Saturday, December 30, 2006

 

Whatever Gets You Through the Night...

The Girl has had a cough, off-and-on, for a few days now. It's much worse at night. Last night she had a particularly bad coughing fit, during which The Wife went to her room and gave her some Mucinex. A half-hour later, she was up coughing again, yelling “Me want medicine!”

She thinks that medicine works immediately. If only it were so...

Since you aren't supposed to give more than one dose every four hours, but she wouldn't stop chanting “Me want medicine!” and we all needed the sleep, I decided that drastic measures were in order.

I took the dosing spoon (aside: love them dosing spoons! They're hollow tubes, with spoon-scoops at th end. The tube has calibrations on it, so you can pour a teaspoon or two of medicine into it as needed and give it to the kid directly. Genius, I tells ya.) downstairs and put in a teaspoon of orange juice. When I got back upstairs I gave it to her, letting her believe it was her medicine. The room was dark, and she wanted to believe it, so she did. She actually went back to sleep, and eventually, so did we. In an odd way, I'm actually proud of this.

Placebos: they're not just for breakfast anymore!


Thursday, December 28, 2006

 

Early New Year

The Halloween posse came over this morning for a pre-New Year's celebration, with noon standing in as midnight, and today standing in as the 31st. (One of the families is going out of town for the next few days, so it had to be today.)

If you've ever been in a house with six kids from three families, you have a sense of the decibel level. The kids were – quite literally – running circles around each other, throwing paper airplanes and screaming at pitches that operatic sopranos can't hit.

The Wife organized a round of holiday Bingo (“B-doggie” “Bingo!”), which kept the kids contained in one room for a little while. Sugary snacks were in abundance, so the level of kid-energy ramped up steadily as the party continued.

At one point, The Boy and his Evil Sidekick ran into the room brandishing a whoopee cushion. Evil Sidekick declared, “you blow it up and I'll fart it!” That sentence may be entirely new to the English language.

TB lost his first tooth during the party. It could be anywhere. I shudder to think of the possibilities.

Since we had to commemorate the occasion properly, The Wife handed out kazoos, bowler hats, and tiaras to all of the kids at the appointed time. The bowler hats were a good idea, but in retrospect, the kazoos were questionable. You've heard of power chords? Like that, but with kazoos. Scary.

TB's girlfriend was the stately one, conducting herself as quite the little lady in the midst of the chaos surrounding her. She's sort of the Sigourney Weaver to The Boy's Bill Murray and Evil Sidekick's, uh, Other Guy. I hope she can hold onto that.

When the posse left, my ears were ringing and the living room was a shadow of its former self. But it's good. Per usual, The Boy is ahead of us – he thinks it's already 2007. The Girl had a blast with the other two-year-olds, even if she had no idea what the occasion was supposed to be. I suspect that our actual New Year's celebration will pale by comparison, even if the food is better.

Still no sign of the tooth...


Wednesday, December 27, 2006

 

Milestone on a Quiet Wednesday Afternoon

The Boy: Do we have any chocolate milk?

DD: No, but I can make some.

TB (incredulous): You can make some?

DD: Sure. Watch.

I get the milk and the chocolate syrup out of the fridge. I pour the milk into a tall glass, then measure out three tablespoons of syrup and dump them in. I stir, and the milk changes color.

TB (slowly): Whoa!

Yeah.


Tuesday, December 26, 2006

 

Catching Up on my Reading

If I hadn't made a point of checking the Weekly World News the other day – still the best source for Bigfoot, Elvis, and Bat-boy information – I wouldn't have noticed this story.

According to the WWN, a university in India is offering graduate degrees to reincarnated people.

As a dean, a few thoughts:

But no good idea is without its complications.

I'm also not sure how to market to the multiply-lived. “Never Build Another Pyramid – Come Back to School!” (Our previous effort at target marketing was to Presbyterians -- “You're Predestined to Come Here” -- but it met with only mixed success.)

I love Christmas break...


Monday, December 25, 2006

 

Tooth Fairy Query

This is about to become very relevant.

What's the going rate for lost teeth these days?

Friday, December 22, 2006

 

Holiday Plans

Eat too much. Sleep late. Play with the kids. Go out to dinner with my wife. See old friends. See family. Eagerly await the birth of my niece. Celebrate the birth of my niece. Reflect with gratitude on the ways in which my life is so much fuller and happier than it was ten years ago. Reflect with gratitude on how happy, sweet, healthy, cute, and caring The Boy and The Girl are. Give thanks, in my way, that we're all healthy.

Worry about my Dad. Call my Dad. Read Captain Underpants books with The Boy. Help The Girl negotiate the mysteries of the potty. Give the fireplace a good workout. Make halfhearted attempt to straighten up parts of the basement. Realize that there are more important things.

Watch Little Miss Sunshine. Read a serious book. Polish off and send a few job applications. See my Mom. Hope it doesn't snow much. Sing silly songs at the dinner table. Take lots of pictures of the kids. Make lutefisk jokes. Avoid lutefisk. Find passable substitute for lutefisk. Eat passable substitute.

Wrap presents. Give presents. Receive presents. Angst over choosing, affording, and finding room for presents. Have great fun with The Boy's hot wheels racetrack, which he doesn't know about yet (and don't tell him!). Have picnic on living room floor with The Girl. Read all the new books to The Boy and The Girl. Pay attention as The Boy reads books to us.

Attend party at The Wife's parents' house. Make it home without hitting any deer this time. Find excuses to let The Girl dance. Dance with The Girl. Take the kids to the park.

Find time for The Wife. Let her feel how loved she is. Let her escape the house without children. Let her commune with mocha swirl latte and chick lit. Skip watching football to make this happen.

Meet grad school friend's new girlfriend. Reintroduce grad school friend to glories of East Coast restaurants. Catch high school friend on East Coast tour. Make New Year's resolution to actually try to catch a Kristin Hersh show. Make New Year's resolution to fix upstairs toilet in a meaningful way. Make New Year's resolution to get my pet project completed this Spring.

That's not too ambitious, is it?

Best wishes,

DD


Thursday, December 21, 2006

 

Intrusive Advisement

I'm not a huge fan of 'intrusive advisement,' 'counseling,' 'mandatory advisement,' or any of the various number of 'for your own good' hoops that colleges increasingly make students jump through in the name of retention.

That's not because they always fail. They don't. In some cases, they can be surprisingly successful on their own terms. It's just that they grate against my sense of what college is supposed to be.

There's a story in IHE about colleges beefing up their counseling staffs to help students choose majors early, on the theory that students who know what they want are likelier to get it. Students who change majors multiple times, or who flop around aimlessly, are likelier to take longer to graduate, or to drop out. There's an obvious correlation/causation issue here – do students finish earlier because they know what they want, or are the types of students who can commit to a major also the types of students who can commit to finishing a program – but it's also true that students who change majors routinely set themselves back relative to graduation, since courses that counted in the first program might not count in the second. I've seen that directly, as students who started in, say, Nursing, are annoyed to find that some of the credits don't carry over to, say, Early Childhood Education. And it's certainly true that the right clue, given at the right moment, can save a student all manner of hassle.

