Monday, March 31, 2008

 

Ask the Administrator: What About Teaching High School?

A longtime reader writes:

I'll be starting a Ph.D. program
in History in the Fall. I know the risks, and I took
three years after I got my B.A. to decide whether
academic life was really that important to me. In the
meantime, though, I've done a number of different
jobs. Most recently, I've been substitute teaching in
a few local school districts.

It's given me some opportunity to think about
teaching, and high school teaching in particular. As I
see it, a serious problem with secondary education in
America is that, broadly speaking, there is too little
cross-pollination between high schools and the
academy. There's very little contact between teachers
and professors, and teachers by and large don't have
access to good academic resources (libraries,
journals, etc.).

Quite obviously, this isn't the most serious problem
facing secondary education in America, but it does
make for a more stultifying environment in most high
schools than really needs to be. I spent a year (as a
student) in a German Gymnasium, and the difference was
striking. I don't think you get as many time-servers
in Gymnasia, and German teachers have a greater
likelihood of actually being deeply involved in their
subject matter.

The reason I'm writing, though, is that it seems to me
that there is a simple, bureaucratic change that might
improve the quality of teaching in U.S. secondary
schools: more alternative licensure. Given that so few
good jobs are available in American higher education,
and that secondary education in America is so weak, it
would seem logical to make teaching at the secondary
level an option for folks who have a Ph.D. or are ABD.
As it stands now (in [state], and I believe in most other
places, too) you need a Master's in Education in order
to teach at the secondary level (or you need to be
working on it, if you've just gotten out of a B.A.
program in Education). If you just spent six or seven
years in graduate school becoming an expert in your
field, you are not going to want to go back to school
right away for another two. (I realize that there are
some people who do this, but they are a very small
minority)

It's clear that, as with community colleges, there are
a number of academics who would never even consider
teaching at the high school level-- which is too bad.
High school teaching can be frustrating, but it's also
a completely different, interesting set of educational
challenges. Students ask much broader questions, and,
unlike college students who pick a discipline, high
school students are more deeply concerned with the
relevance of what they're learning. It can be very
refreshing. And once you land a job, the pay is
reasonable and the benefits are pretty good.

Is there something I'm missing here? Is there some
compelling reason that alternative licensure hasn't
been opened up already for academics? Or is it just
the strength of teachers' unions and bureaucratic
shortsightedness?

I've long wondered about the chasm between the K-12 system and higher ed in America. It hits me most directly when we try to do 'dual enrollment' programs with local high schools. We've tried several times to run our classes onsite at local public high schools during the after-school hours, charging only cc tuition and offering transcripted (and therefore transferable) credit. (We've found that lots of colleges use AP or IB scores mostly for placement, as opposed to credit, but will give actual credit for transcripted college courses.) The leadership of the high schools is almost always excited at the prospect, the students say they want it, the parents say they want it, and even the teachers' unions are okay with it as long as it's after school. Then nobody signs up.

The one district in our service area where we've been able to make it work, revealingly, is the one district where we've been able to get an external benefactor to pick up the cost of tuition. Absent that, the courses flop. This despite the fact that the very next year, most of the students to whom the courses were offered will freely choose to go to colleges that charge far more per credit than we do, and take the exact courses they could have taken with us for far less.

Economically, it's insane. But there's a kind of compartmentalization that parents have adopted uncritically that leads them to assume that K-12 is, and should be, free, and college is, and should be, expensive. So the same parents who balk at our tuition for a high school senior will pay triple that the following year, for the same course, and do it without complaint. We're left scratching our heads.

That compartmentalization shows up in lots of little ways. High school teachers are teachers; college teachers are professors. High school teachers identify with their districts, often to the point of jumping from one discipline to another as needed (like the gym coaches who teach math); college professors identify with their disciplines, often barely even acknowledging the institution that actually pays them. High schools are tightly regulated and 'standardized' to death; colleges are still largely free to set their own standards and policies.

And yes, high school teachers have to take 'education' courses. College professors don't, unless that's their actual discipline. As I've mentioned before, the extent of my pedagogical training in graduate school before leading my first class consisted of being told, “you'll be fine.” I was, eventually, but that first semester wasn't always pretty.

I've never seen a thoughtful theoretical justification for the abrupt divide. My suspicion, and I'll admit that I haven't studied this systematically, is that the chasm is the result of historical accident, compounded by momentum.

If we were serious about building a coherent education system, for example, we would have aligned high school graduation requirements with college level entrance requirements a long time ago. Instead, embarrassingly large chunks of cc instructional budgets are dedicated to re-teaching stuff that was supposed to have been learned in high school. This applies even to brand new graduates, just a few months out of high school. (We also would invert the teaching pyramid in colleges, so that the remedial and intro classes would be the smallest, and taught by the most experienced instructors. Instead, we throw the most vulnerable students into the least supportive environments. My 'you'll be fine” section, characteristically, was an Intro course.)

We'd also take a fresh look at how we teach, how we define disciplines, and what we expect students to be able to do when they graduate. And yes, we'd ask questions like “why is it so hard to find good high school teachers, especially when colleges are turning away prospective professors by the metric ton?”

To get to the narrower point, I know that some states, including my own, have adopted “alternate route” certification programs for people with degrees in other fields, and that those programs have become astonishingly successful. I also can't help but notice that private high schools that don't require teaching certifications seem to do pretty well, though there are obvious issues of self-selection and economic class at work there.

My guess is that an influx of folks with high-level subject matter training into the ranks of public high school faculty would almost certainly be a good thing. I read somewhere – folks who know this stuff are invited to comment – that one of the strongest predictors of student performance in high school was the verbal SAT of the teacher. I don't know if it's true, but it sounds right. Exposing our kids to high expectations, backed by solid academic training, isn't the worst idea I've heard.

Good luck with your explorations.

Wise and worldly readers – what do you think?

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


Friday, March 28, 2008

 

Transparency and Reciprocity

Tim Burke and Chad Orzel have recently posted some helpful thoughts on tenure and its assumptions. This paragraph of Chad's is so good that I'm jealous that I didn't write it:

[T]he tenure case looks like a make-or-break moment for a career, which means that it's very important that decisions be made as objectively as possible, which calls for a great deal of proceduralism and makes confidentiality critically important. But this, in turn, means that when negative decisions are made, they can appear completely arbitrary, and there's not much that can be done to dispel this impression, or correct the arbitrariness. And, of course, the make-or-break nature of the decision gives people who have been denied tenure every incentive to kick up a huge fuss, which leads to all manner of accusations of bias and bad -isms, which are hard to defend against without breaking confidentiality, and on, and on...

Ayup.

One of the frustrations of administration is that process is grievable but judgments aren't, so when people disagree with judgments, they attack process. (“This is an outrage! How was this decision made?” or its close cousin “It isn't so much what they did, but how they did it.”) In many cases, the same people who routinely decry administrative paper-pushers are also the first to allege procedural irregularities when something happens that they don't like; they rarely see the contradiction. Since many processes are relatively cut-and-dried, the way to attack them is through character assassination – allege bias against whatever trait is at hand. And it's incredibly hard to prove you weren't thinking something, no matter how far from your mind it actually was.

To make matters worse, the rules of confidentiality are such that the victim of an adverse decision is free to take to the hills with a megaphone, accusing all and sundry of nearly anything, but the folks being accused aren't allowed to comment. In the public sphere of the college, that can look like stonewalling or taking the fifth, which, in turn, looks like guilt. But it isn't. It's respect for the process.

