Thursday, May 31, 2007

 

Leapfrog

There's a great book waiting to be written about how to handle working in a setting where 'leapfrog' is rewarded, when you're the one being leaped.

Organizationally, leapfrog is when someone goes over her supervisor's head to get what he wants. When the organization makes a practice – even if only sporadically – of rewarding leapfrog, it will instantly turn too much of its energy inward on political maneuvering, and lose focus on dealing with the outside world.

(Before the inevitable flaming, I'll draw a distinction between leapfrogging and appealing. Appealing is open; the person whose decision is being appealed gets a turn to speak; the person making the appeal carries the burden of proof; the decision is based on the merits of the case. Leapfrogging is secretive, the person being leaped often doesn't know it happened until after the fact, the burden of proof is random or nonexistent, and the decision is based on heaven knows what. I have no problem with an appeal process, properly understood, but a huge problem with leapfrogging.)

Although there can be a short-term temptation to reward the occasional leapfrog, the long-term damage is terrible.

The temptation comes from a few factors. First, and most obviously, it makes an obviously-angry person go away for a little while. This shouldn't matter, but sometimes it does. Of course, it creates another angry person very quickly, and a whole extra bunch of angry people over time as folks discover that anger gets rewarded.

Second, sometimes the leaper makes a compelling (immediate) case. This is especially true when the person in the middle has some known shortcomings or blind spots that seem to be relevant in a given instance. Everybody is wrong sometimes, regardless of level. Heaven knows I've made a few decisions that, looking back, make me wince. It happens. A higher-up who isn't taking the long view, who is focusing only on what's right in front of him, will be tempted to 'fix' the immediate problem.

Big mistake.

Finally, some people live in terror of the dreaded “he knew about it and didn't do anything!” By doing something, even if it's ill-advised and destructive, you can look decisive. George W. Bush is a terrible decider, but he's decisive. Gotta give him that. In the immortal line from Animal House, “There's a time for thinking and a time for acting. And this is no time for thinking!”

But if the leaper gets rewarded, the leaped (lept?) is immediately rendered irrelevant. And the irony is that what might, at first, look like a blow for the little guy – I beat my boss! -- actually works to concentrate power more centrally, in the office of an even bigger boss. Because a boss who makes decisions on a whim can change them on a whim. Replacing a process model – as slow and frustrating as it is – with a patron/client model only empowers the boss.

All of that said, it's still hard to know how to function as the leaped/lept. You can try to out-leap the leapers, but that diverts energy from what needs to be done and implicitly endorses what they're doing. You can try to ignore it, but when the higher-ups change the play, they change the play. You can try to talk the higher-ups out of it, but in my experience, self-awareness is a rare thing; very few people are capable of moving from abstract recognition to actual behavior change. Or you can try to pretend that whatever the final result was was what you intended all along, but that comes at the cost of both credibility and self-respect.

Is there an elegant strategy I'm missing? Other than the Hobson's choice of either rolling over or quitting, is there a better way to manage a situation in which leapfrogging is rewarded?


Wednesday, May 30, 2007

 

A Local Quirk?

At my cc, the percentage of classes taught by full-time faculty in the first summer session is actually higher than it is during the regular academic year. I don't know if this is a local quirk, but it's noticeable. (And I know that pay isn't the issue, since we have a flat rate we pay for summer courses: a full-timer makes only about ten percent above the adjunct rate for a summer class. It's certainly nothing close to pro-rated.)

I've asked some of the faculty who stick around for the first session – roughly, late May and all of June – and they always give the same answer. We have very different students in the first summer session.

These students are typically traditional-age students who live in the area but who 'go away' to four-year colleges during the academic year. They're home for the summer, and picking up a few classes here to save some money and depressurize their schedules. They take a class or two in the morning, then go to work. The hallways are buzzing at 8:30, but dead shortly after noon. They don't pick up again until around 6:30.

The professors I've asked about it tell me that the students in this session are much lower-maintenance than the usual bunch. As one put it, “I say it once and they've got it.” He compared it to what he'd usually only find in an Honors section. They're certainly lower-maintenance on my end – after the first couple of days, it's unusual to see any in my office. Plagiarism complaints are few and far between this time of year.

My impression is that the 'visiting' students are generally more affluent than their year-round counterparts, and they bring with them many of the advantages of that affluence. (Those advantages are many: they can work fewer hours; they drive cars that are less likely to break down and cause them to miss class; they often have better preparation from high school; they know the unwritten rules of behavior in a classroom.) Judging by the faculty response, many full-timers are hungry for students who make teaching easier.

Oddly, the dynamic only seems to hold for the first session. The July-August session is almost entirely adjunct. The enrollments then are considerably lower, too. I suspect that this has to do with vacations.

It's striking to me, since it's the polar opposite of the stereotype of summer school. The stereotype is that summer school is full of losers, nobody wants to be there, and the whole enterprise is a bit of a joke. Here, summer school – at least for the first session – is a sort of annual foray into upscaling. For a month and a half, we get the upper-middle-class kids who usually shun cc's.

Is this a local quirk, or have you seen the same thing elsewhere?


Tuesday, May 29, 2007

 

Ask the Administrator: The Trailing International Same-Sex Partner

A longtime reader writes:

I am a junior faculty about to take a job in a top 10 department (denote by Top D). I am not American. I am gay. My life partner is also not American. My partner was until recently in our home country, let's call it X. He worked for an investment bank in country X, and had a very successful career (He's relatively young, so he'd be equivalent to a Senior Associate at a top investment bank). But we decided I would not go back to X, and we would instead try to both settle in the US (hopefully in the city where Top D is, which is a big big city, surely one of the biggest 5 cities in the US, and which I will denote as City D). City D is pretty good for my partner career-wise, but not nearly as good as NYC and maybe two other cities would be.

In order to gain time to engineer our move into the US, I took a 2 year postdoc in country Y. (Top D was nice enough to defer my starting date one year). Country Y is wonderful for us, since we were able to migrate into Y as a couple, thanks to (oh, irony) our civil union/domestic partnership (which we got in one of the few US states where one can get a civil union/domestic partnership, even if neither I nor my partner were residents of said state). My life partner is currently in school in country Y, getting an MBA. Now it's time for him to apply for jobs... in the US (our ideal country of location) and in country Y (where he'd have no trouble whatsoever getting a job/visa).

Chair and faculty at Top D are aware of my partner, and his need to find a job in
in city D). Chair has said all the right things about helping out my partner find a job (send his CV, I'll circulate it, etc)... but apparently has DONE nothing (he hasn't put us in touch with anyone, i.e. people in the school's business school, the two relatively big donors - or someone who works for them - to Top University we identified as potential employers of my life partner, etc).

Do you maybe have any advice for us? We're not yet desperate (we still have some time), but we might soon be frankly desperate (it's hard for a top flier like my partner not to have any idea of what he'll be doing in the next few months, and to feel so in the dark as to how to proceed). The interaction between being gay AND non-resident is giving us a real headache. Navigating the US immigration system seems daunting for us. My life partner is highly qualified (i.e. about to graduate from probably the top European Business School), but we have heard many horror stories about applying for jobs in industry in the US (i.e. employers losing interest THE SECOND they identify that a candidate would need an H1-B visa).

Do you think I should put added pressure on Chair of Top D to look into this? Shall I contact individual faculty members at Top D to see whether any of them have links to industry, i.e. via their spouse? (I have done this, but only in a couple of instances). Shall I contact the LGBT office of the university? The Dean (who I didn't interact with while being hired)? Or is my partner totally on his own on this one?

We don't even know what to do RE: seemingly minor things that could have big consequences. I.e. does he candidly state his visa needs in his resume? Or not? In the hope that if/when an employer interviews them they will develop enough enthusiasm for him that they will try to get him an H1-B visa? Say that he was Canadian, and thus eligible for a NAFTA visa (very easy to get, no expenses for the employer whatsoever, etc), shall he actively advertise this? I.e. a line in his CV stating "I am eligible for a NAFTA (TN) Visa"? (Downside is TN visas don't lead to residency down the line, but that'd be a good temporary solution for us to at least make it to City D, and then try to find an employer able/willing to hire my partner via an H1-B visa).

Excuse the rambling, and the odd question.

There's a lot here, but I think it's relatively decipherable if it's taken in small pieces. And I'll have to ask my readers for some help on this one.

I see this as a particularly complicated version of the basic 'trailing spouse' dilemma. As hard as it can be to find one good job, it's that much harder to find two in the same place. Some couples (both gay and straight) get around that issue by going the long-distance relationship route. From what I've observed, it makes the job searches easier, but at an obvious cost to your private life. You haven't mentioned that as an option, so I'll assume it's not the way you want to go.

