Monday, August 08, 2011


Blind Pigs

Dontcha hate it when when someone whose views strike you as generally asinine happens to score a really good point?


In an otherwise awful essay in IHE, Robert Martin strikes a chord in discussing groupthink:

When teaching loads or class sizes are discussed, faculty members studiously avoid the cost question, preferring to focus on how reduced loads and smaller classes will improve quality. No attempt is made to balance the very real higher costs with the intangible improvements in quality. Worse still, we make no effort to study the outcome after teaching loads or class sizes are reduced

To which I have to say, ayup. In fact, I can top it. A few programs here went prereq-happy a few years ago, putting up all manner of prerequisites on courses that had previously been open to anyone. The argument was that some students were simply underprepared, so their failures were unsurprising. Put up curricular walls, the argument went, only the worthy would find their way in, and pass rates would soar.

Um, nope. Enrollments in the affected courses dropped, predictably, but pass rates didn’t budge. This has held for several years now.

Confronted with evidence that the barriers to student enrollment have achieved exactly nothing, the departments in question have simply shrugged off the facts. They won’t hear of “going backwards,” though they still want the increased resources that flow to departments with higher enrolllments. Any attempt to point out the contradiction is greeted with ritual invocations of corporate style management, bean counting, Wal-Mart, and the like.


I recently slogged my way through Benjamin Ginsberg’s atrocious polemic The Fall of the Faculty, for which I’m steeling myself to write a full review. (First I have to decide which genre it is: science fiction or parody.) Almost despite himself, though, Ginsberg backs into one good point. He notes in passing that faculty with part-time administrative roles -- such as himself -- are the ideal, since they bring faculty awareness to administrative decisions. Leaving aside both the reasoning -- the term “skill set” doesn’t occur once -- and the workload, there’s an argument to be made for the same idea in reverse. Get enough faculty who have had real administrative experience, and maybe the groupthink will abate somewhat. People who have actually had to balance budgets will understand that you can have curricular gatekeeping, or you can have resources, but you can’t have both. Indignation won’t pay the bills.

The common thread, I think, is holding open the possibility that you could be wrong. The enemy isn’t one group or another; it’s any one group deciding that it is in unproblematic possession of the truth. Ginsberg assumes as a matter of theology that faculty are Right and administrators Wrong. It just doesn’t work like that. Even a blind pig finds the occasional truffle, and even a sharp and virtuous soul will occasionally stick his foot in it. The test isn’t whether someone is pure or evil; it’s whether you’re willing to concede a truth you’d rather not, from a source you’d rather not.

So okay, Robert Martin scored one. One of my goals for this year will be to get some departments to acknowledge some facts they’d rather not. And I’ll promise to do the same.

I'm in complete agreement with your argument, but the problem I have is with administrators who ask faculty to appreciate budgetary constraints but refrain from discussing what these are. This isn't a problem of confidential information, so much as an assumption that we can't be exposed to the underlying math.

The impression they create is that they don't want to expose themselves to further protracted negotiation, so the result is that exhausted parenting fallback: because we say so.

It's really tricky to build supportive consensus in response to this. Any advice?
I've seen this in a lot of places. It's domain thinking instead of system thinking, and a lot of the domain-subject experts write and speak in a way that encourages priviledging their area of expertise over all other considerations.

They tend to say things like: "if we really cared about teaching our students, we would…" and then build a nice fantasy-land system free of budgetary constraints or any other non-teaching considerations.

The same is true in my own field. "If we really cared about user experience, we would…" "If we really cared about development quality we would," etc. All of which puts people at odds with each other.

If we could find a way to break people out of domain thinking and more into systems thinking, maybe we'd be able see some creative solutions to our limited resources and unlimited needs.
I'll second what M-for-D wrote, and add that making an annual presentation is not enough even if it is done down at the level of the Board of Trustees or Evergreen faculty -- although that doesn't hurt.

We had a very open process for dealing with budget cuts that exposed to me and anyone else who wanted to listen how our college budget is structured. However, the most important part of it goes by in an instant. I only learned how that works from one of our fac/admin people (department chair) who showed me some of the details at the course level.

Of course, one reason few faculty know how it works is that not very many care. However, my impression is that far fewer know than would care to know, because the "success rate" in those "classes" run by the administration is low and the low success rate is used as an excuse to not teach the subject. Or, perhaps, they forget that none of the new faculty were in that "class" the last time it met.

BTW, we don't have a union, so collective bargaining has no role in the decision about what info to release and what to keep hidden by burying it in public documents.

PS -
I almost LOL'd at "science fiction or parody", but I do hope that book was not the highlight of your relaxing vacation!
"Indignation won’t pay the bills."

Well, there goes my business model.
The term “skill set” doesn’t occur once
I’m glad you raised this point. There seems to be an assumption at my institution that anyone can do administrative work, that it doesn’t take particular skills or personality traits to be good at it. And so faculty who have no idea experience with managing a budget, working with disparate constituencies, organizing events, etc. get placed in administrative positions where they seem to spend their time doing “visioning sessions” instead of making sure each class has a space in which to meet. “I’m a big-picture person—I’m not good with details,” one of our newly-created administrators told me. As a little picture person whose job it is to coordinate lots and lots of details (and I’m darn good at it), it’s all a bit insulting.
I'm in Institutional Research and I love to hear about these issues, and in my university, as well. Almost invariably, no one has come to us for data or analysis to support either side. More importantly, no one came to us for data or analysis before making the initial changes, so there's little to no "before" to go with the "after". I realize that too often data and analysis is manipulated to support a particular argument, but having no data only leaves the "because we say so."
Don't pigs use their noses to find truffles, anyway?
Good call, Isaac!

Just FYI: We recently instituted pre-req's for almost all of the classes offered at my college. The data (so far - it's only two semester's worth) suggest that it is working. The pass rate is better than it was before. Was it a fluke or a trend? I'm eager to see the data after this academic year!
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