Folks who call loudly for transparency need to think really hard about what they're asking for. Anything transparent is also recorded, and can and will be used against you later in the court of public opinion. The quickest way to drain a meeting of content is to transcribe it. Simply put, you can have candor, or you can have transparency, but you can't have both. (That's why I write under a pseudonym.)

That's bad enough in low-stakes decisions. In a tenure case, where the decision boils down to “job for life” or “fired,” it's that much worse.

Full transparency would involve letting the entire college community know every perceived shortcoming of every denied candidate. (“We fired Professor Jones for the following 8 reasons...”) I don't know of any other industry – none – in which that holds. And to imagine that literally adding public insult to injury would reduce stress is simply incoherent, unless you make the assumption that tenure will effectively become automatic.

If every referee's comments are public record, good luck getting honest comments. What would actually happen – you heard it here first – is that a game of competitive puffery, or damning with relatively faint praise, would ensue. The rules would become inscrutable. (For a real-life example, see letters of recommendation.)

Am I arguing for preserving the sacrosanct secrecy of the star chamber, the hermetic seal on the door of the smoke-filled room?

Nope.

I'm arguing for finite but renewable multiyear contracts, with performance expectations (and job protections, such as academic freedom) written explicitly into the contract language. (That way we aren't relying on an extra-constitutional notion of 'academic freedom' as a freestanding right. We're relying on contract law, which is much sturdier and much more widely understood.) Use the same system of employment as the rest of the known universe. Write the expectations down in advance, so decisions aren't so surprising. And instead of transparency, which simply can't co-exist with confidentiality, go with an ethic of reciprocity.

With the tenure system, one side has all the power until it says yes; then the other side has all the power. Unsurprisingly, a system in which one side has all the power leads to abuses, some of them flagrant. A system based on reciprocity all the way through allows for the possibility of actual fairness.

Tenure and transparency simply can't co-exist. Opaque power will be abused. Enough of the star chamber, the power imbalances, and the agreeing-not-to-notice just how abusive academic culture has become. Fairness rests on reciprocity. Until then, we'll just have to keep questioning each other's motives in the name of preserving open inquiry. How's that working out?



Thursday, March 27, 2008

 

How Not to Conduct a Presidential Search

An alert reader sent me a link to these articles in the Rochester (NY) Democrat and Chronicle, detailing the goings-on in the Presidential search at Monroe Community College.

I've seen a lot, but this is impressive.

The current President of MCC is stepping down at the end of this academic year. To find a replacement, the MCC Board of Trustees established a process by which a search committee would winnow down the applicant pool, using criteria given by the Board, and put forward the few best candidates. At the end of the process, the committee put forth two candidates, both current Presidents of other community colleges.

The Board then added two other candidates to the list. Both are local, prominent Republicans who have never worked full-time in higher education. One of them is an attorney and former local (Republican) legislator. The other owns several dozen Burger King and Friendly's franchises, and teaches a few adjunct classes. (The Board is controlled by the Republican party, as is the county government.) The Board is claiming that it's trying to highlight the importance of local candidates.

Wow.

There's an argument for local candidates, but the time to address that is in the beginning of the process, when the Board draws up its charge to the search committee. If it wants to prefer local candidates, or candidates from the for-profit sector, or candidates with political connections, it could include those criteria in the list it gives to the search committee.

Alternately, if the Board found the search committee's recommendations unacceptable, it could either toss them out and start the process over again – the honest option – or make intentionally weak offers to the two candidates, announce a failed search, and start over again – the weaselly option.

But at this point, the Board has painted itself into a corner.

Now that it has named two alternates to the list of finalists, none of the possible scenarios look good. If it decides to go with one of the original finalists anyway, it will look like it caved, and will embolden antagonistic forces on campus. If it goes with one of the late additions, the newbie will have been set up to fail. I wouldn't be at all surprised to see one or both of the original finalists withdraw his candidacy at this point, based on not wanting to work with a Board as amateurish as this one. At that point, the only reasonable thing to do – and I wouldn't hold my breath – would be to admit a failed search and start again.

At best, maybe both of the newbies withdraw, and one of the originals decides to take the high road and accept the job anyway. But even if the candidates somehow conspire to save the Board from itself, it will still have damaged its own credibility severely.

Presidential searches are high-stakes. A bad decision can hurt a college for years. If the bad decision was the result of a consensus, or at least of a broadly-accepted process, the damage can be easier to contain. But to put an entire college through an extensive process, and then to just coronate a crony anyway, does damage independent of how the crony eventually performs.

Boards of Trustees are a risky business in themselves. Most of the time, the majority of the membership has never worked full-time in higher education, and often has only a vague sense of how things actually work. But it has tremendous power, when it chooses to use it. That's a dangerous combination, which can lead without much effort to really egregious mistakes. As forehead-slappingly bad as this case is, it's also somehow not surprising.

Good luck to MCC. You'll need it.


Wednesday, March 26, 2008

 

National Service

Every election year, we start to get proposals for various national service programs as ways to pay for college. The basic idea, though the details always vary, is that graduating high school seniors will work for the government for a year or two in a sort of domestic peace corps arrangement, doing fine and worthy things while accruing voucher credits to be used for college tuition. It's usually presented as some sort of 'rights/responsibilities' tradeoff, with the clear implication that opposition to such a plan could only be based on hippie-like narcissism and/or opposition to all things good. It's a particular favorite of centrist Democrats, since it allows them to connect financial aid to 'worthiness.'

I'm no hippie, and I like good works, but this stuff really doesn't sit well with me at all.

First off, it doesn't recognize the reality of who college students are. The picture people paint when they discuss these programs is of a sheltered, overentitled seventeen-year-old who needs some real-world seasoning before moving out to live in dorms and take classes full-time. Those folks exist, but they aren't the majority of students anymore. Students now come in all ages, often with jobs, and often part-time. Many of them have family and/or local obligations. The students most capable of taking advantage of programs like these are generally the students who are most advantaged anyway.

There's also the annoying fact that the wealthier folk would be able to opt out. So in addition to all the other advantages of wealth, they'd also get started on their careers earlier in life. Those lost earning years matter, especially with the move to defined-contribution pensions. Lost years of compounding returns matter quite a bit. (This is a little-noted but major implication of the shift from defined-benefit to defined-contribution plans. Under the old style pensions, what mattered was what you made in the last few years of your career. Under the new style, what matters most is how early you start, since compounding is the name of the game. With educational requirements ratcheting up, newbies start later than they used to. Add a couple more years of opportunity cost with national service, and it gets even worse.)

And there's the sheer drudgery of much of the work. My recollection of high school – your mileage may vary – involves a lot of frustration, and a palpable eagerness to step up to the academic big leagues. Adding a year or two of soup-kitchen duty or trash pickup or helping old ladies across the street would be demotivating, to put it mildly. As the apocryphal saying goes, community service is something you're sentenced to. Besides, the idea of interrupting your math sequence for a couple of years, then jumping right into calculus, strikes me as, well, nuts. The same holds true for anything sequential and memory-based, like foreign languages. I don't even know how athletics fit into this.

I've done my share of drudgery. I've attended parking lots, washed dishes in diners, tested piston rings, stocked groceries, picked up the photocopier tan, temped, served food in cafeteria lines, and even stacked bags of ice in a freezer. But those were all short-term gigs, and they all involved at least some level of choice. (Admittedly, more choices would have been nice...) And anybody who thinks that living on the East Coast on ten thousand dollars a year in the 1990's was easy hasn't tried it. This isn't about dodging work, or living in Mom's basement and playing video games.