Reading between the lines, I get the impression that your partner isn't really looking for an academic job. That's good, in the sense that few industries are as hard to break into as academia, but it does reduce the likelihood that your department chair will be of much use. I'm not at all surprised that your chair hasn't done much to help – chances are that even if s/he wanted to, s/he just doesn't have the relevant contacts. (And that's a big 'if' – at many places, if you're anything short of a superstar, finding a spousal job is really the candidate's problem. Very rural places can be an exception, to the extent that they're paranoid about flight risk. But since you're talking about major cities, that's moot.)

I wouldn't “pressure” the Chair at Top D. Instead, I'd ask different questions. Ask the Chair to put in a call to the campus Career Services office on your behalf, to get permission for your partner to avail himself of their help. (This should take about five minutes of the Chair's time, so I don't think it's out of bounds. If the Chair gets balky, just ask her to ask the Dean to do it.) If the university has ever had international students before – and I'd bet it has – then the questions about how to present visa status on an application have come up before, and the career services folk should be practiced hands at that. I'd also ask the Chair to arrange for you to have a brief audience (even if only by phone) with the Dean of Students, or whomever handles international students on campus. Someone who deals with immigration law every single day can offer much savvier guidance about the current rules and loopholes than could almost anyone else. Since these are on-campus resources and all you're asking for is referrals, I can't see anybody objecting that you're placing an undue burden on the department.

I don't know how useful the campus LGBT office would be; I'm not sure this is really in their wheelhouse. I'll just have to ask knowledgeable readers to comment on that.

Admittedly, these aren't nearly as good as simply calling the trustee's cousin and landing a plum gig at Behemoth Corporation, but such things rarely happen in the real world. Finding the job will still be your problem, but you'll at least have more resources at your disposal when you try.

Contacting individual faculty members strikes me as extremely risky. It would come off as trying to make your problem their problem, which is not a good first impression to make, especially when you're trying to get tenure.

Another option, of course, would be to look actively (for both of you) in more locations.

The trailing spouse problem in higher ed is real, and ubiquitous, and getting worse. It clashes directly with 'open search' laws, hiring freezes, departmental autonomy (when the trailing spouse is in a different department), and basic fairness to single people. That said, people have a funny habit of pairing off. I've written before about some particularly silly proposed solutions to the dilemma; I have yet to see a really good one.

Good luck.

Generous readers – what would you add (or correct)?

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


Monday, May 28, 2007

 

A Sickening Mathematical Truth

Today is TB's 6th birthday.

It occurred to me that 6 is one-third of 18.

....

It goes soooo fast...


Friday, May 25, 2007

 

This Will Go On Your Permanent Record, Young Man...

I don't know if teachers still use the 'permanent record' line, but I remember it as a staple of middle school in Northern Town. Nobody ever actually saw their 'permanent record,' which paradoxically made the threat all the scarier. After all, who knows what might be in there? (After years of that, reading Foucault on the panopticon had a 'well, duh!' quality to it.)

In all the recent conversation about blogging, institutional image, and job markets, I've been struck by a bifurcation in the types of information available.

Official information – the kind of stuff that we're supposed to use as the basis for decisions – is much more closely guarded than it once was. Privacy laws and fear of litigation have made it much harder to get meaty letters of reference, since nobody wants to give a bad reference, even if only by contrast. Many companies won't do much more than confirm dates of employment. Sussing out things like 'reasons for dismissal' is pretty much impossible.

But unofficial information – the kind of stuff we like to think doesn't count – is everywhere, and more easily found than ever. And since nature and hiring committees abhor vacuums, there's an ever-present danger than 'bad' information will fill the void left by the shortage of 'good' information. I may not be able to get a reference that tells me anything, but Google will tell me almost anything. The quality may be infinitely worse, but it's easily available.

There's a cartoon on my refrigerator at home. It shows a puffy old guy in academic regalia, apparently giving a graduation speech. He says something like “I encourage you to question authority, but not on your blog, where future employers might see it.” It spoke to me. In a more enlightened world, I'd happily shed the pseudonym, list my blog on my c.v., and let hiring committees read my stuff to get some insight into my theories of academic management. Some might well be appalled, but some might be attracted, and I'd probably be more comfortable with the latter group anyway.

But no. When hiring season fires up again this Fall, the application will be blog-free. People who could otherwise have gained pretty good insight into my thought processes won't. I can't help but think that the likelihood of a bad fit is thereby increased.

The embargo on official information is well-intentioned, but poorly thought out. Yes, it's good that we don't post student grades next to their social security numbers on office doors anymore; anybody with a basic command of alphabetical order could figure out who is who, and identity theft is real. And yes, it's good that a single asshole boss will have a harder time poisoning future wells.

But the thirst for information about other people – especially other people you're considering hiring – hasn't gone away.

As in so many other things, I think the legislation and the culture have gone in opposite directions.

Leaving aside the valid identity-theft issues, I think most of the formal and informal bans on relevant information-sharing reflect a distrust of how other people will use the information. Maybe I don't know your previous boss, so when he says you were a lackluster employee, I don't have the context to know that he's actually a lecherous drunk whose general misanthropy drove you away. Fair enough.

But the information people put out there on MySpace and Facebook and the rest goes way beyond anything a hateful former boss might say. And there's no ban on looking at that. We're already hearing stories of college grads being shunned by employers for stuff they put on their own MySpace pages.

My hope, and I'll admit it's ambitious, is that we'll start to recognize the weird bifurcation in information, and develop more sophisticated reading skills to compensate. Put differently, the substitution of a plethora of 'unofficial' information may require us to get a little less Puritanical about other people's lives. Ideally, I'm hoping, the sheer fact of so much 'raw' information, combined with the increasing shortage of 'cooked,' may force us to become more sophisticated consumers of it. Maybe we'll stop expecting everybody to be spotless – 'brains on sticks,' as Bitch likes to say – and instead recognize that people are three-dimensional. Maybe we'll even recognize the need for intelligent policies on childcare, since people have children, or health care, since people are mortal. Maybe we'd even take halting steps towards intelligent policies on how people spend their personal time.

That, or we'll be forced to make hiring decisions based on who posted the least idiotic pictures on MySpace (or the least controversial essays on their blog). It could go either way...


Thursday, May 24, 2007

 

Life Economics

I've been following Tenured Radical's thoughtful discussion of the realities of student debt, and the ethics of choosing not to pay attention.

It's a great issue. It's concrete, it's real, it has tremendous consequences, and it's something we can actually do something about.

I'll admit to taking it in a different direction than TR's discussion. That's because I think TR and her commenters largely nailed it, in terms of the economics of being a student at a pricey residential college. Students at cc's generally have different issues, since they mostly live at home and don't do 'meal plans.' For these students, transportation is a huge cost. They live at home, commute to college, and commute to work. What socializing they do also usually requires driving. (In four years at Snooty Liberal Arts College, I never had a car. Most students didn't.) When the only car you can afford is an oldie, you wind up paying extra in repairs and lost time. Insurance ain't cheap for young drivers, and, candidly, some of them haven't quite grasped the concept of “speed limits,” which raises costs even more.

Add to that the slow climb of the minimum wage (esp. as a fraction of tuition!), the frontal assault on the used-book market by publishers, the expectation of constant reachability by phone (creating a category of expense that didn't exist back in the Paleolithic era, when I was a student), the aggressiveness of credit-card marketing, and the general impulsiveness of youth (a wonderful lyric, circa 1990: “I spent my last ten dollars on birth control and beer...”), and financial solvency is an uphill battle.

All of that granted, I also think many students need a clue about the financial realities of leaving student-hood; the financial lessons people need to learn when going from student status – whether undergrad or grad – to worker-bee status.

Sometimes I honestly believe the best fifteen bucks I ever spent was on Personal Finance for Dummies. (This was around 1997 – I don't know what the 2007 equivalent would be.) As one who had gone directly from undergrad to grad school, I was badly naïve in the ways of the financial world of people who actually make salaries. That's not to say I was coddled – I lived in some real shitholes – but just to say that I had no more concept of a mutual fund than I did of fruitfly migration patterns. So when I got an actual job, and the grace period on student loan repayments ran out, I had to learn a whole new set of rules.

(In grad school, 'financial planning' usually boiled down to 'what will I do the next time I have a huge car repair to pay for?' It happened entirely too often.)

Some of the rules were of the “oh, yeah” variety. You kind of already know them, but you hadn't put them together that way before. My first “oh, yeah” moment was when I read that paying off a student loan early amounts to a guaranteed after-tax return of 8% (or whatever your interest rate is). Mathematically, this isn't rocket science, but I hadn't put it together quite that way before. Similarly, the rule of 'always contribute enough to the 401(k) to get the full employer match' is mathematically obvious, but sometimes you need someone to connect the dots for you. And there's the classic “houses appreciate, cars depreciate,” which isn't universally true but is a pretty good rule of thumb.

Other rules were more obscure. TW and I had been married for a couple of years before we discovered, via a passing comment by her brother, that a married couple insuring two cars together gets a much better rate than each of us insuring our own separately. Who knew? (Reason #53556 to support gay marriage – it'll save them a bundle on car insurance!) It was only about two years ago that I discovered that if you barely use cell phones, prepaid phones are dramatically cheaper. And I've become something of a savant about dodging ATM fees.

