Wednesday, April 30, 2008
Fine-Tuning the Crap-O-Meter
My brother – who sometimes comments as “brother of dean dad” -- sent me an email yesterday about rhetorical moves that set off his internal crap-o-meter. I responded with a few of my own, and thought it might be fun to throw it open to my wise and worldly readers. First, the exchange:
From “Brother of Dean Dad”:
A few days ago I read an article about economics that set off a few red flags. Not being an economist, or even all that well versed in the field for a layman, I couldn’t be sure that the red flags indicated an actual crap argument or not. This got me to thinking: what are the common red flags? Ones that should trip anyone’s internal crap detector, regardless of political views or whatnot?
Here are the ones I can think of off the top of my head, a very incomplete list. Care to add any or expand on these?
1. The Lone Maverick
The article that inspired this list centered on an idea that challenged conventional understandings of a major issue. That’s fine. However, the article quoted and pulled information from basically one source. That’s a huge red flag. Yes, they laughed at Galileo. They also laughed at a million morons who were, in fact, wrong. Most “lone mavericks” are crackpots, particularly in the sciences.
2. The People Are Stupid
Any argument rooted in the idea, either explicitly or implicitly, that the mass of humanity is stupid and doesn’t know what’s good for itself. While the point itself is debatable, any argument that uses this as a presupposition will have massive flaws. People act for reasons; if you can’t figure out why people are doing what they do, the answer isn’t “because they’re stupid and/or don’t know any better.”
Perhaps there are details you don’t know about that explain their actions. Or perhaps their goals are different, and you’re judging behavior by the wrong metric. A more sophisticated take on this idea is that people’s goals are misaligned. That’s less of a red flag, but still very dangerous territory, because it assumes that people don’t know how to look out for themselves. If there’s anything people know how to do, it’s that.
This is why I’ve always hated hippies. “All we need is love?” Wow, nobody ever thought of that before! We should all just love one another? Yeah, that’s such a mind-blowingly original thought that it’s never been said or tried before. Why, we'll have a perfect world by lunchtime!
3. The People Are Brilliant
Any argument rooted in the genius of the masses. Masses have their bright spots and can get things very right. They can also get things very wrong. Is “American Idol” a better show than “Arrested Development?” Not on this planet. But to go by “The People,” yes, it is. Drivel succeeds not because the people are brilliant, but because drivel speaks to a lot of folks for reasons unrelated to "quality" or "value" or "ability."
4. All Will Be Well If We Just…
One of the most obvious red flags. A single action or simple approach that promises to fix a mess of ills is virtually guaranteed to be a load of crap. Usually it’s a fix for a handful of things that the speaker cares about that also happens to drag with it metric fuck-tons of unintended consequences, many of which may be worse than the original problem.
For example, supporters of the presidential candidate Ron Paul touted a return to the gold standard as a cure for a dozen major, unrelated problems with the economy. Like patent medicine labels, Paul-ites thought the gold standard would end deficit spending, inflation, unemployment, and your great-aunt’s gout.
This is a variation on the “people are stupid” flag, as the (sometimes) unspoken assumption is that the reason we haven’t done the Miracle Cure is because people are either dumb or dumb enough to be misled by fiends with power. It couldn’t possibly be because reality is messy and ideologies have to adjust and compromise when they collide with reality, could it? Of course not!
This is a common failing of extremists, like communists, followers of Ayn Rand, and the cripplingly devout. “All would be perfect with the world if we just [had a People’s Revolution / switched to laissez-faire capitalism and a libertarian state / loved Jeeeezus]!”
5. Everything You Know Is Wrong
Another subset of the “people are stupid.” Anytime you confront an article or argument challenging a widespread understanding of a field or an event in history, a key question to ask is why; why is everything we know about X wrong? If the answer involves the words “suppression,” “group-think,” or “discrimination,” you’re probably looking at a sack of poo. If the answer involves new data, there’s a chance it isn’t crap.
6. Appeals to Faith, Morality, or Patriotism
If they had a better argument, they’d use it. Falling back on one of these classic props is the hallmark of an empty argument, particularly in areas where hard data exists or money is involved. To paraphrase a lawyer cliche: When people have facts, they argue facts. When they have the law, they argue the law. When they have neither, they argue faith, morality, or patriotism.
A recent example was a prominent government official arguing that defaulting homeowners shouldn't abandon their houses but rather continue to pay off their mortgages. This is very much not in the best interests of the homeowners. Economically, it'd be stupid. So the official argued in terms of morality and patriotism, because that was all he had.
7. It’s a Conspiracy!
Not as popular an argument as it used to be. Now, conspiracies do exist. They exist in great number. However, any conspiracy that involves more than about six people is certain to be blabbed, and the bigger the situation, the more likely the blabbing. Also, divisions of opinion are common even among the like-minded. So if an argument requires a conspiracy of great size and power that's somehow managed to be totally secret...except for the few leaks the arguer presents...then you should be very, very suspicious.
I responded with a few of my own:
- In the 80's and early 90's, I used to see variations on "ironically, the proposed solution will actually make the problem worse." It was the usual laissez-faire objection to any sort of social welfare or transfer payment idea. I haven't seen it in a while, though.
- (Postmodern types used to use the same argument, usually from the left. "The essentialism of your program ironically reinscribes the very discourse..." Bleah.)
- Indignation is always a dead giveaway. If the response to a question is "How Dare You, Sir?," then you know you've struck gold.
- There's also the classic "lumping unlikes together." See "Islamofascism," or McCain's apparent confusion of al-Queda and Iran.
- My pet peeve is false common sense, often used in the context of a story of a Fall from a Golden Age that wasn't, really. "We have so much plagiarism because the kids don't have integrity anymore." Yeah, we were freakin' angels. "Politics has become so dirty." As opposed to when?
Now it's your turn...
Wise and worldly readers, what rhetorical moves get your crap-o-meter beeping?
Tuesday, April 29, 2008
Between the Dog and the Fire Hydrant
Someone I respect asked recently why administrators s/he otherwise likes and respects occasionally make horrible, offensive decisions. Why would an intelligent person of goodwill support something terrible?
I've been in that situation, or close variations on it, more often than I care to admit. Why would a smart person with ethics and a sense of reality support decisions that it seems Satan would endorse?
Private facts. Especially in personnel issues, the usual premium on 'transparency' often has to give way to the imperative of confidentiality. There are times when I know things I can't share, but those things make what looks to the outside like a no-brainer into an agonizing decision. Chemical dependencies, sensitive medical conditions, family issues – these are both important and importantly private. Frustratingly, in the faculty grapevine, 'respecting confidentiality' is often represented as 'stonewalling,' with intimations that it's really hiding a much more sinister agenda.
Precedent. I'm constantly amazed at what some people will consider binding precedent. (The accepted term of art is “past practice.”) After getting blindsided several times over several years, I've developed a very sensitive nose for that. There are times when you have to make a decision that really doesn't make sense in a given case because if you don't, you're setting yourself and/or the college up for a whole cavalcade of future nuttiness.
Damage control. Sometimes the harm from obeying a bad decision from above is less than the harm that would be done by airing dirty laundry in public. Although many academics like to imagine administrators as Stepford people, the fact is that we're just as opinionated, and combative, as everybody else. It's just that we don't have the luxury of popping off whenever we feel like it. I've had to convey – and enforce – decisions I've personally disagreed with. It's a pain in the ass, but it's part of the job. Given diverse opinions, human flaws, and limited options, it's silly to imagine that you could just resign in protest any time you disagree with something from above. Yes, there are extremes, but there's an important difference between 'malpractice' and 'I wouldn't have done it that way.' I've never reported to anybody I agreed with one hundred percent of the time, but advertising the fact doesn't help anybody.
Winning another day. As in any political situation, you have to weigh the relative value of various decisions. Sometimes you have to give up on one to win another, or even to maintain your credibility to win another day. That's usually caricatured as 'horse trading,' but it's a necessary fact of life. I've had to deal with that locally, as a decision made from above has really honked off the folks in my area. Unfortunately, the very real benefits of that decision accrue to another area. In that case, I feel stuck between the dog and the fire hydrant, which is not a happy place to be.
