Wednesday, February 04, 2015

Speaking “Innovation” with a Local Accent

I’ve been fascinated by accents since I was a kid.  My Dad was from Tennessee originally, and even after decades away from the South, you could still hear it.  I’d watch movies and get obsessed with a character’s accent.  It struck me as amazing that most people in a given region would agree, informally, to speak differently than people using the same language elsewhere.  To this day, an actor getting an accent wrong will damage a movie for me.  (See, for example, Carrie Fisher’s on-again, off-again Oxbridge accent in Star Wars, Dick Van Dyke’s on-and-off cockney accent in Mary Poppins, or whatever the hell Robert DeNiro was trying to do in Cape Fear.)  I’m told that my own sound is more or less midwestern -- taking after Mom -- except when I have a cold.  Then, you can hear Rochester.  

(For the uninitiated, if you want to hear Rochester, go on YouTube and look up anything by Jenna Marbles.  It really takes me back.)

I was reminded of accents by this piece in IHE, and by a recent on-campus discussion of “15 to finish.”  

“15 to finish” is a bundle of recommendations by Complete College America which are intended to accelerate completion and graduation by nudging students to look at fifteen credits, rather than twelve, as the ‘default’ setting for full-time study.  It’s based on the simple arithmetical fact that a student who takes twelve credits per semester for four semesters doesn’t reach sixty.  Sixty credits in four semesters requires averaging at least fifteen each.  Therefore, if we want to increase “on time” graduation rates, we should encourage students who can, to take at least fifteen credits per term.  

CCA has an entire list of recommendations that it insists should be implemented together, and as a whole.  From a community college perspective, it’s hard not to notice that most of the institutions they cite as positive examples are four-year colleges and universities, and largely selective ones.  Context matters.  

It’s possible to import the raw materials for ideas, but that they have to be adapted to the local context.  You have to speak innovation with a local accent.

In our setting, for example, there’s nothing preventing us from publicizing 15 credits as a default and setting up plans of study (“guided pathways”) based on that.  Of course, we have to build pathways that acknowledge the reality of developmental coursework, which complicates things somewhat, but the concept still holds.  We can even make a point of integrating our credit for prior learning protocols into the pathways, which CCA treats largely as a separate issue.  

But rigid cohort scheduling is a much tougher nut to crack with such a resolutely heterogeneous student body.  Outside of the selective programs, cohorts fly apart quickly.  With different transfer credits, work obligations, family demands, financial conditions, and the like, students rightly and repeatedly resist cookie-cutter schedules.

People on campus know that well; we see it every single day.  And we know that programs like ASAP, at CUNY, require a level of per-student funding far greater than anything we have, or are likely to have.

Under those conditions, barring a visit from the money fairy, the best option is to adapt the parts that make sense here, and to build on success as we go.  It may not provide the clean sample that policy mavens prefer, but community college populations are messy.  A perfectly constructed cohort doesn’t mean much if you can’t join it.

And perception matters.  The people who will actually carry out the program can kill it through foot-dragging if they don’t believe in it.  And if the assumptions underlying the program fly in the face of what they know to be true in their world, they won’t buy it.  But starting with the parts that make sense in our context, and then building on successes, acknowledges both the agency of our faculty and staff and the lived realities of our students.  It’s speaking innovation with a local accent.

Accents don’t have to be perfect.  After seven years in New England, I still don’t use the word “wicked” like a native.  For that matter, Dad never pronounced “how now brown cow” like a New Yorker.  Some of that is fine.  But if CCA really wants to catch on in community colleges, it needs to accept the reality of local adaptations.  Otherwise they’ll keep emphasizing the wrong syllables, and they won’t be understood.