory, the college has an almost-entirely-adjunct faculty. (Approximately 99 percent of the courses are taught by adjuncts.) What few full-time faculty it does have barely teach or do research; they function mostly as course managers, ensuring standardization and quality control for all those adjuncts.

It's fully accredited.

Rio Salado is attracting quite a bit of positive notice from foundations looking at some of the usual issues: access for non-traditional students, cost/tuition control, and technological innovation.

I like low cost, technological innovation, and access for non-traditional students. But there's something about this that really rubs me the wrong way, especially when it appears the same week as the New York Times' story that Wal-Mart is moving consciously to a more heavily part-time workforce. (One Rio adjunct quoted in the article compares the college approvingly to Starbucks, where she works as a barista thirty hours a week.)

Regular readers know that I have my issues with tenured faculty, but this is not what I have in mind at all. (I prefer full-time positions on renewable, multi-year contracts, for those keeping score at home.)

If we get to a point where most people who teach at colleges have to work as baristas thirty hours a week to feed themselves, our entire higher ed system will collapse.

The dream of tenure makes possible the constant replenishment of the reserve army of adjuncts. If not for the (often false) promise of secure full-time work, I doubt that very many people would endure the rigors and deprivations of graduate training in the traditional academic disciplines. (Disciplines with high demand outside of higher ed, like pharmacology, would probably be fine.) Right now the reserve army of adjuncts is big enough that a college like Rio Salado can feed on it and be fine. But the Rio model can work only as long as plenty of bright twentysomethings believe they have enough of a shot at full-time work to go into graduate programs. When the pipeline starts to dry up, the Rio model will quickly become unsustainable. And the reality of graduate training is that it doesn't – and shouldn't -- fit 'just-in-time' production.

In olden times, faculty at many colleges weren't expected to try to live on their salaries. They had taken vows of poverty (literally!), or were the slumming rich, or were sustained by their families with considerable embarrassment. The emergence of a professional faculty on any significant scale was a twentieth century phenomenon. While it's not without its costs – again, I may have mentioned some of those once or twice – the emergence of a professional faculty allows for people other than the slumming rich to teach. This is no small thing.

The underlying assumption of the Rio model seems to be that education is training, and nothing more. It can be reduced to standardized modules that anybody can deliver at any time. If education really is just training, then who needs full-time faculty?

IHE published a truly stupid report yesterday saying that employers find graduates of two-year colleges less capable than grads of four-year colleges. (One possible explanation: maybe some learning occurs in those third and fourth years?) Still, the nugget of value in the report was that employers are finding that the technical skills with which grads are armed are generally pretty good; the 'general education' skills are where they fall down. In other words, they're pretty well trained, but they aren't educated. To me, that's the logical consequence of treating higher education as nothing more than job training.

Back at Proprietary U, students frequently asked me why they had to take Gen Ed classes (such as mine). I responded that your technical skill gets you your first job, but your communication skills get you promotions. If we academics don't want the rest of academia to follow the Wal-Mart/Rio Salado model, we need to start making a serious case about the economic value of actual education, taught by actual educators. This isn't just self-interest; the Rio model still needs administrators, so I'd be fine. It's a recognition of what can happen if we start to mistake the periphery of what we do for the core.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

 

Thoughts on Turnitin.com

A fellow blogger asked for a dean's-eye-view impression of turnitin.com.

My college hasn't used turnitin in the past, but is actively exploring the possibility. So my comments reflect curiosity, rather than ground-level knowledge. Folks who've actually worked with it are invited to comment, since the devil is usually in the details.

I like the idea of turnitin. In fact, I've been advocating it on campus for several years. What I like about it is that it foregrounds the issue of plagiarism at the moment the student is actually paying attention (as opposed to a daylong start-of-semester orientation, of which very little is retained). It takes some of the subjectivity out of accusations, since students can longer claim that they're being singled out. It also has a long memory, so it will catch more than just what an enterprising professor might Google; it will catch the paper that a student's roommate's sister turned in for another section last year, which Google almost certainly would not.

(Side question: when using 'Google' as a verb, should it be capitalized? Proper nouns get capitalized, but is there such a thing as a proper verb? Dooced or dooced? Borked or borked? Xeroxed or xeroxed? English profs out there, I'm counting on you!)

I'll admit to being old-school on the issue of academic dishonesty. As a professor, I always felt personally affronted when a student handed in an obviously-plagiarized paper in my class. For all the effort I spent on teaching, I liked to see at least a little effort spent on learning. (For these purposes, I make a distinction between wholesale theft, such as copying multiple pages, and minor footnoting errors or a stray familiar phrase.) When I was on faculty, I got the frequent-customer discount with the dean of students for the number of students I reported, and I was proud of that. After a few years, I developed a speech in which I assured students that honest and sustained effort would almost always result in passing, and cheating would almost always result in failing. It helped a little, though there was always a hardcore (or inattentive) remnant that persisted anyway.

Outright plagiarism short-circuits our teaching at such a fundamental level that I believe we have every right to take it seriously. In the age of the web, outright plagiarism is so much easier than it used to be (through the miracle of copy-and-paste) that students who might not have gone to the trouble back in olden days might try it now. Given the panoply of sources out there and easily available to students, both legit (actual articles) and not (online paper mills, Sparknotes, etc.), it seems reasonable to adopt a more powerful search tool.

From the dean's office, the real issue with academic dishonesty is not how to detect it, but what to do once it's detected. Although I've preached 'due process' to the point that it's becoming boring, I still find that most faculty prefer to handle cheaters on their own. This is both frustrating and insanely dangerous.