One of the frustrations of administration is the constant reminder of the gap between what things are and what they could or should be. In my personal vision of college, students are responsible for their own academic decisions, including decisions about class attendance, course selection, scheduling, and majors. If a student chooses a class that doesn't count towards her major, that's a life lesson for her. (This position is predicated on the assumption that policies and requirements are written down, relatively consistent over time, and easily accessible. It's only fair to provide every student access to the college catalog, for example. Even drop-in advisement should be available, free of charge, for those students who choose on their own to avail themselves of it. Whether the student bothers to take advantage of these resources should be up to the student.)

The intrusive advisement model and its offshoots take the goal of college as graduation, and take a 'whatever works' approach to helping students achieve that goal. Sometimes, these methods actually do improve graduation rates. I just wonder what 'graduation' means when it requires so much help.

This is a cold-hearted position, in some ways, and anybody who wants to can find worthy counterexamples to show the value of handholding in specific cases. I don't advocate this position on campus, since there are other fish to fry and I don't want to get into a battle-of-poignant-stories. Compromises with reality are part of the cost of doing business, so I let this one slide and try to focus on areas in which real progress is likelier. I don't choose this battle. That said, I've never really been convinced that a student who got through only with tremendous help has achieved the same thing as a student who got through pretty much on her own.

(There are real financial arguments on both sides. The pro-intrusion side can cite, correctly, the taxpayer subsidy to tuition for students who hang around longer than they should, as well as the taxpayer subsidy to financial aid. The skeptics can cite, correctly, the cost to taxpayers of paying the salaries of the counselors and advisors. I've never seen a rigorous empirical cost-benefit study of this, to see which outweighs the other, and I honestly don't know what it would show.)

If it were up to me, given an infusion of money, I'd rather hire full-time faculty than full-time counselors. The counterargument might be that more counselors would lead to greater retention, and, over time, to more faculty. The higher ed employment trends of the last thirty years would suggest that the counterargument is mostly wrong, but it's tough to isolate variables like that. Did the explosion of student support services siphon off resources from faculty, thereby driving the trend towards adjuncts, or are the two disconnected? Hell, it may even be the case that, absent those services, the financial issues driving the adjunct trend would have been even worse. I just haven't seen a good study of that.

One of the life skills I'd like college to help impart – at least to traditional-aged students, since older students have usually picked this up already – is the ability to figure out what to do when nobody tells you directly. Since we don't measure that directly, students can graduate without really developing much of that. I'm concerned that the 'intrusive advisement' model makes it easier for students who are already weak in this area to stay weak. That's not to deny for a minute that they can pick up these skills elsewhere, and many do, but I can't help but think that college should play a role.


 

Color Me Irked

"Migrate to the new Blogger," they said. It will only take "a few minutes," they said.

Ten hours later, the blog was finally back up.

600 minutes is not "a few."

Grrr.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

 

Ownership

In one of the comments to yesterday's post, somebody mentioned that part of the challenge in selling the concept of 'outcomes assessment' to faculty comes from a feeling that it violates their sense of 'ownership.'

I couldn't agree more. In fact, the sense of ownership distorts the very organization.

The HR director at my current college once defined tenure as the professor owning the job. The very concept of 'owning' a job struck me as risible – do you write your own paycheck? -- but it certainly fits much of the behavior I've seen.

There's a basic contradiction at the heart of many professors' sense of what their job is. On the one hand, they are the owners of the college, lords-and-high-masters of all that is academic. On the other hand, they are not to be bothered with organizational minutae, nuts-and-bolts issues, or (heaven forbid!) any discussion of finances beyond their own raises.

It's one or the other. If you really own the college, then you own the entire college and you attend to all of it. That includes mundane stuff like figuring out how to cover a much-higher-than-expected HVAC or snow-removal bill this year, what percentage of adjuncts to employ, and who to fire if revenues fall short. If you don't want to be bothered with any of that, then you're not an owner; you're an employee. (I've noticed that most of the folks who bray the loudest about faculty sovereignty also run the fastest to the union when they're asked to produce. Owners don't have unions.) There's no shame in that – I'm an employee, as are most people – but implicit in the concept of 'employee' is 'accountability to the employer.' That means answering the call – not mindlessly or endlessly, but answering nonetheless – when the employer needs outcomes assessment, or classes on Tuesday instead of Wednesday, or a course adapted for online delivery.

(Conceivably, one could object that faculty are neither owners nor employees, but independent contractors, on loan from their disciplines. This is even sillier. 'Contractor' implies the existence of a 'contract,' which implies finite duration. Contractors don't have tenure, nor do they have unions. For that matter, they usually pay for their own health insurance, if they have any at all. Contractors don't own their jobs.)

I've found that some department chairs honestly regard their departments as their own personal property. As they see it, they cannot have their personal property removed from them (be removed from a chair position) unless they've committed a crime. This is insane, but common.

I've run into variations on this roadblock repeatedly. In trying to bring something resembling organizational rationality to what had been largely a 'courtier' system, I keep banging into the former nobles' sense of ownership. They're willing to do courtesy consultations with the administration, but as far as they're concerned, the job of the administration is to find them money and sing their praises. Anything beyond that is overstepping, which calls for the ritual “shocked and offended” proclamations.

They just don't get it.

Colleges didn't spring from the mind of Zeus, or drop from the sky fully formed. They're organizations, like any other. They require revenue and budgeting and real effort to generate and maintain the growth that allows the faculty not to get their hands dirty. Colleges don't exist to provide employment to tenured faculty. (The folks over at Curriculum Committee sometimes forget that.) Faculty are employees, and professorships are, among other things, jobs. If the college gets to the point where some of those jobs no longer need doing, then they shouldn't be done.

As near as I can figure, some fairly naïve administrations in the past played along with the sense of ownership as a way to motivate productivity in the absence of actual material accountability. Since raises are contractual and across-the-board, and tenure expires only at death, it can be tough to get some folks to step up. If they feel ownership of their area, they will step up in certain ways.

The catch is that once they've been in the driver's seat for a while, they forget that it was ever otherwise. When organizational needs change – and they do – they take any suggestion of change as an affront. Who are you to tell me to measure outcomes? I built this department! No iceberg could possibly sink my mighty ship!

Tenure isn't ownership, but it can enable the illusion of ownership. Illusions can be fun. But reality has a way of intruding, and no amount of “shocked and offended” will change that.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

 

Offense and Defense

From the good-news-and-bad-news department: a student who alleged grading bias (in a humanities class) had her complaint dismissed when we discovered that all of the tests in the class were multiple-choice and graded by scantron. Since a scantron doesn't know one student from another, bias (in the sense alleged) was simply impossible.

(That's not to address larger issues of learning styles, etc.)

From a liability standpoint, this was a clean win. But I was disturbed and annoyed to hear that all of the exams were multiple-choice. The best strategy for avoiding a lawsuit was not the best strategy for actually tracking (or motivating, or provoking) student performance.

