Friday, February 29, 2008

 

A Sign of Hope

This story made me smile. Someone out there in the real world actually knows how to use a semicolon!

Never mind that the use is inelegant; it's technically correct, unpretentious, and practical.

I'll admit a certain fondness for the semicolon. It does so much more than just legalize the occasional comma splice, break a long list into digestible parts, or signify a wink. It indicates...wait for it...a certain (uh-oh) ambiguity (noooooo!!!) in the connection between ideas. It asks the reader to hold one part of the sentence in suspension while reading the other part. It assumes – brazenly, I know, and often with limited warrant – a certain sophistication in the reader.

It allows for some syncopation of sentence structure, some recognition of the actual flow of words. It facilities the careful and precise delineation of ambiguity, reveling in what lesser minds would consider a contradiction. Used correctly, it's refreshing.

(Yes, I know, semicolons don't actually revel. As an exasperated ex-girlfriend once told me, it's a &^%$%& metaphor.)

Semicolons are so much more interesting than colons. Colons, to me, are a sort of grammatical goose-step. This: is. They take 'declarative' to another level; they're almost dictatorial. Semicolons, like the winks they've come to signify, assume a subtler shared meaning, almost a confidence between writer and reader.

(And don't even get me started on bullet points.)

I'll admit having built up my fair share of linguistic pet peeves over the years. "Irregardless" isn't a word. "A whole nother" makes my flesh crawl. And I think there's a circle of hell reserved for people who routinely start sentences with the words "Being that..."

But semicolons, properly used, still bring a smile. They're linguistic underdogs, and it's fun to see them win.

What's your favorite linguistic underdog?


Thursday, February 28, 2008

 

DD, Roving Reporter

This weekend, TW and I are flying out to Denver, where I'll be attending and blogging the League for Innovation in the Community College conference. It's my first 'roving reporter' gig, which I think means I have to buy a brown fedora and a tan trenchcoat. (Any regular correspondents or commenters who plan to be there and want to arrange a meetup, shoot me an email!) I'll be posting my reports on my IHE site, so readers who usually read me on my original site will have a chance to check that out.

We're both excited about the trip. Neither of us has ever been to Denver, and it will be our longest spell away from the kids since TB was born.

The preparations are worthy of a military mission.

The grandparents will watch the kids: first my Mom, then her parents. Since TB has school and CCD next week, and TG has preschool, we have to write down every little detail of each routine with almost Taylorist precision. Bedtimes, foods, rituals, clothes, tv rules, and the like have to be explained with great care, since TB and TG are remarkably adept at exploiting any ambiguity in their own favor. We'll also need to adjust our daily schedule to allow for plenty of phone time.

I've even updated our will, and drafted a letter authorizing the grandparents to make medical decisions for TB and TG during our trip. It's kinda morbid, but one never knows.

And that's before trying to deal with the rules about flying, and luggage, and getting to the airport at least a week before the flight in order to allow time for the body cavity searches, and the confiscation of any suspicious contact lens fluid or signs of independent thought. I shudder to think what the screeners will do to my poor, innocent laptop, or how long we'll have to sit on the runway so our lateness won't affect their 'on time' statistics.

But it'll be good. TW and I have been badly short of alone time, and I'm looking forward to finding out what's going on at cc's in other states and regions.

Where can a guy find a fedora these days?


Wednesday, February 27, 2008

 

Ask the Administrator: Suggestions for Research?

A canny correspondent writes:

I work for a community college system and am working on an Ed.D. in leadership. I am casting around for research questions and wondered if you had any thoughts regarding useful research questions centering around community colleges, systems and educational leadership.

Ooh, I like that.

I'll preface this with something along the lines of “my degree is in an evergreen discipline, rather than in higher ed, so there may be reams of research in these areas that I just don't know about.” And an embarrassing amount of the stuff I have seen about higher ed is autobiographical case studies in which the folks who started a given initiative write about it, so it's neither objective nor comparative.

(Of course, one could say the same about my blog. The difference is, it's a blog.)

So a few things I'd like to see studied systematically:

That's off the top of my head, anyway. The common denominator, I think, is that they're mostly comparative. That seems to be what's lacking in most of the literature I've seen, which, admittedly, is less than it could be.

Good luck with your project!

Wise and worldly readers – what would you like to see studied systematically?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.


Tuesday, February 26, 2008

 

Ask the Administrator: Making the Leap to Four-Year Colleges

A new correspondent writes:

I am currently an associate professor at a community college. I have applied for several positions in four year institutions. My applications are in and now I am waiting to see if I will get any interviews. I'm a perfect fit for several of the positions I've applied for and, I think, a decent fit for the others, so I am expecting to interview at several institutions.

Here are my questions:

  1. What are some of the questions or concerns four-year institutions might have about a community college faculty member making the transition to their school?

  2. How can I best present my community college experience as a plus rather than a liability?

  3. What should I wear to the interviews? I was planning to wear a dark skirt suit, but someone recently told me that suits are "out" for academic interviews for women and that instead, "softer looks" are preferred. This is news to me, but I'm not very fashion savvy. Given that I'm trying to transition from a community college to a four-year school, I don't want to take any fashion risks.

Thank you to you and your wise and worldly readers.

I'm not exactly 'fashion forward,' so I'll just ask my fashion-conscious readers for help on that count. My only fashion advice, which I've mentioned before, is not to wear something for the first time on the interview. If your shoes start cutting into your feet in the first half hour, you'll be suffering, and off your game, all day. Better to road-test everything at least once. Even better, have an honest friend check out the ensemble. (Aristotle claimed that the opposite of a friend is a flatterer. I think there's something to that.) If you're confident and comfortable in what you're wearing, you won't have to worry about it, and you'll be able to focus on other things.

'Four year schools' is a big category with plenty of internal variations. For the sake of simplicity, I'll assume that you're applying to the generic lower tier public four year colleges, so we can leave out issues of religious affiliation or whether you've published enough books.

The first question that leaps to my mind is why you'd move now, having already achieved the rank of Associate Professor. Unless you're quite the hot property, you may find that the rank and salary they're prepared to offer would be a step down from what you have now. Be careful how you address this. If you give a knee-jerk honest answer like “I want a smaller courseload,” you'll be DOA. Anybody who doesn't have to leave a job faces the tricky question of why they want to leave. (This is the one advantage that grad students have: everybody knows grad school is supposed to end.) If the answer isn't pay, what is it? You'll want something truthful, but without any negativity.

The great advantage of your community college experience is that you're seasoned. You've gained plenty of teaching experience, and you know how actual colleges (as opposed to the idealized images so many rookies have in their heads) function. You know your style, you've developed strategies for dealing with less-prepared and less-motivated students, and (I hope) you've built up a track record as a good departmental citizen. From an administrative perspective, your downside risk is relatively low.

But there's the stigma. I've heard too many students here say that they're only here for a year to get their grades up so they can transfer to a “real” college. Some folks at four-year schools share that attitude, considering cc's less than “real” colleges. (“Thirteenth grade” is a common epithet.) If the schools to which you're applying are trying to “raise their academic profiles,” they might well prefer the risky young hotshot fresh out of grad school to the veteran cc professor who teaches well but hasn't written much. There are valid arguments on either side of that, but you may well run into it. How you counter that, or even if you can, will depend on your cv and their willingness to consider you fairly.

The other obvious issue is research. Even the lower-tier schools have gradually ratcheted-up their publishing expectations, mostly because they can. Yes, it's unfair to compare the publication record of someone with a 5/5 load to someone with a 3/2 load, but that's what they'll do. At least be prepared to address the issue, and to do it non-defensively.

Moving from theory to history: any readers who have successfully made this move are invited to comment about how they did it. What worked?

Good luck!

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.



Monday, February 25, 2008

 

You Can't Spell "Funding Cut" Without "Fun"

As my college stares down the barrel of a nasty external funding cut for the coming fiscal year, and a strong likelihood of another one after that, it's becoming clear to me that higher ed is in a really lousy position for dealing with recessions.

It isn't just that we're a relatively easy budget line for legislators to attack. Unlike much of the rest of the state budget, we have an alternate revenue stream available – tuition – that we can use to cushion some of the cuts. (That isn't true for the K-12 system, or prisons, or pensions.) That makes it easier to legislators to cut our line, since they can be fairly certain that a cut of 10 will be experienced as a cut of 5, with the difference made up through tuition hikes. In other sectors, that cut of 10 is felt as 10.