The message that national service programs send strikes me as dangerous. The implication seems to be that rich kids can just jump right into higher ed and start moving up the ladder, but the rest of us have to do our time first. It's a sort of penance for not having wealthy parents. I know our society worships money, but there should be some kind of limits. It implicitly defines higher education as a purely private good, which I reject out of hand. (This isn't just the perspective of a loony liberal, either. If you've ever been to Chamber of Commerce lunches, you know you could start a drinking game based on how many times you hear the phrase “educated workforce.”) If we're the slightest bit serious about economic opportunity, or competing in the global economy, or preserving and exploring the cultures of the world, or retraining displaced workers, or giving disaffected high school kids something to shoot for, or – heaven forbid – fostering creativity for its own sake, we shouldn't put up more obstacles to higher ed. We should clear them away. If you really want to do a national service, improve the high schools.

My proposal? Streamline and increase financial aid, strengthen community colleges as academic starting points – since they're the most accessible to people of every age, income level, and family situation, improve the transferability of credits, reduce the reliance on loans, and recognize in a serious way that a highly educated population is a public good, worthy of support with public resources. Drop the insulting and paternalistic proposals for indentured servitude, and make it possible for people to pursue the education best for them when it makes sense for them to do it.

None of that is terribly original, and none of it is easy, either. There may be better ways. But the animating principles – freedom of choice, education as a public good, and respect for people's different life paths – strike me as fundamental. National service proposals manage to mangle all three.


Tuesday, March 25, 2008

 

Louisville Sluggards

An alert reader sent me a link to this article in the Louisville Courier-Journal. Apparently, Kentucky passed some 'reforms' about ten years ago to increase the number of students who transfer from community colleges to the state's four-year schools, hoping to increase the education level of the workforce relatively cheaply.

Simply put, it hasn't worked. In fact, there are fewer successful transfers now than there were before the reforms were passed.

The article is sympathetic, though it buries the key quote. If you keep scrolling, and scrolling, and scrolling, you eventually hit this:

Jenny Sawyer, U of L[ouisville]'s executive director of admissions, said there is little incentive for universities to seek transfer students, because, unlike freshmen, they don't count toward an institution's graduation rate, ACT average or retention rate.

"All those things are factored in measures, and not just for rankings, but for bond issues and all those kinds of things," Sawyer said.

Sigh.

Although it's tempting, from a legislative perspective, to think of public colleges and universities as extensions of the state, they actually have their own imperatives and agendas. And a distressing number of those imperatives and agendas reflect little more than detail-y bureaucratic mistakes.

I'm constantly struck at how many local decisions are effectively dictated by much earlier decisions about how particular statistics are determined, or particular terms defined. In principle, it shouldn't be that hard to amend something like the definition of a graduation or retention rate to take account of transfer students. But until that happens, the folks tasked with improving those numbers will just do what they have to do, whether it makes sense or not.

In a more perfect world, we'd have thoughtful leaders who would direct sustained attention to the same things over time until they get them largely right. If measures needed to be changed to become less perverse, they would be. But that's not how it works. Public, and therefore political, attention flits from object to object with dizzying speed. Sometimes it alights somewhere long enough for a particular change to be made, but once that change is made, we're on to the next thing. Intelligent follow-through is rare, since the effort is considerable and the political payoff, at least in the short term, negligible.

Declaring that Kentucky needs a more educated workforce is easy. Getting universities to change their internal policies is hard. But if you don't do the second, the first doesn't mean much.

Community colleges see this all the time. Our enrollments go up during recessions, which is also when our public aid goes down. So we're told to tighten our belts at the same time that we're told to accommodate more students, including those who don't pay tuition. (In many states, displaced workers don't pay tuition, and no, the state doesn't make up the difference. We eat it.) There's an egregiously obvious Keynesian case to be made that recessions are exactly the times to increase the subsidies to community colleges, but these days Keynesian interventions are reserved for investment banks. So Bear Stearns gets bailouts, while we replace full-time faculty with adjuncts. It's a fundamental failure of political leadership, and it's getting tiresome.

I'm increasingly convinced that college leaders need to engage political leaders early and often, and not just in the traditional “please increase our funding, you incredibly witty and handsome critter” way. At a really basic level, they just don't get it. They don't see how the dots are connected, so they react almost randomly when some shiny statistic or anecdote briefly catches their attention. (“Nanotech lab! Ooh! Ward Churchill! Eek!”) If they won't connect the dots themselves, we have to do it for them. If we don't, we aren't doing what our jobs are increasingly becoming. And the gap between Bold State Initiatives and objective reality will just continue to grow, like so much bluegrass.


Monday, March 24, 2008

 

Florida Responds!

Richard Florida posted a thoughtful and gracious response to my critique here.

Reason #744 to enjoy blogging: actual responses from actual authors!

 

Who's Your Audience?

As an academic on a national job search, I read Richard Florida's latest, Who's Your City?, with mixed emotions.

Florida is an economic geographer whose previous books on the creative class have become simply inescapable. And a good thing, too – Florida is a lucid writer on an important topic, and much of what he has found is both obviously correct and well worth learning. In studying the factors that make some cities thrive economically while others stagnate or slide, he has isolated a particular kind of cosmopolitanism as an actual economic force. To oversimplify, his theory of 'how to spot the next boomtown' boils down to 'follow the gays and artists.' Places open to alternate lifestyles are open to creative people generally, who prefer to flock together. Put enough creative people in one place long enough, and economic sparks will fly.

Alternately, drive the creatives out, and economic decline is inevitable. Some of his descriptions of the dynamics of cities in decline will strike denizens of higher ed as sadly familiar – people doing things in tired ways because “that's how they've always been done,” newcomers held in suspicion, and decisions made based on internal factors rather than actual engagement with the outside world. And since people tend to move much more frequently in their twenties than in their forties, if you drive them away in their twenties, you're unlikely to get most of them back. Age-based cascades become self-reinforcing.

His previous books on the creative class were primarily analytical and explanatory. They could be used to make personal decisions, but they clearly weren't intended for that. This one starts with the sociology, but moves awkwardly to self-help. The conceit of the book seems to be that once you understand what goes into making an area hot or cold, you can use that information to locate yourself where the action is likely to be. Better life options, real estate appreciation, and general coolness await those who correctly spot the next Seattle. To that end, the book includes a series of (admittedly nifty) maps, and several top-five lists broken down by stage of life and sexual preference. Ever wonder what the top five medium-sized metropolitan areas for empty-nest gay couples are? This book will tell you. (The answers aren't always intuitive. #5: Rochester, NY. Really?)

As an academic, though, there was something both frustrating and troubling about the whole enterprise. As Florida acknowledges in passing, certain professions aren't particularly place-specific. Education, health care, and law enforcement, for example, can be found pretty much anyplace you find a significant number of people. In higher ed, below the superstar level, many of us take jobs where we can find them. When a relatively flat national market confronts a 'spiky' economic landscape, you have a choice: have decent purchasing power in an out-of-the-way or out-of-fashion place, or struggle mightily somewhere where other people are in hot industries. Buy in a cold area, or rent in a hot one.

The top R1 universities can pay top dollar to lure superstars despite the price of housing in, say, Berkeley. But that's a very narrow segment of the higher ed market, even though it gets most of the attention. Community colleges, for example, can be found in all sorts of communities, both hot and cold. And most of them define part of their mission as serving the community in which they're located.

If the community seems to be in decline, should part of the mission of the cc be to facilitate individual escape? Given Florida's correct insight that age-based losses are hard to recoup, doing right by individual students could have the unintended side effect of hastening the decline of the service area. That's a tough sell to local taxpayers. “Help us drain this festering craphole of young talent!” It doesn't look good on a billboard.