The logics behind lawsuit-avoidance and good teaching are different. Good teaching challenges students, including challenging their deeply-held beliefs, and it frequently treats different students differently. (Some students need to be encouraged to come out of their shells; others need to settle down and focus. Some respond to praise, some to challenge, and some to butt-kicking. Calibrating the right approach to each student is part of the challenge of teaching.) Lawsuit avoidance is about treating everyone identically, avoiding ambiguity and/or subjective judgment, and following set procedures. I like to think of the basics of lawsuit avoidance as the minima of good teaching – be fair to everybody, base grades on valid considerations, etc. -- but there's no denying that it's easier to defend a scantron grade than, say, an essay grade, even though an essay is often a better gauge of student performance than a multiple-choice test.

It's the difference between trying to win and trying not to lose, between offense and defense.

The stereotype of administrators is that we're always playing defense, and thereby always giving offense. There's a lot of truth to that – more than I'd care to admit, actually – but it's not like there's always another option at hand. The world at large doesn't defer to professional opinion in all things, and getting huffy and offended about it won't change that. Part of my job is to mediate between the academic aspirations of faculty and the actual legal and political climates of the outside world. That's why I press for things like very specific syllabi and actual use of due process for accused cheaters, which both strike many faculty as absurd. To them, I'm focusing on the wrong things, and I don't mind that they think so; I want them to play offense, not defense. If they indulge me a few obsessions, like including their grading policy for late work on their syllabi, then I can leave alone the real meat of what they're doing, confident that I can defend it if need be.

This issue has come up again in the context of outcomes assessment. Some departments are taking umbrage to the very idea of quantifying student performance independent of grades, making the argument that this is just one step towards expanding No Child Left Behind to higher education. My view, which isn't original to me, is that if we don't do something internally, something will be done to us externally; better that we come up with measures that actually make sense. If we can show that we're taking care of business, we have a shot at being left alone to do exactly that.

A centrally-defined test will look to the minimum. I don't want to focus on the minimum. I want to push students as far as they can go. If we can cover our bases enough that we can avoid national exams, then by all means, let's do it. The counterargument – that once the camel's nose is in the tent, all is lost – strikes me as a nonstarter. With college tuitions rising and the credential of a degree necessary even for jobs where you might not expect it, the public is less inclined to extend the benefit of the doubt than it once was. In the absence of internally-generated measures or procedures, we even have a hard time responding to ignorant wingnuts like David Horowitz, who claim that the scandal of higher education is too many Democrats in it. (In six years of deaning, I've never heard a student complain about political bias. I've heard a lot of student complaints, but never that. David Horowitz's total years of deaning are...let's see, carry the three...zero.) If we respond to popular discontent with “trust us,” we lose. We earn trust by marshalling facts, based on actual processes and records, and by actually addressing problems when we find them. We can't just assume trust anymore, if we ever could.

The danger, of course, is in conveying the message too well, and getting faculty thinking too much about defense. If they aren't challenging students, nothing I do matters anyway. They need to feel safe to push students, knowing I've got their back. We're getting there – trust has to be earned here, too – but it's a matter of fits and starts, rather than a smooth progression. To me, there's a world of difference between spelling out a grading policy in a syllabus and basing an entire grade on scantron tests. It's the difference between 'wearing a seatbelt' and 'never leaving the house.' Indulge me the seatbelt, and take the students as far as they will go.

Monday, December 18, 2006

 

Christmas in Suburbia

The Boy's school put on its kindergarten holiday concert last Friday.

All six kindergarten classes performed together in the cafetorium, with folding chairs for the parents. TW's parents showed up, too, so all five of us watched TB and his classmates do their thing. Five year olds being five year olds, every song involved at least some choreography. (Inevitably, some of the kids improvised their own choreography. My favorite was the kid who ended every song with 'jazz hands.') I was glad to see that The Dreidle Song was part of the repertoire, as an inclusionary gesture.

I've never seen so much digital technology in one place before. Apparently, when you get the birth certificate, you're also issued a digital camcorder. The front row was wall-to-wall parents holding little gray boxes in front of their faces. I'll have to put in a requisition.

After the concert, the classes (and parents) adjourned to their regular classrooms. We had a brief juice-and-cookies moment before most of the other parents left. Through TW's pull as Room Mom, I was asked to read two stories to the class, which I did.

When they're in the mood, five-year-olds can be the best audience ever. TG joined them in her unofficial role as Class Mascot, sitting front-and-center. She stood up every few seconds, so eventually TW had to restrain her with the old sit-on-Mommy's-lap method. The kids in the class, though, were great – rapt, polite, enthusiastic, and willing to see me off with a spirited “THANK YOU MR. (myname)!” I'm accustomed to the dodge-and-parry of faculty meetings; this was refreshingly different. I'm thinking the juice and cookies had something to do with it. Note to self: order plenty of juice and cookies for next faculty meeting. Also, deliver information in rhyme.

Friday night featured the horse-drawn carriage ride downtown, complete with the halloween posse, TB's girlfriend among them. (TB: “When she kisses me, my face gets all red.” I didn't know she kissed him!) The highlight of the ride, as far as TB was concerned, was when the horse pooped on the road. (“It's steaming!” he observed, delighted and correct.) Post-ride, we all did a stroll down Main Street, during which the kids favored us with their unique dance moves anytime something catchy was piped in. I also may or may not have done my impression of a gorilla to induce smiles at a photo op. I'm not saying I did, and I'm not saying I didn't.

On Saturday, my Mom made the trek from (neighboring state) and we went to see Santa at a pizza brunch. It's the same Santa we've been going to for several years now. He's a sweet man, with a real beard, a deep voice, and a very gentle manner. He and TW say 'hello' when they see each other – he lives nearby – and he remembered TB and TG by name. TG actually spoke to him, which is huge for a two-year-old. (Warming Daddy's heart, she asked for books.) My Mom got her picture taken with Santa by the photographer for the local weekly paper, so I'll be keeping an eye out for that. (Santa afterwards: “I hope Mrs. Claus doesn't see that!”) TG wolfed an astonishing amount of pizza, and we left fed and happy. We passed the local high school choir out caroling, so we stopped and listened, clapping after each song. When the choir moved on, TG yelled plaintively “again?”

The tree is up and decorated, the furnace room is chockablock with holiday booty, TB is acutely attuned to the schedule of Christmas specials on tv, and we've seen Santa. All we need now is a little snow.

Very little. A fast-melting inch would do...

Friday, December 15, 2006

 

Proof

The Wife: Do you believe in Santa?

(pause, as The Boy fixes her with a gaze that says 'duh')

The Boy: I met him, remember?

So there.

 

Prodigies, Policies, and Policing

My college was built on the assumption that the students would be at least 18 (or 17 with a late birthday). My college is not unique in this. We've bent the rule from time to time to allow some particularly strong high school students to take a class here and there, with generally positive results. We're even moving in the direction, with some of the school districts, of regularizing a flow of high school seniors to take afternoon classes with us, in hopes of fending off 'senioritis.' We've also started working with local homeschoolers of high school age, offering courses like Spanish or chemistry, again with generally positive results.

Now we're starting to get calls about 8-year-olds. Literally. For regular courses, not special summer programs for kids or swim lessons.