That's true, but it's only part of the picture. The other part is that we're positioned in ways that make it uniquely difficult to respond as the economy rises and falls. This is especially true at community colleges.

As higher ed's 'first responders,' we see fairly dramatic enrollment fluctuations as the economy changes. In my observation – and I've heard this a lot, though I've never seen it studied formally, so any prospective Ed.D.'s out there looking for a research topic, I'm just sayin' – our enrollments tend to go up as the economy goes down, and vice versa. We're countercyclical.

Which makes sense if you think about it. When the economy tanks, it's more difficult for some parents to send their kids 'away' to pricier four-year schools, so they come to us for the two-and-transfer plan. And some folks take recessions (or layoffs, more accurately) as opportunities to get retrained for other lines of work. After all, in a recession, the opportunity cost of pursuing a degree is notably lower than at other times.

The problem for us is that just when demand for our services increases, funding to provide them gets cut. And it's not like we have anything resembling 'endowments' to get through the tough times.

Yes, increased enrollment brings increased tuition revenue, and that helps. But tuition doesn't cover the full cost of what we do, and it was never intended to.

Add to this picture the annoying fact that so many of our costs are fixed or climbing – heating the buildings isn't getting any cheaper, and neither is employee health insurance – and the numbers get ugly pretty quickly.

All of which would be challenging but not awful if we were organized internally to deal with cycles. But we aren't. The tenure system is independent of budget or economic cycles. Curriculum review is independent of them, too. And increased enrollment is interpreted internally as a sign of success. So the internal dynamic is “hey, we're really doing great! Look at these enrollment figures! Now if those pinheads in [state capital] would just get their act together...”

Lest that seem entirely myopic, there's a good argument from our mission to the effect that shutting programs down just when the community needs us most would be contrary to our mission. It's just that the times when it needs us the most are the times when it's least able to pay.

You can't spell 'funding cut' without 'fun.' This should be a fun year.


Friday, February 22, 2008

 

When Moppets Attack

The Girl is the cutest, most angelic looking three year old on the planet.

But don't be fooled.

Yesterday morning, as The Wife and I were upstairs getting ready, and The Boy and The Girl were downstairs, finishing their breakfast:

TB: Mo-ooooommmmm!

TW (sighing): What?

TB: TG said I suck!

DD: (stifled laugh)

TW: TG, did you say that?

TG (brightly): Sow-wy!

TW was mortified, but I was a little proud. TG may look like a girlie girl, but she takes no crap. Over time, this will be a good thing.

I just have to learn not to laugh out loud when she strikes.



Thursday, February 21, 2008

 

Ask the Administrator: Sexuality and Student Trips


A new correspondent writes:

I read your blog daily and know there are many wise readers who help those seeking knowledge. I am in search!

Our Biology instructor is taking a class to the gulf coast for a week long Marine Biology trip. They will spend one night in a hotel both coming and going to the coast. While there, the students will be staying in apartment-style housing where everyone will have their own bed. However, at the hotel, that option is not available.

One of the male students is openly homosexual, which brings the issue of housing. The students are sharing equally in the cost of the trip, so asking/requesting that this particular student pay extra for a separate room is probably illegal, or at the very least unfair. We are not considering that as an option. The instructor has not had any discussions with students about their sleeping arrangements....yet.

What should we do?

Finally, an excuse to put some sex in this blog. Long overdue, I'd say.

My first thought is that more than one student to a bed – not to a room, but to a bed – strikes me as a bit much. This is true regardless of sexual orientation or anything else. But if the funding dictates that it be so, then that's that.

My next thought – and I'll admit here that my deanship is on the academic side of the house, as opposed to the student life side, so student housing isn't really my thing – is that I'm not entirely sure what the issue is. I assume you have openly gay students, both male and female, in your dorms now. (I also assume you have closeted ones, for that matter.) Some of them probably have straight roommates.

If the issue is fear of sex happening, two responses leap to mind. First, if only one student is gay, then the odds of gay sex happening strike me as pretty darn low. It takes two to tango.

Second, it's not like the straight kids aren't jumping each other when the chaperone's back is turned.

If the issue is the straight guys' feeling uncomfortable at being looked at, I'd suggest, as politely as possible, that they get over themselves. Generally speaking, we aren't nearly as hot as we like to think we are. Fear of being looked at is, in part, a sort of inverted vanity. And if they need to learn the difference between 'gay' and 'predatory,' then you have some teaching to do.

If the issue is the physical safety of the gay student, then the problem isn't with the gay student; it's with the straight kids who feel entitled to threaten him. Address your intervention accordingly.

If the issue is an 'ew' factor – not a sense of threat, per se, but just a visceral discomfort among the straight students – then I think you've got yourself a teachable moment. Besides, speaking as a straight guy, I find the 'ew' factor pretty minimal when the person is 'out.' It's the closeted ones that elicit discomfort, since they radiate discomfort themselves.

And if that still seems just a little too Northeastern liberal, then you could always split the cost of the extra room evenly among all the students, or pick it up out of your budget. (Some hotels will add a cot to a room for something like ten bucks a night, if you want a cheap way out.) But I'd be wary of “the gay kid gets his own room” as a solution, since it literally singles him out. Some smartass frat kid would start in with “oh, so that's what I have to do to get my own room,” and you're off to the races. Not a good precedent.

Or you could just pony up the cash to buy more rooms overall, and make the issue moot.

In any event, I'd reiterate expectations of behavior with every student before the trip, and have them sign something agreeing to some code of conduct. If someone just can't stomach the thought of going under those conditions, let him make that decision in advance.

Good luck.

Wise and worldly readers – your thoughts?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.


Wednesday, February 20, 2008

 

Ask the Administrator: Targeting a CC

A new correspondent writes:

I'm currently a sixth year graduate student in the Molecular Biology department at [Major Research University]. I've decided that I want to teach after finishing, but I'm torn between the community college and small liberal arts college career paths. As a short term option, I'm considering a teaching postdoc, where I would work in a science lab but also be involved in teaching. For example, in one program I can choose a lab that I want to work for, and a separate teaching mentor to work under. Over the course of three years, while doing research, I would co-teach a course with the teaching mentor and gradually take full responsibility for it over that time period.

My understanding is that this sort of training would greatly increase my chances of finding a tenure-track position at a liberal arts college. However, I'm concerned that this wouldn't make me a more desirable candidate for a position at a community college. Would a community college hiring committee consider this experience useful? If so, would it be considered more or less valuable than having spent three years as an adjunct?

I know that the life sciences aren't your area, but I was hoping that you and your readers might be able to help.

I'm impressed that you see a teaching-oriented position as a goal, rather than as a compromise or a fallback. That's half the battle.

The stereotype – self-defeating and terribly destructive, but widespread – at teaching-oriented places is that Ph.D.'s from highfalutin programs aren't serious about teaching. I'm not sure how much of that is based on bitter experience of past hires, how much is based on a cynical/accurate reading of the priorities of those programs, and how much is sour grapes, but it's pretty common.

So the burden on you – fairly or not – is to counter the stereotype. Simply claiming a love for teaching won't cut it, especially if there's nothing in your background to suggest that you mean it. But if you can show that, given the option, you chose a teaching-intensive route that involved pedagogical mentoring, you're in good shape.

The other issues with cc's and lower-tier liberal arts colleges would be the academic caliber of the entering students, the higher courseload, and the modest funding for facilities and travel. Depending on your research agenda, you may find it difficult or even impossible to continue your research. (Higher teaching loads compound the money shortage with a time shortage.) I don't know your field well enough to know how easy it would be to scale your research to the facilities available, so I'll just ask my wise and worldly readers in that field to chime in on that.

If there's some way for you to gain experience with students whose levels of academic preparation are shaky, that would be of definite value at most cc's. Since we have open admissions, we get some students whose high school performance wasn't so hot. (We get stronger ones, too, and sometimes they're in the same classes. Teaching to a wide range of abilities simultaneously is a crucial skill at this level.) If there's some sort of tutoring program, or maybe an intensive summer program for students who need to catch up, some involvement in that could be of real value.

(Honestly, one of the more valuable experiences I had in my grad school days at Flagship State was working as a tutor in the writing center. Seeing students struggle through the process of writing, up close, gave me an incredibly useful perspective for my own teaching.)

