Friday, October 28, 2011
A couple of weeks ago I had a conversation with someone who works at Yale. He discussed this project and that project, all of which struck me as unthinkably expensive and ambitious. When he asked me about my world, I mentioned flat state funding, enrollment declining from its spike, and unfunded mandates. He looked puzzled and asked why we don’t just draw down more from our endowment. I mentioned that we don’t have an endowment, and that we aren’t allowed to use philanthropic money for operations. He looked at me like I had just grown antlers.
This year’s Halloween costumes are a lego brick (TB) and a washing machine (TG). The kids chose them, and TW has spent the better part of a week building them. The washing machine is a front-loader, so there’s a window in the front with some socks in it. TW picked up some spare dials at a local appliance shop and put them on the back, and printed out an “energy star” insignia for the front. There’s also a bottle of Tide attached to the top, which is harder than you would think.
The kids chose the costumes themselves, and I couldn’t be prouder. TB’s involvement with Lego League is accelerating, so the lego brick makes perfect sense. And the fact that The Girl is completely indifferent to the usual fairies/princesses/tiaras strikes me as a moral victory. My favorite is still the veterinarian outfit, followed by the astronaut, but washing machine has to win for creativity. Her friend will go as a ninja, so they should make quite a pair. If you answer the door on Monday night to find a smiling washing machine and a cherubic ninja, you’ll know why.
My modest proposal for immigration reform: give post-secondary degrees recognition as green cards. I honestly don’t understand what’s gained by making it hard to employ the best and brightest from around the world. If we aren’t going to fund our own public higher education system, we should at least be willing to import the educated from elsewhere. If the next Sergey Brin winds up in Canada or India instead of the U.S., we’ll only have ourselves to blame.
Spotify is proving weirdly addictive. (It’s a streaming music service that lets you be incredibly specific.) This is kinda mortifying, but true: a couple of weeks ago, missing my Dad, I decided to re-listen to some of the music he loved when I was a kid. Juice Newton, The Carpenters, the Fifth Dimension, and the queen of his record collection, Anne Murray. Hearing “Snowbird” again brought a lot back.
Heaven knows it’s not my taste, but I can’t deny that it was part of my life back then. This won’t win me any hipster street cred, but for me, Anne Murray is “roots” music.
I don’t know which memories of me will mortify my kids when they get older, but I know some will. Beyond a certain point, they never really stop telling you to suck it. You can only hope that at some level, they don’t mean it.
Thursday, October 27, 2011
What Else Is To Be Done?
I’ve taken heart in the Occupy Wall Street movement, even with its inherent vagueness. One of the clear messages coming from it is resentment of the pincer movement of high student loan debt and a lousy job market. If you’re in your twenties, fresh out of college with a five or six figure loan burden and no immediate prospect of a job that will pay enough to spare you from moving in with your parents, you have a right to feel betrayed. You followed the rules and still came up short.
(Generation X academics lived that movie back in the 90’s, but without the broader cultural support. In this, if in nothing else, we academics actually were ahead of the culture!)
My grandfather lived a life that’s almost unimaginable now. He dropped out of the ninth grade to go to work. He worked as a tree trimmer, then got a job as a lineman for the local electric utility. The job was unionized, and it paid enough (and offered good enough benefits) that he was able to own his own home in a decent neighborhood and send both of his kids -- including his daughter, my Mom -- to college. When he retired in his early sixties, he collected a pension and Social Security, and lived a secure existence right up to the end.
He respected education, and made sure his kids got it, but he didn’t have much himself. The world at the time didn’t require it. He was able to live a perfectly fine working-middle class life without it.
That option doesn’t really exist anymore. The kids who once would have signed up for unionized factory work out of high school can’t get it now, and in the rare cases when they can, they get a permanently lower “tier” of salary as a penalty for being born late.
Yes, there are exceptions, but the overall trend is clear: salaries for people without college degrees have taken beatings over the last few decades. Today’s high school grads are basically correct when they identify college as a de facto necessity. The path my grandfather followed is closed.
Since college is a de facto necessity, the students have taken on whatever debt they’re needed to to cover the cost. And between public disinvestment, Baumol’s cost disease, poor market signaling, and the various “arms races” for prestige, the level of debt required has increased far more quickly than the possibility of paying it back.
In their shoes, I’d be protesting, too. They’re really caught between the dog and the fire hydrant. Skip college, and absent family money or a remarkable bit of luck, you’re pretty much consigned to the economic margins. Go to college, and you have to take on debt that presumes a job market that doesn’t exist anymore. Anya Kamenetz can give all the TED talks she wants about DIY education; for the typical 18 year old, the relevant question about college is “what else is to be done?” If not college, then what?
I’m a huge supporter of many reforms within higher ed to make it more sustainable over time, and of a series of economic and political reforms that I think would make the economy both more equitable and more stable. But I hope that as the dialogue unfolds, we don’t make the mistake of missing the economic coercion underlying so much of the anxiety. Not everyone wants to go to college, and it shouldn’t be an ironclad prerequisite for a middle-class life. I’m all in favor of access, but at some level the access should be voluntary. Let colleges be colleges, which involves a certain amount of cost and, inevitably, telling some students that they just aren’t cutting it.
If we have a reasonable answer to “what else is there,” then it’s much easier to hold the line on academic standards. But if we’re the only game in town, then the economic pressures the students and graduates rightly resent will inevitably drag colleges down, too. A serious answer to the Occupy folk involves far more than some student loan relief, as welcome as that is. It involves ensuring that there are other ways to make a living. Colleges were never meant to be the personnel offices for the entire economy, and they’re straining under the task. The answer is not to keep watering college down until it’s cheap and ubiquitous. The answer is to make it genuinely voluntary. Until then, we’ll just keep shouting at each other as the bills pile up.
Wednesday, October 26, 2011
The Tortoise and the Hare
As always, “on average” covers all manner of sins. But still.
Data, intuition, and personal experience and observation all suggest that the liberal arts folks do better once they get past that first real job. The trick is getting that first real job. The vocational folks do much better at getting that first real job, but often have trouble moving up from it. (That’s especially true when the one job for which they’re specifically trained gets automated or outsourced.) The vocational degrees are the proverbial hares, quick out of the gate but fading over time; the liberal arts tortoises make a weak first impression, but have a way of winning over time.