This worries me.

Subject matter, oddly enough, is the least of my concerns. The prepubescent applicants tend to cluster in math, science, and music, where the subject matter generally isn't R-rated. If a kid is capable of making differential equations do handstands, bully for him. It's all the other stuff that worries me.

Most of our internal policies and procedures are based on the assumption that we're dealing with students directly, rather than through their parents. With the 18-and-up crowd, this makes sense. With 8-year-olds, it really doesn't.

We don't have a “dropoff and pickup area.” We don't allow parents in classes with their kids, unless the parents have also registered (and paid for) the class. Our counselors are not trained in pediatric disorders. Our medical staff does not include a pediatrician. We don't act in loco parentis. Our professors, with some exceptions, have not been trained in child or adolescent psychology, or in the learning styles characteristic of children. We don't have the security measures in place that elementary schools do to protect children against predators. We have an open campus – if they don't have to park, anybody can come to campus and just wander around. We don't have separate restrooms for children. We don't have the staff to provide bodyguards. We are not physically capable of 'lockdown mode.' We simply have not organized ourselves for the physical protection of young children, because that was not who we were designed to serve.

Add to that the general coarseness of much informal student conversation, much of which I would not advise anybody to let a young child hear. And we absolutely cannot go around policing private conversations among students, other than the usual prohibitions against threats of violence.

I've suggested that we offer access to online courses, where the subject matter makes sense, so the child could still be under the physical supervision of his parents while getting the intellectual stimulation of college-level work. There are times when that can work, but certain subjects just don't lend themselves easily (certain upper-level math, where notation is the issue) or at all (music performance, some lab sciences).

We've received legal advice to the effect that we can't do anything that smacks of 'age discrimination,' whether on the high end (mandatory retirement) or the low end (a minimum age to take classes). This strikes me as absolute madness. Young children are not just shorter adults. They have different needs, and require different kinds of support, than we can offer.

Normally, I'm in favor of offering talented students all the academic challenge they can handle. I'm just not convinced that throwing the child prodigy into an institution built entirely for adults is the way to do that. God forbid, one kid gets abducted, and the whole thing comes crashing down. I say set a minimum age of, say, 16, and take our chances in the courts. I don't want to be the one on the stand explaining to the nice judge why we don't have hidden cameras in the study carrels or bathrooms, or why nobody stopped the sex offender from enrolling in the same class as the 9 year old.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

 

What We Talk About When We Talk About Tuition

(with apologies to Raymond Carver)

There was a bit of a dustup in webland this week in the wake of an unsurprising New York Times article that showed that many consumers take the sticker price of a college as a gauge of its quality. Apparently, some of the midlevel-but-aspiring colleges have figured out that they can raise their applicant yield by raising their tuition. It's a variation on what used to be called the “Chivas Regal” effect, in which one brand of liquor found that it could improve sales by raising its price, since consumers assumed that anything expensive must be good.

Community colleges have known this for years, since we're on the bad end of it. We keep our tuition artificially low and our amenities relatively spare, so we can be accessible to folks without much money. One perverse result is that many of the more affluent high school grads look down their noses at us. Groucho Marx' line about never joining a club that would accept him as a member applies to us.

It's annoying on many levels. Most obviously, low tuition leads to chronic shortages of operating funds, which lead inevitably to making choices about staffing, programs, outreach, and the like that we'd rather not make. It's also demoralizing when cc's are the punchline of jokes, when students make cracks about getting out to go to a “real college,” or when I see some of the choices that more affluent institutions are able to make and still survive. (A margin for error! What a concept! Must be nice!)

It's also, at bottom, false.

Although we have a few students for whom the Harvards of the world were real options, and I'm always happy to get those students, the fact of it is that most of our students – if they would have gone elsewhere at all – would have gone to nothing-special four-year colleges. They would have paid a great deal more for the privilege, but it's not clear to me that an average student with middling motivation and a fuzzy sense of direction is better off spending 10k for an adjunct at Midtier State (or 40k for an adjunct at St. So-So) than spending 3k for a full professor at a cc. I just don't see it.

When I got my doctorate at Flagship State, I couldn't help but notice how dreary and mediocre the undergraduate experience there was. Intro classes were 300 students a pop, with 'recitation' sections staffed by 23 year old grad students who were only beginning to think of themselves as teachers, and who made all manner of rookie mistakes on their not-much-younger charges. Professors advised us, as grad students, to put as little energy as possible into teaching, since anything above the bare minimum was effort that should have gone into research. For this, the undergrads were charged roughly quadruple what they would have been charged at the local cc, where intro classes top out at 30-35 and tenured professors teach intro sections.

Why would the undergrads accept such a lousy deal?

I'm guessing it's a combination of snob appeal, the lure of dorm life (par-tay!), the siren call of what economists call 'assortative mating,' and a sense that that's just what you do. I can remember my friends and I in high school regarding the local cc as a place to take driver's ed and not much else. “Winding up” at a cc was taken as a sign of failure. From what I've seen, that attitude is still pretty prevalent. It's entirely independent of what actually happens in the classroom.

A thought experiment for my wise and generous readers: assuming no demagogic behavior from local and/or state politicians, what do you suppose would happen if cc's moved from an 'everyday low prices' strategy to a 'high price, high aid' strategy?

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

 

Scenes from This Week

The Girl has established a complex bedtime ritual, one step of which involves bouncing on The Boy's bed while “Life is a Highway” plays on the boombox and I hold her hands.

On Sunday, as she bounced, she stopped, bent down, picked up TB's baseball cap, and put it on her head. She announced proudly:

“Me a boy!”

You can read all the gender theory you want; that moment will still throw you.

----

At dinner yesterday:

The Boy: When you have another baby, he can have the crib, and The Girl and I can get bunk beds! I'll be on top, and she'll be on the bottom.

The Wife: I don't think we're going to have any more babies.

TB: But you're a Mommy. That's what Mommies do. Mommies lay babies.

TW: We don't lay babies. We have babies.

TB: So you'll have a baby?

TW: No, we're done with that. But someday you could have a baby.

TB: I'm not a girl!

TW: No, I mean you could be a Daddy.

TB: Daddies don't lay babies!

TW: Well, no, but someday you could be a Daddy. Don't you want to be a Daddy?

TB: Yeah.

TW: When your wife has a baby, you'll be the Daddy.

TB: She'd lay the baby?

TW: She'd have the baby.

(pause)

TB: EEEEWWW! Gross!!!!!

Bless his short attention span, he didn't ask the next question...

------

The Boy: “They call it Christmas because Santa's real name is Kris, and you don't want to miss it!”

------

Last night, as TB wrote his letter to Santa:

TW: What else do you want to ask for?

(pause)

TB: Mittens.

TW: Really?

TB: Yeah, because mine aren't very good, and I don't want you to have to go shopping for new ones. You do too much around here now. I don't want you to have to do everything, so Santa can get me those.

That one got a hug from Mommy.

I think he'll get his mittens.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

 

In Which I Try to Practice What I Preach

Yesterday's post suggested that employers should try to build jobs around three-dimensional human beings, with their various needs. I should be careful what I wish for.