If you can show by your actions that teaching is your priority, and that you're pursuing these positions because you want to, you should be in good shape.

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers – especially in the life sciences – what would you add?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.


Tuesday, February 19, 2008

 

This Should Be Bigger News

According to this blurb in IHE, Career Education Corp is shutting down nine of its campuses, all in the Northeast. McIntosh College, Lehigh Valley College, and a bunch of Gibbs and Katharine Gibbs campuses will 'teach out,' closing in 2009.

As a veteran of a proprietary college in the Northeast, this really struck me.

In my full-time faculty days at Proprietary U, I taught 15 credits at a time, 12 months a year. That was the gig; we all did. As a (predictable) result, it was incredibly hard to get any kind of substantive writing done. My colleagues in the traditional academic disciplines – we were there to 'round out' their technical or business education with a smattering of general education courses – felt terribly put-upon, even as we were grateful to have full-time teaching jobs at all. Many of us were hired fresh out of grad school, having graduated into the brutal academic job market of the 1990's. (Not to be confused with the brutal academic job market of the 2000's.) While most of us started with some enthusiasm, the grind of a twelve-month full-time teaching calendar wore most of us down pretty quickly. When the tech boom of the late 90's crashed, the younger ones generally found escape routes (usually at community colleges). The round of layoffs I survived before I left was followed by a few more. Some of the folks who are still there have taken to wondering – probably rightly -- how much longer before the ax falls.

Working there, I remember always having at least a vague sense of a clock ticking. I was grateful for the job, since it gave me the chance to support myself, stay in one place, get married, start a family, and gain administrative experience at an early stage of my career. (I sometimes thought of it as a liferaft job.) It was also a kind of pedagogical boot camp, since the students were atrociously entitled and the teaching calendar simply incessant. But the sense that my sell-by date was approaching, in terms of escaping to the nonprofits, was strong. My research productivity simply didn't compare to that of peers who had teaching loads half or less of my own, and entire summers in which to write. And teaching counts for very little on the market, once you've got that first year or two under your belt.

I caught a break, as did some of my erstwhile colleagues. But some folks didn't. (A dear friend was recently laid off from there right after getting her twenty-years-of-service recognition. She's adjuncting at a nearby cc now.) And now, for them and for similar folks at those nine campuses, the liferaft is sinking.

It probably goes without saying that the for-profits don't have tenure systems, but even tenure won't save you if the entire college goes under. (Just ask the tenured folk at Antioch College.) And if you aren't a superstar, hitting the market anew after twenty years means applying for those same $45k entry-level positions as the folks fresh out of grad school. If you took on obligations in those twenty years based on the higher salary you had gradually attained, well, good luck.

During the late 90's boom, and even for a little while after, the rhetoric at PU was a capitalist version of Khruschev's “we will bury you.” Rapid expansion, and rapid rises in the parent company's stock price, contrasted strongly with continued struggles among the public colleges. The narrowness of curricular focus – if it won't get you a job, we won't teach it – was touted as a breakthrough. (Those of us in the evergreen disciplines were always a little uncomfortable with that, but it came with the gig.) Nobody ever asked of PU's grads, “what are you going to do with that?” The tuition was considerably higher than at the nearby publics, but the job-market payoff for students was obvious, and that carried the day.

Until it didn't.

A couple of years into the crash, PU's signature programs clearly weren't hot anymore, it wasn't so obvious anymore what the next hot thing would be. That made it hard for PU to decide what to teach, and made it hard to justify the premium tuition to prospective students. The unapologetically utilitarian bent of a PU education meant that, when the market winds shifted, the cost was suddenly a lot harder to justify. So the cost-cutting began, and the employee-blaming, and the layoffs. From what I've seen and heard, PU still hasn't figured out what the next hot thing is going to be.

Having been through that, the news of nine Career Education campuses closing really hit me. That's an awful lot of college faculty (and staff, and yes, administrators) abruptly out of work. And the conditions of their work have likely been such that they'll have an awful time finding something at a comparable salary, if they've been there a while. (McIntosh College has been there for over a hundred years, so I'm guessing some folks there have built some serious seniority.) Teaching in a boot camp setting actually makes you less marketable after a while, since you just haven't had the same kind of time to build portable credentials (that is, to publish). The irony is that the folks teaching something built to be useful find themselves abruptly considered useless.

This is probably at the heart of my discomfort whenever I hear cc's touted for workforce development and occupational programs. Yes, cc's do that, and it's good that they (we) do. But today's hot jobs are tomorrow's cold ones. Evergreen disciplines may seem stodgy and boring in the heat, but when the weather changes, their appeal becomes clear. The software we teach this year will be obsolete next year and forgotten in five; the literacy and numeracy we teach this year will stay 'useful' for students' entire lives.

My condolences to the people at McIntosh, Lehigh Valley, and the Gibbs/Katharine Gibbs colleges. You all deserve far more than a blurb.


Monday, February 18, 2008

 

Ask the Administrator: Upper Level Pay for Upper Level Course?

A befuddled correspondent writes:

I'm an adjunct with a Ph.D. and plenty of upper level experience via a former full-time, but non-tenure track position I held at an elite SLAC. Most of my day-to-day teaching at any of the four institutions at which I work in any given semester is at the introductory level. Sometimes it's Intro to Lit (yes, I'm English) and other times it's first year writing. However, at one of my institutions, I was recently invited, or asked to teach an upper level course. My first reaction was Yippie!! Woot, Woot! I've made my peace teaching first year writing, but 5 or 6 sections of it per term is a grind no matter how you slice it, and so a break from that grind is quite welcome. But, then I realized something -- something likely obvious, but lost in my initial euphoria: I will be paid at the same adjunct rate for this senior level course, which means the institution is getting a very cut-rate bargain.

I should add something here. Amongst the adjunct staff at this particular institution, I am in fact the only Ph.D. -- the others only have M.A. degrees -- and this is what qualified me for the open slot. There are full time, tenured professors here, but for whatever reasons, none of them is qualified for this particular field. I am.

Now I'd love to ask for more money, but I already know what the answer will be. And truth be told, I'd dearly love a respite from first year writing, and the course would be a blast to teach. I've not really gotten to sink my teeth into a meaty subject since my days as a full-timer. (I mean no offense to fyw instructors or the courses -- I teach them, I make my living teaching them -- but fyw is not an upper-level course no matter how happily one regards it) But at the same time, I'm aware of the cut-rate deal the institution is getting by using me to teach this class, and it bothers me in a way that is hard for me to articulate. Should I be bothered, or should I simply regard this is a bit of karmic reward for all these semesters in the trenches of fyw? Are others bothered? Or is this much ado about nada?

Maybe I've been on this side of the desk for too long, but this doesn't strike me as unusual. At my cc, adjuncts are paid by the credit hour, so any three-credit course is paid the same as any other three-credit course. Even for full-time faculty, teaching loads are denominated in credit hours, so a three-hour 'upper level' course counts the same as a three-hour intro course.

That may seem cold or reductionist, but it makes cross-departmental or cross-disciplinary equity possible. Is Drawing II easier or harder to teach than Educational Psychology? I don't even know how to measure that. But I can count hours. Lest that seem entirely soulless and bureaucratic, I'll add that the faculty union fully buys into the credit hour system for workloads. For them, as for me, ensuring some sort of basic equity across disciplines is the overriding consideration.

It's also much easier for planning and budgeting purposes to simply have a flat rate. If every course has to undergo some sort of 'comparable worth' analysis, the headaches would be staggering, and the payoff hard to specify. (In order to pay some courses more, and still balance the books, we'd just have to pay other courses less. The odds of the faculty union going for that are approximately zero.) It may seem counterintuitive to pay the highfalutin' specialized courses for majors at the same rate as the plain vanilla intro classes, but, in my experience, it's actually standard practice.

(Thought experiment: how would a market fundamentalist answer this? On the one hand, specialized courses have fewer potential instructors, which would imply higher pay. On the other, as your note shows clearly, many people would vastly prefer to teach the more specialized stuff, which would imply lower pay. In non-extreme cases, those probably roughly cancel each other out, so a flat rate is probably a reasonable way to keep the transaction costs down without doing fundamental violence to the substance of the thing.)