The short term/long term distinction gets lost in much of the popular discussion, especially since the Great Recession started.
Entry-level positions tend to be relatively task-specific, and to reward some pretty low-level skills. But they also allow the opportunity to show higher-level skills over time. It’s one thing to be a good helpdesk technician with the ability to diagnose and fix computer problems; it’s quite another to know how to work with angry users, to prioritize tasks, and to handle difficult colleagues. Those skills won’t get you the first job, but they’ll get you promoted.
The challenge for the liberal arts folks is finding that first real job, where the softer skills get the chance to shine.
This report about STEM skills across the curriculum made the same point from the other direction. Instead of pitting STEM against the humanities, it made the obvious point that even the humanists and social scientists would benefit from the ability to think quantitatively. Can you unpack the assumptions behind the charts and graphs? Can you see through the bad assumption, and figure out the missed opportunity? People who can do that add real value, whether in business or in scholarship.
Over the last decade-plus of industry advisory boards, I’ve consistently heard the same thing: employers need employees who can communicate, think on their feet, and handle change. Smart people can be (and often will be) trained in the specifics on the job. Those who grasp the big picture are the ones who will move up. Judging by employer feedback, that big picture ability is surprisingly rare.
Maybe it’s me, but I find the convergence of these stories an occasion for hope. In different ways, they’re saying the same thing: don’t mistake the short term for the long term. Yes, heading back to Mom’s basement after graduation can be profoundly depressing. I’m fairly certain I would have chewed my own leg off to avoid that trap. But for those who’ve learned how to communicate well, to handle ambiguity, and to see around corners, the breaks will come.
In the meantime, we’ll just keep right on teaching the liberal arts tortoises, and doing it without apology. To the economy at large, I’ll just say, you’re welcome.
Tuesday, October 25, 2011
The Cutting Edge May Not Be Where You Expect
This week, though, I’ve seen two older ideas come back as new solutions to current issues. They’ve both been out of fashion long enough that they actually seem new, even though they’re anything but.
The first, prosaically enough, is the return of the desktop computer.
People who follow technology know that desktops are rapidly heading for the dustbin of history. They’re clunky and relatively unportable and not the least bit sexy.
But they’re also hard to steal, easy to upgrade and maintain, and relatively cheap for the amount of computing power. In other words, while they might not hold the consumer appeal they once did, they still solve some real issues for institutions.
Laptops and especially tablets can grow legs easily. Some of the measures necessary to keep them in place defeat their appeal. Tablets in particular are basically black boxes; just try upgrading the memory on your ipad. I dare you. But a big old honking desktop lends itself to internal upgrades, extending its useful life and low cost. And tethering a desktop to a desk is no big deal; it’s not meant to move around anyway.
At some distant future point when everyone has their own porta-device, the dedicated computer lab may become redundant. But we aren’t there yet, and desktops still do the job better than their newer, sexier, more expensive counterparts.
The second is even more low-tech, basic, and old. It’s the quiet study area.
Libraries (and “learning commons,” increasingly) are becoming steadily more high-tech, and more group focused. The paradigmatic cutting-edge library space now is the warren of desks with wifi where groups of students can work on projects together, using whatever device they happen to bring with them.
But as the world gets louder, I’m starting to see more demand and appreciation for the old “sit down, shut up, and study” space.
It’s easy to lose sight of this, especially at a commuter campus. We don’t have dorms, and we don’t have a sylvan quad. Space for students to just sit down and study is at a premium. We have a library, but most of the library is given over to tables at which students often engage in group study or other conversation. For a student who may not have a quiet home, quiet study space can be a scarce commodity.
Academically Adrift generated no end of discussion a few months ago, but one of its most compelling findings went mostly ignored. It reported that time spent in group study was negatively correlated with gains in critical thinking, but time spent in individual study was positively correlated with gains in critical thinking. Sometimes you just need to focus. And for all the cutting-edge innovations in instructional technology -- regular readers know that I enjoy my gadgets as much as anybody -- sometimes you just need to get back to basics: a student, a table, a lamp, a book. (Those of us who spent meaningful time in graduate reading rooms in grad school know the setting well. Once silence becomes expected, it’s almost self-enforcing.)
At better-funded institutions, this need may be so well-covered that further discussion is just redundant. But in these parts, blessed silence is a breakthrough.
Sometimes the cutting edge isn’t where you expect it to be. In these two cases at least, it’s in the past.
Monday, October 24, 2011
The Faculty-Staff Divide
It’s one of those issues that waxes and wanes, but never really goes away.
Professional staff can be characterized as people with graduate degrees who do non-faculty work. They could be counselors, financial aid staff, librarians, registrars, disability-services providers, IT, instructional designers, or any number of other positions, depending on the campus. Some of them may have teaching backgrounds, and some may even teach on an adjunct basis while working as staff. Their positions are usually twelve month, five-day-a-week jobs. Some campuses have a tenure system for staff, and some have tenure for some staff (librarians) and not others.
Although friction between faculty and administration gets most of the press, friction between faculty and staff can be quite real, and sometimes toxic.
In my observation, some of it comes from what Cathy Davidson calls attention blindness. We don’t notice certain things, based on our priorities at the time. If I’m focusing on how best to teach my class in two hours, I’m not thinking much about how the financial aid department works, and vice versa. Over time, it’s easy to see folks in the other roles are basically ancillary.
Different calendars are a persistent source of friction, and not just for the obvious reasons. For example, one of the most frequent areas of calendar-driven faculty-staff conflict I’ve seen has been parking. If your workday starts at 8:30 every single day, it’s hard to muster much sympathy for the professor who complains that she can’t find a space just before her 11:00 class. Conversely, if you’re the professor trying to get to class, it’s hard not to wonder just who all these people are taking up spaces.
The yearly calendar makes the problem more complex. Parking is relatively easy in the summer, since most of the faculty aren’t there. When they come back in September, the parking follies begin. That’s nobody’s fault, obviously, but some people think in terms of people rather than systems, and train their anger accordingly.
Even such basics as “how was your summer?” can be grating if you spent most of your summer in cubicle hell. I recall a professor a few years ago complaining bitterly that the summer was a wash, because he only got to spend one month on Cape Cod. It took real restraint not to unleash a snark attack of historic proportions. Well-meaning “welcome back” messages can have the same effect on people who never left.