(Luckily, I was always healthily wary of credit card debt, which struck me as inordinately expensive, and car leases, which struck me as shady. Sometimes that Midwestern Scandinavian conscience actually comes in handy.)

There's even a whole vocabulary to learn. I had no concept of 'escrow' or 'equity' until I was thirty.

I don't know how or when to impart this kind of information to students. I've gone on record on my campus as opposing “student success” course requirements (“intro to college”), since they strike me as infantilizing. (Don't even get me started on the “time management” gurus. Time management tip #1: don't waste your time on time management gurus.) But some sort of “intro to life economics” elective – or maybe series of workshops with free food -- might be a good idea, particularly for the traditional-age students. Teach them about compound interest before they get sucked in. Apply critical thinking skills – the holy grail of the liberal arts – to economic situations most people actually encounter. That's not the same as the current Intro to Economics, which is more about methods and demand curves and the discipline of economics than about daily life.

Sigh.

Okay, I know this isn't going to happen, and much of it would fall on deaf ears if it did. But it would do a hell of a lot more good than much of what we do teach.

What would you include in a course on life economics?


Wednesday, May 23, 2007

 

Ask the Administrator: Blogging Boundaries

A department chair writes:

I have a question about boundaries for blogs. Several of the department’s graduate students blog, with varying levels of anonymity. In a couple of cases, at least, it would take only minimal sleuthing to figure out which institution of higher learning the bloggers are writing about, even though it is not named. As might be predicted given the time of year, current entries by graduate students who are also teachers focus on the pain of grading. I sympathize, but at the same time I am bothered by the public nature of the complaining, especially since the subtext of it is generally that the undergraduate students at this institution are not very capable. A few posts are also quite critical of certain aspects of the department’s graduate program. While the criticism is sometimes just, I wish that the graduate students would bring it to me before blogging about it. Some of the problems raised in the blogs are real and insoluble, as we are an institution with open admissions and little funding. Others could either be solved or at least be productively explained – but bringing them up in a blog is not likely to prompt either a solution or an explanation.

For the most part, I try to deal with graduate student blogging the same way I deal with ratemyprofessors.com – by ignoring it. And truth to tell, most of the blog content is fun and no cause for concern. But because many of the blogs are linked to each other, the opportunities for dissatisfaction to build on itself are clearly there, anonymity is a fiction, and I am no longer sure that ignoring all of this is the best idea.

The posts that instigated this email to you were written by a graduate student teacher who is complaining both about a student of his who plagiarized and about how he thinks I am handling the student’s appeal of his penalty. The posts also include snippets from several of his students' papers, accompanied by mocking commentary. On the one hand, I feel he has violated some professional boundaries here: in blogging about a specific student's unresolved appeal, in complaining about me in a blog that his fellow graduate students (and some faculty) will read, and in sharing students' written work in a context that would embarrass the students. On the other hand, I do not want him, and the other graduate student teachers (at least one of whom also has a recent post that mocks a student's writing), to feel that I am trying to interfere with their right to express their experiences, network with their peers, etc. I am pretty sure it has not occurred to them that I might read their blogs. Any thoughts? Am I right in feeling that lines have been crossed? If so, what guidelines are reasonable to offer graduate student teachers who blog?

I'll admit I have a dog in this fight, as a longtime (three years!) blogger myself.

Without knowing the specifics, I can't pass judgment on any single post. Instead, I'll offer several thoughts, and invite my readers to share their own.

  1. As a department chair (or administrator of any sort), you need a thick skin. If they aren't complaining about you on the internet, they're complaining about you somewhere else. Back in my grad school days, we gossiped endlessly – and pointlessly, and often incorrectly – about damn near everybody, and nobody had ever heard of the web yet. There's a Robinson Jeffers line about raging at the sun for rising, which pretty well captures the spirit in which you have to accept student complaining. Grad students will bitch. Even if you were to have total control of their home internet access – which you don't and shouldn't – they'd just bitch in other venues. (Faculty are just as bad, btw.) As long as it doesn't rise to the level of libel or threats, you just have to be above it.

  1. Complaints about undergraduate writing skills, and the bane of grading generally, are simply part of academic culture. (My contribution can be seen here.) Narratives of cultural decline are as old as narratives. Nobody who knows what they're talking about honestly believes that every student at every college is practically perfect in every way. A little venting of frustration, as long as it doesn't single out a particular student, strikes me as harmless and even healthy.

  1. I'm absolutely fascinated at the evolving etiquette around pseudonymity. You're probably right that a determined sleuth who knew a few tech tricks could sniff out the identity of damn near anybody. But the peculiar dynamic of agreeing not to look too closely has developed as a sort of social norm necessary to the continued functioning of the genre. (That's why folks who happen upon the blogosphere often badly misconstrue it at first.) In my own case, had I known when I started how long I'd do this, I probably would have fictionalized some details of my autobiography; alas, too late now. (“When his baseball career ended, Dean Dad served briefly in the United States Senate.”) In my case, particulars would actually make the blog impossible, since statements of general principle would be read locally as coded indicators of a political agenda. I see “Dean Dad” as a way to address questions at a different – and higher – level than I can locally. I ask those who see value in the discussion to respect the enabling fiction of the pseudonym.

  2. All of that said, the ethic of agreeing not to look too closely is predicated on a reciprocal ethic of using the freedom afforded by that discretion constructively. I've certainly written about things that have frustrated me, but I've never directly attacked anybody at my college. That would strike me as out of bounds. It's one thing to say “the paradox of faculty governance is that it coexists with a general antipathy to meetings.” It's another to say “Bob is a real dick. He can't even be bothered to show up to his own meeting.” (I'll admit a sort of 'public figure' exception. I've gleefully attacked President Bush directly on any number of occasions. For that, I'll just cite the 18th century pamphleteers as a precedent. If Madison and Hamilton could do it, so can I.)

  3. It's not clear to me how the ethic of agreeing not to look too closely interacts with the job market. Given that many of the people on search committees are unschooled in the ways of the blogosphere, I suspect that some would scan blogs for ammunition, rather than reading them constructively. This may change with the generations, but academe is scandalously slow at generational change.

  4. In your third paragraph, as I understand it, the grad student is divulging information about a case currently in process. This strikes me as a violation of confidentiality. In this particular case, it might be appropriate to email the blogger in question and ask “is this you?” The blogger may not have thought through just how public her writings actually are. The shock of discovering that you read the blog may be enough to prevent any future sharing of confidential information.

  5. In terms of criticisms of the graduate program, I'd draw a distinction between general or constructive criticism -- “the mentoring for producing publishable work sucks” -- and personal attacks -- “Prof. Jones is a stinking drunk.” The first is the coin of the realm for creative workers; the second is potentially legally actionable. Even if the general or constructive criticism is inaccurate, it at least gives you a sense of what some people perceive. I've had times when perceptions of what I was doing were so far out of line with reality that I've actually had to step back and address the misperceptions directly. It happens. Think of the blogs as canaries in the coal mine.

  6. Given the creative nature of academic work, some tension is inevitable. Accept it and move on.

  7. The best guideline for blogging that I've ever seen was two words: “be professional.” Much of the actual content of that will be context-dependent, but learning professional context is supposed to be part of the point of grad school.

Wise and worldly readers -- your thoughts?

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

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

 

Walking

Why do students who aren't really graduating beg to 'walk' at the graduation ceremony?

Do they think nobody will know? Do they think it counts anyway? Don't their consciences nag at them? (I imagine “pomp and circumstance” playing in the back of someone's mind for the rest of his life, like the telltale heart.)

I'd feel like a colossal fraud.

I could understand if a college made it a usual practice to 'walk' summer grads in spring, just so they could save on ceremonies. (High School Friend on Right Ocean 'walked' for his doctorate a full year in advance of actually receiving it, based on some very weird circumstances involving getting his adviser back in the right hemisphere. But that was for a reason.) Proprietary U insisted on running three full graduations a year, and made it mandatory for faculty to attend two (and deans to attend all three). It was a real pain, and not inexpensive. And even there, with graduations rolling around every few months, students would beg to walk immediately, even if they had to retake classes the following semester.

(A side note on graduation etiquette: since 9/11, they've all involved the national anthem. It seems rude to leave the mortarboard on during the anthem, but it seems ridiculous to put it over your heart like a baseball cap. What's the etiquette here? I've gone with the baseball cap method, on the theory that it's the less offensive, but it still strikes me as incongruous.)

Back when dinosaurs ruled the earth, graduations were relatively rare. You'd have one from high school, another from college, and one from grad school. Now you get them from preschool, kindergarten, elementary school, middle school, etc. I've heard of professors doing 'graduations' on the last day of each class. I see no good coming from graduation inflation. It debases the currency.