Part of the definition of 'middle manager' is being in the middle. As such, it's not unusual to be pulled in opposite directions. For the ideological purists, this job would simply be impossible – they'd resign in protest by the end of their first week. Balancing competing demands while maintaining a sense of priorities, a sense of local political realities, and a real commitment to the mission of the place – as opposed to, say, the personal convenience of some high-maintenance employees – isn't easy. I certainly don't claim to have gotten it right every time – not by a long shot – and I don't know anybody who has. And yes, deans are human, with all the frailties that involves. Sometimes the critics seem to forget that, fetishizing something called The Administration as a single-minded monolith with unambiguous purposes.
Politics provides a pretty good analogy. I voted for Barack Obama. Does that mean I agree with every statement he has ever made, or every statement his associates have ever made, or every position he takes on every issue? Of course not. In that context, the question is easily recognized as silly. Among limited options, he strikes me as the closest to what I want. That's how administration works. I don't agree with every decision I have to implement, and frequently the choices boil down to 'which of these undesirable options is least bad?' It's not a job for romantics. Success in this setting is both measured and achieved (or not) over time. Taking the sum total of what has happened on my watch, I can live with myself. Sometimes I've been excited about what has happened, sometimes resigned, and occasionally upset. Some people here recognize what I've tried to do and respect me for it; some recognize it and loathe me for it; some don't have a clue. Comes with the gig.
In deciding what you think of a particular manager, it's easy to leap from “I don't like that decision” to “he's a selfish jerk.” He may be a selfish jerk, or he may be aware of facts you aren't, or subject to constraints you aren't. Maybe all three. I'd only ask that you don't base your opinion on a single moment. The job is way too complicated for that.
Monday, April 28, 2008
Ask the Administrator: Transferring
A new correspondent writes:
I read your blog everyday. I go to a suny cc (I
graduate in June) and our advisement staff is beyond
dismal, so I thought I'd ask you this. How do
transfer agreements between a cc and a 4-year school
work exactly? Obviously assuming that you already met
a colleges transfer admission requirements (and the
transfer agreement requirements, in terms of what type
of cc degrees the agreement includes), where does a
student coming from a cc w/ a transfer agreement stand
exactly? Are you ahead of the rest of the "transfer
cattle"? Are you automatically accepted? I ask you
this because 2 of the suny universities I want to go
to have transfer agreements with my cc.
It's a great question, and a topic I really should have addressed sooner.
Theoretically, anybody coming from a regionally-accredited institution should have no trouble transferring credits for relevant courses, assuming grades of C or better and initial acceptance into the receiving institution. Of course, theoretically, the sun could turn into a bran muffin tomorrow. (I think it's called Brownian motion, though the physicists out there are invited to correct me.) Doesn't mean it's gonna happen.
Transfer is a sticky area, since it involves multiple decision points, each with different interests. Say that you've majored in math at your cc, and you're transferring to Obscure State College to get a four-year degree. The decision to admit you to the institution will be made by the Admissions office, which has numbers it has to hit. Its incentive is to be generous.
But transfer-of-credit decisions are frequently made by the receiving department, rather than the college as a whole. And the receiving department has every incentive to be picky, since it would rather get paid to re-teach as many courses as possible. So it probably won't contest your English Comp classes, since it doesn't teach those anyway, but I'd expect some pushback on the math classes. They'll ask for syllabi, they'll object to the smallest differences, and they'll insist on you re-taking as many courses as they think they can get away with. I've actually seen cases in which a nearby state college tried to reject a course taught by the same adjunct who teaches ours, with the same textbook and the same syllabus. When money is on the line, shame evaporates.
Some of the savvier cc departments have reacted to this by going directly to the departments at four-year colleges and negotiating “articulation agreements,” which are basically contracts between colleges spelling out the conditions and rules for transfer. The incentive for the cc comes on the recruitment end; if we can truthfully assure prospective students (and their parents) that credits will transfer, we're likelier to get them to enroll. The incentive for the four-year college is in competing with other four-year colleges. If a student asks us where he can transfer, and one college has committed to giving full credit for our classes while another usually gets unreasonably picky, which one do you think we'll recommend? A couple of years ago, when the state budget ax fell particularly hard on a couple of our local destination schools, I noticed their attitude towards transfers changed, post-haste. All of a sudden, the courses that “just weren't the same” abruptly were. Color me shocked.
As far as automatic acceptance goes, that's rare. Usually if they have that, the cc will tell you upfront.
In some states, the legislatures have decided – correctly -- that subsidizing the same course for the same student twice is a waste of taxpayer money, so they've stepped in and actually mandated transfers of credit. Of course, mandates often have loopholes, and some schools have become adept at navigating those loopholes. The two big ones are:
Graduation. Many articulation agreements, and even some state compacts or mandates, only take effect if you actually graduate from the cc with an Associate's degree. If you transfer prior to graduation – say, do one year and then jump – the destination school can cherry-pick to its heart's content. A degree often has to be accepted as a 'block,' but credits without a degree are vulnerable.
“Free elective” status. This is probably the more annoying of the two. Frequently, destination schools will give 'credit' for every course you've taken, but declare that some of those courses aren't part of the major into which you're transferring. So they declare the courses “free electives,” which is shorthand for “we don't want to own up to the fact that we're turning these down, but good luck getting them to count for anything.” It's a sort of purgatory for unwanted courses. As with so many things, there are times when this is appropriate – say, if you change majors – but the legitimate uses create an opening for illegitimate ones. Keep a close eye on this one.
My first recommendation would be to do some comparison shopping. Talk to the Admissions people at a few possible destination schools, and ask specifically about credits counting toward your intended major. If you can, get it in writing. And don't be shy about telling them you're comparison shopping. At this point, you're in the driver's seat. That changes once you commit, so don't commit until you know you're getting a reasonable deal.
Wise and worldly readers – your thoughts?
Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.
Friday, April 25, 2008
Thursday, April 24, 2008
Sticker Shock and Smart Shopping
This time of year, community colleges suddenly get a lot more attractive.
High school seniors who applied to college for the coming Fall got their notifications and aid awards – if any – by or around April 15. Depending on the school, they usually have until May 1 or May 15 to respond.
So the stretch from mid-April to mid-May is a very big deal for us. This is when students – and their parents – who wouldn't have considered us before suddenly look seriously at the local cc. The aid package wasn't what they thought it would be, or they didn't get into the first or second choice school, or family or life circumstances have changed. Suddenly, the prospect of taking transferable gen ed credits for low tuition while living at home doesn't seem so bad. Getting a couple of years under your belt without taking on backbreaking levels of student loan debt has a certain logic to it.
Cc's as a group suffer from the old Groucho Marx line about never joining a club that would accept you as a member. If you judge quality by exclusivity, then any open-admissions college has to suck, by definition. But we're finding that increasing numbers of people with other options are choosing cc's. (One sign of that is the plummeting average age of students at cc's. Every year, our student body gets more and more traditional.) Other than cost, why would they do that?
In a word, specialization.
Most cc's – in my state, all of them – focus exclusively on the first two years. We don't teach anything above the 200 level. That means that our full-time faculty teach intro courses. That may not sound like much, but the way the adjunct trend plays out at the midtier four-year colleges usually means that the intro courses are farmed out to adjuncts, while the plum upper-level courses are guarded jealously by the full-time faculty. So if you start at a cc and transfer after two years, you get the best of both worlds, and do it for less money.
That's not to say that nothing is lost. Most cc's don't have dorms, so that part of the 'college experience' isn't there. But plenty of students commute to four-year campuses, too. If the choice is between a cc and, say, Swarthmore, then I have to concede the point. But if it's between commuting to a cc and commuting to Compass Direction State College, cc's are often pretty competitive.
The competitiveness increases, I think, as the four-year schools outsource progressively more of their teaching to adjuncts. It also increases as tuition increases, as travel costs increase, and as security concerns increase. There's something comforting in having the kids close to home.
In some cases, the cultural stigma is still there, and that's not to be sneezed at. But if the financial aid package from Nothing Special State wasn't what you expected, it may be worth looking past the stereotype. There's no shame in smart shopping.
Wednesday, April 23, 2008
Adjuncts and Accreditation, Revisited
Academic Cog and Lumpenprofessoriat posted some thoughtful pieces in response to my skepticism about using accreditation agencies to force colleges to reduce their percentages of adjunct coverage. I don't usually do two posts on the same topic in such short order, but their pieces deserve some attention.