What I like about the question is that it highlights one of the great perversities of American higher education: we throw the least experienced or supported teachers at the students who are least able to teach themselves. As they move up in the hierarchies, professors with the option generally flee the intro classes, farming them out to adjuncts. (Community colleges are less prone to this than midtier comprehensives, since in most states our curriculum tops out at the sophomore level. Full professors in the English department teach Comp 1.) The idea seems to be that 'just anybody' can teach an intro course, so the way to prove your rank is to teach higher level stuff. Pedagogical nirvana is understood to be teaching graduate students the research you're working on at the moment. What this says about the attitude towards tuition-paying students, I'll leave as an exercise for the reader.

Wise and worldly readers – have you seen a different system? Would something else make more sense?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.


Thursday, February 14, 2008

 

Northern Illinois University

Every parent's nightmare happened again, this time at NIU. My condolences to the students, faculty, and families there.

It's scary in so many ways. From early reports, and from Stephen Karlson's on-the-scene reportage, it sounds like NIU did a whole lot of things right. The police arrived quickly, notifications went out quickly, everybody who could be kept out of the way was. Even with all of that, over twenty people were shot, several fatally. The shooter apparently was a former graduate student, so he knew the campus.

The early tv coverage kept using terms like 'lockdown,' but it's hard to imagine just how that could work on an open, sprawling campus. K-12 schools are often a single building surrounded by a parking lot and/or athletic fields, so it's relatively easy to restrict access to the inside. But most colleges and universities of any size have multiple buildings, many different functions going on simultaneously, and a constantly changing stream of people walking around at any given time. At my college, for instance, it's not unusual to have regular classes, non-credit classes, public programs, and swim meets happening simultaneously. People come and go all the time, and there's absolutely nothing unusual about seeing faces you don't recognize. I see people I don't recognize every single day. It's more like a small city than, say, a high school. How do you lock down a small city?

At larger universities, the problem is even greater. How would you lock down the University of Michigan? You'd half to put half of Ann Arbor in a bubble. It's just not reality.

And even that is all based on the assumption that a lockdown would help. Early reports indicate that the shooter killed himself before the police arrived, and they arrived as quickly as could be asked.

I don't have any answers for this. When I heard the news on the radio on the way home, I stopped thinking like a dean, started thinking like a parent, and had to drive through tears. The kids got some extra hugs tonight, not knowing why.

Sometimes there are no words.


 

Ask the Administrator: You've Got to be Kidding...

A regular reader writes:

A probationary faculty member in my college plagiarized his entire statement of teaching philosophy in his RST (Rank, Salary, and Tenure) file. Not just lifted a few phrases, but downloaded someone else's teaching philosophy from the Internet, omitted a few paragraphs that were too specifically about the actual author, and put it in his file.

The department has talked to the faculty member, and he "realizes that this is a serious matter" and he's really sorry. I say that I hear that kind of crap from my students way too often. I don't have to put up with it from them, and I sure don't want to put up with it from a colleague. Somewhere in the course of his advanced degree program, they should have mentioned that plagiarism was bad.

As far as I'm concerned, this is sufficient reason to vote for a terminal contract. The department feels otherwise (although I gather that they are split.) What do you think?

That's amazing.

This is where the 'law and order' side of my 'law and order liberal' politics comes out. I'd fire the dumb bastard. The rule against plagiarism is fair, it's directly relevant to the academic enterprise, and this guy doesn't even dispute that he did it. Throw the bum out.

A friend of mine at a comprehensive university recently had a book project canceled out from under him when a chapter submitted by his co-author turned out to have been lifted wholesale from Wikipedia. (His co-author has tenure; he doesn't.) This is not a victimless crime. My guess is that folks who get away with this keep doing it, though I'd imagine it's much easier to catch in the age of Google.

Just for fun, let's imagine what happens if, say, this joker gets tenure, but someone else who actually made an honest effort gets shot down. For more fun, let's assume the denied candidate is a member of a protected class. In administrative terms, it's “liability-a-go-go.” Let's imagine the courtroom dialogue. “Did you know that Mr. Whiteman's portfolio contained plagiarized material?” “Well, yes, but we didn't think it was any big deal.” “Did you have any reason to suspect that Ms. Unemployed's file was illegitimate?” “No, but we thought it wasn't up to snuff.” “So you define 'up to snuff' as 'plagiarized'? Or do you define 'up to snuff' as 'white and male”?”

Not pretty.

On an emotional level, I couldn't help but read your candidate's actions as somewhere between 'arrogant' and 'contemptuous.' If he really can't be bothered to try to whip something up to keep his job, what does he think of his job? Is that really someone you want to make bulletproof for the next several decades? If he escapes consequences now, when he's at least potentially vulnerable, can you imagine the crap he'll pull once he's tenured? This guy will be an ongoing nightmare for the rest of his career, and he will be a nightmare of your department's making.

I'm guessing that some of your colleagues feel bad for him, probably on the grounds that they think of statements of teaching philosophy as inherently vapid and extraneous. There's some truth to that, but that's an argument to be had on its own merits. (In eight years of observing and evaluating faculty, I haven't noticed any correlation – none – between good statements of teaching philosophy and good teaching.) But that's not a justification for cheating. It's a justification for trying to get the rules changed going forward. The issue here isn't whether a statement of teaching philosophy carries any weight; it's whether honesty does.

If it doesn't, you're in very deep trouble.

What if the guy starts fabricating outcomes assessments? What if he publishes something that turns out to have been plagiarized? And do you really want this guy judging other candidates for promotion and tenure in the future? My brain hurts just thinking about it.

Kick him to the curb. If you don't, you ain't seen nothin' yet.

Wise and worldly readers – what would you do?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.


Wednesday, February 13, 2008

 

Thoughts on the Fifth Estate

Oso Raro has a thought-provoking, if maddening, piece up – check it out – on the changing role of the Student Life side of the house, or what he calls The Fifth Estate. In his telling, as I understand it, what he calls the Fifth Estate of Student Life professionals represents a liability-driven resource suck, a sort of brainless parasite growing fat on the diverted resources of its increasingly dessicated host. As he puts it,

They [once] seemed a vague presence on the edge of more important things: the machinations of evil administrators, the follies of faculty, the striving of clerical staff. But increasingly, the Student Life professional represents a new cadre in the academy, one imbued with considerable power and influence over the structuring of students’ social lives and, consequently, some of their relationship to the dynamics of the classroom.

A new cadre is on the rise! The barbarians have breached the gates! Circle the wagons!

He elaborates...

This is a dangerously missed opportunity, for two reasons: firstly, Student Life services are here to stay. They are a competing power centre in the institution, and they tend to be allied directly or indirectly with the concerns of administration, which are mostly about maintaining control, period. Secondly, in their disinterest, faculty have unintentionally abandoned aspects of their traditional precincts of teaching to an administrative arm of the institution that arguably is not as concerned with intellectual enlightenment as it is in enforcing the rules. Did you know there are now degree programs in Student Life services and academic administration? Student Life is a growth industry, even as tenure-line faculty positions go the way of the loon.

This is one of those times when I have to decide where to start.

I believe, having read his stuff faithfully for years, that OR is well-intentioned, very smart, and trying to do the right thing. His insights on the contrasting attitudes of Gen X'ers in our student days, and the Millennials now, are recognizable, humane, and funny, if a bit overdrawn. And I won't deny – hell, I've written myself -- that many 'diversity training' programs are actually much more about avoiding legal liability than about actually teaching something or provoking thought. They can be staggeringly banal, which must be particularly galling if that's your area of scholarly expertise. All of that, granted.

(At Proprietary U, the HR department made the management folk watch “Remember the Titans” during work time. I think that, as a general rule, if a given piece of art works well as an HR demonstration piece, it fails completely as art. But that's another post.)

The loaded language doesn't help -- “machinations of evil administrators” who “are mostly about maintaining control, period,” a new “cadre” that forms a “competing power centre,” etc. I think it derives from the old “total institution” school of analysis, which assumes that any given institution – colleges, hospitals, prisons, whatever – can be understood as a freestanding polity unto itself. If someone other than faculty is getting resources, the only possible explanation is a sort of agonistic competition. It couldn't possibly be that, say, there are other tasks that need doing, or other constituencies to which the college has to answer.

Except, of course, that there are.

From this piece, you wouldn't know what Student Life (or Student Affairs, or Student Services) offices actually do. Put differently, the point of Student Life offices isn't to dumb down political discussion, to centralize administrative control, or to devalue faculty. It's to take care of the necessary and important things that faculty don't do.