In a pinch, I suppose I could understand the kid who just found out two days before the ceremony that he didn't make it, but his family already bought the tickets to fly in from several time zones away. But that's rarely the case at a cc. These folks are local; I'd be surprised if many had to drive more than an hour. The students who claim they had no idea usually should have known months in advance, if not longer. And any kid who thinks he's fooling his family is in for a rude shock when the family gets a tuition bill for the following semester.

Wise and worldly readers – why do non-grads want to walk?


Monday, May 21, 2007

 

No More High Chair

The Girl refused her high chair a couple of days ago, and hasn't looked back.

On Saturday, she went without pull-ups for the first time. Her first 'big girl' undies were festooned with Curious George. She stayed dry all day, to the delight of all.

We retired the crib a couple of months ago, which was traumatic enough. Now she's mowing down milestones every few days.

One night last week, she and I were playing in the living room. She wrapped a blanket around her head like a bonnet. I told her she looked like a baby. She froze, shocked, and corrected me:

“I'm not a baby! I'm a big woman!”

Oh.

Between TB and TG, we've had a high chair at the table for the last six years. TG is our last, so when we put it away, that's that. We've been buying diapers and/or pull-ups for the last six years – now, abruptly, not. Soon we'll probably retire the sippy cups and the stroller.

That phase of our lives will be over.

With little ones, I've heard it said, the days are long but the years are short. It's true.

There's something incredibly fulfilling about watching them grow into themselves. It's like watching a puzzle solve itself. Each new bit of independence is cause for real joy. Their ability to surprise you every single day is one of those little facts that nothing can really prepare you for. And there's real parental pride in watching, say, TB spontaneously offer a tissue to his crying friend. He's on his way to becoming a good man, which is all I can ask. Even at almost-six, you can see it.

And it will certainly be easier, on a day-to-day level, with less baby paraphernalia around.

But we've had that high chair at the table for a long time. The table doesn't look quite right without it.

She's not a big woman yet, but she is getting to be a big girl. I'm proud of her, and I wouldn't have it any other way. But I still think she looks a little like a baby.


Friday, May 18, 2007

 

The Paradox of RateMyProfessors.com

A reader wrote to ask a dean's-eye perspective on ratemyprofessors.com.

The short version: I consider it electronic gossip.

The slightly longer version: I've had enough social science training to know that small, self-selected samples lead to skewed outcomes.

The long version: and yet, from what I've seen, the ratings usually aren't that far off. Which is fascinating, given that the methodology is so bad.

I've never used it in anybody's evaluation, and won't. It's too easy to game, it uses criteria I don't recognize as valid measures of teaching performance (easiness of grading and “hotness”), and it can give far too much weight to the occasional disgruntled (or infatuated) student. I make a point of not even looking at it for people who are up for evaluation in a given year.

And yet, the few times I've checked it, the ratings have mostly been right. Comments posted alongside the ratings have often been scarily right. I'm fascinated by the paradox of an awful method leading to pretty good results.

Anybody who has read through teaching evaluations in bulk – and heaven help me, I have – can tell you that most students pay little heed to the individual questions or categories. If they liked the professor, they rate her high in everything; if they didn't, they rate her low in everything. It's not uncommon to see a line drawn down one column of twenty questions, giving the same answer to all twenty. (A blessed few students actually take the time and effort to disaggregate the questions. These are much more helpful. I recall one professor who got awful ratings in everything except something like “intellectually challenging,” where he was off the charts. Essentially, the students found him brilliant but incomprehensible.)

I think something similar happens with ratemyprofessors. Although it asks about easiness and hotness, a quick read of the comments suggests that the ratings really reflect a more general overall thumbs-up or thumbs-down. (The chili pepper is another issue.) The students who post to it actually make the tool smarter than it's designed to be. The comments, read in bulk, seem to suggest that students like clarity of presentation, clarity of grading criteria, a sense of humor, and a grounded ego. Honestly, so do I. They get grumpy at professors who take a month to return graded assignments. Honestly, so do I.

I've noticed, too, that they're pretty willing to 'forgive' harsh grading, if they believe that the harsh grading reflects high – as opposed to arbitrary – standards. And they loathe professors who spend significant class time on digressions about their personal lives. That strikes me as reasonable.

It's true that some professors have 'rock star' charisma and can get away with liberties that most of us couldn't, but I'm struck by the respect most students have for good teachers. I'm especially heartened by comments like “I busted my ass and still only got a B, but I never learned more.” That gives me hope. And I don't think it's out of bounds for a student to complain that he didn't get his first graded assignment back until Thanksgiving. Especially at the intro level, relatively frequent and prompt feedback makes a real difference.

I don't use rmp, but I'd recommend it at useful reading for instructors looking to get a reality check as to what students value. Just don't take the categories too literally; read the comments instead.



Thursday, May 17, 2007

 

It Only Hurts When I Think

A while back, I did a piece on Dilbert budgeting. It's getting worse.

The administrative assistant for a fairly high-traffic department quit. In former times, we would hire a temp for a few weeks while we did a search for a new full-time assistant. We would pay the temp from the budget line that we had set aside to pay the full-timer's salary. So instead of paying person A, we'd use (pretty much) the same amount to pay person B, until we hired person C, who would also get pretty close to the same amount.

That was too close to rational.

Now, to save money, the college has decided to impound sixty days' salary whenever somebody leaves. The idea is that most positions can go unfilled for a short time, and the net impact will be equivalent to a couple of layoffs, but nobody gets laid off.

Cough.

The flaw in the theory, of course, is that most positions can't sit vacant for two months. If they could, I'd wonder why we have them at all. (The theory was also based on the assumption that attrition only occurs through retirement, and retirements typically involve months of advance notice, for benefits purposes. Of course, some people just up and quit.)

Certainly this position can't go unfilled for very long. Most faculty high-tail it out of Dodge once they've turned in grades, and this is a pretty high-traffic department with some students who badly need individual attention.

So the solution worked out with the budget director is...

drum roll, please...

find money in the corners of other accounts to pay for the temp for the next two months, to make up for the money being sucked into the void from the original salary line. We're looking at leftovers in telephone allocations, photocopying, subscriptions, and the like.

The punchline is that the cost of the temp is actually higher than the cost of the full-timer being replaced, since temps come with temp agency fees. (Adjuncts are the only temps on whom we actually save money.)

This, in the name of saving money.

Your tax dollars at work!

What's the dumbest or most self-defeating 'money saving' move you've seen?





Wednesday, May 16, 2007

 

Democracy and Hiring

A longtime reader writes:

So, here's a question for you: Is it a good idea for department chairs to value democracy within the department? (I recognize this is not a black-and-white answer).

A little context from my experience: We have regular faculty meetings (1st Friday of the month) where many topics are discussed among the 24-member faculty. We vote on many issues (as required by the bylaws). We have a complicated procedure for voting on the addition of new faculty which is followed very well.

However during the eight years of our current chair's tenure,when the chair has been in the minority in a vote on who to hire as anew faculty member, that "decision" has never come to pass. This is beginning to be pretty statistically significant with n now equal to 8. Eight times we have voted to hire somebody or to search for a particular time of somebody but the chair was not behind the vote. The people who won those votes never joined our faculty.

1. In some cases, it was decided we needed to have another vote. Sometimes we needed a third vote before we got it right.

2. In some cases the chair dutifully brought the offer to the candidate with the most votes but for some reason he turned us down. In such cases I've wondered just how enthusiastic the chair was in making the offer, given that the candidate he supported was number two on our list.

3. In one case we decided that we would ask the provost to search for faculty in specialties X and Y. No priority was given by the faculty; as a group we thought it was a good idea to search for both. During this discussion the chair made it clear that he was in favor of X and not very excited about Y. Next thing we know we are informed that an ad will be placed for X only because we were only given permission to search for one. No subsequent discussion was sought on whether X was more favored than Y now that we had to make the choice for only one. This situation then evolved into case 1 above followed by case 2 above.

So, how much should democracy be valued in an academic department. Do the examples above represent reasonable exercise of the prerogative of the chair or outrageous usurpation of the rights of faculty?

There's a lot to unpack here. In a followup email, he mentioned that at his college, chairs are chosen by deans at deans' sole discretion. There's a norm of consultation with the department, but the final choice rests with the dean. If the chair were elected, my answer would probably be different.

To start on the global level, I'll just say that workplaces aren't democracies. (How would 'one employee, one vote' work with adjuncts? Should votes be apportioned by salary? The potential for conflicts of interest here is staggering.) Citizens don't get downsized. That's not to deny that some democratic trappings might be useful in some contexts, but let's not mistake employment for citizenship. So to my mind, there's no a priori 'rightness' to a democratic process, although there can certainly be a pragmatic case for it in certain contexts. That said, I think the real issue is the underlying, existing understanding of what the local rules actually are.