Any college or university worth its salt will have in place a formal process for reporting and disciplining cheaters. At two colleges now, I've found that faculty know of the formal process, but usually skip it, preferring to freelance. Danger, Will Robinson!

Freelance discipline is insane on several levels. First, it leads to the very real possibility of disparate treatment. If one student gets an F in a course, and another student gets a do-over, and the two talk to each other, heaven help the professor who gave the F.

Second, I've rarely heard students admit, when caught, that they've done it before. One very real advantage of a centralized process is centralized record-keeping. Maybe this is the first time I've caught Johnny cheating, but maybe another professor also caught Johnny last year. I wouldn't know that on my own, but a Dean of Students (or similar office) would. A centralized process makes it easier to distinguish a first offender from a serial offender. You can lose your virginity only so many times.

Third, from what I've discerned (and I'm not a lawyer), the courts are much more likely to intervene on disciplinary matters than on matters of pure academic judgment. In other words, if you gave Johnny a 'C' and Johnny thought he deserved a 'B,' it would take a hell of a lot to get a court even to hear the case. But if you failed Johnny as punishment for cheating, rather than as an academic judgment of his work, then your decision is more reviewable. Following the college's internal processes insulates a professor from later scrutiny. Freelancing doesn't, at least not to the same extent.

Finally, there are times – few, yes, but they happen – when the accusation is mistaken. (I saw one of these a few years ago.) An accused student deserves the opportunity to defend himself in front of someone who can be impartial.* Fair is fair.

Turnitin can't substitute for a solid internal judicial process, nor should it. But as a fact-finder, I see real value there. Folks who've actually worked with it – what do you think?

* The Bush administration apparently disagrees, having decided that the writ of habeas corpus is just so much frippery, and the right to an attorney is discretionary. I may have to live under these wingnuts, but I don't have to imitate them.

Monday, October 02, 2006

 

Ask the Administrator: Professional Growth Plans

An occasional correspondent writes:
As a newly hired t-t faculty member at a community college I am now in the very early stages of the tenure process. Consequently, I need to draft a professional growth plan. I've been given a lot of general advice from various faculty members about the plan and it seems fairly straightforward. That said, the one thing that I've heard is that I should expect that, after meeting with my various committee members I should expect to re-draft my plan this year. However, anything that we decide isn't to be set in stone for subsequent review years. I've also heard a lot of folks caution against making goals which are too ambitious and/or difficult to achieve. This all sounds reasonable and makes sense to me.

That said, I wondered if you, speaking from an administrative point of view, had any particular advice about drafting a professional growth plan. The areas that I'm expected to cover in the plan are related to the 'holy trinity' of cc faculty life (student contact/pedagogy, institutional service, and professional service). Obviously, I have a general sense of what I should say and I've been lucky enough to get my hands on a few samples. However, I'm guessing that your job may involve reviewing these sorts of documents and I am hoping that you may have some tips. I know that these documents are somewhat institutionally specific. That said, anything I might want to highlight or not that you can think of off hand.

Professional growth plans are very specific to the culture of different institutions, and even to particular departments and/or deans within that institution.

Some treat growth plans as meaningless boilerplate, a never-read document prepared for the purpose of being able to say that it exists. Some treat it as the opportunity for a perverse kind of bargaining. (If I get two papers published, you'll pay for me to go to my pet conference, right?) Some like to be specific; others prefer a strategic vagueness.

My preference is to use them as heuristics, as indicators of direction. In a perfect world, the vp, the dean, and the department chair will have discussed in advance the general directions in which the college needs to go. The dean and the chair will have discussed this particular professor, and the professor will be able to develop a plan in collaboration with the dean and the chair. The professor will have the confidence of knowing that if she follows through on her plan, all will be well.

In reality, of course, that may be a bit much to ask. But what's useful in the little fantasy above is the idea of communication before putting pixels to paper. Committing to specific activities because you think they're what the administration wants to hear could be very dangerous. Better to both suss out what the administration actually wants to hear, and, better than that, to shape it to your purposes.

Most of the best ideas I've had have been given to me. Professors have come up with activities that never would have occurred to me, and that made the ideas I'd been toying with look silly by contrast. (While I won't and don't claim credit for the ideas, I will take credit for having the intellectual honesty to admit when a better idea comes along.) Sometimes those ideas come about after I've given a broad sense of what I consider important, and then stepped back for a while. In a few, blessed cases, they've actually emerged out of an almost-circular pattern of communication.

I know that many faculty take it on faith that The Administration is a bloodsucking monolith populated by failed faculty who take out our bitterness on the young innocents foolish enough to cross our path, but honestly, that's true less than half the time. (And if it is true, there's no faster way to find out for yourself than to enter its lair and engage it in conversation.) More commonly, administrators are distracted by lots of little things, and frequently responsible for fields beyond our own scholarly training, so we evaluate (necessarily) based on partial and fragmentary understandings of what's actually happening. To the thoughtless observer, that can look like stupidity. To the clever observer, that suggests an opportunity: shape the narrative for yourself before impressions are set in stone.

Honestly, from my perspective, the greatest value in faculty professional development plans is in preventing tenure-track faculty from developing the bad habits that lead to retirement-on-the-job later. Since a cc isn't a publish-or-perish setting, I have the relative luxury of being able not to care too much about which journal your article appeared in; my major concern is that you're actually trying.

Folks at other places (and other kinds of places): how does it work where you are?

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

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