That's not Florida's fault, of course. But the idea that you should simply go where the action is strikes me as impracticable for most of us in higher ed, and of dubious wisdom even for those who could. In my grad school days, I was physically close to a great deal of sophisticated culture, but couldn't afford almost any of it. Ever since, I've been a little skeptical of the idea that it's 'hot metro region or bust.' Given the income scale non-superstar academics face, it seems to me that there's something to be said for the cheaper regions. And that would be true of any industry in which paychecks tend to be modest. Being house-poor (or apartment-poor) in a hot area renders you unable to take advantage of most of what makes it hot.

Without quite meaning to, I think Florida walked directly into a really fundamental dilemma: the economic world is spiky, but the nation-state is flat. The two don't play well together, and higher ed is just one sign of that (and a minor one, at that). Self-help is fine, but those best situated to take advantage of it need it least. There's a much bigger issue at hand here. I'm glad Florida did so much to outline the problem. I just don't have a clue how to solve it.


Friday, March 21, 2008

 

Ask the Administrator: Faculty or Staff?

A young correspondent writes:

I'm writing to ask your opinion about attending graduate school. I recently
graduated from a [public] comprehensive college with a dual degree in History
and Political Science (3.95 GPA). I've done some "scholarly activities,"
mainly teaching assistantships and presenting research at a national
convention; however, I'm concerned about the academic job market for
Political Science PhD graduates. Most of my professors seem rather
nonchalant about the job market (e.g. don't worry, the job will be there)
and my ability to gain admittance to an R-1 institution.

Presently, I work in a higher education setting as the "Assistant to the
Director" on a system-wide initiative to establish Professional Science
Master's degrees at several campuses [across the state] and have been accepted

to study higher education leadership at [Respected Private U]. In your opinion,
would it be advisable to enter the marketplace as professional staff (most
likely academic advisement or admissions) or just earn a PhD in Political
Science?


I don't know what a Professional Science Masters program is, so I'll just ask readers who know to fill me in in the comments. And I love the way this note ends -- “or just earn a PhD in Political Science.”

The choice you're posing – faculty or staff, basically – suggests to me that being in and around higher education is more important to you than the content of what you study. That's not meant as a criticism – higher ed can be a great place to be, and college towns have a lot to be said for them -- but it does suggest an answer.

My usual advice to anyone considering a doctoral program in any liberal arts field is to think long and hard about whether they could possibly be happy doing anything else. If the answer is yes, do something else. The 'apprentice' system is broken beyond repair, for reasons my regular readers are probably tired of hearing. It's tempting to think “I'll be different,” but if you aren't at one of the top half-dozen or so programs in the country, it's pretty unlikely.

In your case, you're in the happy position of having another option already at hand. You've had a taste of the 'support' side of higher ed, and it seems to agree with you. The great news is that jobs in those areas are generally easier to find, and you'll have much more choice of locale.

On the faculty side, if you finally find a tenure-track perch and you aren't a superstar, it's unlikely that you'll have much choice of locale. That may not seem important in the abstract, but most of us wouldn't find, say, rural West Virginia, suburban Michigan, and Dallas interchangeable. New faculty usually have to take whatever they get, even if it doesn't match their preferences. If you pick a less competitive side of the academy, you'll probably have a better shot at living where you want. (This goes a long way towards solving any 'two-body problem' that may develop along the way, too.)

Geeky Mom, who is one of my favorite bloggers, has written thoughtfully on the intellectual content of college staff work. Although some faculty prefer not to know it (or not to admit it), professional staff face dilemmas, solve problems, help students, and make possible much of the work of the faculty. You obviously have the intellectual candlepower to make a real contribution; I suspect you'll have an easier time making that contribution on the staff side. And you'll be able to do it in a setting of your own choosing, one that fits your taste and your relationship. I know some faculty who would take that deal in a heartbeat.

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers – what say you?

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


Thursday, March 20, 2008

 

Ask My Readers: Questions for Some Bigwigs

Scott Jaschik, at Insidehighered.com, will be moderating a panel at the AACC meeting in Philadelphia entitled “Community Colleges: Who Should Judge Them and How?” The blurb in the program reads:

Higher education is in period of unprecedented scrutiny, with constant talk of accountability, assessment, and standards – all with a backdrop of a tightening budget picture. This panel – together with the audience – will explore such questions as: Who should evaluate whether community colleges are doing a good job? What are appropriate measures? Do traditional and new measures reflect the changes in the community college curriculum and student body? What are the roles of the government, accreditors and the press? Do traditional means to evaluate higher education hurt community colleges and what can be done about it?

This session will not feature long talks, but will largely be a freestyle discussion among panelists and the audience.

Panelists:

--George Boggs, president of the American Association of Community Colleges

--Kevin Carey, research and policy manager for Education Sector and creator of a community college rankings system for Washington Monthly.

--Gail O. Mellow, president of LaGuardia Community College

--Felice Nudelman, education manager of The New York Times

Moderator: Scott Jaschik, editor of Inside Higher Ed

Scott and I discussed having me on the panel, but we couldn't figure out a reasonable way to do that without 'outing' me. Since the President of a cc at which I'm a candidate for a VP position will be at the conference, I'm guessing this isn't the time. And the old “unknown comic” shtick of a paper bag on the head just isn't terribly dignified. (“The unknown blogger” seems almost redundant.)

So instead, we agreed that I'd ask my readers for questions to pose for the panelists. I'll add a few of my own, and Scott can use his discretion in deciding which to use. With two major media outlets, a college President, and the President of the AACC on the panel, this is a chance to pose difficult but important questions to folks with real influence.

So my question for my wise, worldly, learned, and good-looking readers: what would you like to ask these folks?


Wednesday, March 19, 2008

 

Ask the Administrator: When the Bench is Thin

A longtime reader and correspondent writes:

In my academic program, our dean will be retiring in 4-5 years. We have an associate dean (gone in 2 years) and an assistant dean (gone in 4 years), and that's our entire administrative structure. Only one other faculty member (me) has any administrative experience (I served as dean, not with what one would call great success, from 1998 to 2000; I retire in 4 years as well). The last two deans have been internal hires, and given the current and foreseeable future state of the budget, we're likely to have to hire from inside again. Among the current faculty, only one might be administrative material, although I don't know if he has any interest (there are no signs of it) and I don't know how well his candidacy would be received by the faculty (he's made some fairly divisive curriculum proposals, although he's also done a good job with assessment issues).

The question is how we can, now, immediately, begin to develop some additional administrative depth. Especially as no one seems especially interested, what we might do looks awfully difficult to me. (This comes up because I've been asked, by one of the current administrative incumbents--not the dean--which is itself an interesting issue--for ideas.) Anyone have any ideas?

This sounds awfully familiar. With the top-heavy age/seniority distribution at my college, I have several departments in which there's no obvious successor to the incumbent chair. Since we only hire chairs from within, it's a real issue. (For deans and above, we do open, internal-and-external searches.) When you don't hire anybody full-time in a given department for twenty years, these things happen.

Although Marc Bousquet likes to complain about full-time faculty being part of a hiring chain for administration, I'm not entirely convinced it's a bad thing. After all, the alternative to drawing from the faculty ranks is to draw from the ranks of people who haven't been faculty. On the academic side of the house, I'd like leaders who have actually been in the classroom. They're more likely to understand the reality of how decisions play out on the ground.

(Frankly, if the argument that you need to develop a bench wins you some full-time lines, I consider that a good thing. And several of the faculty hired on my watch have had administrative experience elsewhere, which I've considered a huge plus. They get it.)