As to the particulars, I'll start with the easy one. Case 3 strikes me as pretty unobjectionable. If the faculty didn't express a preference, that's their call, but I don't think they then have the right to complain if somebody else does. The protest of no subsequent discussion strikes me as too clever by half; if they decided, after due deliberation, that they had no preference between X and Y, then that's what they decided. To complain that they didn't then get to re-decide strikes me as pushing it.

Case 2 is suspicious, but certainly not damning. I've made offers that weren't accepted. It wasn't for a lack of enthusiasm on my part, certainly. But people turn down offers for lots of reasons, including salary, housing costs, teaching loads, better offers, spousal/relationship issues, perceived cultural fit, and more. It's possible that your chair intentionally half-assed it, but it's also very possible that nothing he did or didn't do tipped the balance. I'd describe the evidence in 2 as thin and circumstantial.

Case 1 jumps off the page (screen?). Why the hell would you need three votes to “get it right”? In the absence of something really glaring, this strikes me as pretty heavy-handed.

I'm also intrigued at your mention of department bylaws. Do the bylaws specify the degree to which department votes are understood to be binding? Do they specify the subjects on which the department gets to vote? If they prescribe processes but not the meaning of outcomes, then you have a much bigger problem.

Many colleges have faculty senates or variations on faculty senates, wherein votes are taken, but the results are not binding on the administration. If everybody goes in with their eyes open, then fine. But I've heard administrators accused of autocratic tendencies for not bowing to a vote that wasn't supposed to be binding anyway. You can't have it both ways. If it's truly binding, then by no means should the faculty have the monopoly on the franchise. If the faculty has a monopoly on the franchise, then its voice should be considered simply that of one important interest group among others.

It sounds to me like there are competing understandings of the meaning of a vote. If the vote is simply a formalized way of consulting for advice, then the chair didn't do anything against the rules. (That's not to say his actions weren't politically naïve or even stupid, but they weren't invalid.) If the vote is understood to be binding, then the chair's actions in Case 1 need some serious explaining. My guess is that different people have different understandings of the meaning of a vote, which is why conflicts like these keep cropping up. Rather than hashing out those understandings, which is risky and potentially demoralizing, it can be easier just to blame the personalities involved.

(Academia has a horrifying tradition of binding non-binding arrangements, in which a given voice is technically non-binding, but expects a level of 'deference' such that it's effectively binding. Again, you can't have it both ways.)

My advice is to make a choice. Either suck it up, or have a clarifying departmental conversation about the meaning of a vote. As long as everybody has different understandings of the rules, I'd expect these conflicts to keep happening.

Long-suffering readers: your thoughts?

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



Tuesday, May 15, 2007

 

Shhh!!!

A few years ago, my state established a merit scholarship program. High-achieving high school grads are eligible for substantial scholarships to attend their local cc's for two years. The state sees it as a way to increase the capacity of the state higher ed system without the cost of building.

We advertise the program on our website. We advertise it at open houses, in newspapers, on public access tv, and to the local guidance counselors. We host every guidance counselor in the area at least once a year, and make certain that they know all the ins and outs of the program.

Yesterday I attended a special event we host for some local high school teachers. When we mentioned the program, you could see the blank stares. As we outlined it, you could hear gasps. They had never heard of it.

I did some asking around. According to the folks in Admissions, who have been fighting this battle for some time, the guidance counselors have strict orders from their superintendents not to mention the program to their students, for fear that the students will use it.

We wouldn't want that...

Although the scholarship program is statewide, superintendents are essentially local. To a local K-12 superintendent, the needs of the state higher ed system are fairly abstract, but the need to keep local property values up through a high profile high school is concrete. And one of the primary statistics used to differentiate one public school district from another is the percentage of graduates it sends to four-year colleges and universities. No distinctions are made within that group, so the University of Chicago and Struggling State College count the same. But cc's get their own category, and too high a percentage in that category drags down a public school's ranking.

The shame of it, of course, is that some of the students who would have fit the program never hear of it and get pushed to four-year colleges away from home, where they promptly crash and burn, then come back to us in January with a palpable sense of failure. (These students are academically capable, but often just not ready to leave home yet.) From a superintendent's perspective, though, that's invisible. His job is done when the graduate shows up in September at St. Whomever's or Nothing Special State. If that same student comes back to us in January, that's not the high school's problem. But if that student started here in the first place, then the high school might drop a notch in the rankings, and no good can come of that.

So we have the state trying to use cc's as feeders, and local districts doing everything in their power to stop that from happening. Meanwhile, the cc's struggle for enrollment, and guidance counselors actually hide information from students they know it could help, so they won't get fired.

Your tax dollars at work!

Actually, that's not completely true. The 'rankings' of high schools are not taxpayer funded. (To the extent that taxpayers fund rankings, they're through standardized tests. Standardized tests have other flaws, but at least they don't punish cc's for existing.) The (property) market-driven need for invidious distinctions leads private parties to generate rankings of their own. That's fine, and they're certainly within their rights to do so, but the outsize weight given to very superficial measures is defeating a program that actually makes sense.

My proposed measure: don't track where students start. Track where they finish. How many graduates have, say, B.A.'s within five years? How many get into medical school? The reality of the situation is that admissions standards across the 'four-year' sector vary so widely that the criterion is meaningless. (This measure might also shift focus somewhat from creating slots for kids to be 'recording secretary of the Spanish club' to actually preparing kids academically for college. This strikes me as a good thing.) It's not at all clear to me that the kid who spends a year at Struggling State only to drink his way out reflects a better high school experience than the kid who starts at a cc, transfers to a four-year school, graduates, and makes his way in the world. But as far as the local press is concerned, the first suggests a strong high school, and the second a weak one. In this case, the market is wrong.

So we muddle along, one foot planted firmly on the accelerator, the other on the brake. The guidance counselors know and can't tell; the teachers have no idea; the legislature can't figure out why the program isn't gaining traction; and my numbers aren't pretty. There's gotta be a better way.



Monday, May 14, 2007

 

Ask the Administrator: Arguing Up

A longtime correspondent writes:

I've recently been moved into a more administrative position where I have more input in institutional decisions and am therefore privy to more information in order to help make those decisions. I have some pretty strong beliefs about where I think we should be headed, based primarily on a particular philosophical stance...I am aware that not all of my personal beliefs may be appropriate for us to pursue but I would like to express them and have them considered without it looking completely like it's my own ax to grind. I know in many cases I have some expertise that no one else in the room has, but it may look like I'm simply a zealot. So, my question is, how does one present one's views in a way that they will be seriously considered or must one simply keep their mouth shut and watch the train wreck?

This is a real, and serious, issue. (The correspondent included more details in the email, but posting them would probably compromise anonymity.) It's one of those realities of management wherein the folks below think that The Administration (conceived as a monolith) is as stupid as its worst decision, and those above think that any reservations expressed about their chosen course are either excuses for laziness or outright insubordination.

Welcome to my world.

Each situation is different, based on content of the issue in question, local culture, personalities, fiscal constraints and/or opportunities, quirks of institutional history, and the like. Since I don't know any of those well enough to provide a specific answer in this case, I'll just go to general observations about trying to foster change from within.

  1. Decisions are rarely made in meetings. They're usually made between meetings, often on the strength of single anecdotes. I'm not wild about that fact; I'm just recognizing it. The implication of this, I think, is that advocacy should be done outside of meetings, and almost always one-on-one. Public advocacy in a context in which a decision has already been made will brand you a zealot.

  1. “Pilot Project” can be a magic phrase. It's often possible to create some facts on the ground by doing it as a pilot project (or “on an experimental basis,” if the local culture prefers).. By the time the assessment phase rolls around, inertia is actually working in your favor. Arguing from established facts is much easier than arguing from a philosophical conviction. Besides, a successful pilot can be used as a precedent without sacrificing integrity – after all, that's the point of a pilot project in the first place. If the project works, then either your opponents will be converted or look ridiculous. If it doesn't, you chalk it up to experience and move on.

  1. Acknowledge the opposition's concerns, and address them. I've found it's sometimes possible to move someone from 'categorically opposed' to 'skeptical, but willing to consider' if you can convince them that you've heard them. Although this can be done cynically, it's usually a good idea anyway, since proposals are usually varying degrees of 'better' and 'worse,' rather than 'all good' or 'all bad.'

  2. New administrators can make the mistake of trying to act as Ambassador From Their Previous Level. Don't fall into this trap. (I did, in my early days of deaning.) If you're arguing up, you need to be able to think at least one level above your rank, and make arguments that would make sense there. For example, if I hope to swing my VP to supporting an idea of mine, I have to make my pitch in terms that are important to him. Sometimes that involves a certain amount of ideological cross-dressing, but hey. (I knew that cultural studies stuff would come in handy someday!) This is why I find myself arguing on financial grounds for a new full-time hire in philosophy. It's well and good to have your own convictions, but if you want others to get on board, you'll need to figure out what matters to them, and translate.