I’ve also seen a persistent confusion among some faculty between “shared governance” and “faculty governance.” They don’t see the distinction, though to the staff, the distinction is loud and clear. Pronouncements like “the faculty are the college” are a direct slap in the face to staff.
Then, of course, there’s status. Most staffers don’t go by titles, even if they have academic credentials at the same level as faculty. (There’s nothing weird about addressing someone as Professor Smith, but it would be weird to call her Librarian Smith.) The culture of faculty, in which they regard themselves largely as independent contractors on loan from their disciplines, implies a different locus of loyalty than the culture of staff, who regard themselves as employees of the college. When that divided loyalty comes with lifetime job security, a staffer who has neither may grumble.
None of this is to deny that resentments can run the other way, too. Many professors who are tired of the adjunct trend look at the growth in non-faculty positions and see an unchecked resource suck. Depending on turnover rates, racial and gender demographics can sometimes be markedly different among faculty as opposed to staff, leading to resentments that have little to do with the jobs themselves. And personalities are an ever-present wild card.
I don’t know if faculty-staff tensions are getting worse, the same as they ever were, or getting better. I’m not even sure how to measure that. I hope they improve, not least because those of us who care about public higher education need to put up a united front against an increasingly difficult political climate. At some point, we need to acknowledge that divisions of labor are simply necessary.
I’d guess that the faculty-staff divide varies greatly by context. Wise and worldly readers, have you seen circumstances that make it markedly better or worse? Is there another source of conflict I’ve missed? And is there a realistic way you can imagine to make it better?
Friday, October 21, 2011
Ask the Administrator: Know When to Hold ‘Em, Know When to Fold ‘Em
I'm a new hire in my second year at a large community college in the Mid-Atlantic region. During my first year I largely kept my eyes and ears open and my mouth shut as I adjusted to a new workplace with its own culture, policies, and personnel. Tenure reviews from my committee and student evaluations were glowing, and overall, everyone seems pretty glad they hired me. During that first year and more recently I've seen a few things going on that I don't agree with or have strong opinions about. Some are issues at the district level, some at the college level, and some are within my own division. This year I've started speaking up in division meetings and in conferences, trying to offer solutions and different points of view rather than point fingers. The feedback from fellow faculty has been positive - they like that I'm speaking up, even if they don't necessarily agree with me all the time. Various members of the administration, however, have taken
notice as well and the feedback from them hasn't been as positive. I suspect they prefer the 'company guy' they saw in my first year rather than this new guy with his opinions (which on occasion are diametrically opposed to those of administration). Do you have any tips on how to navigate tenure while still maintaining my self respect? I can't abide muzzling myself for another two years, but I don't want to get pegged as a troublesome faculty member by administration and risk not getting tenure either.
It sounds like your college has a relatively short tenure clock, which is good and bad. The good is that you don’t have to worry as long; the bad is that decisions will necessarily be based on pretty limited information. Given that the college has to live with its decision for decades to come, and that it has to base that decision on a few years that may or may not be representative, a certain hypervigilance is to be expected. It’s a predictable, if not inevitable, result of a design flaw.
“Speaking up” can mean a lot of things, and different administrations have different thresholds for how much is too much. Some will take offense at perfectly civil disagreement; others will withstand astonishing levels of contrapower harassment, and even slander, without retaliation. (I have the mixed good fortune of living in the latter.) I don’t know where your college falls on the continuum.
That said, a few pointers seem relevant.
First, pay attention to the setting. There’s a meaningful difference between disagreeing behind closed doors and rallying the troops. The former allows your interlocutor some room to move, which in theory can lead to a constructive solution. The latter doesn’t. There may be times when rallying the troops makes sense, but it should nearly never be the first move.
Second, allow for the possibility of information asymmetry. They may know something you (and other faculty) don’t. Sometimes that information can be shared, but you have to know to ask. The bane of my existence is that sometimes it can’t be shared; this is usually the case with personnel matters. It’s incredibly frustrating to sit through an angry tirade based on misinformation when you know the facts but are bound by confidentiality rules not to disclose it.
Third, don’t become the boy who cried wolf. Every campus has That Guy who has to sound off at every meeting, whether provoked or not. Sometimes That Guy actually has a valid point, but once you’re typecast, even the valid points get lost. The people whose objections carry the most weight are the ones who pick their battles. Credibility counts. Sherman Dorn has used the term “deviance credits” to capture this. In essence, you build credits over time with solid performance, and spend them when speaking out. If you go into deviance debt, your credit/credibility is destroyed. Everyone starts with some credits, and it sounds like you built some more in your first year. But if you get caught up in the white-knight fantasy, you can quickly find yourself overspent. Whether that affects your tenure bid or not, it would absolutely affect your quality of life there. You don’t want to see eyes roll when you speak.
Finally, try to get a sense,whenever you can, of the “why” behind what you find objectionable. Although faculty often believe that administrators have nearly unlimited discretion, we actually work under substantial imperatives and constraints. If my college’s accrediting agency thinks that outcomes assessment matters, then it does; yelling at me won’t change that. If my state decides to measure colleges based on graduation rates, then graduation rates matter, whether I agree or not. Attacking the wrong person may feel cathartic in the moment, but it’s ultimately counterproductive. You may need that person’s help later to construct some sort of solution, and everybody’s human.
I’d strongly advise you to find a trustworthy, experienced person at your college as a mentor. If your interest is truly in problem-solving, find someone who seems to have been effective at that, and have some frank conversations. Your concern about tenure suggests that you want to be in this for the long haul. That means you don’t have to solve everything now. Find a sustainable pace, pick your battles, and call it good. That’s all any of us can do, tenure or not.
Good luck. I hope you’re able to find a sane and sustainable balance.
Wise and worldly readers, I assume there’s a panoply of views on this; let’s please assume goodwill in the discussion.
Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.
Thursday, October 20, 2011
Ask the Administrator: Helping, Cheating, or Marketing?
I teach history in the major university in my area. Every year I get
3-4 emails from high school students who want help with their papers.
They often describe their topic with a phrase that sounds suspiciously
like a high school essay question. High school instructors seem to
feel that students are showing "initiative" by asking somebody else to
do their work for them. With time, my initial sense of outrage over
the laziness of students has given way to resignation.