AC is, apparently, a TA for an adjunct – I'll admit never having heard of that before – and s/he reports that the adjunct in question is teaching distractedly, since the clock is about to run out on her current job so she's spending most of her time on interviews. At that university, apparently, you accumulate chits towards a full-time position as you adjunct there, so departments have taken to firing adjuncts before they hit the magic number.
The 'chits towards tenure-track' idea is one of those superficially appealing systems that makes no sense at all on the ground. It ignores the basic fact that adjunct hiring is driven by time-slot availability and geographic propinquity. It also ignores the basic fact that the trend towards adjuncts is driven by a lack of money. The fact that I can afford to hire someone at $2100 does not imply that I can afford to hire that same someone for $55,000, chits or no chits. So departments respond by gaming a system they can't afford to take literally. My modest proposal would be to do away with the chits, so you don't shove people out the door prematurely. If you're lucky, then use the revenues generated by improved retention to create a few more full-time positions.
LP points out, correctly, that some studies have shown that having full-time faculty in the early gatekeeper courses produces better retention numbers than having adjuncts in them. From that, LP jumps to the assumption that adjunct percentages are therefore fair game for accreditation agencies.
The whole point of “outcomes assessment” is that it isn't “inputs assessment.” If there's a retention issue, address that. If there isn't, then it isn't clear to me that there's an academic problem with adjuncts. (There's a fairness problem, but that's a different issue.)
Given limited funding, there's a choice to be made. Fewer adjuncts, or smaller sections? Which is the best way to improve student performance? To my mind, the way to settle that is empirically. Run the numbers, and base decisions on the outcomes. To declare upfront that 'adjuncts are worse, therefore you shouldn't use them' assumes an infinite number of other options; in other words, it's missing the point. The only way to hire more full-timers within the existing budget would be to stuff their classes much fuller. The soulless bureaucrat in me understands it as an equation, but the academic in me recoils at the prospect. If you can't identify the huge, sustainable new funding source to make the dilemma go away, then you need to confront the dilemma.
(Alternately, you could go with fewer programs, and just lay off everybody who teaches in the smaller and/or more expensive majors. Do fewer things, but do them well. There's an argument for that, and it's actually what I would prefer to do, given my druthers. But politically, it's a non-starter. Just look at the crap flying at USC in trying to eliminate its German program! Eliminating departments raises a kind of political hell that a gradual across-the-board watering-down just doesn't.)
None of this is to disagree that people who entered the profession to catch the 'great wave of retirements' are now struggling to eke out livings on the margins; I concede that upfront, and suspect that there's a special circle of hell reserved for the folks who did that study. I consider the plight of adjuncts reason number 734 to support single-payer national health care, and the concept of an adjunct union makes perfect sense to me. But an adjunct who does a good job in the classroom – which most do – does a good job in the classroom. As long as that's happening, I don't see an accreditation issue. A union issue, yes. A political issue, yes. An accreditation issue, no.
Tuesday, April 22, 2008
The Pre-Ninja Program
The Boy announced on Sunday that when he grows up, he wants to be a Ninja. Naturally, this got me thinking about a 'Pre-Ninja' program for my cc. In turn, that got me thinking about outcomes assessment for the Pre-Ninja program.
From the Pre-Ninja program's report to the Curriculum Committee in 2014:
Student Learning Outcomes:
By the end of the program, students will be able to:
rip a man's heart out and show it to him before he dies
spin slowly in mid-air
skulk undetected through abandoned factories at night
mix black clothes with other black clothes without clashing
a multiple-choice test covering Ninja Theory (“Ninjas reject pastels because...”)
steel-cage matches with our Criminal Justice majors
a multimedia project in the capstone course, NIN 250, “Ninjas: The Deadliest Mimes”
General Education Requirements:
Math 115, “Math for Ninjas.” (If the enemy is bleeding from three orifices, and you tear him two more, from how many orifices will he be bleeding?)
Chem 140, “Forensic Chemistry for Ninjas” (How not to leave traces)
Soc 213, “The Global Ninja” (There is not one ninja, but many ninjas...)
Eng 220, “Literature of the Ninja Experience” (“As my target's skull fragmented into so many shards, I thought again about my mother...”)
This Year's Assessment Findings:
“The department found that most of our proto-ninjas were reasonably adept at pummeling, pouncing, and skulking, but many still struggled with glowering menacingly. We're thinking of adding a Public Speaking requirement.”
All unwritten, as befits the code of the Ninja. Also, we keep losing the damn things.
Graduate Survey Results:
75 percent of the graduates we contacted indicated satisfaction with the program, though many threatened to kill us in our sleep for daring to call them at home. We've also identified an issue with technology. Apparently, the top tier upper-division Ninja certification programs require that their graduates be able to see the matrix. We've appointed an ad hoc committee to look into it.
While the Pre-Ninja program does a fine job of preparing its students, it needs to step up its recruitment efforts. With help from Student Life and the Admissions Office, this Fall we will pioneer a dual-enrollment program with the local Vo-Tech high school to recruit pre-ninjas as early as the ninth grade. We've abandoned our efforts at Renaissance Faires, since ultimately, even we have standards. Finally, based on some unfortunate incidents with Career Services, we have taken it upon ourselves to remind students not to eviscerate unctuous recruiters, no matter how richly they may deserve it. As a result of our intervention, we're pleased to report, eviscerations are down nearly 50 percent over last year.
Monday, April 21, 2008
Both Sides of the Desk
I've been doing a fair bit of interviewing at other campuses lately, but I've also been interviewing candidates for an administrative position (not my own) on my campus. (My VP knows I'm interviewing elsewhere, so there's no issue of failure to disclose.) Having been through the wringer myself several times in the last few weeks, watching others interview has been fascinating.
Mostly it confirms stuff I already sort of knew, but that's easy to lose sight of when you're the one in the hot seat. For example, explaining why the job at hand fits your life scheme is of little to no interest. We aren't advertising the job to fit you; we're hiring to solve a problem of our own. If hiring you solves that, great. If it looks like it won't, the fact that it might solve your problem doesn't mean much.
And if your interview performance seems like an interview performance, that's a strike against you. The more effective interviews somehow come across as conversations. Admittedly, that's hard to do when the committee is large, and/or when it does the asinine “everybody asks a question in turn” thing. (Keep in mind, this is for an administrative position. Faculty searches are a different matter.) If you've been invited for an interview, it's a safe bet that you're at least qualified on paper. By this point, you're being evaluated as a potential colleague. If you come off as too glib, or too self-conscious, it's hard to undo that damage.
And yes, some questions come freighted with local baggage that won't be explained to you. It's not fair, but it's the way it is. (For example, at one campus I was asked “I didn't see anything in your letter about championing technology. Why is that?” Uh, because that's not the job? I can only assume that there was some history behind that one.) Since cc professional development budgets are usually small, and some folks stay at the same campus for decades on end, it's easy to become provincial. In the worst cases, they become so out of touch that they don't even know they're out of touch. They don't know what they don't know. Unaware that their own definitions are context-specific, they conflate 'not from here' with 'not good.' Sadly, my own campus is not immune to this.
Somewhere in here, there's a paper waiting to be written on professional development funding as paying off in better hiring committees over time. Work to be done...
You can tell, too, that some folks just aren't terribly experienced with interviewing, based on the questions they ask. “Are you a micromanager?” In the history of interviewing, has anybody ever answered 'yes'? The heart of the question is a valid concern, but anyone who knows how to interview wouldn't ask it that directly.
On the 'questioning' side, I've seen too that first impressions, superficial though they are, are powerful. Without intending to, I usually form an impression of the candidate within the first minute. I can only assume the same is true when I'm the candidate. In a way, as a candidate, it's liberating; rather than focusing obsessively on the nuances of each answer, I can just go in as myself and let it click or not. If it doesn't, I can only assume that it wasn't the right fit. Yes, it can also involve factors that aren't supposed to matter – I've heard every euphemism in the English language for “you look too young” – but those are hard to prove, and you can drive yourself nuts trying to suss them out.
After going through several fruitless interviews in a short span, it's easy to fall into the 'always a bridesmaid' kind of self-pity and self-questioning. But letting that show is the kiss of death. And it's also just inaccurate; each search has its own dynamics, and they really aren't connected. Different schools, at different moments in their histories, have different concerns. Sometimes they're looking for a Dynamic Leader to Make Change and Make Things Happen; sometimes they're looking for someone to calm everybody down in the wake of a Dynamic Leader's crash and burn. Sometimes they focus on one narrow area of expertise, and sometimes they just want the opposite of the last guy. There's no universal rule, and the reasons for rejection at one college could be irrelevant at another.