  1. In some contexts, if you've earned a certain level of respect, you can get permission to try something by offering to take the blame if it fails. Be very careful when you choose to try this, because if you get this wrong, they just might take you up on it. But there are times when it makes sense to gamble. I did that last year with a struggling program. Others at the college wanted to take it in a direction that I was firmly convinced would kill it. I gambled a good chunk of my own political capital on a different move, which was approved in a spirit somewhere between “if it means that much to you” and “here's enough rope to hang yourself.” But the move worked – spectacularly, in fact – and I've seen my own political standing improve along with the health of the program. Just choose very, very carefully, and not very often.

  1. Take the high road. It doesn't always work, of course, but it tends to leave you able to return to fight another day. I've seen many managers try to horse-trade their way to greatness, and I can't deny that it sometimes works, but it's incredibly risky. Don't get sucked into backroom deals. Over time, strategy 6 can give you the capital to take the occasional flyer on strategy 5. You'll also sleep better at night. Besides, as Mark Twain noted, the truth is easier to remember.

Wise and battle-scarred readers: what would you add?

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



 

The Way It Oughta Be

Once in a while, the planets align, and the distinction between 'is' and 'ought' collapses. This actually happened this weekend.

We were at our local minor league stadium for a day game. Third row, halfway up the third base line, just to the right of the visitors' dugout.

The weather was perfect, the kids on their best behavior, and we even remembered sunscreen and caps.

And during an inning change...

The opposing catcher, on the way back to the dugout, flipped the ball directly to TB! Who caught it cleanly!

The adults in the row behind us cheered for TB.

And that's the way it oughta be.


Friday, May 11, 2007

 

Ask the Administrator: Knowing When to Quit

A longtime correspondent, himself a department chair, writes:

when does a chair know that they have overstayed their welcome?

A damn fine question.

Knowing when it's time to walk away is tough. Some colleges have either official or unofficial term limits for chairs – a system I strongly advocate – so the system makes the decision for you. (I also strongly advocate term limits for members of Boards of Trustees, but that's another post.) Sometimes a chair loses re-election or gets replaced by the dean, so other people make the decision for you. And sometimes health or some other personal issue creates a sort of force majeure that make the decision a no-brainer.

More common in my experience, though, is the chair who won't leave the position vertically.

At my college, chairs are initially appointed by deans, and are effectively impossible to dislodge. Some have been in office since the 1980's. They're technically on annual appointments, which strikes me as an asinine system; if somebody has been reappointed 23 times, the burden of proof to avoid a 24th is pretty much unattainable. So they stick around forever. (Most of my chairs were inherited from previous deans.) I'd rather move to, say, three-year terms, on the theory that longer terms can lead to more meaningful reviews. (That's the same principle behind the lower re-election rate for the Senate, as opposed to the House.)

All of that said, how does an individual chair know when it's time to move on?

My quick and dirty answer is: when you're only maintaining.

We all have strengths, passions, and goals; we all also have weaknesses, blind spots, and bad habits. In my observation, most chair careers follow a predictable arc:

  1. The exciting and scary high-risk, high-reward early stage in which she makes some rookie mistakes, but also brings new and interesting things to the table. (The first two years, usually.)

  2. The high-functioning stage. She has learned the ropes well enough to avoid the rookie mistakes, has gained some confidence, and is following through on her strengths.

  3. The long, slow decline. She has added what she is going to add, and now spends most of her time playing defense and fighting change. Her blind spots are starting to become evident in the department. This can go on pretty much forever.

(Exceptions include those who crash and burn in the first year or two, and those who move from stage 2 into deanships or other administrative roles.)

If you aren't still reshaping the department, if you're just 'holding the line' against what you perceive as inexorable decline, then it's time to go. As I've written before, you don't win on defense.

Admittedly, it isn't always as simple as that. If the only possible successors are train wrecks waiting to happen, there may be an argument for sticking around long enough to try to develop one or more of your potential successors into someone capable. Delegate, train, develop, with an eye toward moving on as soon as there's someone capable in the wings. (We usually use 'coordinator' positions for that sort of thing, but any kind of administrative responsibility that involves complexity and extended time will do. My intro to administrative work involved chairing a self-study.) But don't let that drag out too long.

There are other ways of thinking about this. Some chairs believe strongly in the “well-oiled machine” model, by which they mean that success is defined by getting the department where they want it and then preserving it that way indefinitely. I consider this hopelessly naïve. Organizational entropy is real, and anybody who tries to stand athwart history yelling “stop!” is doomed to failure. If you perceive the department as being right where you want it, that's another way of saying you've run out of ideas. Once that happens, decline is just a matter of time.

(Candidly, I apply this same logic to my blog. Probably twice a week I seriously consider just calling it a wrap and walking away. This is especially pronounced during creative slumps, when I'm acutely aware of a certain predictability and repetitiousness in my stuff. Honestly, the main reason I keep going is that it keeps me sane. But when it gets to the point where even I don't care what I write, then it'll be time to quit.)

Good luck with your decision.

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



Thursday, May 10, 2007

 

Farm Teams

Growing up in Northern Town, I followed the local minor league baseball team. It was the AAA affiliate of a major league team, meaning that it was one step below the majors. Players there were almost ready, or almost good enough, or on the cusp. Once in a while, an obvious rising star would stop by on the way up for a brief sojourn before leaving for the majors, never to be seen again. (I saw a future Hall of Famer – you've heard of him, even if you don't follow baseball -- there during his brief stop in AAA. In baseball fan terms, real bragging rights attend to that.) And sometimes players who would absolutely dominate the league in AAA would crap out in the majors. Brighter minds than mine have spent careers trying to determine the whys and wherefores, since millions of dollars are at stake in distinguishing the true future star from the future washout.

Following a minor-league team requires a sort of Zen detachment. You want the team to be good, but not so good that all the players get called up. But then you feel guilty for wanting them to miss out on their career aspirations, so you wish them well anyway and just suck it up when their replacements play like a bunch of asthmatic nuns with vertigo. For an 11-year-old, that kind of emotional discipline doesn't come easily. I like to think it's an early life lesson.

(For that reason, I sometimes wonder about the emotional health of Yankees fans. Leaving aside the sociopathic rages of the team owner, I wonder about the ethical lessons taught by a team that can simply buy anybody it wants. But that's another post altogether.)

In watching a few of the end-of-semester events this time around, I was reminded of my AAA rooting days. Students who are completing their programs this month are finally getting really, really good at what they do, and the faculty have to let them go. Come September, a new crop will show up making all the same rookie mistakes this crop did back when it started. And the professors have to pretend not to mind.

If you go to every public performance every semester – and heaven help me, I do – you can see them grow up before your very eyes. Students whose initial performances could be described as 'tentative' or 'earnest' gradually develop technique, confidence, and a kind of comfort that's hard to fake. By the time they finish with us, they're pretty darn good. Then they leave.

It's easy to disparage minor league ball if you compare the level of play to the best of the majors, but it's also missing the point. Major league ball is supposed to be the top of the game. Minor league ball is supposed to be developmental. (That's not to deny that some people bounce around the minors for years and never break through at the major league level, or that those folks have a place, too. After all, even a team with only 5 or 6 real prospects still needs 25 players. But development is the point.) Similarly, it's easy to compare the grads of a cc with the grads of a four-year college and find them lesser. Of course they are – they've had two fewer years! It's an invalid comparison. Besides, we take everybody, so sometimes to appreciate what we do requires some sense of 'before' as well as 'after.'

As much as I like the farm team metaphor applied to students, though, I loathe it applied to faculty.

In some departments, a practice has developed over the years whereby chairs implicitly promise long-term and loyal adjuncts that they'll be first in line for any full-time positions. They then expect the adjuncts to cover for full-timers' absences, go above and beyond without pay, and so forth, to stay in the good graces of the chair. When those positions come along, the chairs conduct searches according to unwritten criteria and, whaddayaknow, the favored folk win. The new full-timers understand that they 'owe' the chair, and the practice of covering for each other lives on.

I've actually heard semi-principled arguments for this. One tenured full professor actually said – and I'm not making this up – that he prefers hires where he has “kicked the tires” already. When I picked my jaw up off the floor, I asked him how he ever expected to bring in new stars that way. He didn't have an answer for that.

We've tried introducing some procedural integrity to searches, only to run headfirst into chair opposition. If searches are truly open, and external candidates get a truly fair shake, then what will the chair have to lord over adjuncts? Who will cover for absences? How will the chairs ensure undying loyalty? If you take 'spoils' out of the system, the entire 'political machine' model collapses. Which is sort of the point.

To my mind, graduate school is long enough. (Honestly, it's too long, and too abusive. The tires get kicked too much as it is. But again, that's another post.) When you emerge with a spanking new doctorate, you're ready for a full-time job. You've moved on from the minors, and you're ready to start. To add the expectation of years of adjuncting and chair-pleasing before even getting a shot at a full-time job – effectively, yet another level of apprenticeship -- strikes me as adding insult to injury. In practice, it simply restricts the pool of future faculty to people who already live here. I can't see a valid academic argument for that. I love the minor leagues as much as anybody, but enough is enough.