On my campus, as an example, the Student Life area includes such new and cutting-edge functions as the registrar, the Admissions office, financial aid, student clubs and organizations, athletics, and counseling. I'm not sure which of these is supposed to be sinister; they all seem pretty useful to me. One can always argue about the best uses of limited resources, I suppose, and I certainly won't say that I've agreed with every decision I've encountered from those quarters. But they aren't competing with the faculty. They're doing other things, and those other things need doing.

Without adequate 'back-office' functions, colleges lose their accreditation, and faculty lose their jobs. (The recent demise of New College in San Francisco is as good a test case as any.) Without a vigorous Admissions office, the college goes out of business. Without adequate student record-keeping, everything falls apart. Without financial aid, the most disadvantaged suffer the most. Without clubs and athletics, students get a one-dimensional educational experience (not to deny that some of them are okay with that) and are less likely, statistically, to finish their degrees. Without counseling, faculty are left to their own devices to handle student mental health issues and all their legal and ethical complications.

There's no such thing as a total institution. The college is not a self-contained unit. We have to comply with the ADA, so we need people to provide services for diagnosed learning disabilities. We have to comply with Title IV, so we need people whose job it is to make sure we follow all the financial aid regs. Our ERP system is off-the-shelf, and it takes very smart people a lot of time to figure out how best to bend it to our (and our students') needs.

Some of those issues are deadly boring to lively academic minds. But 'boring' and 'unimportant' are not the same thing. My paycheck arrives with boring predictability every other week, and I'm glad it does. In some parts of life, 'boring' is good. And to assume that those things just happen, without someone making them happen, is just magical thinking.

On the complaint that much of the public programming offered by the Student Life folk happens without faculty input, I'll offer an incredibly simple response. Volunteer. (Or 'infiltrate,' if that makes you feel better.) Make the outreach yourself. Call the external events person – or whatever the local title is – and make yourself available. At both of the colleges at which I've deaned, the folks over there have always been short of ideas for programs, and eager to enlist volunteers. I have personally volunteered at both, and have personally done presentations for students and for the community. (I started in my faculty days, before a deanly title was even part of the equation.) The reason my college has a debate club is because one of our faculty got tired of students' political apathy. He got some funding from SL and became the advisor to the club. If you can lead a more thoughtful and useful discussion of 'diversity' than the usual consultants do – and you almost certainly could – then *%&^#% do it. And list it as “college service” on your P&T forms.

If it doesn't count for much, the issue isn't with Student Life.

When I've talked with my colleagues in SL about their interactions with faculty, I've always received two responses. “They always blow us off,” but “we'd still love to work with them.” The former is iffy, but the latter has consistently proved true.

Rather than viewing the Fifth Estate as a “competing power centre,” I see it as helping us help students. We're here for the students. That's the point. To the extent that the SL folk help students get their stuff together sufficiently to sit in your classes and glory in scholarly nuance, everybody wins. To view the SL folk simply as competitors for fixed resources is just narcissistic. The college doesn't exist for the faculty. (Put differently: it's not about you.) It exists for the students, and their needs go beyond the classroom.

There are real enemies out there. Don't go after the folks who make your job possible. Engage with them, and the students – the reason we exist in the first place – will benefit. If we replace “Remember the Titans” with something reflecting actual thought, if we supplement role-playing game clubs with debate clubs, you'll see eventual benefits in your classes. It's not about keeping your friends close and your enemies closer. It's about knowing which is which.


Tuesday, February 12, 2008

 

“I Need This Class to Stay on My Parents' Health Insurance”

As a political liberal – and proud of it, thank you very much – I believe that it's immoral for a wealthy country to leave tens of millions of its own without health insurance.

That said, I find myself in the weird position of making decisions that effectively deny some people coverage. And I'm not even talking about adjuncts, a topic that has been amply covered here and elsewhere.

I'm talking about students.

Every single semester I get students registering late, or trying not to get dropped, making the argument that they need the class to stay on their parents' health insurance.

This strikes me as somewhat less drastic than the old “I need a C or I'll get drafted” of Vietnam days, but still disconcerting. Given the number of students with chronic conditions – whether it be asthma, or ADHD, or diabetes, or whatever – a cavalier “well,who cares, they're young and healthy” really doesn't cut it. Besides, having young and healthy people paying into the insurance pool (whether directly or indirectly) actually lowers costs for the rest of us.

A fair number of health insurance plans, I'm told, will cover dependents in their late teens and early twenties, as long as they have 'full-time student' status. In concrete terms, that means they need to be registered for at least twelve credits.

Some students (and, presumably, parents) have figured out that it's cheaper to pay tuition for an extra class or two than to try to buy individual coverage. (This is particularly true at cc tuition levels, and even more so when they can get financial aid for the tuition.) So they do, often with little or no intention of taking the actual course (or of taking it seriously). I've had multiple conversations with students at the last possible moment to register, desperately looking for an available slot in any course at all – they really don't care – just to hit that magic “12” number. They're working part-time at low-paying jobs that don't offer insurance; they'd rather come here part time, too. But the material incentives strongly favor full-time status. I get more of these awkward conversations when the midterm warnings go out, telling students that they'll be dropped for non-attendance. They don't dispute the fact of non-attendance; instead they make a humanitarian plea not to effectively deny them health insurance.

Yuck, yuck, yuck.

Reason #396 to support single-payer health care: it would decouple 'full-time student' status from health insurance. I don't want people making academic decisions – whether it's students or me personally – based on health insurance. I don't want to choose between upholding our academic standards and cutting off some kid from the medical care he needs.

I've never knowingly been a party to insurance fraud. If the student didn't follow the rules for registering, I don't make exceptions based on my willingness to divert some miniscule fraction of an HMO's profits. But I've certainly seen students register, um, let's go with halfheartedly.

As an open-admissions college, there's no way to prevent that. Most students register online anyway, so even if I wanted to be a one-man Attitude Police, I couldn't. (And folks seeking health insurance certainly have no monopoly on shaky attitudes.)

But there's something fundamentally wrong with a system that rewards people taking that extra class just to get the insurance. I don't entirely blame them for doing it – they've found a loophole in a ridiculously unfair system – but it certainly distorts what we're trying to do. These folks show up in our attrition numbers, our outcomes assessments, and our (non)-graduation rates, all of which get blamed on us. And they get lower GPA's than they probably ought, simply from spreading themselves unrealistically thin.

Other than supporting single-payer, I don't have a clean answer to this one. This probably isn't as common at the elite schools, given their tuition levels, so it mostly escapes media notice. But in my neck of the academic woods, this is very real, and very messed up.


Monday, February 11, 2008

 

Ask the Administrator: Time to Jump Ship?

A long-suffering correspondent writes:

I have taught for now nearly two decades in a smaller field in
liberal arts and sciences. In my first job, I was hired to increase
enrollments and build up the department. We did that, increasing
enrollments by 500%...and then they shut the program down and dumped
us in a department that had virtually no relation to what we did.

I moved on to another job now 15 years ago. During my time in this
job, I heard the same tune: build the enrollments, build up the
number of majors, and for heaven's sake build up the graduate
program. And we did that. Last year, during an imaginary budget
crisis, my department was shut down and dumped into another; again,
this department really couldn't be more different from us.

Is it time to give up?

I love my subject matter -- I think it is relevant and important for
students. When I'm in a classroom, I'm in heaven. But let's face
it: there are 168 hours in a week, and I spend only 8 in a
classroom. The rest of the time I'm being harassed and badgered by
my new "colleagues" who don't even have a clue about how different
our subject matter is (by the way, my new dept has nearly 100
faculty). We have lost control of our curriculum, hiring, P&T, even
our space on the floor. They took away our coffee pot. Our graduate
program has no applicants for next year; our majors are fearful and
deserting. It seems to me that it's just a matter of time before we
are left teaching nothing but 100-level gen ed courses.

Part of me hopes that a new dean, somewhere down the line, might
restore sanity. But I don't know that I can hold on that long. I'm
geographically-limited and middle-aged. Is there any way to make a
situation like this bearable, or is it time to just jump ship and
work at the mall?

They took your coffee pot?

Honestly, I see a few issues here. I can address one, but the rest are entirely up to you.