At both of my colleges, I've had to deal with extended faculty absences driven by medical issues. (Given the steadily-advancing median age of the full-time faculty, I expect this to become more common over time.) From an administrative perspective, these situations can get remarkably complicated and vexing.

Some medical issues are relatively well-defined, in terms of absence from work. Somebody taking a day or two for a stomach bug, or a week for the flu, is not a big deal. Somebody taking some time for childbirth, or for a relatively discrete procedure, requires more planning, but still isn't that hard, since you can be pretty confident about duration, date of return, and ability to work upon return. The tricky ones are the medical issues that involve long duration, episodic and extended absences, and uncertain prognoses.

Under those conditions, it's incredibly hard to get the rules right. I've had multiple cases in which expected return dates are set, then pushed back a week or two, then pushed back two weeks, then pushed back a week or two again. Given that semesters have relatively fixed starting and ending dates, it's difficult to extend the kind of flexibility to a professor that a given medical condition might demand. Say the semester starts in September and ends in December. Professor Doe notifies you in August that he'll be out for the first two weeks of September to deal with a medical condition. Okay, you work with the department chair to find subs to cover the classes. Two weeks into September, the leave is extended for a week. More subs. Now it's extended again, this time for two weeks.

Now you have to be the bad guy.

Given advances in medical treatments, people can be in ambiguous health for years at a time. Given the ADA, union rules, and medical privacy rules, it can be very, very difficult to get someone in that situation to make a decision, or even to get a clear sense of whether a decision needs to be made. At any given point, the seemingly prudent and emotionally-easy thing to do is to wait. But waiting is a decision, too.

Now it's Thanksgiving, and Professor Doe is happy to report that he's ready for work. Putting him back in him Fall classes at this point would be silly, so your job is to find other work for him to do until the end of the semester. Now you're paying him for makework, and paying his replacement(s) to cover his classes. (The replacement(s) are almost certainly making less than he does.) Meanwhile, you short other parts of the budget to make up the difference.

Repeat this cycle a few times, and it's hard to avoid resentment on both sides. Professor Doe is fighting some serious medical issues, and doesn't need some paper-pusher to generate static. From my side of the desk, classes need to run when they need to run, and the professor is either there or not there. (The students usually feel bad for the professor at first, but over time, start to get justifiably cranky if there isn't a reliable presence.) Our medical leave policies are written on the assumption that medical conditions are like pregnancy – clearly defined, and of finite duration, so the returning worker returns good as new. When the condition fits those criteria, the rules are pretty clean. (Paid vs. unpaid leave is another issue. In this, as in so many things, I think the Swedes have it right.)

But some conditions – especially those that more commonly hit later in life – just aren't like that. Sometimes the employee returns not-entirely-better, or functional-but-not-the-same, or almost-functional, or mostly-functional-but-delicate. Sometimes there's an element of denial by the employee about just how sick s/he actually is – those conversations are no fun at all. It's nobody's fault, really, but when the cycle repeats a few times, that can be hard to remember. From the employer's standpoint, predictability of staffing – the single greatest benefit of paying full-time salaries – goes down the drain. From the employee's standpoint, a career is at stake, as are salary and benefits, a sense of belonging, and the ability not to admit defeat.

Going on disability is an option in some cases, but it's not easy, and it doesn't lend itself to certain conditions. I'm glad the program exists, but it's far from a full solution to these dilemmas. And even there, broaching the subject in the wrong way and/or at the wrong time is very dicey, legally.

I really don't have a great answer to this. It would be lovely if prognoses were always clear-cut, people were always honest, and illnesses only struck during semester breaks, but that's just not reality. I'm neither a physician nor a soothsayer, but semesters run when they run. Flexibility has its limits.

Monday, December 11, 2006

 

Respect Mah Diversitah!

One of my favorite people from my grad school days sent me a heads-up about the T.H. Benton piece in the Chronicle about diversity. It's an annoying piece, encapsulating much of the whininess that sends us more thoughtful white guys away from the topic altogether. (Bitch, Ph.D. Asked a while back why there isn't more thoughtful male-authored sex writing. While my style doesn't really lend itself -- “boinking ensued” doesn't quite cut it – I'd venture a guess that the reason is similar. The dominant discourses – conservatism and porn, respectively – are so entrenched that it's hard not to either replicate them or spend all your time differentiating yourself from them, which just comes off as narcissistic and, well, whiny.)

I did a piece on diversity back when I was a wet-behind-the-ears blogger, which at least wasn't as whiny as Benton's. I wouldn't write it that way now, but there it is.

Benton makes some valid points: yes, the costs of diversity initiatives are often borne by people other than those pushing for them. Yes, some very privileged sorts use 'race, class, and gender' to avoid actual thought, and yes, sometimes the theoretical moves are stale and predictable. It's even true that race is not a simple proxy for class, and that chambers of commerce issue routine calls for greater diversity in the business community. (Although I've never, not once, heard one “talking about changing the paradigm of white hegemonic domination.” Has Benton ever been to a chamber of commerce meeting? I've been to lots, and they don't talk that way. They talk about 'inclusion,' and 'changing demographics,' and 'reflecting the community.' 'Hegemonic domination,' not so much.)

I'll take it farther. I'm a little creeped out by the concept of a “diversity officer,” and I have been on job interviews on which I've been asked about my “commitment to diversity.” The former strikes me as self-evident refutation of diversity as oppositional, and the latter as a loyalty oath. Not a big fan of loyalty oaths, even if I'm already loyal. My loyalty is by choice, thank you very much.

All of that said, I'd hate to see us lose sight of the real benefits of diversity.

Proprietary U, for all of its flaws, achieved a real diversity in its faculty and administration almost entirely without even trying. In my deaning days there, I don't think there were any two managers there of the same religion. The faculty was tremendously diverse (except for an unusually high concentration of Unitarians, for whatever reason), whether you looked at race, gender, age, politics, style of dress, teaching philosophy, or just personality.

Looking back, I think the critical variable there was turnover. The place did a great deal of hiring in the late 1990's, so the new hires tended to reflect the folks on the market at that time. People also left or got fired fairly frequently. The net result of all that turnover was that no one group was able to entrench itself for very long. Since you couldn't take for granted that everybody shared the same cultural background, work conversations, more often than not, were actually about work.

I suspect that one of the reasons that hiring for diversity in traditional higher ed is as contentious as it is is that the turnover rate is so low. When there isn't much hiring generally, every hire 'earmarked' for a diversity line is a line lost to someone else. Worse, when new hires happen once a decade or more in a given department, it's nearly impossible for the newbies to effect meaningful change in the departments. That's a real loss. When a newbie is appended to a department that has been together for decades, most commonly one of two things happens: either the newbie doesn't 'fit' and gets flak for it, or the newbie learns to keep her head down. Neither is good.