These are the thoughts that keep me sane. Job interviews are really more about the interviewer than the candidate. I just tell myself that if I get a job through a fake interview, I'll ultimately do badly at the job anyway. By the interview stage, it's not about 'merit,' whatever that would mean in this context. It's about mutual fit.
Wise and worldly readers who've been on both sides of the desk – what have you noticed when you crossed over?
Friday, April 18, 2008
Ask the Administrator: Building a Community College
A Tennessee correspondent writes:
Does building a new community college make economic sense for a cash-strapped community?
Where can one go to get a good analysis of the cost to a community to build, staff, and operate a community college?
Our country commissioners have slipped $3 million into a $70 million general bond issue to fund a community college. Details are vague (and apparently not forthcoming) about who is going to actually own the property, how the operating budget will be funded, etc.
We are a community of 14,000 in a county of 60,000 near Nashville and within 45 minutes of Austin Peay University, Vanderbilt University, Vol State, Tennessee State, Lipscomb University, Belmont University, Aquinas College, and several other 2 year, technical, or community colleges.
Other than the current county mayor’s desire to be dean, I’m not really sure who benefits in this deal.
My guess is that the key attraction of a community college to a student is proximity and lower tuition cost. With so many schools in proximity, it seems like the driving force for enrollment will be lower tuition costs which – ultimately – will be subsidized with increased taxes.
The bond issue was passed without notice or a hearing (I’m still not certain how that is legal) so the project is now in the hands of the Tennessee Board of Regents.
Having served as adjunct faculty for six years, I’m pro higher education – but I’m not so certain this is a good idea given the size of our tax base and apparent lack of long-term planning regarding the operational costs.
Any help or direction you can provide would be wonderful.
I don't live in Tennessee, so there's a limit to how specific I can be. Anyone from the area is invited to comment.
I know that Vol State is actually a community college, and its service area is geographically huge. Since cc students are usually commuters, a geographically huge service area is a real problem. Splitting that service area – if that's what this proposal would do – could make some sense.
It's true that community colleges rely partially on tax dollars, though the actual local/state split varies by state (and sometimes within a state). Tennessee cc's don't have local Boards of Trustees (see yesterday's post), instead relying on a statewide Board, so I assume that the state has a considerable role in funding. (I could be wrong on that.) To the extent that tuition and state funding cover the cc budget, that's money the local taxpayers aren't paying directly. (Of course, local taxpayers also pay state taxes, but their share is small.)
Having said that, anybody who thinks that you can generate a decent cc on 3 million is smoking something powerful. Even a narrow focus wouldn't save you, since most cc's have a 'chargeback' system.
Students who live outside a given cc's service area have to pay a tuition premium to attend. The theory is that it makes up for the taxes they haven't paid to support it. Since not every cc can offer every program, they've developed a 'chargeback' system wherein a student in x college's area who wants a program that x college doesn't offer, but y college does, goes to y college for in-area tuition. Y college then bills x college for the unpaid out-of-area premium. That way, college's can't free-ride on each other's expensive niche programs.
The downside, obviously, is that you can't free-ride on established college's expensive niche programs.
Since cc's are public entities, they're subject to the political winds. Among other things, that means that it's usually easier to get money for buildings than for professors to work in those buildings. 'Capital' funding is easy; 'operating' funding is the killer. Tuition helps, but it typically covers only a fraction (albeit an increasing fraction) of the cost.
Do cc's help spur economic development?
They're part of the picture. In my area, for example, there are plenty of high-tech companies that import highly qualified, highly paid talent from wherever, but who also need low-paid lab techs to keep things running. Community colleges train the lab techs. Without that workforce, the high-tech companies couldn't stay.
Cc's also help the economically marginal climb into the working or middle class. We train cops, teachers, nurses, mechanics, lab techs, physical therapists, and the like. Those aren't glamorous jobs, but they're necessary to keep things running, and they allow the folks who aren't Harvard-bound to make decent livings (which involves consuming and paying taxes locally). And, of course, we provide a low-cost option for students to take the first two years of a traditional academic major and then transfer.
As Kevin Carey's article in IHE pointed out the other day, cc's spend fewer tax dollars per student than any other branch of public higher ed, so the cost equation can be figured either way. If you're in an area of growing population, a new cc is probably the lowest-cost way to keep up with the demand for higher ed.
I can't speak to your mayor's motivations, but there are legitimate reasons to build a new cc if an area is growing. Just not for three million.
Wise and worldly readers – what say you?
Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.
Thursday, April 17, 2008
Not Pretty in Pittsburgh
An alert reader sent me links to these articles from the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review about a power struggle among the Westmoreland County commissioners, the Westmoreland CC Board of Trustees, and the President at WCCC, near Pittsburgh. According to the articles, the Board is likely to strip the President of the power to hire – under a threat from the county to lose funding if it doesn't -- since the county has lost faith that the President's hiring practices are valid.
From the outside, it looks like one of those cases in which the awfulness of the remedy may mask the awfulness of the underlying problem. There may or may not be a problem with hiring, but this is not the way to address it. Though my objection isn't about the introduction of politics.
It's easy to fear political manipulation of hiring, and there are good reasons to fear that. But it's not immediately obvious to me that college Presidents are immune to that, either, and it's also standard practice – as the articles indicate – for Boards to have final ratification power on hires. Obviously, power to ratify implies power to not ratify. So what's different here isn't so much the possibility of politics – that's there already – or Board involvement, but Board micromanagement. Rather than allowing the President to propose and the Board to dispose, the Board is being told to take both tasks on itself.
When all is working as it should, the only hiring decision the Board should make directly is of the President. It should take that very seriously, and also take seriously the criteria it sets for Presidential success and failure. Done right, that would involve serious and lengthy discussion of what success would look like, how to measure it, and what the boundaries (the 'thou shalt nots') are. That's no small thing. Those criteria and measures would need to be communicated clearly to the President, who would then know the boundaries of his authority. (I'll use 'his' here, since the President in this case is male.) Over time, the Board is either satisfied or not, and can keep the President or get a new one.
But what this Board is being asked to do pretty much guarantees failure. It's communicating to the college, and to the community at large, that the President is on a uniquely short leash. A President who has endured what amounts to a public vote of no-confidence by his own service area will have a hell of a time being effective as an advocate for his college, maintaining a high public profile, forming partnerships, lobbying, or fundraising. When the leader of the campus is, for all intents and purposes, a lame duck, good luck getting anything difficult done. Opponents can simply foot-drag and wait him out. When the opposition can win by passivity, you're done.
Worse, the Board is taking on itself more of the one thing it has clearly demonstrated it doesn't know how to do: hiring. Since it's taking on all salaried positions, that would (most likely) include everybody from Vice Presidents through deans and chairs and faculty. The Board will suddenly become the Promotion and Tenure committee for the entire college. If I were junior faculty there, I'd be nervous. Hell, if I were a dean there, I'd be nervous. I'd expect either a quick Presidential turnover and a reconsideration of this policy, or a mass exodus of employees who have other options. (Possibly both.)
Boards of Trustees are tricky creatures in the best of times. Ideally, you get a group of admitted amateurs who are passionate in their devotion to the college, who understand the boundaries of their own position, and who network well on the college's behalf. And sometimes that happens. But if you get a few trustees who don't quite get it, and nobody intervenes to ensure that they get it, things can go off the rails very quickly. Or, as in this case, if the folks who appoint the board don't get it, there's pretty much no end to the possible mischief.
Boards exist to answer the question of who hires (and sometimes fires) the President. That's an important task, and a hard one to do well. (It really can't be done by the college employees themselves, since they don't represent the entire community.) If the county commissioners don't understand the purpose of a board – and it looks like they don't – then things can get real ugly, real fast.
My advice to the Board in this case is to make a binary decision: either fire the President or stand up to the county. But don't let an undead President shuffle through the next few years, feeding on whatever is in his path. If the guy in charge isn't in charge, you'll have much uglier issues at hand in short order. A compromised President is certain to be a failed President.