I wouldn't advise waiting for SuperDean to come and save the day. Anything is possible, but I've found (to my considerable frustration) that most administrative decisions are only barely decisions at all – they're usually more or less dictated by circumstance. True 'discretion' is incredibly limited. (This is especially true when state aid is shrinking.) You refer to an 'imaginary' budget crisis, but knowing which state your school is in, I'm fairly sure that the budget crisis you're up against now is both real and long-term. Waiting for the White Knight can only lead to tears.

(That's not to say that what you've been through so far was or wasn't reasonable. I have no way of knowing that. It's just to say that I don't see any positive sea changes on the horizon.)

So the real issue is what you're willing to accept.

Could you imagine coming to peace with a changing role, enjoying the hell out of the intro courses and a stable job, and finding the challenges you need in other parts of life? It would involve letting go of earlier conceptions of what you do, but if you can manage to do that and embrace the changes, the problem solves itself.

Or you could read the changes as macro-political attacks, rally the troops, and storm the barricades. There are times when this makes sense. Whether this is one of those times is a question of judgment.

On the upside, the political crusade may restore a lost sense of purpose, even in defeat. On the downside, you'll almost certainly lose, and discover in the process that some people you currently respect are, in fact, deeply messed up. (Politics is many things, but 'heroic' is rarely one of them.) Whether it's worth the energy and risk is up to you.

Or you could retire on the job, live a life of gray discontentment, and just snap at people every so often to get the blood flowing. Anecdotally, this seems to be the most common response. It's the easiest in the short term, though it ages badly.

One of the great frustrations of academia is that it's a uniquely difficult field in which to hang out your own shingle. Lawyers who feel disrespected at large firms can start their own. Doctors, too. In many white-collar fields, people who chafe at organizational silliness often have the option of 'consulting.' Professors in most of the traditional academic disciplines really don't have that option. As regular readers know, I have an opinion or two (or three, or four...) about how colleges should be run. I'd love to start my own and see what happened. But the economic barriers to entry are simply forbidding. So the choice most of us face isn't “work for someone else or work for myself.” It's “work for this flawed institution or work for that flawed institution.” Worse, sometimes there aren't even that many choices, so it's “work for this flawed institution” or “don't work, at least on a full-time basis.” So we get a higher-than-usual proportion of cranky people sticking around for extended periods, since, unlike in most other industries, there's often no other reasonable place for them to go.

Between facing a soft academic market in your discipline, and being place-bound, it sounds like you have a fairly stark choice to make. Make your peace, or don't. Only you know your capacity to change your expectations and let go of some of your past beliefs. But don't expect a heroic figure – whether a dean or a union organizer -- to return you to a Golden Age. Rescue isn't an option. You need to make your choice and own it.

For that matter, so do I.

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers – your thoughts?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.


Saturday, February 09, 2008

 

Wonderful News

The "Player to be Named Later" is here.

Check him out, and maybe send Dani some good karma. He's been a long time coming.

Welcome to the world, big guy.

Friday, February 08, 2008

 

Dignity Optional

The Girl had a Little Gymnast class yesterday at the Y while I was at work. (TW took her, and TB tagged along.) It involved jumping on the “bounce-oline,” as TG called it, and negotiating an obstacle course.

(The class was in the gym, which was divided in half. On the other side a bunch of older kids were playing pickup basketball. TB managed to insinuate himself into the game, and the older kids treated him as a sort of mascot. He nearly burst into tears when it was time to leave!)

The Little Gymnast teachers came up with the single best explanation of jumping jacks I've ever heard. “Make an I! Make an X! Make an I! Make an X!” TG is proud of knowing her letters, so she was all over that. She even gave me an unprompted demonstration in the living room after dinner.

Then, there was tumbling.

To appreciate this, you have to understand a few things about me and my defective genes. I've never been terribly surefooted, nor have I ever been accused of physical grace. Though not as skinny as I once was, I've managed to maintain and even refine a certain gawkiness that most people leave behind as they, um, let's go with 'fill out.' My sense of balance is astonishingly bad, which I think I get from my Mom. (For a spell in her twenties, she broke one foot a year.) Running on a treadmill is enough to screw up my equilibrium. (Luckily, ellipticals don't have the same effect.) Hell, I got motion sick on the *%(#&% “Cat in the Hat” ride at Universal Studios. At age 32.

Seriously. It shot the whole day.

In this, as in so many things, TG is her father's daughter. The “forward roll” completely eluded her. She gets into a sort of crouch, with her back oddly straight, and tries to jump forward. She doesn't actually go over, which is probably for the best, since I get visions of 'full body traction' just watching it. TW and I took turns holding her and trying to help her roll in the living room, but she kept making the same weird move.

That's when TW, to whom I am married, who claims to care about my well-being and who will be stuck with me anyway, suggested that I perform a demonstration forward roll.

Like Amy Winehouse, I should have said “no, no, no.” Instead, like Amy Winehouse, I made a bad decision.

I did the roll.

No, no, no.

The good news is, I didn't crash into anything, pull anything, or hear any disconcerting 'snapping' sounds. TW even claims that the roll looked relatively smooth, as these things go.

The bad news is, not having done a forward roll since probably 1982, a single roll now is enough to throw me off for hours.

Naturally, TG and TB immediately wanted a repeat performance. Uh, no. Nope. Not gonna happen.

Now I'm going to go make myself some herbal tea, sit quietly in a dark corner for a while, and curse Father Time and my defective genes.

In this, TG is on her own. Good luck, kid. And watch those feet.

This wasn't in the parenting manual...


Thursday, February 07, 2008

 

Of Owl Pellets and Cynical Wisdom: A Budgetary Snark

One of the real shocks in moving from Proprietary U to a cc was the change in budget rules. I ran into that yet again this week.

At PU, there was one operating budget for the entire campus. It was overseen by a Vice President I'll call Darth Vader. DV was solely responsible for the whole darn thing; my budgetary authority as a dean capped out at twenty-five dollar petty cash reimbursements. (Even those were only available on what seemed like alternate Tuesdays when Jupiter aligned with Mercury.) When I wanted money spent on, say, owl pellets for the Environmental Science class, I had to go to DV and plead my case. It was annoying and sometimes degrading – the thought crossed my mind, I'm begging for owl poop? -- but if you learned which arguments to make, you could get the job done.

At the cc, the rules are entirely different. Here, the college is divided into administrative units, each with its own divisions, departments, subunits, and the like. Each little area has its own budget, though some of the budget items (notably full-time employees' salaries and benefits) are administered out of a central budget. Certain rules are college-wide – don't get me started – but subdirectors and sub-sub-directors often treat their budgets as if they were their own money. Worse, budgets are set two years (count 'em!) in advance, and budget change requests are taken as prima facie signs of management failure. So some folks get very, very good at leveraging the rules to benefit their own little subunits, even to the detriment of the college as a whole.

This week some folks on campus are snickering that they took me for a ride. I think they need to get lives. You be the judge.

Age and heavy use finally caught up to the photocopier in one of my departments. It died, and we don't have money in this year's budget for a new one. (I may be able to find money in next year's, but that won't be relevant until August or September at best.) So the faculty there are making do as best they can, running back and forth to the print shop (thereby draining another budget) or just doing without. The folks are running a little ragged, and there's an actual impact in the classroom.

Another college subunit – not in my purview – was able to replace its fading-but-not-dead copier this year. So it put out an all-campus email offering the erstwhile machine free to a good home. I took it, sending it to the needy department as a stopgap.

To the martinets, this was painfully, hopelessly naïve.

My mistake? Copiers are considered hazardous waste, so there's a disposal fee to get rid of them. By adopting the Clinton-era machine, I was foolishly taking that disposal fee on myself, thereby unburdening the other unit. The astute thing to do, I'm told, would have been to let this go by, thereby sparing my budget the disposal fee. Tell my faculty to keep skating until Fall, and cackle at my cleverness in dodging a budgetary bullet. Don't worry about the classroom.

To my mind, solving the problem in the classroom in a way that doesn't cost the college as a whole any more money is a good thing. Whether the disposal fee comes from their budget or mine, ultimately, it comes from the college. If we can squeeze another six months out of a machine we've already paid for, and provide a better classroom experience by doing it, I consider that a win. The disposal fee is ultimately the same either way.

Sigh.