In my stint guest-blogging for Bitch a while back, I did a post called “Spot the Glass Ceiling” in which I simply listed my work hours for the previous two weeks. A disturbing number of commenters missed the point completely, and some actually took me to task for using words in unusual ways. (Heaven forbid we should try to say something new!) The point was to show that something ostensibly neutral – work hours – can reflect expectations about the life situation of the employee. A single parent could not do this job. This job is not unique that way. Therefore, over time, we should expect this job and jobs like it to be filled be certain kinds of people and not others. It will look like self-selection, and there will be some truth in that. But the self-selection will reflect jobs constructed on the assumption that the worker has a wife to watch the kids.

A really productive approach to diversity, I'd hope, would take as a starting point the idea that we shouldn't just find different-colored pegs for pre-existing holes; we should re-shape the holes. Jobs are becoming more time- and effort- consuming. The theory, back in the day, was that they'd have to become less so as more women entered the workforce. Jobs used to be built on the 'primary breadwinner' model. Now they're built on the 'isolated monad' model. There's a sense in which this is progress, but there's a very real sense in which it's madness. If diversified hiring pushes us to reshape jobs to fit actual human beings, that would be a contribution worth any amount of annoying literary criticism.

Diversity is best when it happens without a diversity officer making it happen. That requires both a consistent stream of opportunities, and jobs shaped around the realities of how people actually live. Most of higher ed now features neither. I suspect that if we take care of those, over time, we'll be able to have some much less whiny conversations about the problems that remain.

Friday, December 08, 2006

 

Pulling Up the Drawbridge

As my regular readers know, my college and state are facing some fiscal issues. (In the same sense in which, say, Homer Simpson has some decorum issues.) Any number of proposals are floating around for cutting costs, some with merit, some ambiguous, and some plainly stupid.

I'm seeing a consistent pattern emerge: the proposals that get the most support, almost uniformly, are those that call for cutting benefits for future employees. That's the one cut on which everyone at the table can agree.

Presumably, that's because future employees, by definition, aren't at the table.

'Grandfathering' is a popular maneuver because it postpones issues until they're somebody else's problem. It allows current employees to congratulate themselves on their tough-minded fiscal discipline without actually giving up anything themselves. It's almost irresistible, given the realities of tenure and unions, but that doesn't make it right.

It's doubly frustrating when you account for a few basic external realities:

- Housing costs much more, in real terms, than it did a generation ago, even with the slight declines of the last year or so.
- New Ph.D.'s generally are carrying much more debt, in real terms, than they ever have.
- The early-career years are often the raising-young-children years, with all of the attendant expenses those bring in terms of clothes, bedrooms, restricted choice of neighborhood, daycare, etc.
- New hires come in with higher qualifications, in every respect, than the previous generation, whose salaries and benefits they will never match.

Popular discussions of higher ed are so narrowly focused on the extremely elite institutions and superstar salaries that they completely miss the (fairly basic, very common) objective realities at the vast majority of colleges in America. Yes, Cornel West is extraordinarily well-paid. But a new professor here in the humanities would start somewhere in the 40's. A three-bedroom house in a non-slum neighborhood in this county goes for about $400-500k. Cornel West has nothing to do with it.

I don't recall ever having a real debate over these changes. They just happened. Now, those who got tenure back when it wasn't very hard are pulling up the drawbridge behind them. Even the lucky folk who land tenure-track jobs struggle to get by, and that's not even discussing adjuncts.

Were it up to me, I'd propose a much flatter salary structure. Instead of newbies starting in the 40's and folks in their seventies making six figures, I'd set the bottom higher and the top lower. (I'm thinking instead of stretching from 40 to 110k, the range should look something like 60 to 90.) Not perfectly flat – that would be incredibly demoralizing, I know – but it's hard to argue that the very senior professor is two-and-a-half-times as productive as the new kid, who is teaching just as much, has higher credentials, and is picking up the committee assignments that tenured folk can dodge. But good luck getting the ones at the top of the scale to agree to that. And without mandatory retirement, they can go on until they drop.

(Even worse: here, as at many places, the unionized folk – which includes faculty – get 'longevity bonuses,' which are rewards for breathing. We pay for these by giving smaller raises to the entry-level people, who need the money much more. Utterly maddening.)

Although the fight for tenure-track positions is structured as winner-take-all, the 'all' is looking smaller and smaller. There's something fundamentally wrong with that. You'd think, given how hard people fight for these positions, that they'd pay better.

The institutional logic behind my argument – which may seem counterintuitive for someone in my position to make, since raising starting salaries would impose an immediate hit on the budget – has to do with recruitment. Most of the recent full-time hires my college has made over the last few years, which is admittedly a distressingly small sample size, have been people who already lived in the area in homes they bought before the boom. We've lost some absolutely wonderful young candidates on the basis of the mismatch of salaries to housing costs. For now, we're okay, since there is a backlog of good people in the area looking for these jobs. But over the long run, we need to recruit from more than just adjacent counties. Instead, not only are we granting longevity bonuses to people whose mortgages have long been paid off, but we're talking about cutting benefits to new hires, so as not to cause discomfort to those on top.

I care about this year's budget, but I care more about long-term sustainability. This isn't sustainable.

Somebody coined a 'law' to the effect that trends that aren't sustainable aren't sustained. I hope that turns out to be true.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

 

Stats

Although I was never a hardcore stat-head, I had to endure the requisite statistical methods courses in both college and grad school as part of my social science training. (The ugliest course requirements repeat themselves, the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.) Although they were billed as the 'empirical' part of the discipline, I regarded them as the purest mysticism, and, with the benefit of hindsight, still do.

The graduate course was particularly absurd. It was a disciplinary requirement, so we hated it. The professor was working out some psychological issues before us in real time, which made for some amusing moments but little real education. My defense mechanism of choice was ironic distance; my final paper, an examination of the relationship between two variables (I don't even remember which ones) controlling for sex, found nothing, so I titled it “But Sex Always Affects a Relationship!” Not much of a paper, but a damn fine title, if I do say so myself.

The true highlight of the course, though, occurred when one student – either batshit crazy or a comic genius, history will decide – strolled in about ten minutes late one day brandishing a box of Crunch Berry cereal, offering the nutrition information on the side as a real-world example of statistics. (He was also the one who brought his guitar to a feminist theory seminar to favor the group with – I'm not kidding, and neither was he -- “I'm a lesbian, too.” Andy Kaufman had nothing on this guy.)

I think of him sometimes when we use stats on campus to try to make decisions.

Anybody with even the faintest whiff of mathematical training, or intuition, or common sense, can spot flaws in most of the statistics used to make decisions. That's not a shot at the folks generating the statistics – they/we know perfectly well that most of the information is partial, somewhat corrupted by flawed collection methods, and extremely hard to isolate from other variables. (“We changed the course requirements last year, and this year the enrollments went up 5%. Clearly, the new curriculum is responsible.” Um, not really...) The problem, other than the fatal combination of small samples and sheer complexity, is that most of what we want to know derives from problems we didn't anticipate, so we didn't think to collect the data at the time that would address the question we hadn't thought of yet.

Faculty tend to be pretty bright people, as a group, so any data-driven argument for a policy change they don't like immediately brings out the “your methods are flawed” crowd. Well, duh. Of course they're flawed – even a relative non-data-head like me can see that. They're flawed in any direction, but the flaws only seem to draw attention when the policies themselves are unpopular.