The new development, however, comes from the dean of my school, who
recently forwarded me such an email, and then followed up the next
day: was I able to help the student? The request made me very
uncomfortable: I didn't want to say no to the dean. I asked the head
of programme what he thought, and he wrote the dean for me. The HoP
pointed out that we may as faculty be undermining the high school
teacher, that students we help may get an unfair advantage, and that
anyway students have terrible research skills and nead the practice.
He said he'd advised me not to respond, but that it was my call.
The dean wrote back acknowledgint these points, but suggested we
should always reply to such requests. Evidently it's good PR with our
future students. She also seemed to think that this particular student
was "a cut above" the average student requesting help, which wasn't my
impression at all.
I called the dean every 45 minutes during the last workday to discuss
the issue, but never got a hold of her. I didn't want to write
anything in an email. In the end, I wrote the student a very minimal
book recommendation. However, I regret it and feel dirty about it. I
also can't help wonder why the dean took such an interest in this
case. Is the student is somehow related to the dean ... a friend's
daughter, or something?
Maybe it’s me, but I’ve never heard of this, and can’t imagine doing it.
My first thought is that if a student calls looking for help researching a paper, direct her to the reference desk at the library. A good reference librarian will not only steer her to useful and valid sources, but will also be conversant in the teaching of research ethics. That will give the student ethically unimpeachable help, show the student how to do her own work, and get her out of your hair without you actually refusing discussion. There’s no shame in a referral.
If you aren’t comfortable with that, but still feel the need to help the student somehow, there’s always the old “suggest a source” approach. Again, a student whose motives are entirely honorable will find it helpful, but the student looking for a free paper won’t.
I wouldn’t call the dean every 45 minutes; if a professor did that with me, I’d assume some sort of major emergency (or major dysfunction). Just make an appointment and, when it comes, explain your misgivings and ask if there’s more to the picture.
The closest analogue I can come up with in my experience is the random email application for an adjunct class. Every so often, someone will just pull my email address from the campus website and email me a letter and cv, asking for a class or two. Experience has taught me to just forward it to the relevant program, along with a noncommittal note along the lines of “as you will...” I then respond to the applicant saying, truthfully, that I’ve forwarded it along.
It’s possible that the dean was relatively indifferent to the content of your response, but was just concerned that there was one. (From a PR perspective, there’s a world of difference between a minimal response and a non-response. The former can look professional, but the latter comes off as disrespectful.) If that’s the case, then the matter is fairly trivial. Refer the student to the reference desk or a favorite source, assure the dean that you’ve answered the query, and call it good.
Yes, it’s also possible that there’s something more nefarious going on, but I prefer to save those explanations for when other explanations fail. In this case, they haven’t yet.
Good luck! I hope this turns out to be little more than concern that the email didn’t get summarily deleted.
Wise and worldly readers, have you seen anything like this? How would you handle it?
Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.
Wednesday, October 19, 2011
Ask the Administrator: Improved Open Admissions
I teach at an open admission, 4 year college. Unlike community colleges, we actually pull our students from [several states].
I was having a conversation with another faculty member about our students, many of whom aren't particularly interested or engaged in school. She suggested that we should try to improve our student base, and that we could do that while keeping our open admission policy.
Do you know of schools that did this, tried to get better students without changing the admissions policy? What would that even look like?
There’s a lot here. Depending on which assumptions you use, you could go in several different directions.
The best way, which is also the most challenging, would be to try to meet the students where they are and them raise the bar. It’s difficult, obviously, since students start in so many different places. My current suspicions are that we need to move away from the infinite-remediation model, and towards something that speaks to student goals in the first semester. (Once students know what they’re shooting for, you’re halfway there.) But there’s no denying that this high-road approach is exhausting, expensive, and difficult.
Or you could take shortcuts.
Selective colleges attain their higher pass rates by outsourcing failure; they only admit students who are likely to succeed no matter what happens in college. (A recent study suggested that the high lifetime earnings of Ivy League grads are functions of who got in, rather than of anything they learned there. I had to smile...) That’s not to deny the efforts of wonderful instructors there, obviously, but I’d bet my salary that my cc would see dramatically higher graduation rates if it switched student bodies with, say, Swarthmore.
If your college is willing to move to selective admissions, then there’s your answer. But it may not be, whether because of a perceived mission, historical commitments, and/or fear of the short-term enrollment hit from turning people away.
Of course, there’s overt selectivity and covert selectivity. You could always reject the former and embrace the latter. Take anyone who applies, but skew the application pool.
The easiest way to do that would be by raising tuition substantially, and leaving financial aid flat. (This would have the added benefit of offsetting some of the revenue hit from decreased enrollment.) Since the strongest predictor of student test scores is parental income, you could probably move your student body upscale just by trying.
You could also shift resources away from support programs that tend to help at-risk students. Do away with vocational majors. Put in tight restrictions on course withdrawals and second attempts. Make the financial aid hoops much harder to navigate. Stop “advertising,” and start making your college noticeable in more upscale circles. (Have you ever seen an ad for Yale? Me, neither.)
I’m not a fan of any of these, except maybe the advertising one, but they’d probably work. Going with the plutocratic flow would open many opportunities. The major downside, other than the initial enrollment hit, is the ethics of it.
For my money, the real trick isn’t in showing that you can get better academic performance from wealthier and better-prepared students. That’s easy. The real trick is figuring out how get better results with the students who actually need you.
I’m hopeful that we’ll be able to tweak advisement and curricular design so that students don’t have to eat quite so much spinach before getting to something they actually want. If we can address the very real academic deficits in the course of teaching something they actually want to know, we’ll really have something. In my teaching days, I always found student motivation more telling than raw skill, as important as that was.
I suspect that my wise and worldly readers have seen some better approaches, so I’ll crowdsource this one. Is there a way to harvest a better crop of new students without abandoning open admissions?
Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.
Tuesday, October 18, 2011
Consultation and Conflicts
The article is about helping students avoid, or at least minimize the cost of, the quagmire of remedial course sequences. It notes, correctly, national data showing that students who place into developmental courses but skip them anyway tend to do just as well as students who took them. Tellingly, it cites leaders of several local cc’s claiming that such findings couldn’t possibly apply to their own campuses.
I had to smile.