Wednesday, April 16, 2008
Science Fairs and School Boards
My local school board continues to impress me. Last night the gym at TB's school was partitioned right down the middle: science fair on one side, school budget election on the other. Get the parents to show up for their kids' science fair projects, and by the way, have them vote. (I brought TG in the booth with me, and had her press the 'cast vote' button. TW did the same with TB. Model those habits early!) Since these elections typically come down to parental turnout, it's a savvy move.
These people are not stupid. Though I would have picked a day other than April 15 to ask the voters to approve a tax increase.
TB and TW put together a pretty nifty science fair project. It was about how continents form, and how the shifting tectonic plates give rise to mountains and volcanoes and earthquakes. He picked out a red display board – since it reminded him of lava – and wrote every word that went on it. For a visual aid, he had a couple of pounds of uncooked rice in a tupperware cake pan, with play-doh 'continents' on top of the rice. By smushing the continents together, he could get one to break – causing ridges or mountains – or get one to go under the other, approximating 'subduction' which leads eventually to volcanoes (since the continent that goes under is melted by the heat at the middle of the earth).
For a while, it became The Project That Ate Pittsburgh. At one point, in exasperation, TW declared to TB “when you win the Nobel Prize, you'd better thank me.” Earnestly, TB responded “I will, and then we'll go to dinner!”
Details are everything. The first version used sand instead of rice, but the sand stuck to the play-doh, turning it all beige, and contributing to an aesthetically displeasing “kitty litter” effect. And using two different colors of play-doh for the clashing continents made the effect much more compelling.
TB chose this topic himself, since it combines two of his favorite things: earthquakes and volcanoes. He did some background reading, and even discovered some fun facts. (Did you know that Mount Everest gets two inches taller every year? I didn't.) And by showtime, he could give a lucid, accurate, and gratifyingly poised explanation of how tectonic plates shift, and why it matters. He even gave a presentation to his class, utterly unfazed by public speaking. That's my boy!
From looking at the other projects, this year's theme was baking soda volcanoes. There were also plenty of crystal-formation experiments, and several having to do with eggs. The cleverest was a demonstration of how a Zamboni works. The kid (and parents) brought in a block of ice in a cooler. They used a round pizza slicer to cut grooves in the ice, like hockey players' skates do. Then they used a squeegee to wipe off the shavings. They used a baster to squirt warm water on the surface of the ice, then used the squeegee again to remove the excess. I had to give credit for not just doing yet another baking soda volcano.
(There seems to be a faddishness to some of these things. Last year, tornadoes-in-soda-bottles were big. I didn't see any of those this year.)
A few of his friends were there, little siblings in tow, so TB was in his glory. TG mostly hung around me, though she did play with the little siblings a bit.
As it ended, we went out to dinner to celebrate. It wasn't anything grand, but I could see TB basking in the realization that this was about him. When you're six, the whole family going out to celebrate what you did is a Very Big Deal. And rightly so. We could tell it was a big night when we got home and he went directly to bed without even trying to wheedle an extra story or two. The poor kid was wiped.
Not bad for a Tuesday.
Tuesday, April 15, 2008
Adjuncts and Accreditation
This article in IHE is one of those peel-the-onion pieces in which the more you think about it, the more there is to discuss.
My first thought was, finally. Let's get some bright-line rules out there – you're allowed x percentage of adjuncts and no more – and those of us who are constantly arguing upstairs for resources can use that as a club. It brought back memories of the disappointment faculty felt at Proprietary U when the accrediting team didn't address faculty teaching loads, which were 50% higher than at nearby community colleges.
Colleges with more than 50 would start playing myriad counting games. “We don't count non-credit (remedial) courses.” “We count dual-enrollment as full-time, since they're full-time at their high schools.” “We count lab assistants and college staff who teach as full-time, since they're full-time employees.”
In conversations with colleagues at other colleges in my state, I've found that different colleges calculate their percentages in very different ways. My preferred method is by credit hour, as long as remedial classes are included. Some exclude non-credit classes. Some do headcounts, rather than credit-hour counts, which raises your adjunct percentage dramatically. Some create neither-fish-nor-fowl ranks that are full-time but low-paid and off the tenure track, and use those to inflate their full-time percentage. Some have 'visiting' full-time faculty. Some colleges don't have tenure systems at all, but they do have full-time faculty, so a measure like “percentage of tenure-track faculty” would give a very misleading picture.
Then there are the more basic issues. Say the agencies came up with one set of definitions, one method of counting, and the like. (For the sake of argument, let's stick with 50 percent as a magic number.) Then what?
Nationally, the last figure I saw for community colleges placed the share of credits taught by adjuncts at around two-thirds. If it had to come down to half, where would the money for that come from? Would the states suddenly see the error of their ways and pour millions into higher ed? (What a wonderful world that would be!) Maybe they'd start funding us at a level comparable to that of the public four-year schools? (Oh, happy day!) Or would we start cutting programs and raising tuition? And who, exactly, would that benefit?
More to the point, what is the point of accreditation? I've always understood it as a way of assuring prospective students that the institution is what it says it is, rather than some fly-by-night operation. To the extent that it's really about the students, I'm not entirely sure what a magic cutoff number for adjuncts has to do with it. Yes, I understand the argument that freeway flyers' situations suck, and that they were led to believe that the job market would be better than it is. I get that; hell, I've lived that. But why is that an accreditation issue? As long as the students are learning what they're supposed to learn, why is the employment status of the faculty at issue?
Before the inevitable flaming, let me clarify: I'm not saying that the trend towards all-adjuncts all the time is a good thing, or even an indifferent one. I object to it primarily on the grounds of fairness, and I consider it fair game for, say, unions. (For example, a few months ago I praised the Rutgers faculty union for accepting smaller raises to pay for more tenure-track positions.) But accrediting agencies aren't unions, and they aren't supposed to be.
From the public's perspective, I really don't think the drift towards adjuncts is the primary concern. They're concerned about cost and employability. To the extent that adjuncts help the former and have minimal impact on the latter, I don't see where most of the public would care. (Those who disagree are invited to campaign for tax increases to support higher ed. I'll be right there with you, and we'll lose together.) To pretend that it's just a matter of strongarming some obtuse administrators is simply to get it wrong. The trend towards adjuncts is a symptom of shifting public priorities (and, to a lesser degree, the near-impossibility of increasing the economic 'productivity' of teaching as measured in credit hours). Will the public suddenly support tax increases because the AAUP says so?
Lobbying accreditation agencies to become advocates for a jobs program for academics is the wrong battle. It's well-intentioned and superficially attractive, but it's the wrong battle. Explain to the wider public, in terms it cares about, why instruction-on-the-cheap is bad. (While you're at it, you might want to take a crack at rehabbing the concept of progressive taxation, too. If you're gonna dream, dream big.) Until then, colleges will play the hand they're dealt, and accreditation agencies will reflect that. Harvard has infinite money, but it's also an outlier. Here in the mainstream of higher ed, failure to address underlying costs just means failure.
Monday, April 14, 2008
The Girl at Play
I'll admit it: I want contradictory things for The Girl. I want her to grow up to be a strong and independent woman, but wouldn't mind if she skipped the whole 'rebellious' thing, at least in regard to her parents. (Since she's still a preschooler, I can still cherish this illusion.) I want her to be both confident and gracious, both brilliant and humble, and both sociable and autonomous.
How hard can that be?
I may be biased, but she is an amazing kid.
Sunday afternoon I took her and The Boy to the park to shake off some cabin fever. Another Dad was there with his kids, who were the same ages as TB and TG, so the kids paired off and set out on various adventures.
I expected TB to be autonomous and wonderful, and he was. He took the other boy under his wing and demonstrated his advanced rock-skipping technique at the creek, as well as devising various games involving running really fast in wide circles. I didn't catch the rules, but the games tired him out pretty good, and I know enough not to interfere when he tires himself out.
But TG was amazing. She flirted shamelessly with the other Dad, led the other girl around the park, ran after the boys from time to time at breakneck speed, and traversed the creek mud with the best of them. She has a contagious laugh, and she loves to use it. She even tells jokes, in her way. She gets the form of jokes, but hasn't quite mastered the rhythm. She'll get there.