Sometimes, though, you see someone in the wings who seems to have the temperament for the job – it's really much more about temperament than almost anything else – but just hasn't thought about it. In those cases, sometimes an early tap on the shoulder, followed with some professional development funding for a quasi-administrative conference or two (the AAC&U is usually good, for example), can serve to whet an appetite. (Alternately, it can help you dodge a bullet, if she attends and comes back saying “Oh, God, No!!!!!!,” better to find that out early.)

It's also possible that folks who would avoid a chair position if offered 'cold' would accept a lower-level administrative assignment and discover a taste for it. That happened in my case, and I've seen it happen with a few others. The cultural taboo among faculty against breaking ranks is strong, but once the ranks are slightly broken and the world doesn't end, it's easier to keep going.

Anybody smart enough to be a college professor is smart enough to manage. The issue with the people who crash and burn, in my observation, is usually something like 'thickness of skin' or 'willingness to endure conflict' or 'ability to remain calm in the face of patent insanity.' People who pride themselves on not suffering fools gladly are well advised to steer clear of administration, since the cutting remark that seemed witty when you were a professor is suddenly cruel when you're a dean. And if you pride yourself on being universally liked, don't even think about it.

Good luck. You're in a tough spot.

Wise and worldly readers – what do you think?

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


Tuesday, March 18, 2008

 

The Star Wars Party

TB attended a birthday party on Saturday with a Star Wars theme.

If you don't have kids around this age, you may not appreciate what that involves. The parents dressed in costume, and provided costumes for the kids. They made light sabers out of 'pool noodles,' and modeled a pinata on the Death Star. They saw a few scenes from one of the movies – TB hasn't seen any of them, and his descriptions were too vague for me to figure it out – and even had fencing lessons in the backyard. When he returned, TB was resplendent in his tunic and leather necklace, and was convinced that Star Wars is just about the coolest thing ever.

So, now we have to show him at least the first movie. Cultural literacy and all that.

I wasn't much older than TB is now when Star Wars came out. I remember being in the theater and being completely overwhelmed at it all – the opening scene with the battle cruiser slowly taking over the entire screen, the ominous sounds of Darth Vader as he boarded the rebel ship, and the roller-coaster feel as Luke and the x-wings made their way down the alley of the Death Star.

I also remember my Dad, who grew up in Tennessee in the 40's and 50's, laughing hard – he has a contagious belly laugh – at the 'canteen' scene, when the bartender says of the droids, “we don't serve their kind here.” After the movie, he explained to his uncomprehending 8 year old son why that was funny. And I remember wondering, for years later, why all the girls liked Han instead of Luke; had I figured that out sooner, it would have saved me a lot of time.

What I didn't realize was just how long a cultural life the movie would have.

Most of the cultural effluvia of my youth has been consigned to the outer reaches of youtube, or dvd box sets. TB and TG have no concept of the Fonz, or the Brady Bunch, or Mork, or Sweathogs. Sesame Street only slightly resembles the Sesame Street of my youth; the dvd of the first season actually comes with a warning label that it may be too intense for young children. (Now it's all Elmo, all the time. Bleah.) Some of the music of my childhood survives on XM Kids – TG does a falling-down-funny version of “Funkytown” -- but mostly as novelty.

But Star Wars is strong enough to survive the ewoks and the second trilogy. That's saying something.

In the early 80's, I remember being floored when a neighbor briefly rented a VCR and was able to show Star Wars in his living room. It struck me as simply incredible that you could watch a movie anytime you wanted, in your own home, without commercials. By the mid-80's, we had cable, and I don't even want to admit how many times I caught Star Wars on HBO.

In the mid-90's, just to show off, Lucas re-released Star Wars to theaters. TW and I saw it – before she was TW – in a theater packed with people our age saying things like “wow!” without irony.

Now our son goes to Star Wars parties, and comes back speaking of “Ooobi-won Kenobi” and the Bad Star. (Seriously, we need to show him the movie.) It has marked another milestone.

Now we have a few months to come up with a theme for TB's birthday. The bar has been raised. Somehow, I don't think a 'Gilligan's Island birthday' would quite cut it. There are classics, and then there are classics.


Monday, March 17, 2008

 

Ask the Administrator: For Love or Money

A new correspondent writes:

I read your blog, and now I have a question. I am currently teaching as
an adjunct at the local CC (English dept.) -- for the past two years, I
have worked at the Regional University in a series of "temporary full
time" positions, and when no temporary positions were open this year, I
went adjunct.

Two lecturer positions have recently opened at Regional University, and
they are positions I am relatively well qualified for. I am confident
that in a matter of days, their posting will become widely known and
that everyone I know will begin telling me to apply. The problem is
that I hated most minutes of working at the university, and I love,
love, love the CC. At the university, relationships with colleagues
were basically non-existent; at the CC, the faculty are helpful and
open even to the adjuncts. At the university, my students were
sometimes great, but more often were dull and hoping to coast through a
degree their parents wanted for them; at the CC, the students
self-select to either put up or stop showing up. I am not a fan of the
university's lock-step writing program (required texts to teach,
required format for the syllabus, required grade norming once a month);
I am a huge fan of the CC's "as long as you meet the course objectives,
it's ok with us" policy of academic freedom. Beyond that, I just love
the idea of the CC and the student population it seeks to serve. Beyond
that, the CC has many options for professional development that are
unavailable at the university, such as free enrollment in courses that
have been developed purely for the professional development of their
full- and part-time faculty.

So the question is thus: do I apply for a job that, should I get it,
I'm already pretty sure I won't like (since it's just a more permanent
version of a job I did for two years). As I see it, the pros would be
money, benefits, and a higher level of "job experience" than another
year or two of adjuncting might get me. The cons would be hating my
job, working for a university that I deep down feel has screwed me a
bit in terms of employment, and stepping out of the CC where I'd like
to eventually be employed full time.

Would it be better, later on, when hopefully applying for full time
jobs at the CC, if I had been an adjunct for a few years with them,
gotten to know people, taken a few classes, etc.? Or would it look
better to have had a lecturer (non TT) position at a university for a
year or so? Is applying for the job worth it? Are there benefits or
drawbacks I'm not seeing just because, at the end of the day, I really
don't WANT to apply?

“It depends” is a pretty weaselly answer, so instead of saying it directly, I'll get to it via a discussion of things to consider. Readers who have faced similar dilemmas are invited to chime in.

Since you're asking, rather than gritting your teeth and applying, I assume that material circumstances allow you some wiggle room. That isn't always the case, so you're in a good position.

From a cc hiring perspective, either experience would count. If anything, we tend to 'count' cc teaching slightly more, on the assumption that you're more comfortable with our students. However, either is fine, so I wouldn't base a decision on that. Besides, any given position could go any given way on any given day.

(It's also usually the case that beyond the first couple of years, the value of additional teaching experience starts to fall prey to diminishing marginal returns. Since you already have a few years under your belt, another year shouldn't matter much one way or the other.)

Since this is basically a binary decision – apply for the Regional University line or don't – I'll start with my basic, when-all-else-fails method for binary decisions. Flip a coin, and see if you're disappointed in the outcome. If you're disappointed, do the 'losing' choice. Your instincts – which would show up in a sense of disappointment – are smarter than you are, but they can be cagey. Sometimes a simple trick can smoke them out.

It sounds like you've already done that, at some level; you know you don't want to apply to the RU job, but still feel like you 'should.'

There's no 'should.' If you would hate it there – and it sounds like you have good reason to think you would – then don't do it. Life is too short, and self-resentment is toxic. Do the job you love, and leave the other for those who love that.