(Exception: sometimes, statistics can disprove certain things. That's real, but it's limited. It's hard to sustain the “my program is thriving” illusion when its enrollments are down twenty percent in two years. That said, the statistic doesn't tell you what to do about it.)

In the rare cases when it's possible to get good information, I'm a fan of evidence-based management. The catch is that really solid evidence is remarkably hard to come by, especially in the brief moments when decisions are actually possible. Scholars of higher ed can do national studies on foundation dimes and issue reports that say things like “student engagement in campus activities leads to higher graduation rates,” but even they can't really disentangle causation; do campus activities spark the less-driven students to step up, or do type A personalities naturally gravitate to organized activities?

Most of the decisions, though, are much more mundane than that. I once asked one of my chairs to add a weekend section of a popular intro course, since we're trying to reach out to adult students. He didn't want to, so he suggested that we do a study to see if this would work before actually committing resources to it. The academic in me is so used to seeing this line of argument as reasonable that I almost didn't catch what he was doing. The only way to see if it would work is to try it. We could ask a random sample of residents, but what people say and what they do are only vaguely correlated. The only way to do the study is just to run the damn class and see what happens. (We did, and it worked.) Calling for more data is much more respectable than just saying “I don't wanna,” but it often carries the same meaning.

One of the real shocks of moving from the classroom into administration was growing comfortable with making decisions based on far, far less (and less clear) information. Numbers bounce around, depending on when and how they're gathered, and the possible number of intervening variables in determining why program X is down this year is infinite. I can concede all of that, but still need to make a decision. Standards of evidence that even Andy Kaufman Guy would have found laughable sometimes carry the day in administration, simply by default. The owl of Minerva spreads its wings at dusk, but I don't have that long. Semesters start when they start, and we need to make decisions on the fly to make that happen. If you wait for the statistical dust to settle, you'll miss the moment. In faculty ranks, that would be called 'reductionist,' and it is. It has to be. Part of being in administration is being okay with that, and developing the intuition to focus on the two or three facts that actually tell you something. The rest is mysticism.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

 

Meetings

In one of those wonderful moments of bloggy synchronicity, a fascinating thread has developed (see profgrrrrl, Maggie May, kfluff, and Culture Cat) on the relative burden on faculty of meetings.

As the thread has developed, it has become clear that local culture, rank, discipline, and various other variables all play roles in determining how many hours a month a given professor will spend in meetings. (From what I've heard, I'd also add minority status. In colleges with relatively low numbers of minority faculty, minority faculty often carry extra committee and student advisement burdens, relative to other faculty, since minority students seek them out for mentoring and committees seek them out for diversity. Given how little college service usually counts towards tenure, this is a real burden.)

As a veteran of meetings, I'll add that far too many people (faculty, chairs, and yes, deans) have absolutely no idea how to run an effective meeting. So the meetings run longer than they should and accomplish less than they should, thereby feeding the simmering resentment towards meetings generally. I've certainly endured my share of meetings in which the living envied the dead, but I've also been to some that actually energized me. In running my own, I try to steal from the most effective I've seen, to the extent that it fits my personality.

My personal hints for running effective faculty meetings:

- For the love of all that is holy and good, never, never, never have a faculty meeting without a printed agenda.

- Don't be afraid to move the agenda along. I never have a meeting with fewer than six items on the agenda, and I'm much more comfortable with ten or more. When all else fails, you can always cut short a digression with “let's continue this discussion off-line,” which is much more polite than just saying “put a sock in it” but still lets you move forward.

- Put 'informational' items before 'action' items on the agenda. You can blast through four or five information items in ten minutes or less. It sets a pace, feels like progress, and gives a common fact base for discussion.

- Include specific, quick items for praise whenever possible. “Congratulations to Diane for spearheading a successful symposium last month.” Again, it sets a tone, and it shows respect.

- Beware the open-ended question. Never ask “what do you think about...?” Instead, put a concrete proposal on the table and ask for specific objections. When they're voiced, ask for specific alternatives.

- Beware the temptation to blame everything on absent third parties. Why is enrollment down in program x? Because those lazy bastards in Admissions aren't marketing it right! That's easy when nobody from Admissions is in the room, since it lets everybody in the room off the hook. It's a variation on the old saw about the perfect being the enemy of the good. In the real world, resources are (and will always be) finite; agendas are (and will always be) conflicting and overlapping; and content matters. Get your own house in order before finding fault with others'.

- Gentle humor is your friend. Selective self-deprecation can also work, if you're adept.

- As with classroom discussions, quick summaries of windy comments can go a long way. “So what you're saying is...?” Don't be afraid to parse comments into the immediately-relevant and the for-another-time.

- FOLLOW UP. I always take questions at meetings, and usually some of them require an “I'll get back to you.” At the following meeting, answer the question – that is, get back to them -- in public. (I usually have an agenda item titled “items from last meeting” in which I answer each in sequence.) After seeing that cycle repeat a few times, some usually-discontented sorts figured out that they're actually being heard, which seemed to reduce their felt need to shout.

- Admit mistakes. I've done this a few times, and found that a moment's blow to my ego pays off handsomely over time in increased credibility. Besides, unacknowledged mistakes get interpreted as cover-ups, which are much worse. Better to just admit when you've dropped the ball.

- Set a civil-but-focused tone. A faculty meeting is not a group therapy session.

Meetings among administrators are different, since they're usually smaller, and usually more connected to our core job functions. Again, I've seen great and terrible and everything in between, but given smaller numbers and narrower focus, these can potentially be somewhat looser and still work. The key here is to make sure that problem-solving takes place in groups, and blame-assessing, if any, happens privately. If people around the table start trading blame, even implicitly, the meeting is already circling the drain.

Since there's a weird cultural taboo in academia against cutting anything short ever, blowhards get far too much slack to air their pet grievances. A good chair isn't afraid to cut off discussion. It's part of the role. Do it diplomatically, don't be arbitrary, but do it. Oddly, even some of the blowhards will respect you for it. A moment's awkwardness will spare hours of agony.

What tricks have you found for making meetings, well, not suck?

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

 

Called It!

A few months ago, the Chronicle reported on a controversy at the U of Florida. The administration had announced plans to cut budgets for certain programs and increase them for others. I wrote at the time:

A fearless prediction (and all predictions guaranteed or your money back!): the faculty will claim to have been shut out of the decision-making process, the usual accusations about autocratic administrators will fly, compromises will be made, a few deans will be replaced, and the university won't look in 2010 the way this plan says it will.


A story in IHE yesterday shows that I was right on every count (and it only took three months!). There's a new interim dean (check), who is signaling intent to cave (check), and citing insufficient process (check). Affected departments are still claiming a lack of shared governance (check), and the university is proposing to mollify all and sundry by...wait for it...a tuition increase by another name! Make the strategic failure go away by throwing money at it.

From looking at my prediction, you'd almost think I knew what I was doing.

Honestly.