When she gets overtired or overstimulated, she'll either grab a book and climb onto my lap (with an imperative “Read!” that brooks no hesitation), or she'll just find a quiet corner and sit in it silently for a few minutes. (After returning from the park, she retreated to her room for a while. When I went up there to check on her, I found her kneeling before her window, just quietly staring outside. She joined me as I walked away, content to have been found.) I think I enjoy that so much because I recognize it. Any introversion she has, she comes by honestly.
TB, TG, and I often wrestle/tickle on the living room floor when I get home from work. (They don't do that with TW.) I'm trying to teach her that both 'no' and 'yes' carry meaning. An actual exchange from last week:
(I'm tickling TG)
TG (laughing): Stop!
DD: Okay. (I stop.)
TG (confused): Why'd you stop?
DD: You told me to.
TG: You can tickle me now.
DD: Bwa-ha-ha-ha-ha! (tickling resumes)
I'm hoping that she'll get used to being able to define her own boundaries, and to 'no' and 'yes' carrying meaning, so she'll be able to hold her own as she gets older. I want her to know what 'safe' feels like, so she'll sense that something's wrong when she's unsafe. And even though it's tough to remember sometimes when looking at her baby face, she has her dignity, and I want to encourage that.
I know that as she gets older, I'll get dumber and less relevant and she'll know everything. There's probably nothing to be done about that. I shudder when I think about my glorious daughter enduring the slow torture of junior high, the candy-coated brutality of girl culture, and the general horror of the teen years. (And I remain in deep denial about eventual dating. Whenever TW wants to get me going, she just brings that up, and I revert to something along the lines of “LALALALA I CAN'T HEAR YOU LALALALA.” I'm not proud of that, but there it is.)
I just hope that she'll carry with her some vague emotional memory of when she could just hop on Daddy's lap with a book and make everything right with the world.
Friday, April 11, 2008
Ask the Administrator: Professional Development in the Sticks
Right now I'm in the midst of an unbloggable circus, so letters are especially welcome.
An earnest correspondent in the middle of nowhere writes:
I'm an adjunct at a local CC, and I have two
First, my department has expressed an interest in
hiring me full-time when the economics are right. (And
the college has a history of hiring from within
adjunct ranks when possible.) While I'm not getting my
hopes up, it is an opportunity I'd like to position
myself to pursue if and when it becomes available. I
have both academic and professional graduate degrees,
and I went right into the professions after school
(and, due to student loans, knew I was going to do
so), so I've never published. I'd like to publish a
few things to improve my resume (though my CC does
hire unpublished folk full-time), but I don't really
have the vaguest idea how to begin. There's not a
strong academic community in this town, so I don't
know where to find a mentor to help me figure it out,
Second, I feel like I've got my teaching under control
now, and I'm at the point where some of my pedagogical
material is great, and some is only okay, but I'm not
entirely sure how to go about upgrading the "only
okay" (I think part of the problem is that it's easy
to fix things that just plain DON'T work, but things
that mostly work and are in the syllabus have a
tendency to resist change). I want to continue to
improve my lecturing, my assignments, and the feedback
I give my students.
My chair is great, but he has an extremely adversarial
teaching style that doesn't suit me, and he's
absolutely impossible to keep to a point when I ask
him a question. (I'll ask him for ideas on how to
better assess student learning on topic X, and he ends
up trapping me in his office for an hour discussing
18th-century advances in skepticism. Anything I say
sends him off on an entirely DIFFERENT topic that's
totally unrelated!) I've been through our faculty
development center and take advantage of their
resources, but they're really focused on online
teaching right now.
Are there resources that I can pursue on my own that
you or your readers have found particularly helpful?
(Books, blogs, whatever!) Really anything -- I've
snagged books from a K-12 teacher friend that have
turned out to be reasonably helpful. I'm very open ...
I just want to improve!
I like your comment about the faculty development center. In a perfect world, they'd have both instructional designers and academic technologists, and you could use what made sense for you. Instead, whenever budget cuts roll around, they devolve into technology training centers. There's a use for that, but it leaves out something crucial. And the Geeky Moms of the world, who can do both tasks single-handedly, are much too few and far between.
(My ex-girlfriend from college has actually made quite a name for herself as an academic technologist, after getting her doctorate in her academic field, so I feel a certain kinship with Geeky Mom.)
One of the glories of the internet is that being in the sticks doesn't necessarily involve being as thoroughly cut off as it once did. Several academic bloggers have posted some wonderful discussions of teaching over the last few years, and you can obviously access those. (I'd start over at Dr. Crazy's, since she tends to delve into the 'why' as well as the 'what.') You can also post dilemmas and queries on your own blog and solicit comments. (I've been absolutely shameless about doing that, and the collective wisdom of the blogosphere has saved my bacon more than once.)
Back in the more innocent 1990's, when we thought that the worst thing a President could possibly do was mess around with an intern, I was an earnest young instructor trying to improve. Something I found that worked wonders was simply seeking out some of the more successful senior faculty at my college and asking them, respectfully, how they did it. They were remarkably generous with their advice, and even seemed flattered that I had asked. Better, since they were dealing with the same students and the same peculiar institutional context that I was, the tips were immediately useful. The key was that I didn't restrict myself to my home discipline. Certain methods transfer across disciplines quite well, and some fields have actually devoted serious thought to this stuff. (Generally, I've found that the folks who've kept current with the composition-and-rhetoric field have the best tips, though your mileage may vary.)
So I'll take my own advice and throw this one open to the collective wisdom of my wise and worldly readers. What would you suggest to an earnest young instructor in the sticks?
Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.
Thursday, April 10, 2008
Ask the Administrator: CC Job Interviews
Several readers this week have asked variations on the same question. 'Tis the season, I guess.
Earlier this year, I applied for a faculty job at a community college. I was called for an interview, where I interviewed with a panel of faculty members and the head of the department in which I would work and taught a class in my discipline. I just got called back yesterday for an interview with the dean. The human resources director said that three of the candidates would be interviewing with the dean. I was wondering how this interview might differ from the ones I already did, and if there is anything I should bring, besides my resume and references.----------
I have been called to interview at a community college. Can you give me some examples of questions I might encounter?
I've been applying for cc jobs and have been offered three interviews (already went to two). For one of those two, I made it to the executive round. The conversations go well; but I am not hired.... I'm now going on a third interview and wish I knew what would improve my interview skills, or what I'm doing wrong. I know it's not good etiquette to ask the interviewers. Any advice?
2. Is it the right thing to do, or frowned upon, to write a follow-up thank you after the interview? Advice seems conflicting.
3. Is there a better/worse time of day to schedule an interview? All of my interviews have been at the end of the day--am wondering if this is not a good thing. My third interview is scheduled for the afternoon on the second day of interviews, since I wasn't sure initially when I would be arriving in town after traveling a good distance--should I ask for a different time?
A few responses leap to mind, but I'm eager to hear from readers on this, too.
I'll pick the low-hanging fruit first. Thank you letters are fine, but not required, and rarely relevant. If they help you sleep better at night because you feel like you did everything you could possibly do, then by all means, go ahead. But I've never seen a candidacy tank for lack of a thank you letter.
If you have any say at all over time of day, my personal leaning – and this isn't based on anything other than personal observation – is that late morning is best. Say, ten-thirty-ish. Usually everybody is well into the swing of the day by that point, but they aren't tired and cranky yet. That said, sometimes you get the full-day treatment, or even the day-and-a-half treatment. As with thank you letters, folks have personal preferences, but I don't see these as deal-breakers.
For the dean's interview, if they want anything beyond vita and references, they'd say so.
And don't assume that two interviews without offers means that you're doing something wrong. In this market, there's nothing unusual about that. We had a position at my campus last year for which I met several finalists, and found two of them utterly extraordinary. One got the job, the other didn't. If the other were to ask what he had done wrong, my honest answer – and that of the department's search committee – would be 'nothing.' The other finalist just fit the existing need a little better. In some disciplines it's so thoroughly an employer's market that any attempt to psych out the search committee will only make you crazy. Do what you do, and do it well; the rest is out of your control. Although the decision will affect you, it's often not really about you.
Questions I'd expect at a community college faculty interview: How do you work with underprepared or undermotivated students? How do you reach students with diverse learning styles in the same class? How have you incorporated technology into your teaching? (In many cases, “I haven't” is not an acceptable answer. Plenty of departments out there resolve the tension between 'incorporating technology' and 'not being bothered' by 'pushing it off on the new kid.' As the prospective new kid, be ready.) What experience do you have working with non-traditional students? Why do you want to work at a community college (as opposed to a four-year college or a university)? Why this one? (“Because I need a job” is not a productive answer.)