Among other things, you'll perform better at the job you love than the one you tolerate. Whether it will lead to a full-time cc gig or not, I don't know, but the time you spend actually working will be happier. And you won't find yourself getting gradually sucked into a setting you'd really rather escape.

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers – what do you think?

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


Friday, March 14, 2008

 

Dontcha Hate It When...

You get back from an interview for a job you really, really want, only to realize that you completely misinterpreted a question? And that the answer you gave to the question they meant, rather than the one you heard, almost certainly came off as colossally nuts? And that nobody around the table bothered to stop you, or to clarify the question, or to provide context, or even to make a facial expression that might alert you that you were doing the equivalent of saying “why yes, I do like to club baby seals in my spare time, thanks for asking”?

Me, too.

It's tough, because certain words have different meanings in different settings, but so few people move between those settings that the 'natives' are often unaware of the language difference. So they think the meaning of the term, or the question in which it's embedded, is utterly transparent. And an answer that depends on a different meaning is prima facie evidence of mental illness, or, at best, a tragically failed attempt at performance art. And you wonder why they're oddly distant as you leave, only to have it hit you in the middle of the subsequent night that you basically told them that you're a douchebag of epochal proportions and proud of it.

Sigh.

Sadly, there are no do-overs. So somewhere in this wide land, there's a perfectly wonderful college with some perfectly wonderful people who spent the better part of an afternoon staring at each other and muttering variations on “what's his problem?” or “did you hear that?” or “ay caramba” or whatever the hell it is they say when someone lays a gigantic egg and doesn't know it. And they're almost certainly congratulating themselves on having dodged a nasty bullet by discovering that beneath this mild-mannered exterior lurks a gleefully cackling cartoonish villain who spends his time thinning the gruel of orphans.

Worse, it's entirely possible that the sustained silence I expect will follow would have happened anyway, but without the bitter taste of self-blame. But there's just no way to know.

Grumble.

Someday I'll chalk it up to experience. But for now, it's just really, really frustrating.


Thursday, March 13, 2008

 

All Those Administrators...

This story caught my eye. According to a study by the National Center for Educational Statistics, the percentage of full-time employees in higher ed classified as 'faculty' is decreasing, and the percentage classified as 'administrators' is increasing. The IHE summary doesn't define 'administrator,' so it's tough to interpret – it appears to be a catch-all for full-time non-faculty -- but what caught my eye was the distinction between one sector of higher ed and the rest.

One of these things is not like the other:

Percentage of f-t employees classified as 'administrators,' 2006

Private Non-profit 56%

Private For-profit 55.9%

4-year colleges 54.5%

2-year colleges 38.6%

What makes this especially striking is that community colleges also tend to have the highest percentage of courses taught by adjuncts, as opposed to full-time faculty. So we have fewer administrators per full-time faculty, and fewer full-time faculty per class. We're pretty bare-bones, which is part of why we can keep tuition low.

The discrepancy between sectors probably also helps explain why whenever I read stories about the alleged proliferation of administrators, it doesn't match my observation on the ground. In the two-year sector, where I work, it's not particularly true. In the four-year sector, it is.

Which makes sense, if you think about it (and define 'administrator' as any non-faculty role, from athletics coach to Security to department secretary). Most community colleges have relatively modest athletic programs, so we don't need anything resembling the staff needed to field a full slate of teams. Most cc's don't have dorms, so we don't need a lot of the 'student life' folk that residential colleges need. We don't have grant-supported research labs or centers, with all the lab assistants and grants officers those require. Our art galleries and such tend to be modest, not requiring full-time staff.

I wouldn't recommend applying the cc model to the four-year (and above) sector. While there's certainly fat to be found, it's still true that those labs and teams and even dorms add value. It's just that the value they add comes at a cost.

Comparing the statistics also raises a question about the frequent assertion that the growth of 'administration' (here usually used to refer to deans and vice presidents, as opposed to lab assistants and department secretaries) is the driver behind the turn to adjuncts. If that were the case, we'd expect cc's to have the lowest percentage of adjuncts of any sector. In fact, we have the highest. In my observation, the turn to adjuncts is much more about compensating for subsidy cuts, rather than creating new deans' positions. (My cc has fewer deans now than it did ten years ago, even though it has more adjuncts. The critical variable is declining external support, not internal featherbedding.)

I'm also intrigued to see virtually no difference between 'non-profit' and 'for-profit' colleges. From direct observation, I'm pretty sure that this is a function of the squishiness of the 'administration' category. For example, for-profits generally don't have grants officers, but they do have extraordinarily well-staffed Admissions offices. They don't have dorms, but they do have well-staffed Career Services offices. Some pretty fundamental differences are obscured by an unhelpful label.

Of course, there are also the usual external suspects driving growth of support staff: increased demands for technical support, increased demands for security on campus, ADA compliance, ever-more-complex financial aid rules, and the like. I'm not sure which of those is supposed to be either optional or sinister.

That's how the report looks from my neck of the woods. How does it look from yours?



Wednesday, March 12, 2008

 

Ask the Administrator: A Career in a Crisper

A new correspondent writes:

Within the last year I've completed my PhD in English. In thinking about future jobs, I think I'd be a good fit either at a CC or at a teaching-centered institution with undergraduate education as it's main mission (SLAC, regional state, etc). Here's the catch: I likely won't actually be looking for that job for 8, 10, or even 15 years.

I don't worry so much about explaining to future employers the reasons behind the monster gap in my CV. They are, as you might expect, the usual suspects. (In my case, it's my spouse's far more lucrative job which entails a great deal of travel and frequent moves, a job which, realistically, he won't be able to walk away from anytime soon, coupled with a two year old and a baby on the way.)

Here's my real question: Are there things I should be doing now and over the next several years to preserve my employability so that I'll be just as an attractive candidate 10 years from now as I am today? (Don't mean to sound arrogant, but I really am confident I'm an outstanding candidate for the schools I mentioned, especially a CC).

Thanks for floating this one by your readers!

This is a tough one. My first thought is that ten years is a long time, and a lot can happen. It's incredibly hard to predict what you'll want ten years in advance, let alone what the world will look like. Will the market have improved, stayed the same, or worsened? I honestly don't know. (If I knew what the Next Big Thing was going to be, I'd buy stock in it now.) My guess is that some basic structural changes will start to happen, and the next market won't be so much 'better' or 'worse' as 'different.' But that's a guess, and I've been wrong before.

Since you have the luxury of not needing to make money, I'd take the opportunity to step back from the academic hamster wheel and think about things you'd like to do. If teaching floats your boat, and you have a doctorate in English and an affinity for community colleges, there should be ample adjunct opportunities just about anywhere. (If you have computer skills and a decent internet connection, which I assume you do or you wouldn't be reading blogs, there's also the option of adjuncting online classes. The great advantage there is that you aren't place-bound, so if your spouse gets transferred, you can keep right on doing what you're doing.) The valid complaint about adjuncting is that it pays terribly, but if pay isn't an issue, and you miss teaching, it's a way to stay in the game.

Even there, though, I don't see the harm in taking some years off. If anything, those years could give you a chance both to write and to explore other options. That writing and/or exploration could actually make you a much more distinctive, and therefore appealing, candidate upon your return.

I can understand the concern about putting the career in a sort of crisper. (In my bachelor days, the crisper was more of a rotter. It was where vegetables went to die. To this day, I don't know quite how spinach turns to black soup, but I've seen it happen, and it's not pretty.) But the metaphor is probably misleading. Since you're not place-bound and you don't need the money, you don't fall prey to the “why buy the cow” problem. You're free to reinvent yourself, probably in ways you haven't figured out yet.