It's almost as if a single community college dean, blogging pseudonymously from his outpost in another region of the country, could see the train coming down the tracks before the leadership of a major research university could.

Makes ya wonder.

Now, back to our regularly scheduled blogging.

Monday, December 04, 2006

 

Silly Season

In politics, 'silly season' stretches from Labor Day to Election Day. In higher ed, it stretches from Thanksgiving to Christmas. (There's another, even worse silly season from mid-April to late May.)

The faculty are frazzled, since they're frantically trying to squeeze in everything that needs to be covered, the grading load is the heaviest of the semester, and student excuses and oddball behavior are at their worst. The students are frazzled, since grade pressure is finally becoming real, final exams are looming, deadlines are hitting, and grandparents are dropping at an alarming rate. Administrators are frazzled, since we give up most of our evenings for a few weeks for the various end-of-semester functions, each of which is individually worthy but the concatenation of which gets a bit draining. This is also when student-faculty conflicts are most numerous and electric, since this is when the stakes are highest, and we have the no-win task of mediating.

Add to that the pressures of Christmas shopping, unpredictable and/or intemperate weather, the ambiguous rules of workplace holiday gatherings and gift-giving, and increased time pressures from and on families, and things get a little nutty.

(In my neck of the woods, add too that this is deer mating season. Deer are uniquely stupid animals, but they get even dumber in the season of the rising sap. Night driving to and from all those end-of-semester events, especially in the rain/snow/sleet/slush, is even more exciting when you have 200 pound rats dashing out at random intervals, looking to get laid.)

Due to the contractual quirks of my college, I had to find time for 30 class observations this semester. Per usual, I tried to get most of them done in October and early November, but schedule conflicts inevitably arise, so there's always a crush at the end. I've done 25, which I think is pretty good by any rational standard, but I'm not done yet. Writeups for class observations are delicate, since they have bearing on tenure and promotion, so I can't just dash them off; they actually require thought, drafting, and redrafting. Which is as it should be, but it takes time and energy. Given the number of evening events, time and energy are at premiums.

Students asking for special dispensations to drop classes after the normal deadline are especially disheartening. Since our rules require 'extenuating circumstances' to withdraw from a class after the deadline, I am visited by a virtual parade of the damned, explaining with varying levels of credibility and/or documentation why the universe can conspired to frustrate their best attempts at, say, sociology. (It's always tempting to try to delineate some sort of hard-and-fast documentation rule – no funeral notice, no 'W' – but the circumstances they present are way too varied for that. I had one woman break down in tears in my office, explaining that she and her husband are in the process of divorcing. What kind of documentation should I get for that? There's no way to capture everything relevant.)

Most of these – outside of deer mating season, which has no upside whatsoever – are the side effects of basically good things. I'm glad that the college presents enough valuable options to enough people that there's a full roster of evening events to complain about. I'm glad that I have a family to holiday-shop for; that students and faculty take their roles seriously enough that they actually worry about doing their jobs well; and that the college has enough of a sense of mercy to recognize the epistemological limits of the dean's office. (“Can you prove that your marriage is falling apart?” Yikes!) These are all good things, on balance, even if the scheduling implications of each overlap in maddening ways.

Must maintain...must maintain...

Friday, December 01, 2006

 

A Response to the AFT

According to IHE, the American Federation of Teachers is putting together a major state-by-state initiative to lobby state legislatures to achieve the following:

- A full-time/adjunct ratio of 3:1 in public colleges.
- Hiring preferences for adjuncts in applying for full-time positions
- Pay and benefit parity for adjuncts, relative to full-timers, presumably on a pro-rata basis

To which I say, respectively:

- Great, show me the money.
- No *#%)@#%ing way.
- Great, show me the money.

In this political climate, it's fantasy to suggest that state legislatures are going to commit to showering public higher ed with substantially increased appropriations for operating costs on a permanent basis. Not. Going. To. Happen. In the absence of dramatically (and sustainably) increased appropriations, a 3:1 quota would be nothing more than a budget-busting unfunded mandate. (The alternative, of course, would be backbreaking tuition increases, but we catch so much political heat for the current level of tuition increases that, again, we're talking fantasyland.)

Assume that a legislature passed a 3:1 quota and/or a parity mandate, and didn't pass a correspondingly sufficient appropriation increase to pay for it. Likely consequences:

- Elimination of programs altogether
- Accelerated rates of tuition increase
- New definitions of positions that violate current common sense
- Workarounds beyond belief
- Outright non-compliance until a court overturns the mandate(s), which it would

Variation: the state passes a sufficient appropriation for the first year or two, then starts chipping away at it until the next recession, when it takes a cleaver to it, expecting the colleges to somehow make up the difference out of, I don't know, toner and paper clips.

Given that state budgets include services that don't have other revenue sources and aren't culturally considered 'private goods' – K-12 education, the corrections system, infrastructure, etc. -- higher ed will always be easier to cut than other things. Every time a recession hits, higher ed gives more than its pound of flesh. I see no reason to think this will change.

The suggestion for hiring preferences for existing adjuncts strikes me as the likeliest to actually pass, but also the most objectionable. Here in the real world, the existing adjunct pool has been chosen primarily for geographic propinquity, time-slot availability, and the personal taste of department chairs. These are not the criteria to use when looking for people to fill tenure-eligible roles. (This is not to deny that many adjuncts are excellent teachers. It's just to say that, in the real world, adjunct staffing typically is as much or more a function of availability as it is of excellence.)

In a very white, very affluent area like mine, the existing adjunct pool is mostly white people who bought homes here many years ago when it was still affordable, or spouses of wealthy people. Giving these folks preference in hiring is affirmative action for older, wealthier white people. I'll pass, thanks. (To forestall the inevitable flaming, I know this is atypical. My point is that geography is a powerful determinant of who fills adjunct positions, and we'd be ratifying existing provincialism.)

Establishing preference for adjuncts also creates a de facto extension of grad school, during which new Ph.D.'s, awash in student loan debt, will be consigned to adjunct ranks regardless of talent, until they've built up enough chits to break through. By that point, their research will have aged significantly, and more like tuna salad than a fine wine. Grad school is long enough now. (Yes, I know that the sciences have a system of 'post-docs' that constitute another hoop, but those pay considerably better than adjunct gigs, and usually come with at least basic benefits. They also involve further work on the research, which adjuncting does not.)

Most disturbingly, the entire concept of preference for adjuncts gets the priorities wrong. Full-time faculty positions, whether in a tenure system or a renewable-contract system, aren't entitlements or rewards. They're jobs, like other jobs. They should go to whomever seems best able to do the work. Yes, that will involve some subjective judgments, and yes, some of those judgments will be wrong. But to give up the national market for faculty in favor of “I got here first” is to enshrine an incestuous spoils-based system and to ensure provincialism for decades to come. Terrible, terrible idea.

I fully agree with the AFT that the way adjuncts, as a group, are treated is exploitative and disgusting. (Regular readers know my stand on that.) But the AFT's proposals, however well-intentioned, are disasters waiting to happen. If you really want to solve the problem, you have to attack it at its root: graduate admissions. Until the labor surplus goes away, exploitation will continue.

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