The first-person exception defeats many a great idea. “That’s probably true in other places, but we know better.” It’s the reason that some jaded administrators either skip the “consult with the folks in the trenches” step, or at least discount it deeply. In some cases, the folks in the trenches have such deep and fundamental conflicts of interest that their ability to respond thoughtfully to evidence is simply defeated. Program reviews, for example, tend not to conclude in suicide notes; they nearly always conclude with calls for more resources.
Worse, the folks in the trenches typically are in only one set of trenches. They see their own program. They don’t see the other programs competing for resources. It’s easy to criticize administrators for focusing too narrowly on numbers, but we have to make decisions about allocating limited resources among competing programs, each with its own passions, anecdotes, and virtues. You have enough money to pay for two new faculty lines, and you have compelling needs in six programs. How do you decide which two get what they want, and which four don’t?
The usual response -- “just consult with the departments” -- doesn’t help. Each department wants its own. That’s understandable, but it limits the usefulness of the input. (The other usual responses -- “say yes to everyone” or “consider excellence” -- are even worse.) At least with data on enrollments and/or adjunct percentages, you have something disinterested to consider. You have a common denominator. It shouldn’t be everything, but when other factors cancel each other out, it’s something.
Say what you want about virtue and academic excellence; at the end of the day, it’s silly to pretend that self-interest doesn’t play a major role in departmental feedback. Departments that rely on developmental courses to maintain their staffing aren’t likely to sign on to proposals to streamline those courses. As they see it -- often incorrectly, but still -- they’d be slitting their own throats.
Colleges with relatively robust traditions of shared governance, such as mine, are likely to fall prey to all the usual failings of interest-group politics. It would be surprising if they didn’t. Taking self-interested testimony at face value will lead to distorted results. Sure, the national data may be clear, but we’re special!
And that’s why I had to smile.
Real progress -- the kind that actually takes account of facts -- requires the willingness, or ability, to get beyond interest-group politics. That means accepting the possibility that a deeply-held and/or very convenient belief may be wrong. In other words, it requires a vanishingly rare set of conditions.
I have faith in the truth, but its progress can be maddeningly slow. In the meantime, we lose students in preventable quagmires.
Monday, October 17, 2011
Ask My Readers: Working With an Instructional Designer
My college will bring its first full-time Instructional Designer on board soon.
For those of who have worked with instructional designers on your campuses, what should we try to encourage? What should we be extra careful to avoid?
The point of the hire is primarily to help take the online courses to a higher level of quality. Having someone whose job it is to be current in the technology field, and who has a background in teaching, will (I hope) help faculty find and adapt the innovations that work best for their courses and styles. (I assume that process will involve a fair amount of culling. Tech that might make sense in one course might not in another.)
I can imagine that if we aren’t careful, the instructional designer could quickly be relegated to the status of a helpdesk technician. Alternately, if we go too far in the other direction, she could come off as an imposition.
To my mind, she’s be part scout, part coach, and part consultant. But the devil is always in the details.
For those who have experience either as instructional designers or as faculty working with them, what are the traps? If you knew then what you know now, what would you have done differently?
Friday, October 14, 2011
The Girl, Political Philosopher
TG (sighing): It must be nice to be in charge.
TG: It must be nice to be in charge! You get to decide what everyone will do!
DD: Well, sometimes it can be nice. But sometimes it’s not.
TG: Why not?
DD: Because sometimes you have to make a decision that people don’t like, and then they get mad at you.
TG: Just let them vote on it!
DD (suppressing a laugh): That’s not always an option.
TG: Why not?
DD: What would happen if your teacher asked the class to vote on whether to do math or to have recess?
TG: We’d vote for recess!
DD: Probably. But then how would you learn math?
TG: It must be nice to already know math.
Thursday, October 13, 2011
What We Talk About When We Talk About Markets
There’s the market for B.A. grads (or A.A. grads, or A.S. grads) in private industry. Looking solely at that, you’d conclude that a field like psychology is pretty much DOA.
Then there’s the market for Ph.D. grads in a given discipline. There, psychology looks stronger, but English isn’t looking too hot.
Then there’s the market for seats in classes, or campus-based demand. Looking at that market, English and psych are both healthy, but engineering doesn’t look too good.
Some of the friction between colleges and states, I’m convinced, has to do with which market you look at. The two sides are looking at different markets, and drawing different conclusions. And as we move to “market-based” reforms, the divergence will grow.
On campus, the plain-vanilla gen ed disciplines are in consistently high demand. Some of that, of course, is a function of distribution requirements within degree programs, but the tuition is where the tuition is.
But distribution only explains a small part of the picture. Students cluster into majors like English and Psychology voluntarily, choosing them over engineering or computer science. They do that despite a well-orchestrated campaign telling all and sundry that tech is where the jobs are. Even many of the vocational programs -- criminal justice, human services, culinary -- are mostly non-technical.
It’s easy for folks on the outside to look at colleges as the personnel offices of the economy, and to request more engineers and fewer comparative lit majors. It’s even possible, if difficult, to shift funding around to encourage some paths more than others.
But at the end of the day, any policy that fails to account for both student choices and institutional imperatives is doomed to irrelevance.
Students aren’t drafted into majors. They select them. And students select majors for a host of reasons, perceived marketability being only one of them (and “perceived” is the key word). Some students won’t have anything to do with advanced math. Some will only do what their friends do. Some select for personal taste, some for perceived ease of completion and/or grading, and some just sort of drift through. (I was in the “personal taste” category.)
Colleges respond to the preferences that students express with their feet. It’s all well and good to hear a governor say that we need fewer psych majors and more engineering grads. But if the students avoid engineering like the plague and stuff the psych lectures full, and if my college is tuition-driven, then what, exactly, do you expect me to do?
If you want colleges to be able to channel students away from their expressed preferences and towards something else, you need to give those colleges the financial cushion to reduce the relevance of student tuition. In other words, if you want colleges to be more responsive to the “employer” market, you have to make them less dependent on the “student” market.
The usual ritualistic bleating about “market-based reforms,” on the one side, and “learning for learning’s sake,” on the other, fails to account for the paradox. What students want to take, and what employers want students to take, are not the same thing. If you want colleges to discount the former in favor of the latter, you have to pay for it. Otherwise, colleges will do what they have to do, and those anthropologists will just keep on coming. If the governor of Florida wants to snuff out psychology, he’ll need to pony up some serious cash to make all those small STEM classes sustainable. Failing that, he’s just blowing smoke. The markets have spoken.