My advice for the first couple of years is to enjoy your kids, read widely, write some, and not worry about the market for now. In a few years, if you're pining for the classroom, then by all means pick up a course or two somewhere. But you have an opportunity most academics never get. You can add experiences and skills that most of us just can't. Those will eventually make you a much more interesting and compelling candidate for teaching gigs, if those still hold your interest. And it may just happen that the other stuff you pick up along the way becomes more interesting than a return to the classroom would be, which would be fine, too.

Good luck. You're in an enviable position.

Wise and worldly readers – what do you think? Have you seen someone in a situation like this?

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



Tuesday, March 11, 2008

 

Ask the Administrator: Grad School Funding Follies

A new reader writes:


I have a question for you based on personal experience. I am ABD in a
humanities program at Wisconsin, and the university has recently decided
to do away with 1-semester dissertation fellowships in favor of offering
(a presumably lower number) of 2-year funding packages for incoming grad
students. I'm curious as to what your take on this is from the
administration standpoint. On the one hand, I understand the desire to
attract high-caliber students and the difficulty of competing with schools
that have more money (read: IV league schools). I also understand the
desire to drop out of school due to unpredictable or inconsistent funding,
especially in the early years, as I went through that myself. On the other
hand, there seem to be a lot of negatives to this change. First, you are
giving a lot of funding to candidates that have yet to produce any
graduate level work, and so from the investment perspective, it seems
riskier. (At least in my department, university support, i.e.
non-departmental support, has been a terrible predictor of academic
success, let alone graduation.) Secondly, it reduces the number of
graduate students the university can support, not only because the time
frame is longer but because the cost is higher; at least here, dissertator
tuition is vastly lower (about 80% lower) than non-dissertator tuition.
And lastly, it seems like it would make the mean/median time to graduation
even longer (something that I think all universities care about), because
the support would come while students are doing their coursework rather
than while they are writing their dissertations; coursework deadlines make
that part of graduate study happen quickly no matter what, but
dissertations can last forever. Am I misreading this, or is this a bad
idea? What's your take on this?

Although this isn't really what I work on day-to-day, I really enjoy questions like these. Readers who work on these issues on a daily basis are invited to bring light to darkness.

If I read the question correctly, there's a distinction here between university-based support and department-based support. To that extent, I think the key issue is really the coordination between the two. If the funding cuts out after two years and there's nothing left to replace it other than adjuncting or bagging groceries, then there's a serious problem. If all that happens is a handoff from one source to another, then I'm not sure what the fuss is about.

I'm also not sure about the distinction between coursework deadlines and dissertations. In my experience – admittedly, a more innocent time, in which a young Kurt Cobain taught America the meaning of “bad life choices” -- most of the folks in my program were carrying anywhere from one to four incompletes, often for years at a time. (I wouldn't be surprised to find that a few of them are still unresolved.) Yes, coursework has deadlines, but at least in that setting, they were mostly advisory.

(And what's the deal with a single semester fellowship? I've never heard of them lasting less than a year. “Here, have four months on us.” In the scheme of dissertation writing, I'm underwhelmed.)

And it's certainly true that the availability of funding can affect recruitment, as well it should. A prospective grad student looking for a do-able program would be well-advised to choose a program that offers fellowship support through the coursework phase. Presumably, someone a few years into a grad program will be better able – both academically and in terms of time management – to handle some ta'ing than someone who just walked in the door.

As my regular readers know, I'm a strong supporter of reducing graduate admissions, especially in the humanities. Over the long term, the only way that humanities Ph.D.'s will command more respect on the market is to reduce the oversupply. Since new gushers of funding for tenure-track lines don't seem to be materializing, trimming graduate admissions strikes me as the best way to do that. If we go from “let 'em all in and let God sort 'em out” to “we support the very few we accept,” that strikes me as positive.

(Question for folks who run grad programs: what's with the 'finish quickly' imperative? If there aren't any jobs out there anyway, what's the rush? I've never understood that.)

From my 'interested outsider' standpoint, it appears that graduate programs are working with several conflicts of interest. They're supposed to regard employable graduates as their product, on which they're judged; this would suggest taking relatively few, and supporting those few well. But they also need to supply the research professors with progeny, and to staff all those Intro sections with ta's. These imperatives would suggest relatively more open admissions, combined with a fairly aggressive 'weed 'em out' approach. Finally, even in fields in which there's no reasonable argument that more PhD's are necessary, any given department has strong incentives to be considered doctorate-granting. It's a variation on the tragedy of the commons, with 'jobs' substituted for 'pasture.'

As long as the drivers are contradictory, I'll assume progress, if any, will come in fits and starts.

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers who actually toil in these fields – how do you read the correspondent's dilemma?

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


Monday, March 10, 2008

 

Ask the Administrator: The High School – College Gap

A returning correspondent, who works at a cc, writes:

I have a question I'd like to ask about outreach
to local high school districts. I'm wondering if you
would have any advice, or whether your readers would
have any advice. We were approached by one of our
feeder HS districts to help them help their students
to bridge the remediation gap. In other words, their
students tend to fare poorly on placement tests given
in the local state university system and in the local
community college system. So they are effectively
asking us if we can do anything to better align what
they are doing with what we are doing.

I'm interested in working on this, but we don't have a
lot of money available. I spoke with someone who works
at supervising outreach programs at the chancellor's
office of the state university, and learned about what
has worked well and what hasn't worked well for them.

It's a great question.

This is one of those “nobody designed the system” phenomena that wouldn't make any sense at all if we were building a new system from the ground up. Many states, mine included, have statewide exams administered to high school seniors in a few core curriculum areas. High schools are judged, in part, by their aggregate performance on these exams. (No Child Left Behind, as I understand it, has raised the stakes and increased the reporting requirements.) So local districts have pretty much mandated that their teachers teach to the tests.

Inherently, this is neither good nor bad. If you're teaching to a fantastic test, then all is well. The problem is when the test isn't all that good, or isn't measuring the right things.

The Institutional Research Officer at my cc recently produced some numbers showing the percentage of new students from each of our local sending districts who placed remedial in English, Math, or both. In many cases, districts with plenty of money and excellent reputations were sending us cohorts in which half or more of the students needed remediation. And the percentages aren't just functions of low raw numbers, like a cohort of two people in which one needed extra help. These are significant numbers, coming from districts that think of themselves as the cream of the crop.

Since remediation is a major cost for us, we've started making some very gentle and tentative overtures to the high schools to get some discussion going about ways to better prepare the non-elite students for college-level work. (By and large, the elite students don't apply to cc's.) We've found a few things.

First, the tests to which they're asked to teach don't particularly resemble the tests we use for placement. So students who pass the statewide high school exams with points to spare frequently do poorly on our tests. (For example, the high school English essay test is based on the absence of errors. Ours is based more on the ability to make an argument. So a student who learned to write variations on “See Spot run” will do fine on the statewide test, and bomb ours. Similarly, the high school math test allows calculators; ours doesn't.)

Second, the high schools DO NOT like to hear it. The fact that in your case, they've reached out to you, will save a lot of time. With many of them, we're still trying to get past the 'denial' stage.

Third, and this surprised me more than it should have, certain schools that shall remain nameless have a disturbing tendency to shrug off our data with a dismissive reference to self-selection. In other words, “well, hell, you just get the weak kids anyway.” What this says about leaving no children behind, I'll leave as an exercise for the reader.