Wednesday, May 09, 2007

 

Escalation

This entire episode actually happened a few years ago, when I was at Proprietary U.

Psych Prof burst into my office, visibly upset. “That *#%)#% Night Dean told me last week that I could let my students substitute course y for course x and still graduate. Then today he told me he never said that and the students can't graduate! I told that lying #%)#% that he can't jerk me around like this!”

I said I'd look into it.

Later that day, I asked Night Dean what had happened.

“I don't know. Last week she asked me to look into a course substitution, so I said I would. This week I told her it wouldn't work, and she cursed me out and called me a liar. Now I've got angry students at my door saying I'm blocking their graduation. You've really got to get her under control. We can't have this kind of unprofessional behavior.”

“What did you actually say to her the first time? Actual words?”

“She asked if they could substitute course y for course x. I said it was possible, but I'd have to check.”

Eureka!

When Night Dean said it was possible, what he meant was “maybe.” When Psych Prof heard that it was possible, she took it to mean “yes.” So when ND came back the following week and said no, Psych Prof took it as betrayal and reacted accordingly; ND took her anger as inexplicable and therefore unprofessional. Psych Prof called ND a liar, which she believed to be true and he believed to be false. A single ambiguous word led to a major clash of narratives and egos.

Once I figured that out, I explained the sequence to each separately, then arranged for the two to meet to bury the hatchet. The course sub didn't stand, but we were able to work out other ways for the students to get what they needed.

The entire episode unfolded over a short span and was quickly resolved, but it has stuck with me. I think what made it so emblematic of administration is that the two conflicting stories were both internally correct. Both Psych Prof and Night Dean acted in good faith, and both believed that they were looking out for the students. Neither was lying. Each took personal umbrage at the way the other acted, and each believed that higher principles and personal honor were at stake. And both were very emotional.

I try to remind myself of this story when I find myself on the receiving end of bizarre accusatory rants. When I try to pick them apart, they usually feature a weird internal consistency, but that consistency is based on a very selective reading (or a flat-out misreading) of some key facts. But it can be hard to get past the personal bluster to do that kind of analysis. It's easier as a third party.

When I look for prospective department chairs, I look for the folks whose reaction to an incongruous event – like seemingly having the rug pulled out from under you – isn't immediately to go nuclear. That's not to say I look for doormats, though some people viscerally equate strength with bluster. Effective advocacy is more about the ability to take a moment to get a clearer picture before deciding to attack. I'm more inclined to take seriously the chair who says “wait a minute...” than the chair who rolls his eyes and says “typical.” The first is tuned in to the situation; the second is just riding a personal hobbyhorse. Over time, there's just no pleasing the second kind, so there's little point in trying.

(Yes, that reflects to some degree my own management bias. I like to believe that data are no respecters of rank, and that a good argument stands or falls regardless of who's making it. The flip side of that is that arguments based on “I've been here for 37 years,” or on volume of yelling, are summarily and deeply discounted. Not all managers operate that way, sadly.)

Taking that moment to step back requires some self-discipline, since there's frequently an immediate temptation to just lash out. But lashing out usually generates new issues (“she called me names!”), and before long, you're three layers removed from the original conflict, which is probably still unresolved.

My patience for kabuki is limited; either talk about the actual issue, even if haltingly, or change the subject. Unwarranted escalation quickly becomes a war of spite, in which slights beget slights. Better to call time out, get some clarity, and get some actual work done.


Tuesday, May 08, 2007

 

Thoughts on Marilee Jones

I don't know Marilee Jones, and she doesn't know me. She's the (former) dean at MIT who lost her job when it came out that she had fraudulently claimed academic degrees in her background. By all accounts, she performed her job exceptionally well, but MIT believed that an Admissions Dean with fraudulent credentials called the entire enterprise into question, even if she had been well-regarded up to that point.

Gotta admit, I've of divided mind on this one.

Most of the commentary I've seen has been on her side. Barbara Ehrenreich, whom I consider a national treasure, took the Jones firing as evidence of the irrelevance of higher education generally. Her argument, which is a bit subtle, seems to be that the glory of higher ed is precisely that it isn't job training; therefore, we shouldn't be shocked that folks without it can do their jobs just fine, thanks. It's hard to make a coherent argument that something irrelevant should also be necessary. (She also takes a contradictory, Pink Floyd-ish position that higher ed cultivates a tolerance for boredom and conformity that will come in handy in cubicle world. I've been an Ehrenreich fan for a long time, but sometimes the generation gap is just too much. All in all, the “just another brick in the wall” argument is self-indulgent seventies horseshit.) Others have taken a more hamfisted antiacademic position, essentially arguing that if MIT couldn't tell the difference, then why are we spending all this money on higher ed?

I can concede truth in both of those observations, yet I still don't find the “no harm, no foul” argument convincing.

It's certainly true that people without higher education can be utterly brilliant, high-performing, high-achieving, and morally outstanding. (My grandfather, whom I've mentioned before, dropped out of school in ninth grade, yet was the single wisest person I've known.) For the sake of argument, it seems that Dean Jones was an exemplary performer in her job, and I have no trouble believing that. It's also true that much of the actual content learned in college never gets applied directly at work. (Although I enjoyed my Tudor and Stuart England course tremendously, I find the ability to summarize the Interregnum at the drop of a hat to be of limited value at work.) Outside of technical majors, it's not at all weird to see people move into occupational fields of little or no relevance to their academic backgrounds. And it's certainly possible to cultivate a lively mind outside the groves of academe.

All of that granted, I still can't help but see the Jones case as the kind of weird exception that makes for bad policy.

College is hard. It's supposed to be. Getting through college successfully – for the sake of argument, let's just say 'graduating' – is supposed to signify the ability to get your stuff together sufficiently to complete a long-term, difficult task. I've met some very smart people who couldn't do that. Some folks have the academic wherewithal, but fall apart on the life-management end. Others are perfectly functional on a day-to-day level, but freeze up when faced with anything like abstraction. (I find the latter sort surprisingly common even among college grads, frankly. When confronted by abstraction, they either just ignore it or start flopping around verbally until they hit a cliché.)

None of that is to deny that some people have advantages going in that make college easier. The same could easily be said of the job market. But that's another issue altogether. (It's also the case that some people claim that cc's make college too easy. These same people, in other contexts, argue that cc's have very low graduation rates, indicating that we aren't doing our job. The contradiction goes unacknowledged. If we were truly easy, almost everybody would graduate.)

Graduate school is that much harder. A doctorate may or may not signify tremendous intellect, but it almost certainly signifies tenacity. And tenacity is nothing to sneeze at in the work world.

At Proprietary U, I frequently confronted potential adjuncts who had never been to grad school, but who had been trained, as they invariably put it, in the school of hard knocks. Some of them had some great war stories, but I was struck at how rarely they were able to generalize beyond them. Worse, they didn't seem to think it important to be able to generalize.

A degree requirement is an imperfect first filter, but what would replace it? Is there a better first filter?

I was also struck at how rarely anybody reversed the question. “Couldn't we just waive the degree requirement?” can sound reasonable enough when confronted face-to-face by a sharp applicant, but flip it around. Can I get the opportunity cost of my degree refunded, since it doesn't count now anyway? That would be lost salary for the grad school years, plus lost equity I could have built up in the house I would have bought with that salary, plus many years of 401(k) contributions and attendant appreciation, for starters. To whom should I send the bill?

I didn't think so.

During those years that Marilee Jones was building the excellent work track record cited by her defenders, living on a grownup salary, some of us were scraping by on grad school pittances, living like church mice and playing by the rules. Deferred gratification takes a lot more self-discipline than does lying on a resume. Maybe she did her job quite well. So did we. But we did it without lying. That's supposed to count for something.


Monday, May 07, 2007

 

Telling Without Telling

Last week I saw another iteration of one of the little games that drives me crazy. At a meeting at which all of the academic deans were present, the director of a center said something to the effect of “I don't want to name any names, but some of your faculty aren't following through on their (task x). You should really stay on top of that.”

What, exactly, do people hope to achieve with statements like that?

If the statement contained some sort of verifiable fact claim -- “Dave didn't do task x last semester” -- I could do something about that. I could check, and either dismiss the claim or have a discussion with Dave.

If the statement were made privately, I could press for details, and get enough sense of the specifics to either follow up or dismiss.

But when the statement is both public and purposely vague, it's useless.

If this were the only time I'd seen something like that, I'd probably write it off to somebody either not thinking or just being chickenshit. But I've seen it a lot. It usually functions as a de facto threat. “I know something you don't know, and I'll save it until I really want to score some points against you.” Its emptiness makes it irrefutable, since there's no actual content to refute.