Wednesday, October 12, 2011
The Occupy Wall Street movement, which seems to have gone viral around the country, is emerging as a welcome and badly-needed counterweight to the Tea Party. It has given rise to an Occupy College movement, in which students protest excessive tuition increases, student loan burdens, and, implicitly, the lack of well-paying jobs available upon graduation.
And then there are occupations, as in jobs. The lack of occupations is causing occupations.
“Occupations” in the former sense are usually considered intrusions. An interloper refuses to leave; the area is under occupation. An occupying power is present after an invasion. In the case of Wall Street, the idea is that people outside the financial elite are daring to tread on the elites’ turf. In the Occupy College movement, which, paradoxically enough, demonstrated itself through vacating classrooms, the idea is that the students who are just passing through are stopping to stay a while, presumably because there’s nowhere else for them to go.
Working at a community college, I find the latter harder to stomach than the former. Certainly any sentient observer of American politics would have to concede that the plutocratic bias of the system is both catastrophic and self-reinforcing. Taking public exception to plutocracy strikes me as reasonable, if not required. Coming up with a reasonable and realistic alternative is somewhat harder, but the movement is welcome in at least making it clear that there’s real objection to the incessant rightward drift of our politics.
Whether the occupation will actually accomplish that is another question. After all, “Wall Street” is a literary device. The folks with real money don’t actually live there. Much of what “Wall Street” does is actually done online from wherever. The street itself is mostly unoccupied. The Occupy Wall Streeters are bemusingly tolerated mostly because they’re harmless. They’re occupying a space where people don’t live.
The issue they’re trying to address is only partly solvable by isolating a few villains (even conceding that those few are really awful). It’s mostly systemic. The cockpit is mostly unoccupied.
That’s even more true in higher education. Yes, it’s easy to point out a few celebrity presidents who make asses of themselves with ridiculous salaries and tone-deaf pronouncements in the press. (Mark Yudof, I’m looking at youuuuu...) But they’re ultimately beside the point. The real drivers behind cost escalation are structural: Baumol’s cost disease, a labor-intensive artisinal production model, health insurance, unfunded mandates, the constant demand for new technology...
That’s why the blogosphere’s knee-jerk “if the administrators would just wake up and/or go away” meme is so pointless. In the desperate search for villains, it misses the real story. The real story is that thousands of people have cycled through academic administration for the past few decades. These people have had different backgrounds, politics, personalities, demographics, and inclinations. And yet despite trying all of those different people -- most of whom were intelligent and at least partly well-meaning -- the cost trend has been inexorable in every sector of higher ed, in every region, for decades. The issue is systemic.
Occupying the dean’s office won’t make Baumol’s cost disease go away. Replacing this president with that one won’t stop the unfunded mandates. Decrying the adjunct trend won’t make health insurance any cheaper to provide.
And attacking the one remaining institution in American life that actually serves upward social mobility is not going to create the jobs its graduates want.
I wish the OWS people well. They’re exerting political counterpressure that desperately needs to be exerted. But with a few exceptions, the issues they’re concerned about won’t be solved by seizing the enemy’s turf, because there is no enemy. The issues are structural and impersonal, which is why they can seem inexorable. They’re complicated. They require changing the rules of the game.
Trying to figure that out, at least in higher ed, is occupying my time. I invite others to join me here. The ground may be virtual, but the issues are real. In the meantime, I’ll tip my cap to the folks working the other way ‘round, for opening the political space to start.
Tuesday, October 11, 2011
You! Out of the Pool!
Let’s say a student is so disruptive in class that he’s making it impossible to teach. The professor exercises the prerogative to kick the student out of class. The professor files disciplinary charges, but it will be a week or more before the charges can be heard (and the student can give his side of the story). The class will meet at least twice, if not more than that, before the hearing can be held.
Should the student be allowed back in class, pending the hearing?
The argument for ‘yes’ relies on due process and the presumption of innocence. If a student is wrongly banned from class for an extended period, then real academic harm is done to the student. If we assume that there’s meaningful distance between accusation and conviction, then it’s hard to argue with ‘yes.’
The argument for ‘no’ relies on the authority of the professor. If a professor goes so far as to kick a student out of class, in front of the rest of the class, then a statement has been made. Seeing that student stroll right back in the next time, grinning smugly, makes an unmistakable statement to the other students. Even if the charges are subsequently upheld, it’s hard to undo the damage of that impression.
Ideally, of course, students would not be this disruptive. But that’s like saying we wouldn’t need a criminal justice system if people just stopped committing crimes. It’s theoretically true, but of no practical interest.
The next-best situation has faculty so well trained, and so even-tempered and wise, that they’re able to handle any situation that develops without resorting to kicking anyone out. And there’s some truth to that. Learning to manage difficult students is part of teaching. I knew a professor at Proprietary U who was fresh out of grad school, where she had been trained in finding ever-more-finely-ground evidence of social injustice in the unlikeliest places. Her first class ate her alive. Her exquisite sensitivity left her without the thick skin needed to handle actual people. Anyone in authority has to endure a certain amount of abuse as a part of the job, and professors are not immune to that. I don’t recall a professor ever kicking a student out of class in my student days, and I never resorted to it in my faculty days. It should be rare.
But some students are really far beyond what a reasonable person should have to deal with, even if they aren’t technically criminal. They need to be removed if the class is going to work.
The next next-best situation has the hearing held post-haste. But sometimes that’s just not reality. You can be fast, or you can be thorough, but you can’t be both. Since our legal system prizes thoroughness over speed, quick-and-dirty leaves you exposed. So non-trivial time lags are likely to remain an annoying fact of life for the foreseeable future.
But that’s a hard sell to a pissed-off professor. Even though the law doesn’t stop at the classroom door, some professors honestly believe that they’re absolute monarchs in the classroom. They have tremendous authority and discretion, but it’s not unlimited. Students do have certain rights, due process among them.
I’m hoping there’s a reasonably elegant balance that someone out there has struck. Wise and worldly readers, has your campus found a way to deal with disruptive behavior when the mills of due process grind slowly?