Fourth, training a newly critical eye on our own tests and protocols has sometimes been embarrassing. As easy as it is to blame the high schools for everything, I can't say that our house was completely in order, either. (One example: until I specifically asked them to change the procedure, the essay readers saw the students' names when they graded the essays. Districts with plenty of Spanish surnames intimated, with varying degrees of subtlety, that an essay with “Velasquez” on top would get graded more harshly than one with “Bailey” on top. Now they're simply numbered, so even if a given reader held racist leanings, he wouldn't have the opportunity to exercise them.) We've improved drastically over the past few years – I count that as one of my prouder achievements here – but problems this severe seldom have a single author.

What I absolutely would not to is start at the top. If you work mostly with principals and guidance counselors, they'll 'yes' you to death and nothing will change. Work with the teachers directly. Best case, pair your professors with their teachers. If the teachers lead, the principals will follow. (And model non-defensiveness when your own procedures are questioned or attacked, which they will be.)

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers – what do you think?

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


Friday, March 07, 2008

 

The Fantasy of Clarity

My cc is dealing with a statewide initiative that may or may not succeed at its intended goals. It's fairly high-stakes, it's mandated by legislation that says 'what' but not 'how,' and it would involve – if it succeeds – upending some longstanding local political compromises.

I'm in the enviable position of being my campus's rep to the statewide committee working on this. Which means that I'm also the translator, updating my college on the project as it unfolds.

The project has moved quickly thus far, and is starting to encounter the first serious pushback. I assume that the pushback will grow more intense, compromises will be made, deadlines will be amended, compliance will be hit-and-miss for a while, and the whole thing may or may not collapse.

That's not intended as a criticism; any real statewide change should be expected to raise serious concerns. That's how these things are done, in the absence of a dictator. And yes, I support the absence of a dictator.

But some of the feedback I've encountered locally has surprised me. In retrospect, it shouldn't have, but it has.

In trying to respond to some of the proposed changes, some of my faculty have insisted loudly and vigorously that they're owed a clear timeline, flowchart, and list of different outcomes and their attendant consequences. They want several months of open meetings locally to formulate the first response, which they imagine would occasional several more months or even years of statewide debate. When all is said and done, which would require years, anything unwelcome or ambiguous should be gone.

Uh, nope.

The legislation says it must be in place by this Fall. Decisions are happening on the fly, by necessity. Nobody knows how it will come out, what the consequences might be, or if the whole thing is an exercise in windmill-tilting. And by the time several years of discussion could have passed, the political climate will be meaningfully different in unforeseeable ways.

In this case, the kind of step-by-step clarity they're looking for is simply a fantasy. That's not how politics works, and it's not how statewide groups of self-interested local actors work when laboring under an ambiguous mandate.

But some of them are utterly flummoxed by the prospect of ambiguity. It's striking to see.

It's sort of like the difference between “the scientific method” as control-freak K-12 educators teach it, and the way scientists actually work. Yes, timelines and flowcharts and “hypothesis-procedure-findings-conclusions” can be useful heuristics. But that's all they are. They're sometimes helpful as ways to simplify a complicated and messy reality. They aren't reality themselves.

One of the mental adjustments I had to make when I moved into administration from faculty was adjusting my burden of proof. As faculty, in my own discipline, I had been trained to spot flaws in arguments, and to try to construct ever-tighter cases. In administration, that's a recipe for failure. Since much administrative work involves acting for possible futures rather than explaining slices of past, waiting for a publishable level of clarity usually requires missing the moment. You have to make decisions with incomplete and imperfect information, and act on them. That's not to say you don't try to get the best information you can, obviously, or that some folks don't just give up and shoot from the hip. But when moments of possibility come along, you can't wait until you're absolutely, positively certain. You have to take a deep breath and take your shot, even if you don't know quite how it will play out. You need to trust your intuition, even knowing that it will sometimes fail.

Some of the faculty have never made that shift, at least in this setting, and don't seem to get it. Standing on what they understand as principle, they're asking for the kinds of proof they would ask for of academic arguments in their own disciplines. But by the time that level of evidence will be available, whatever will happen will have happened, and the local input the evidence was supposed to inform will have become irrelevant.

Although some local critics don't seem to see it, there's a level of proof lower than 'publishable' but higher than 'guessing.' That's the zone in which a great many decisions get made, simply by necessity.

If you want to participate in the decision-making – which is a good thing to do – you have to let go of the fantasy of clarity, and of the paralyzing fear of getting something wrong. After the fact, some of the decisions will look stupid in retrospect, and those involved will get criticized, both fairly and not. That's the cost of participation.

You can insist on absolute rightness, or you can get involved. Not both. I'm just a little surprised at how many want both.


Thursday, March 06, 2008

 

Ask the Administrator: Philosophy and Finance

A new correspondent writes:

I’m currently a student at a California State University. I’m working towards a double major in philosophy and finance. Philosophy is my real passion with finance as a monetary safety net. As I reach the end of my undergraduate career I find myself thinking, as most students do, about what is next for me. I’ve decided that I’d really like to become an academic and bring my passion for philosophy to a younger generation. I figure that to do this, in whatever form, I will need at least a masters in philosophy. This is where the problem arises, I have very little money… very little. I’ve heard of many great fellowships and scholarship programs at school around the country but what is the best way to approach getting financial aid? Also, any great sites for researching graduate programs would be much appreciated.

This breaks my heart. This kind of information should be easily available from the faculty in your program.

In the evergreen disciplines, of which philosophy is one, there's a tremendous surplus of qualified applicants for nearly every tenure-track job. When my cc did a recent search for a philosopher – our first since the 80's – we were deluged with responses, and even we won't consider anybody without an earned doctorate and teaching experience. A Master's wouldn't even get you past the first cut.

Given that you aren't exactly independently wealthy, I'd strongly advise against doing graduate work in philosophy. This is especially true if you don't get in at one of the top half-dozen or so programs.

(As far as financial aid goes, the rule of thumb for graduate work in the evergreen disciplines is that you should never pay tuition. If they aren't willing to give you a fellowship or teaching assistantship, you should take that as a hint. And fellowships are vastly preferable to teaching assistantships in the early years, since you'll have more time to devote to coursework and preparing for comps.)

One of the tragedies of the professionalization of the academy is that people have come to believe that they can't do the work they love without a specific credential in that field. This is nearly always wrong. The most interesting work, consistently, is done by people crossing fields. Rather than looking at philosophy as a closed club – which, in many ways, it is – I'd suggest looking at it as a habit of mind. What is it about philosophical inquiry that attracts you? Chances are, there are plenty of other avenues that would allow you to use those same habits of mind and still feed yourself.

If it's the rigorous symbolic logic that attracts you, I've noticed those folks often overlap with math, computer, and engineering types. If it's more the social and political area of philosophy, you may find parts of the business and finance world an intellectual feast. Lively minds find ways to be lively in any number of settings; a tenure-track professorship, while nice, is not the only way.

If you just can't help yourself, and simply can't imagine living life as anything other than a certified philosophy professor, then I'd advise skipping the Master's and applying directly to Doctoral programs as a Doctoral student. Typically, at least in my experience, students who identify upfront as Doctoral candidates get most or all of the funding. You can still leave with a Master's halfway through, but you'll leave with less debt. So there's that. But honestly, unless you're at one of the top half-dozen or so programs in the country, I wouldn't even advise that. This is no reflection on you; it's just the reality of an incredibly brutal employer's market.

Good luck with your decision.

Wise and worldly readers – your thoughts?

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


Saturday, March 01, 2008

 

Program Note

I'll be liveblogging the League for Innovation in the Community College conference through Wednesday, March 6.

The posts will be exclusively over at IHE. I'll resume cross-posting here on Thursday, March 7.

IHE's main site is here.

My posts can be found under the "Blog U" column, or directly here.

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