Alternately, it may be a passive-aggressive way of trying to instill self-doubt. “You aren't on top of what you're doing, and we know it.” This is one area where experience matters. In my early days of administration, I sometimes fell for this. Over time, you learn that some people just have issues with authority, and like to gain a sense of control by playing bizarre mindgames. Don't engage.

The most charitable interpretation is that they think I can somehow triangulate what they're talking about, and use that as the basis for action. The real world doesn't work that way.

On the few occasions in which I had the presence of mind to press for specifics, I always got variations on “I don't want to get all wrapped up in a whole thing. Just keep an eye on that.” This is worse than useless. Now, if I investigate, I'll get “why are you looking? On what basis?” If I don't, and something eventually comes to light, it'll be “the dean knew all about it and didn't do anything.” Either way, I'm wrong.

There was a time when I thought that folks who tell without telling were honestly trying to convey information, but were just worried about reprisals. I was young and naive. If there's something concrete and specific to convey, and they don't have any other agenda, they can just say it. Hell, worst case, they can leave an anonymous tip. An anonymous tip, if it contains something resembling a specific factual claim, can at least be verified. But these abstract claims are far too vague for follow-through, even if the folks who say them somehow feel cleansed by the experience.

The social dynamics of public meetings make it difficult to do the Socratic/Joe Friday interrogation that you'd need to do to give the statement any actual meaning. The smarter ones count on that.

One of my recurring fantasies involves the ability to cross-examine people on the spot. Just for my own edification, I'd like to know how much of the absurdity I'm presented with results from actual lying, as opposed to mere sloppy thinking. I've heard that it's better to deal with a knave than a fool, since a knave sometimes gets tired, but I'm not convinced. At least sloppy thinking can be clarified.

“Ah,” I can imagine a sour reader wondering, “but you tell without telling on your blog all the time.” Yes, because I don't expect the reader to do anything about it, other than comment. I'm not making any of this your responsibility. What I'm objecting to is the urgent, knowing, yet damningly vague call to action. I don't call 911 and say “I don't want to give any addresses, but there's a fire somewhere in your town. You should really look into that.”

Why do people do that?


Friday, May 04, 2007

 

One State, Two State, Red State, Blue State

A little reflection, while desperately waiting for the rubber chicken season to end...

Someone who makes far more money than I do, drives a nicer car, and doesn't – as far as I can tell – give two hoots about anybody else recently called me a liberal elitist. The “liberal elitist” tag is absurd, tired, and patently false, yet tenacious – from listening to Fox News, you'd think it was almost tautological. I'll admit, I'm really losing patience with it. Maybe it's the exhaustion of the season, but I'm thinking it's time to take that tag out back and shoot it squarely in the head.

To my mind, there's nothing more American than liberalism. And liberalism is a hell of a lot more compatible with Christianity than plutocratic conservatism could ever be.

Some of us were raised in churches that barely exist anymore. “Mainline Protestant” churches, they were called. (Mine was Presbyterian.) They were Christian, certainly, but the word had a different political valence back then. They typically stayed out of politics. When they entered, it was usually along the lines of supporting civil rights or peace groups. (Anybody remember the 'sanctuary' movement? Good times...) The idea was that Christianity was about love and forgiveness, and that at some level, we are all in this together. By the time I was there, the Social Gospel movement had long passed, but the habits of mind were still recognizable. I recall learning that Jesus hung out with the poor and the despised, and that he did so for a reason. I recall hearing a good deal about the poor, and about the moral ambiguities of wealth. Humility was big.

This was also a time when America took a breather between bouts of jingoism. For a while there, it was actually acceptable to question whether bombing brown people is always a good idea. In fact, I recall conversations in which it was asserted, with a straight face, that a real patriot fixes his ethical gaze on his own country. Some people believed – and I found them convincing – that if you really care about your country, that you bear witness to its failings,and tell the truth about them. Not in a superior way, but out of real concern. The idea was to protect the honorable parts of ourselves from our baser instincts. In a sense of the word that has been lost to history, it was truly – and honorably --conservative.

That particular time and place receded, as these things do. What replaced it, first slowly and then quickly, was an increasingly self-confident, clearly regional clique of very angry people who arrogated to themselves the right to decide who could use the word “Christian” and who couldn't. (Later, they would do the same thing with words like “American” and “patriot” and even, bizarrely, “conservative.”) People who equated justice with vengeance, mercy with weakness, and resolve with rightness. And they used criteria I didn't – and don't – recognize.

For a while, I just walked away from the whole thing, concerned with the things young men are concerned with. Let the Jerry Falwells and Ralph Reeds huff and puff – surely their patent absurdity will eventually discredit them. I had other things to do. Other than weddings or funerals, I didn't set foot in a church for probably 17 years or so. (I always retained some scholarly interest, though. My undergraduate thesis addressed some church-based movements for social justice, quite sympathetically, and I've never abandoned my respect for that tradition.)

When I returned, tentatively at first, I couldn't help but notice the change. My first visit was to the local Presbyterian congregation. It might as well have been a different religion. The sermon that day was about how evil infiltrates our lives through the internet. I don't recall having heard the word 'evil' once in church, growing up. I didn't go back.

Since The Wife is Catholic, we had TB and TG baptized in the local Catholic church. Before their ceremonies, we had to go through some classes. I still recall the priest mentioning, in an offhanded way, that he thought President Bush “wears his religion on his sleeve...adequately.” In any other context, I would have walked out of the room. It was unthinkable to me that a practicing member of the clergy would make that kind of statement, or use that kind of criterion. To judge faith by its relative bellicosity is a fundamental, egregious, and alarming category error. It's wrong, both in itself and for its effects. That he could be so wrong so offhandedly was even more alarming – he said it as if he were commenting on the weather. I was appalled, though, for the sake of family harmony, I let it go without comment (at least until we got to the car).

I finally settled on the local Unitarians, since they're endearingly humble about what they actually believe. (Some would say 'vague.' I prefer 'humble.') A church that performs same-sex weddings and sells fair-trade coffee comes much closer to my idea of Christianity than does one that fears the spread of evil through fiber-optics, even if some in the group shy away from the C-word.

The point of this bit of autobiography is that these positions aren't taken lightly, or on grounds of elitism, disdain, distaste, or whatever the slur of the day on Fox News happens to be. The ethical basis for these decisions doesn't come from postmodernism or consumerism or France; it comes from a very American, very traditional background. I don't see the contradiction between being a lefty-liberal and being a married breadwinner with two kids in the suburbs. (The irony, maybe. The contradiction, no.) I don't see the contradiction between living traditionally and being open to folks who live non-traditionally. (One of my groomsmen was an 'out' lesbian. This, at a Catholic wedding!) And I absolutely don't see the contradiction between being loyal to what's best about my country and being appalled by its President.

(The writer Gerald Early once said that future civilizations will remember ours for three achievements: the Constitution, jazz, and baseball. This President condoned torture, stood idly by while Katrina ravaged New Orleans, and traded a young Sammy Sosa. I am not impressed.)

Political opinions don't have to spill over into every corner of daily life. Basic friendliness and courtesy towards others goes a long way, even given some acknowledged cultural differences. I once interned at a Republican mayor's office in the Midwest, and got along famously with everyone there. (Before I left, they gave me a key to the city. It doubled as a bottle opener, which came in handy back at college.) It's entirely possible for good people with honest motives to disagree about how a given policy works. They considered me charmingly naïve, and I considered them good-hearted but shortsighted. History will judge, but we all liked each other and worked together well.

What I find really offputting about the current crop of 'conservatives' – as opposed to their forerunners -- is that they've forgotten what's really valuable in their own tradition. The natural order of things is supposed to be the idealists – that is, those who want things to be fairer for everybody – in tension with the realists – that is, those who warn of the costs of overreaching. Each has something valuable to bring to the table. When I think about intelligent conservatism, I think of David Hume. Smart conservatives are supposed to bring a recognition of the limits of the flesh to bear on utopian schemes. The current crop has all the hubris of the old left, combined with a knee-jerk worship of wealth and power – they're the worst of both traditions. They honestly believe that they can turn Iraq into a Jeffersonian democracy if they can only send enough troops. They honestly believe that God has charged them with spreading his word through the barrel of a gun. And they have the arrogance to paint disagreement as elitism. Give. Me. A. Break.

I try to find value in real exchanges of ideas. I've publicly praised folks who disagree with me, and have never been the sort to let political disagreements become personal vendettas. I live in a Republican county and work in another, getting alone just fine in both. And I'm fully aware that I can get stuff wrong, fall short of my ideals, and sometimes get caught up in passing idiocies. (I once bought a Duran Duran CD. The shame!) But the current crop of 'conservatives' who take it upon themselves to question my integrity, my motives, or my claim on full membership in America can kiss my ass. A recognition of our common humanity isn't elitist or foreign or subversive or wimpy; it's part of what's best about the faith, and the country, that I recognize. It goes back a long way. If we don't lose ourselves in smug and imperialist fantasies, it will go forward a long way, too.


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