Thursday, October 06, 2011
Fifth Grade Math Homework
Many years ago, MAD magazine had a piece about joke courses for college football players. The one I remember was called “Subtraction: Addition’s Tricky Pal.”
The Boy is discovering that there’s some truth to that.
He’s struggling with “borrowing.” Say you want to subtract 235 from 700. Turning the last zero into a ten requires borrowing from the digit before, but that’s a zero, so...
Oh, the humanity.
I learned “borrowing” sometime during the Carter administration, so I’m a little fuzzy on the step-by-step of teaching it. I suggested thinking of 700 as seventy ‘tens.’ To borrow a ten for the last column would leave you with 69 tens. Then, in order from right to left, ten minus five is five, nine minus three is six, and six minus two is four. 465, done and done.
That doesn’t seem to take, though. The idea of “seventy tens” seems a little too abstract.
He’s fine when just borrowing from a single digit. 82 minus 28 is fine, since borrowing from the 8 still leaves enough to subtract the 2. But borrowing across multiple digits remains mysterious.
Trying to convey ‘borrowing’ to a ten year old really brings home the difference between knowing how to do something and knowing how to teach it. I’ve walked him through problems step by step, narrating each step as I go, and he seems to follow. Then I have him try a few problems, and he does great. But it’s gone by the next day. It doesn’t stick.
His frustration is palpable and insidious. He’ll get back worksheets with middling grades, but the middling grade really just reflects a single mistake repeated over and over again. He honestly wants to get it right, but just can’t seem to hold the concept for very long.
I’m okay with him learning to struggle a bit, since that’s a valuable life skill. (Sometimes I think the only way in which my social science grad school training prepared me for my current job was in teaching me how to take a punch.) But I don’t want him to get so discouraged that he starts to doubt his own abilities. I don’t want him to become the kid who writes off math as something you’re either born with or not, like wiggling your ears.
He can’t be the first bright, motivated kid to have trouble holding on to a mathematical concept overnight. So I’m sending out this message in a bottle -- okay, in a blog -- hoping that someone has found a way to help that kind of concept stick in the mind of a ten year old.
Wise and worldly readers, have you found a way to explain this sort of math that’s both simple enough for a ten year old, and sticky enough to make it to the next day? TB and I would be terribly grateful for anything that works.
(Program note: We’re trekking across several states over the next few days, so the next post will be on Tuesday the 11th.)
Wednesday, October 05, 2011
Tolerance for Ambiguity
As a professor, I gritted my teeth every time I heard a student say that. It was an attempt to shut down discussion of something that didn’t lend itself to an easy answer. Since then, I’ve seen it applied to all manner of things, from gadgets that don’t behave to other people’s motives.
It’s an expression of frustration at the inability to read a situation. If I’m confronted by something I don’t understand, either I’m at fault for not understanding it, or the thing itself defeats understanding. Calling it stupid is a way of blaming the thing.
The habit survives because sometimes it’s true. Some decisions or actions really are stupid, and are accurately described as such. In the twenty-first century, I think there’s a case to be made that the electoral college is genuinely stupid. Blackberry’s decision to launch a tablet without an email reader was truly stupid. It happens.
But moving too quickly to blame the thing itself can quickly become dysfunctional.
I had to smile when I saw this piece, which notes a correlation between creativity and the tolerance for ambiguity.
In managing people, ambiguity comes with the territory. That’s especially true when the people involved are intelligent, self-directed, and concerned only with a small corner of the organization.
Some people handle that by tuning out the ambiguity. One way to do that is to become a rule-driven martinet, enforcing rules as written because they’re written rules. This is the cop who pulls you over for doing 22 in a 20 zone.
The other way is to ignore the rules and go entirely by gut instinct. This is the preferred solution of every cop movie ever made. Just get the job done and don’t worry about “technicalities.” Except that those technicalities exist for reasons, and ignoring them doesn’t make them go away.
Administration necessarily involves living in that gray zone in which rules are both necessary and imperfect. Progress comes from accepting that and deciding to move forward anyway. The best administrators -- and I don’t place myself in this camp yet, though I’m trying hard to get there -- manage to refocus the ambiguity.
Which sounds better: uncertainty or possibility? Failure or learning experience? Internal politics or growing pains?
It likely won’t be long before there are some new deans on campus. I’ll be involved in the selection process. I would love to be able to spot the folks who can handle ambiguity, and even better, reframe it into a hopeful sense of possibility. Folks who can tell the difference between growing pains and fatal objections, between a failed experiment and a failed experimenter.
It strikes me as a kind of wisdom, though it’s not necessarily related to age. I’ve seen young adults who have it, and older adults who don’t. Experience helps, but I’m convinced that it only helps if you have the right framework with which to process it. An experienced martinet is still just a martinet.
Wise and worldly readers, is there an effective way to screen for the tolerance for ambiguity? Even better, is there a good way to suss out the people who see the kernel of promising future lodged in the teeth of the present? These hires are likely to matter a great deal, and I’d hate to scuttle some promising cultural change by hiring someone who’s too quick to call things stupid.
Tuesday, October 04, 2011
Apparently the University of Tennessee at Knoxville has discovered a fairly obvious way to do that. It’s offering 75 students who were waitlisted for admission a chance to prove their mettle. They spend their first year living on the UT campus, but take classes at nearby Pellissippi State Community College. If a student earns at least 30 credits with a gpa of at least 2.5, then s/he is admitted to UT for the sophomore year.
The community college serves as a sort of purgatory for the marginal-admit, giving the four-year college a chance to see if the student can be academically successful in college.
This kind of thing has happened informally for years. Students who more or less coasted through high school have a hard time convincing their parents to shell out big money to go away to college, so they strike a deal: spend a year at the cc, and if you show you’re serious by doing well there, then transfer. What’s new in this program is that the four-year college is initiating it, and blessing it with both its imprimateur and an explicit promise of admission.
I hope that the aboveboard nature of this project will prevent the participating cc’s from being penalized for low graduation rates when the students leave after one year. Under the current reporting rules, those students count as attrition, even if they earn their four-year degrees on time. That’s an asinine artifact of lousy bookkeeping, but it’s also a fact of life.
The other innovative element of it is that the students actually live on the campus of the four-year school. They can participate in almost all aspects of student life there, except for certain athletics. (Presumably that’s to prevent the program from becoming a work-around for NCAA athletic eligibility rules.) The idea is to give the four-year school the purest possible sample, and to give the students the strongest incentive to stick around.