I've shifted the questions I ask candidates, based on some fairly hostile feedback I got on the blog a while back. I ask some of the ones above, plus a fairly straightforward “have you ever been convicted of a crime?” (If you have, fess up and explain. Lying on the application or in the interview is grounds for immediate termination, and we do criminal background checks.) Then I shift to a discussion of the college's expectations of tenure-track faculty; the tenure clock and process; the needs of the hiring department; some of the employee benefits (always including parking); and an open invitation for any questions they have. It's usually a good idea to have at least one besides the inevitable “what's the next step in the process?”
Wise and worldly readers, especially at community colleges: what would you add? What have you seen?
Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.
Wednesday, April 09, 2008
Measures and Rewards
One of the recurrent themes at the AACC panels was the difficulty in measuring the relative success of a community college, and the utter lack of rewards for that success. In the absence of either appropriate measures or incentives, judging performance – and encouraging good performance – is far harder than it ought to be.
At a panel comparing for-profit colleges to cc's, and asking about lessons that cc's could draw from the for-profits, the presenter noted in passing that the for-profits are built for growth and reward growth. Neither is really true of most cc's. For example, since all of the for-profits' revenues derive from tuition – much of it in the form of financial aid, but tuition nonetheless – enrollment growth equals revenue growth. They don't run programs that they don't expect to become and remain profitable.
In the cc world, since tuition covers less than the cost of production, it's not unusual to have a disconnect between enrollment growth and revenue growth. During recessions, for example, our enrollments typically increase at the same time that our external funding gets cut. Although many academics routinely decry the idea that colleges should be run like businesses, businesses at least understand the concept of 'investment.' If you want to grow, you have to invest. Since public institutions' budgets are largely independent of growth, growth actually registers on the ground as a burden. The consequences for things like 'customer service' are predictable. So instead of serving the folks who need us when they need us, we close sections, establish waiting lists, and outsource much of our core function to temps (adjuncts).
In a wonderful panel on which criteria to use to judge community colleges, Gail Mellow, President of LaGuardia Community College in New York City, suggested a measure I've never seen used: percentage change in family income one to three years after graduation. (She cited a figure of 17 percent for her college.) She was very specific about 'family' income, as opposed to individual income. Although I'm not quite sure how that would work for transfer programs, it seems like a nifty measure for career or vocational programs. We don't collect that information locally, and judging by the show of hands at the panel, almost nobody else does, either. But something like that – she also suggested “return on investment,” a relatively straightforward business concept – would allow us to talk about student success without any threat of watering down standards, since employers would stop hiring graduates of a program that produced incompetent people. (When I was at Proprietary U, the Career Services office had excellent data on graduates' starting salaries, and actually shared it with the folks in Admissions to use as a recruiting tool. It can be done.)
Much of the discussion at that panel centered on the crushing lack of good data by which to make decisions or comparisons. For example, the IPEDS database – the Federal standard – looks at graduation rates only of first-time, full-time freshmen. That works fairly well at the Swarthmores of the world, but it's comically inappropriate for most community colleges, since those students are a small minority (though a growing one) of who we get. In addition, a student who spends a year at a cc, transfers to a four-year school, and graduates, shows up in our numbers as attrition. That's a fundamental, if fixable, flaw in the data, but it's held against us.
The problems are basic and severe: we're punished for growth, the usual measures of success don't make sense in our context, and we can't get good data for measures that would actually make sense. But at least some very smart people are recognizing those problems, and starting to address them. A smart fellow once wrote that freedom is the insight into necessity. We're starting to get insights into our necessities. That's not much, but I'll take hope where I can find it.
Tuesday, April 08, 2008
Yesterday I mentioned just how impressed I was by Kay McClenney's panel on the “Bridges to Opportunity” initiative of the Ford Foundation. Although I can't do it justice, a few highlights (and since the facts flew fast and furious, and I may have gotten some of them wrong, anyone in the states mentioned who knows better is invited to comment):
In the state of Washington, apparently, they've been using Foundation money to help defray the cost of having two instructors co-teach remedial classes. They use a 'learning community' or 'cohort' approach, in which everybody in a given major who needs remediation in, say, writing, takes a double-length class that combines the intro to their major with remedial writing. The idea is to place the writing in a context in which students will see the relevance. Proprietary U used to do that with a technical writing elective, in which students in their last semester would take a technical writing class that piggybacked on their technical project class, and used the project as the raw material for writing assignments. It did a lot to get past the usual resistance, which has apparently also been the case in Washington. They've seen increases in pass rates, retention, and the like.
They've also identified four “momentum points” after which a student's likelihood of completing a degree are measurably higher. (The four points are completion of remediation, finishing the first year, clearing the college-level math requirement, and, obviously, graduation.) They're either working to or already have (my notes aren't clear) base college funding on these four momentum points, to give an institutional incentive to keep an eye on the ball.
In Kentucky, prior to the current year's fiscal bloodletting, they made a move to tie professional development funding for faculty to remedial students' needs. The idea, apparently, was that if you want faculty to do a better job meeting the needs of the neediest students, you have to align your incentives accordingly. It's one of those forehead-slappingly obvious ideas that makes you feel stupid for not having thought of it yourself. (I don't know if it survived Kentucky's recent budgetary smackdown.)
One panelist discussed the messages that resonate, or don't, with the public. Intriguingly, he suggested that some of our standbys – small classes, personal attention – don't cut it. He was adamant that one of the strikes against many community colleges is how they're named; although most of them are parts of larger (state) systems, many don't identify as such. If they were identified with the larger systems to which they actually belong, he argued, the public would think more highly of them. I'll admit not having thought of that. I don't know if it's true, but it's not absurd.
On a more basic level, I was heartened to see that there's at least one venue in which the kind of comparative work that we desperately need is actually being done. The “laboratories of democracy” model only works if the labs report their data. Data collection is still in a painfully rudimentary stage, but at least somebody's trying. Kudos, I say.
Anyone who can fill in some of the blanks is invited to comment. But I have to admit, the idea that some people are actually taking active steps to come to grips with real problems is heartening.
Monday, April 07, 2008
Observations from the AACC
After my first full day at the AACC in Philadelphia, a few observations:
The InsideHigherEd crew is fun to have lunch with. They have a winning mix of surface irreverence and substantive seriousness. Also, their cub reporter is a dead ringer for the “I'm a Mac” guy.
Several panels discussed the lack of an administrative pipeline to replace the current generation as it retires. In each case, the discussion treated the lack of a pipeline as a simple fact of nature. Nobody connected the dots of 'lack of tenure-track faculty hiring' leading to 'nobody ready to step up.' I don't know if it's because they think of the two issues as discrete, if they think the connection is too obvious to mention, or if they're more focused on solving the immediate problem than discussing its historical roots. Of course, if you don't underlying issue, the symptom is likely to persist. I'll have to ask the question the next time it comes up.
One speaker mentioned – and I don't know if this is true, but it sounds right – that nationally, community college students pay nearly as much for books as they pay in tuition. We sweat bullets over raising tuition five percent, but publishers just let it fly with abandon. There's something fundamentally wrong here.
When you're innocently wending your way through the exhibitors' area, looking mostly at publications and software, those human-patient-simulator-mannequins can give you quite a start.
I've heard several references to the “community college movement,” and the need for the retiring generation to steep its followers in the true faith. Intriguingly, nobody ever bothers to define the term. One generation's 'common knowledge' has become another generation's 'trivia question.'
The feel of the conference is very different from the League for Innovation. The League had a charming “let's take a flyer on that” attitude. The AACC so far feels much more Establishment. Too many speakers have started with “I remember my first Presidency, back in 1984...” Yawn.
A speaker at a panel on change management was completing his doctoral dissertation on how college Presidents and senior administrators deal with change. He drew a distinction between Presidents, whose most important decision is when to act, and senior administrators, whose most important decision is when not to act. I suspect there's a lot to that, but I need more time to chew on it.
Kay McClenney, of the University of Texas at Austin, is an absolute genius. She led a panel on the “Bridges to Opportunity” initiative of the Ford Foundation that was so well done, so perfectly structured, so spot-on in tone and content, and so full of information that I actually left jealous. My note-taking wasn't fast enough to capture all the good stuff. She knew it cold, but let the panelists fill in the blanks for us. That, ladies and gentlemen, is how it's done. There's something simultaneously gratifying and humbling about watching a master work. (If I can fill in the blanks in my notes, that panel deserves a post unto itself.)