It's a small thing, but it's one of those Dilbert-ish moments that makes you wonder what other silly inefficiencies are really subsidizing egos. Back in the day, Piotr Sloterdijk defined cynicism as “enlightened false consciousness,” and I think he had a point. In this system, my move registers as naïve, and I look like someone's dupe. But it was the right move. The 'higher wisdom' of turfy, me-first cynicism is, at bottom, false. The college isn't here for its administrative divisions. The divisions are here for the college. But acting on that big-picture knowledge requires seeing beyond the silly little chess game of the day.

Am I missing something here? I know it's a minor case, and it's not the first time I've seen it, but it strikes me as symptomatic of something deeply dysfunctional.


Wednesday, February 06, 2008

 

Ask the Administrator: Escape from the Lab

A new correspondent writes:

I have a PhD and am in my late forties. I have been working
in a research lab for almost 20 years, have published a
number of highly-cited papers in peer-reviewed journals, and
am fast approaching a total burnout due to the expectation
that I should still work 90-hour weeks on a regular basis.
I don't really want to change fields, though, so I'm
thinking about taking early retirement from the lab to
teach. While I have supervised postdocs, I don't have any
teaching experience at all, since I was lucky enough to have
been in a staff support position instead of in the T.A. pool
in grad school. I look at the CHE occasionally, so I know
that there are academic openings in my field, but I'm
reluctant to wriggle out of the golden handcuffs at my
current job without having some assurance of job security.
I'm definitely not interested in an R1 school. Do small
liberal arts schools and CCs hire people like me with
tenure, or is that a pipe dream? I should add that I am not
totally clueless about what this work would be like, as
several members of my family are in academe, but I am also
unlikely to get a useful answer from them because hiring in
the humanities tends to work differently from the sciences.

My field isn't the lab sciences, so I'll ask readers who know that world better than I do to fill in the blanks.

From my perspective, without any teaching experience and with the story you tell here, you'd be a terrible risk. It sounds like you're interested in teaching not because you love teaching – you haven't tried it, so you don't know – but because you want something easier and more secure. From my side of the desk, that's not a very compelling argument to hire somebody. (“I want a job where I don't have to work very hard and I can't be fired.” Next!)

(At my cc, we don't hire to tenure anyway. Some places do, but we don't. You'd have to go through the same probationary period as any new professor, during which time too much downshifting, or weak performance in the classroom, would actually be held against you.)

Private colleges generally have more leeway in their hiring policies than public ones do. (Public and unionized ones have especially strict guidelines.) Whether they'd take a flier on you, I don't know, but they'd at least have the option.

Advising someone complaining of burnout to take on more work may be silly, but honestly, I think you'd do well to put a toe in the water of teaching before jumping all the way in. Pick up a class as an adjunct somewhere. See how much work is actually involved (hint: it's a lot), and whether you actually enjoy it. It may be your true calling; if so, you might find the risk of jumping-without-a-net to be worth it, and even exhilarating. Or you might find that it doesn't float your boat, either. There's no shame in that. The shame would be in making a major life change without a real sense of what it involves, only to find yourself unhappier than when you started.

Depending on the branch of science you're in, industry may also be an option. If you love the science itself, want to make some money, and don't know about the whole 'teaching' thing, that might be worth exploring. I know that in some of the sciences, there's nothing unusual about somebody moving back-and-forth from academe to industry or vice versa.

But either way, I wouldn't jump whole hog into teaching without trying it first. One of the few upsides of the adjunct trend is that it's easier to experiment with teaching than it once was. Pick up a course somewhere and see how it feels. Yes, it's more work in the short term, but at least you'll have some basis for a decision.

In terms of the academic market for scientists at teaching colleges, I'll just have to ask my readers in the sciences. My impression is that it's a soft market all around, but again, this really isn't my area.

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers – what say you?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.


Tuesday, February 05, 2008

 

Ask the Administrator: Too Many Variables

A new correspondent writes:

I currently hold a BS and MA in my field and teach FT at a private college as a visiting instructor. I get very good course evals am involved in as many things as they let me be and have even written my own course (and got it approved!). I"m in my second year there with a very strong promise of a renewal for a third year. 2 department members hold MA's, (includes the chair) and 2 have PhDs (one tenured, one might be next year). VPAA (who seems to have a final say in hiring) first said that he doesn't want me there long terms b/c I don't have a PhD. Now he's saying that's not going to matter, it's more my youth and lack of "political savvy". Chair told him that she'll mentor me in whatever I'm lacking (she does too) and how much I've been doing for the college and dept (that the possible TT member has not done).

I can get a PhD locally, where I got my MA in fact. I'm there for 1 course this semester, non matric. Problem is the time it'll take to finish, money and that they pretty much solely focus on research (R1 school), so I'm not learning much that I find directly useful. I considered getting a PhD in another field, but was told that doing that makes it harder to get hired teaching in my original field. I've also considered an Eed which would be free to me in F'09 (provided I get hired at current institution for that long), but have been told that that degree holds less clout than a PhD, and again would make it harder to teach in my original field.

Chair and mentor feel that they can find ways to keep me at current institution for the long term, and I'd like to believe them, but I can be pessimistic (or realistic, your choice). They also both feel the PhD is a waste of my time and money. Mentor feels EeD is way to go. I just want to keep teaching. Will an EeD hurt me? Should I stick with the PhD? Would a PhD limit my long term options (if I need to/want to get out of academics)? What about the fact I'd rather read and teach the research than actually do it?

Lastly, do I stick out the course I'm currently taking even though I'm not sure I even want this, just to save face? I have no idea what to say if I quit without burning a bridge. Oh, moving is not an option for the next few years, given my husband's situation.

My first thought is, that's way too many variables in one equation.

You need to reduce the variables.

If I understand the letter, you're place-bound for a while for spousal reasons. You have a Master's, and like to teach, but don't know if that will be enough to get you the kind of job you want. But you don't know what kind of job you want, so it's hard to say. The PhD available locally – which you're kinda pursuing and kinda not -- doesn't seem useful to you, but you don't want to lose face by walking away from it. A PhD in another field would be of limited relevance to your career goals. An EdD (or however it's usually noted) would be free, if you're still there, but you're not really sure what that leads to. Also, your VPAA says you're too young and lack political savvy, so you may not be there long enough to get the free EdD anyway. Unless you are.

Okay, time out. Deep breath.

It seems like you're trying to decide which road to take, but you aren't really sure where you want to go. Not knowing the latter, it's impossible to answer the former.

I'll throw out a few basics, ask my readers to fill in gaps that I've missed, and make a suggestion.

A few basics:

  1. There's no shame in walking away from your PhD program. You're in it on a 'non-matric' basis now, meaning that you're only barely in it anyway. If the program isn't for you, then it isn't for you. That's okay. A full-blown doctorate is a major life undertaking, consuming money both upfront and in opportunity costs. It is not to be undertaken for lack of a better idea, or because you don't want to lose face. (If anyone asks, just cite unspecified 'personal reasons' and leave it at that.) If you don't have a burning passion to do it, don't do it. Life is too short, and doctorates take too long.

  1. The same applies to the PhD in another program, or a 'free' EdD. (And there's no such thing as a free degree. Again, see “opportunity cost.”) Each has its virtues, but only if you really want what it leads to. If you don't, then either is a colossal waste of time and resources.

  1. You like to teach. You don't like to do research. A doctorate is a research degree. This is true of both PhD's and EdD's.

Rather than looking for the next external stamp of approval, I'd advise stepping back and giving some thought to what's actually important to you. Strip things to their essentials – I'm guessing that your teaching gig right now keeps you fed, so that counts as essential – and use the suddenly free space to reflect on what you'd like to be doing five or ten years from now. What kind of family life do you want? Do you want to still be in the same city? Is a long-distance marriage an acceptable option? Is teaching the only thing you enjoy, or could you envision doing something else? What do you do when left to your own devices? What can't you stop doing? Is there a way to pay the bills doing that?

(I had to laugh at myself recently when Recently Married Grad School Friend reminded me of a conversation we had over a decade ago in a parking garage in Grad School City. I had just discovered 'zines – this was the 90s, people – and was all atwitter about how cool it would be to do a higher ed zine. I just couldn't figure out how to make money on it. He patiently endured my uncharacteristic enthusiasm, which apparently made an impression. Now I blog at IHE, which didn't exist then. I write this stuff because I'm constantly thinking about it, whether it's useful or not. What do you do all the time, whether it's useful or not?)