Obviously, the program relies on geographic convenience, so it’s not easily replicated everywhere. But I like it a lot, and wish it well. If it succeeds, it could become a model for similar programs in plenty of other places.
One endearing element is that it recognizes that nothing predicts success in college quite as well as success in college. At my cc, we have stats going back years showing that our grads graduate their four-year destination colleges at higher rates than “native” freshmen; it’s heartening to see some recognition of that. Say what you want about community college stereotypes; anyone who has seen the 300-person Intro lecture at State U knows that the caliber of teaching is nothing to shout about. 100-level classes aren’t hugely different wherever you go, and it’s nice to see that recognized formally.
I also like the implicit recognition that an associate’s degree is not necessarily in the plans for every student at a cc. Some of them only ever intend to do a single year before transferring. To count those students as institutional failures when they achieved their own goals is silly. A structure like this makes it easy to identify students who never intended to get a two-year degree. If they succeed in getting four-year degrees, then the argument for ignoring the “attrition” strikes me as obvious.
It’s possible, of course, that not all will be sweetness and light. If the academic performance of the program grads isn’t up to snuff, then the community college will have some work to do. That’s fair. And funding will clearly become an issue one way or another; it always does.
But I tip my hat to UT and Pellissippi State. This is a genuinely nifty idea, and it has the potential to bring some fairness and legitimacy to the netherworld of the waiting list. Purgatory may not be anybody’s first choice, but it beats being consigned to the flames altogether.
Monday, October 03, 2011
Classroom Styles and College Styles
From this side of the desk, the same thing is true of colleges. Each has its own culture, even though it often doesn’t really know it. And a set of decisions or policies that might make a world of sense at one college might miss the mark badly at another, simply because it fits one culture better than another. Colleges have styles, and each style has its blind spots.
I’ll give some examples of styles I’ve seen and/or experienced, to make it concrete.
The Catholic School Style. In this culture, tut-tutting and tsk-tsking take the place of substantive dialogue. It usually rests on a foundation of hideously complex unwritten rules, for which the complexity and secrecy are precisely the point. For reasons I’ve never really understood, gift exchange is a major event in this style. In this style, time-in-place is prized, because it takes that much time to build gift credits and to suss out enough unwritten rules to become an enforcer. The preferred rhetorical mode is the argument from authority. Status is everything, and the way to get ahead is to back-stab without getting bloody. Passive aggression from the moral high ground is the preferred mode of attack.
In the Catholic School style, straightforward arguments from pragmatism are considered either suspect or naive. The relentlessly internal focus means that arguments with external referents are assumed to be some sort of code.
(To be clear, the Catholic School style can happen in public institutions.)
I’ve seen administrators handle the Catholic School culture in a few ways. One is to go native, and to try to out-intrigue the tut-tutters. Down that path lies madness. Another is to ignore it, and to just pretend everyone is rational. That works until it doesn’t. My eventual method was to leave.
The Corporate Style. I’ve seen this in both for-profit and non-profit forms. In the for-profit setting, its natural habitat, the corporate style is at its purest.
Traditional academics often caricature the corporate style as heartless, which I think misses the point. It’s actually closer to attention deficit disorder. If the Catholic School style is trapped by the past, the corporate style is markedly indifferent to it. The focus is unapologetically on the next thing.
The upside of the corporate style is that it lends itself to pragmatism and optimism. The downside is that it easily loses touch with reality, and the succession of flavors of the month can lead to a certain cynicism. In my time at Proprietary U, it once had three different generations of College Algebra running alongside each other simultaneously, each with different credit hours, to serve different curricula. The students frequently landed in the wrong place, and those of us on the front lines had to try to undo the damage that they had unknowingly done. The idea of giving an experiment a few years to work was simply foreign.
The administrators who did well there managed to compensate for institutional ADD with some personal stability. Those who simply went with the ADD tended to crash and burn quickly.
The Clock-Punchers. In a sense, this is the faculty analogue of the corporate style. In this culture, the faculty show up, teach, and go home, and leave the rest to the administration. In this style, an autocratic management style is actually an asset, since the culture places more value on time-saving than on inclusiveness. Though I have yet to work in this setting, I’ve seen it from the outside. The advantage of this culture is that remarkably little time is spent on navel-gazing. The tragic flaw of this approach is that it largely limits institutional wisdom to just a few people. The trains will run on time, but whether they’re going to the right places is an open question.
Elites in Exile. I’ve been on both sides of this one. The faculty largely believe that they were meant for better things, and they combine admirably high standards with a painful status anxiety and a simmering resentment that they aren’t at some unspecified “better” place. This culture can lead to wonderful innovations, but it also tends towards a chronic bitterness and a bad habit of proxy battles.
In this setting, the important tension for administration to notice is the seemingly infinite need for praise before anything can get done, on the one hand, and not feeding the sickness, on the other. Status anxiety can be temporarily distracted, but it can never really be satisfied. The only long-term method I can imagine for dealing with this is to try steadily to bring expectations in line with reality.
Each style is different. “Inclusion” works well for elites in exile, but falls flat with clock-punchers. Management-by-charisma works well in the Catholic School style, but clashes badly with the corporate style and falls flat with elites in exile. Command-and-control works well with the clock-punchers and acceptably with the corporates, but fails miserably in the Catholic School and the elites in exile. Management-by-favors can work well with the Catholic School, but will insult the elites in exile.
The trick is in adapting a given management style to what a particular culture can handle, or in recognizing when that’s just not possible. (There’s a great book waiting to be written about the middle manager caught between a faculty who wants to go one way and senior leadership who wants to go another.) People on administrative job searches would be well-advised to be honest with themselves about their own styles, and to try to select colleges at which they’re likely to succeed. In this sense, hiring is a lot like casting actors. The point isn’t necessarily to find the best overall actors and hire them; the point is to find the actors who will do the best jobs with the roles as written. If you hire Sean Penn to play a teenage girl, it’s not likely to work.
So no, I don’t know about the whole “learning styles” literature, but I’m convinced that there are cultural styles afoot at different colleges. And many of the issues of fit are the same.
Wise and worldly readers, what college cultures could be added to the list?