The architect who designed the Philadelphia convention center was apparently influenced by M.C. Escher. The buildings are connected, sort of, except when they aren't. The 100 level rooms are in a different building than the 200 level rooms. And the whole thing is bisected by a sort of postmodern hockey rink with what looks like tinkertoys suspended high above. Call me boring and suburban, but I like when room numbers serve as navigational cues, and I've never thought to myself “you know what this academic conference needs? An ornamental hockey rink!” Maybe that's why I'm not an architect.
Friday, April 04, 2008
The Roving Reporter Strikes Again
This weekend I'm firing up the hatchback and heading to scenic Philadelphia to check out (and blog) the American Association of Community Colleges convention. I'm enough of a nerd that I actually consider this exciting.
(Any fellow bloggers who'll be in the area and would like to arrange a meet-up, drop me an email.)
Thanks to Dani for the picture idea. Further bulletins as events warrant...
Thursday, April 03, 2008
Pseudonymity and Authenticity
Dr. Crazy has a terrific post about the differences between pseudonymity and anonymity. To oversimplify, pseudonymity attaches a persona to the writing, where anonymity doesn't. Over time, a sustained pseudonym becomes a character, an alter ego, generating reader expectations of relative consistency. Anonymous posts are more like shouts in the dark. So the folks who've read my stuff as Dean Dad for a while have probably developed some sense of what to expect – whether good or bad – and would find certain things out of character. Anonymous posts can't be out of character, by definition.
For obvious reasons, I simply couldn't write some of the things I write if I attached my real life name to them. They aren't scandalous or slanderous or secretive, but they're controversial, and 'controversial' is a kiss of death in administration. What this says about the true state of open debate in higher education, I'll leave as an exercise for the reader.
There's also the annoying truth that most of my readers, if they saw my real name, would react with something like “who?” Sometimes I envy my persona's audience. In blogland, nobody has to read you; you earn readers, or not, by what you put out there. It comes much closer to a real exchange than does most interaction in higher ed, which is riddled with the distortions of prestige. (The time I walked around at my scholarly discipline's annual conference with a cc nametag made this painfully clear.)
Dean Dad isn't a perfect representation of me. He's nicer than I am, more patient, and sometimes a little stuffy. I'd like to loosen him up a little, but the combination of my limits as a writer and the expectations that I've encouraged his readers to develop puts limits on that. Besides, if authenticity were the point, I wouldn't have needed to invent him in the first place. It's not about authenticity.
And I think that's part of what makes some people uncomfortable about the pseudonyms. If you can't pin the tale on the author, then there's a greater burden on your judgment as a reader. Everything I've written about myself on the blog has been true, and the folks who know me IRL know that. But if you aren't one of those folks, you have to judge for yourself. Does it sound true? Does it hang together?
That's where the persona can become restrictive. As Dr. Crazy noted, real people are complicated and contradictory in ways that personae usually aren't. Some things don't find their way onto the blog, for fear of muddling the persona. While that can be frustrating from time to time, it also forces a kind of focus. As a reader, I appreciate focus, so I take that deal.
To reduce pseudonymity to a kind of cowardice is really to miss the point. Thanks, Dr. Crazy, for elevating the discussion.
Wednesday, April 02, 2008
Ask the Administrator: They're Spying on Us!
A frustrated correspondent writes:
I work in a service department. Another department, which is a large client of ours, has scoured the records of grades to determine which instructors in our department are easy graders and which are hard graders. They are now advising their students to try to get into the sections taught by the easy graders.
I feel that this is about three kinds of wrong. For one thing, I think it's a violation of professional courtesy. You don't do a study like this on another department without the consent of the department. For another, if you do the study, you take the results to the department, not to the students. And frankly, I don't think that advisers should be taking the professional stand that the best thing to look for in an instructor is easy grading.
How would you, as dean, react to this issue? I'd like to see the offending department censured, but I'm not holding my breath. How should we, as a department, react to this issue? Should we take a stand (either publicly or privately), or should we simply ignore the issue? To what extent should we pursue policies that would make our grade distribution more uniform? That is, how important is it to deal with the underlying issue?
Juuuuust a few issues here...
In the age of the internet, it's much tougher to keep secrets than it once was. Unfortunately, some folks who aren't schooled in, say, statistics, will sometimes misinterpret facts and derive false patterns. (For example, some folks will confidently assert global patterns after hearing of two or three cases.) That's annoying, but it's increasingly a fact of life. Even if you manage to censure the department, which I wouldn't bother trying to do, you couldn't shut down the student grapevine. Word gets out. It often gets out in distorted, inaccurate, and unhelpful ways, but it gets out. Over at ratemyprofessor, one of the categories on which folks are rated is easiness of grading. Hell, back in the Stone Age when I was in college, we had a pretty well-developed (analog) grapevine about which professors graded easier or harder than most.
I'll admit wondering how they got their hands on the data, though. Since FERPA prohibits the time-honored practice of taping grade rosters to office doors, it should be considerably harder to get this kind of information in a systematic way than it once was. If there was some sort of skulduggery involved, then that might be cause for some sort of censure.
But let's say that, by whatever method, they've unearthed some non-trivial disparities. It's fine to make the point about airing dirty laundry in front of students, but that doesn't get the laundry clean. You need to address those disparities in a serious way.
This may be a blessing in disguise. Experience suggests that wild disparities in grading standards often reflect wildly disparate ideas of the point and/or proper level of the course. If you have faculty effectively defining the class in tremendously different ways, then you really aren't doing right by the students. A professor who passes everybody in Composition I is setting up his students to tank Composition II, and that's not fair to the students.
I've seen English departments convene 'norming' workshops, in which various composition instructors discuss how they'd grade some sample essays. This strikes me as a fantastic idea, since it manages to combine consistency with input. A standard announced ex cathedra, but without faculty buy-in, is meaningless. A standard the faculty develop for themselves, on the other hand, could actually work. (In a really high-functioning department, they'd road-test the standard for Comp I by having the local Institutional Research folk track success rates in Comp II. If the courses are understood as a sequence, rather than as stand-alone classes, then the students will actually have a realistic shot at success.)
Along these lines, one of my prouder moments at my current college has involved finally getting the ESL exit standards to align with the English entrance standards, so students who complete the ESL sequence are actually ready to take the English courses. That involved a certain amount of inter-departmental diplomacy, but I honestly believe it was the right thing to do for the students.
For courses that don't feed directly into sequences, the issue is slightly less clear-cut, but students should still have reasonable confidence that Professor X's General Psych class isn't significantly easier or harder than Professor Y's. There will always be judgment calls on the margins, which is to be expected. But large, sustained differences shouldn't happen.
Paradoxically, those norming workshops are obviously harder, yet also obviously more important, when you have a significant adjunct population with considerable turnover. Locally, we've found that paying adjuncts to attend, and providing a little food, makes a huge difference in their participation levels. A little time and money upfront saves plenty of misunderstandings later. No, it doesn't compare to an all-permanent faculty, but within what the taxpayers are willing to pony up, it helps.
In terms of what the other department is doing, you may or may not be able to prevent 'opportunity,' but you can deflate the 'motive.' If they find, over time, that the grading levels have become fairly consistent, they won't have much reason to spy, and everybody wins.
Wise and worldly readers – what would you suggest?
Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.
Tuesday, April 01, 2008
At dinner last night with The Wife, The Boy, and The Girl:
TW: How was CCD today?
TW: Did you get to sit next to Kelsey?
TB: No, but I got really close.
TW: How close?
TB: Almost right next to her. She loves me.
TW: She does?
TW: How do you know when a girl loves you?
TB (smiling shyly): They give signs.
DD: (snuffled guffaw)
TW (accusingly): Did you teach him this?
DD: Hey, I'm innocent here.
TW: Did Daddy teach you this?
TW: You just noticed it on your own?
TW: What kind of signs?
TB: You know, they smile like this. (creepy, almost inhuman smile)
DD: (snuffled guffaw)
TW: They do?
TB: Well, sometimes. Girls are confusing.
DD: That's true.
I thought I had a few more years before those conversations started...