Good luck. This isn't something you'll knock out in a week or a month, but you'll get there. You'll know you were right when, looking back, it seems inevitable.

Wise and worldly readers – any thoughts?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.



Monday, February 04, 2008

 

Ask the Administrator: When Should I Turn Pro?

A new correspondent writes:

I'm a graduate student in a field that's lucky enough to not have that
many people clamoring for faculty positions. In fact many small
universities are so desperate that they're willing to accept faculty
with only an MS in the field.

With this background in mind, I'm about to finish my master's degree
and I would like to teach, preferably at a small liberal arts school.
I've also have the chance to finish most of the requirements for my
Ph.D. rather early in the game(I've already been to a refereed
conference and a journal article is in the pipe). I'm seeing lots of
jobs at liberal arts schools for visiting professor positions where a
MS is acceptable.

This brings me to my question. What should I do? Should I jump at the
chance now and try to get my feet wet as a faculty member? I think I
can finish my dissertation and teach at the same time(famous last
words) but I'm wondering, from your perspective as an administrator at
a teaching school which would be better, a candidate that did things
the conventional route(Ph.D. and working as a TA) or a newly minted
Ph.D. who had real faculty experience under his/her belt?

Also how would you advise someone like me to approach schools like
this? I have industry experience as well as a year of being a TA.
What's my angle?

First off, congratulations on being in a position to have the choice. Most of us – myself included – can only gaze in awe at that. Imagine – the ability to command respect in the marketplace. Wow.

This is one of those situations in which personal life variables make a tremendous difference. If you have spousal/partner considerations or other financial exigencies to make the decision for you, then so be it. But you don't mention that, so I'll go on the assumption that there's no deal-breaker on the personal side.

Observation and experience both tell me that one of the great lies in the English language is “the dissertation is nearly done.” At this point, for my money, a dissertation is either Done or Not Done; there is no 'almost.' I've seen far too many smart, well-intentioned, hardworking people discover that 'one more semester' becomes 'one more year' becomes 'three more years' very quickly.

A decade's worth of observation has also taught me that it's much easier to finish a dissertation without a full-time teaching load. Yes, it involves living the grad student life of Ramen noodles a little longer, but once the thing is actually done, you'll be in much better shape than someone with a Master's who is struggling to juggle writing with teaching with the demands of committee service and a jaundiced tenure committee.

Some folks, I suspect, jump on the market at the first possible opportunity with the expectation that they'll be able to 'write their way out' of a middling job in a few years. It does happen, but it's rarer and harder than many grad students seem to think. For one thing, the lower-tier schools – the ones people try to escape – typically have higher teaching loads than the higher-tier schools. (What this says about the value higher ed places on its core function, I'll leave as an exercise for the reader.) Unless you're flat-out superhuman, you'll produce less research with a 4/4 load than your competitors at schools with 3/3 or less. There are only so many hours in the day. Add to that that the lower-tier schools are less likely to offer you RA's or TA's to do the dirty work – grading, say – and you can't just skate on charisma, like you could in a more elite setting. Teaching at the lower levels is more time-consuming, because the students need you more and your ancillary resources are less. Add to that a higher load in absolute terms – more courses per year -- and you'd be working at a serious disadvantage.

(The disadvantage is compounded when you look at 'visiting' positions. A 'visiting' position expires in a short time – typically a year – so you don't get a break from the market, and you have to move again in a year. Both the job search and moving are serious time sucks. I wouldn't advise going that route if you can avoid it.)

From an administrative perspective, too, I'll point out that it's much more common to advertise entry-level faculty positions than senior ones. So if you get a few years under your belt at Nothing Special State and then try to move, you may have priced yourself out of much of the market. Although that probably seems maddeningly arbitrary from a faculty perspective, it makes perfect sense from my side of the desk. The only way to maintain reasonable full-time staffing levels and still balance the budget, especially when seniority is the prime determinant of salary, is to hire folks initially at the low end of the scale. We've actually had to turn away some wonderful applicants with fifteen years' experience, simply because their salary expectations would have broken our budget. When 'productivity' and 'salary' are mostly disconnected, these things happen.

Unless there's some major external reason you haven't mentioned, which is certainly possible, I think you'll probably get the best outcome overall if you're willing to defer gratification a little longer. Finish the dissertation while you have the relative luxury of a light teaching load. Then hit the market at the peak of your value.

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers – what do you think?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.


Friday, February 01, 2008

 

Ask the Administrator: The Case of the Haunting Husband

A new chair writes:

I am a first year chair of a medium sized department at a community college (college population 12-18,000 FTEs).

My department has experienced a baby boom retirement wave; we have replaced four retirees in the past six years, and there are more retirements pending.

We have assembled a strong faculty of talented people in our field, as the department makes this personnel transition. Our new folks are good, solid instructors, as well as good human beings - we all are dedicated instructors and get along well.

Last year we hired an outstanding faculty member. Her husband also has a terminal degree in our field. We hired him as an adjunct.

The situation: something just feels a little odd. We are not getting to know our tenure track faculty member as an individual. It's "MaryandBob" instead of "Mary."

Any advice or cautions for us? This is the first time this department has dealt with a husband and wife combination.

I'll admit being jealous of your hiring boom. It's much easier to build a culture when you get to choose the people who comprise it. It sounds like you've been choosing pretty well.

In fact, I wonder if things have come so easy that you've started to expect a little too much.

I'm not sure what it means to say that “we are not getting to know our tenure track faculty member as an individual.” Surely she teaches her own classes, advises her own students, and tends to her own professional development and college service. (If not, then you have a much larger problem.) Surely, too, she expresses her opinions in department meetings. So what, exactly, is the problem?

Is “Bob” showing up where he shouldn't? If so, you probably need to talk to him. Is “Mary” blowing off her obligations? If so, then you need to talk to her. I wouldn't advise talking to them together, since that would probably become two (them) against one (you) pretty quickly. Besides, if the problem is indistinct identities, then talking to them together, as opposed to separately, reinforces the problem.

I wonder if “Bob” considers himself 'next in line' for the next hire. I've seen that before, and it's not pretty. He may not be entirely clear on the boundaries of his role in the department.

Or you may have been spoiled by success, and have come to expect friction-free interaction with everybody 'just knowing' what they're supposed to do. Good hiring can make it possible to get away with that; heaven knows I have a strong bias in favor of self-directed people. (I'll go farther, and say that someone who needs a lot of direction is a high risk for 'retiring on the job' upon receiving tenure.)

But it may be that MaryandBob don't quite 'get' your expectations, and you haven't yet been in a position where you actually had to spell them out. So they're doing something that rubs you the wrong way, but you haven't entirely formulated what or why that is, and they have no idea.

Unwritten rules are hard to follow. They're hard to enforce, too, to the extent that 'unwritten' means 'not really thought out.' From your note, it sounds like there's an unwritten expectation – an unconsious assumption, really -- that people will hang out together, be friends outside of work, and form a happy departmental family. There's nothing wrong with that when it happens naturally; certainly, real friendships are wonderful things. But it's not part of the job description, and it can't be forced without doing violence to the employment relationship, the friendships, or both.

I've never been a fan of the “we're like a family” school of management. It leads to invalid expectations, role confusions, and lots of misplaced conflict. (Among other things, some people's family lives could be described as 'deeply messed up.' You really don't want them playing out those psychodramas at work.) Workplaces aren't families. Children don't strive for tenure. (If anything, they strive for escape!) Certain kinds of intimacies that are entirely appropriate at home are out-of-bounds at work.

My guess is that your unspoken expectations, whatever they might be, don't match MaryandBob's. So the first thing to do – before you even approach MaryandBob – is to figure out what your expectations of them actually are. Are they reasonable? Do they make sense? If you write them down, and look at them as if someone handed them to you, do they pass the 'gimme a break' test?

If they don't, then you have some work to do on your own.

If they do, then you need to have a discussion with Mary – sans Bob – about your expectations and where she isn't meeting them. She may not know that there's a problem, or, more likely, she may sense it but not know quite what it is. Putting the cards on the table makes it more likely that you'll reach some sort of constructive resolution, whether that involves behavior change, expectation change, or job change.

Good luck! You've got some tough work to do.

Wise and worldly readers – your thoughts?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.


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