Thursday, September 04, 2014


Friday Fragments

Maybe it’s me, but this story seems obvious.  Colleges with distinctive niches, whether demographic or academic, will punch above their weight in terms of applications.  If you’re the most prominent campus in your region for a given denomination, or program, then you have an automatic “in” with a given set of prospective students.  Maybe you can’t compete with Harvard across the board, but you can offer something Harvard can’t.  

Community colleges are based on the opposite model.  They’re mostly “comprehensive,” which typically implies covering both transfer-focused and workforce-focused programs.  (I’m not a huge fan of that division; it strikes me as largely outdated.  But it’s the coin of the realm.)  As far as I know, most states haven’t looked closely at having different community college campuses specialize to any great degree.  That’s rooted mostly in the idea of geographic access, which remains more relevant than one might expect.  But to the extent that public higher ed becomes more tuition-driven, I wouldn’t be surprised to see it start to embrace specialization more aggressively.  It’s a way to punch above your weight.


Libby Nelson defends the honor of her generation.  Well worth a read.


This is uncomfortable, but I think it’s true.  Over the past couple of weeks I’ve approached people at home at night, asking if I could leave traps or run through their yards to recover my dog.  (It was at night because that was when the sighting reports came in, and when I wasn’t at work..)  People have been remarkably generous, often going beyond giving permission and actively helping.  In my undergrad days I did some door-to-door canvassing for various environmental groups, so I’m familiar with the skeptical look and the slammed door.  In this case, when they see the flyer and understand what I’m doing, I haven’t seen any of that.  People have been great.

The uncomfortable part came to me as I was reading my Twitter feed.  Some very smart people I take seriously have been writing some thought-provoking stuff about what Ferguson teaches us about American culture, and I started to wonder.  Has part of the generosity of reception been a function of being white?

I don’t mean to impugn anyone who has helped.  That’s not the point at all.  But I can’t help but wonder if a black man in the same situation and location would get the same reception.  I’d like to think so, but I can’t say with a straight face that it’s a given.  “Balding middle-aged white guy in polo shirt, khaki shorts, and boat shoes” elicits a different visceral reaction on the porch at night.  I’ve gone to local police stations without giving a second thought, assuming -- correctly -- that they’d be sympathetic and helpful.  And they have been.  Some people have really gone above and beyond, devoting many hours to chasing a dog they’ve never met.  I’m grateful to every single one of them.  And I really hope that these misgivings are misplaced.

The difficulty in addressing racial privilege, in many ways, is that it’s often invisible when you’re in the middle of it.  I didn’t go out as some sort of sociological experiment; I went out to find my dog.  When I knock on doors, I try to look as non-threatening as possible.  I just happen to have a head start on that with some people, for unearned reasons.  To make matters murkier, it’s impossible to test the counterfactual directly.  Maybe I’m overreading.  But somehow, I doubt it.

I’m writing this down not to inflame the usual wars on the interwebs -- I have no appetite for that at all, and I salute the brave souls who endure more hostility in a week than I do in a year -- but to remind myself to tell the kids about it when they’re older.  It’s not about “guilt,” exactly; I have no guilt about trying to find my dog.  It’s about taking that extra moment to stand back and notice.  And then taking some extra moments to nudge positive change, somehow.  At some level, I have to believe that starts by acknowledging reality, even when it’s uncomfortable.  

I thought Nelson's article was a mess. She accepted Arum and Roksa's methodology without even a cursory glance, reported the results, and at the end she disagreed a bit about what those results mean.

Academically Adrift is mostly built around the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA), a test of critical thinking. Based on Nelson's article it looks like its sequel is as well. I actually really liked Academically Adrift when I first read it. I liked it so much that I started making a series of assignments that emulated the CLA. This led me to their article, "Architecture of the CLA Tasks", where they revealed that their test of critical thinking is graded by a Pearson computer program. Take a moment to let that sink in.

They have an essay-based test that measures critical thinking.

It's graded by an algorithm.

That algorithm was developed by Pearson, makers of TestGen and the Mastering series.

To be fair, they didn't start using Pearson to grade the CLA until after Academically Adrift was published. But if your essay-based exam of critical thinking is being graded by a rubric that can be successfully emulated by a computer algorithm, we're either in The Matrix or your exam sucks monkey balls. And if you read the paper, their performance task for critical thinking is a simple correlation-is-not-causation problem with some bells and whistles.
You are not getting neighborly cooperation because you are white. You are getting it because you are a nice, intelligent guy (demonstrated daily on this blog), you have way above-average social skills, you live in a nice and trusting neighborhood, and you have a problem that everyone can empathize with. A person of color with similar characteristics would elicit substantially the same reaction, in your neck of the woods, in my opinion.

You do have one irritating habit of trying to turn everything into a discussion of race, but otherwise everyone just likes you and would love to help. I hope you find TD soon.
Thank you for your awareness of the privileges whites have in moving throughout society. I'm reminded of the story of one of my Cornell professors, a black man, who was driving a car full of grad students back to Ithaca from a conference. The NY State troopers pulled him over for something (driving while black?) and they had him spread-eagled over the hood of the car with a gun to his head before he could even pull out his ID. He is one of the sweetest and smartest people I know.

He told the story with a wry smile, knowing it seemed incredible to those of us who grew up with the privilege of white skin but reflecting a daily reality for those who didn't.

I hate to say it but if your family were black, you might just have to give up on the dog because of the risk to yourselves in conducting the sort of search you've undertaken. You certainly wouldn't want to involve your tall pre-teen son.

Thank you for being a model for all of us in remaining conscious of our daily privileges.

I do so enjoy keeping up with your thoughts on the blog--I know I haven't kept up my end of the correspondence!

Best wishes, Kate

Chicago CC's (under stronger new leadership) are now locating specialty programs near the employers who would hire the grads: logistics and supply chain management near trucking terminals, health care specialties near the West Side Medical Center; and so on.
I agree with Kate's assessment @8:42AM regarding Edmund's misread of the situation @7:21AM. First and foremost, Dean Reed was not in his own neighborhood but rather ones in different towns and even a different state. At night. A black man can be stopped for walking or running in his own middle-class neighborhood.

Perhaps a better analogy would be if the dog had been spotted in a tough inner city neighborhood and Dean Reed went door to door in his suit after work ... at night. Not much white privilege there.
My college has some very specific (and effective and small) workforce programs tied to local business, but we are mostly an AA transfer school. Our marketing is all over the place, sometimes pushing a rebranding that nicely captures the transfer mission, other times pushing a tiny program that creates the exact opposite impression of the college as a less-than-academic place.

PS - I was conflicted by the robo-text. One word lookd likr "fome", but I know it was really some in older English print that is suggested by the old font being used. Which version to enter?
What an interesting discussion you could have with the Sociology department about this.
"Has part of the generosity of reception been a function of being white?"

As Edmund Dantes demonstrates, the answer is, obviously, "of course". There are two kinds of privilege -- the kind nobody should have, and the kind everybody should have. You're enjoying the kind everyone should have, and it shouldn't make you feel guilty or anything (since you, too, should have it), but yeah, awareness is good. Because we're white folks, but we don't have to be those kind of white folks.
Dantes isn't misinterpreting anything; he's trying to create a victim-blaming narrative, and the facts are irrelevant to that.

Conservatives gotta conservative.

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