Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Fun with Acronyms

What’s the best campus (or corporate) acronym you’ve seen?

I have a couple of committees that need acronyms, and I need inspiration.  

There’s an art to a good acronym.  Ideally, it should be pronounceable without much strain.  The old PSAT had a slash and a second acronym, based on “National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test.”  “NMSQT” doesn’t really roll off the tongue. Numsquat? Not good.

Humor can be tricky.  Brookdale used to have a faculty group tasked with working on outcomes assessment that it called the Brookdale Learning Outcome Buddies, or BLOBs.  I get what they were going for, but I refuse on principle to convene the BLOBs. It sounds like the sort of thing that ends with a rampaging gelatinous alien getting zapped with electrical wires, as opposed to, say, a committee report.  It’s best not to confuse the two.

I like Assessment Task Force, or ATF, because it has a sort of strike-force sound to it.  (“Up against the wall, learning outcomes!”) My opinion is not universally shared.

At Holyoke, I was proud of the General Education Assessment Committee, because GEAC lends itself to being pronounced “geek.”  Folks there patiently indulged me, but I think I was the only one who actually found it funny. Alas.

It’s important to look out for unintended meanings.  At another college, I was once in a discussion of….let’s say a “program”... the acronym for which, when spoken, would have connoted a sex act rarely spoken of in polite company.  Explaining my objection during the meeting entailed an undeniably awkward moment, but it also avoided what could have been a really unfortunate bit of public relations, and an irresistible invitation to graffiti artists everywhere.  

Students sometimes come up with good ones.  When TB and I visited Cornell, the tour guide mentioned that the Vegan club had dialectically generated its own antithesis, a group called Men Eating Animals Together (MEAT).  I had to tip my cap to that one.

When in doubt, it’s probably better to go with words with positive emotional connotations.  It’s striking when someone goes the other way. For instance, at Brookdale we have a Director of Institutional Research and Evaluation, or DIRE.  I can’t help but think that some other combination of words or letters must have been available.

My favorite acronym was for a program, years ago, called Kindling Inclusionary Science, Math, Engineering, and Technology, or KISMET.  That’s just lovely. It’s positive, clever, endearing, and specific. It even suggests happy accidents, which is about as perfect a reference for inclusionary STEM education as there can be.  It’s somehow both humble and aspirational.

Wise and worldly readers, what moments of acronym-based greatness have you seen?

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Why Student Course Evaluations Survive

(Hat-tip to Kim Weeden for raising the question on Twitter.)

Why do colleges still have students do course evaluations?  Is it because administrators are knuckle-dragging mouth-breathers who don’t know that students’ evaluations of faculty are biased?

Probably sometimes.  But even those of us who walk upright and know about bias generally accept their existence.  Why would we do such a thing?

Mostly for lack of alternatives.  

Are peer evaluations free of bias?  Of course not -- any one-on-one observation is vulnerable to the baggage the viewer brings.  

Are administrative evaluations free of bias?  The same principle applies.

What about pre-tests and post-tests?  First, good luck getting students to take both of those seriously.  Second, we all know the biases inherent in high-stakes testing. Third, not every course lends itself to such easily quantifiable information.

Self-reports?  Puh-leeze. Here’s a sentence I have literally never seen in a self-report: “I’m not very good at my job.”  (The closest exception was also the single best self-report I’ve ever read. She structured it as a bildungsroman, complete with a metaphorical subplot about a colleague having a baby.  It was glorious. But it was very much an exception.)

Student performance in subsequent courses?  There can be some merit to that, but not every course is part of a sequence.  In some settings, too, survivor bias can be a major issue. It also assumes that instructor effects in subsequent courses are roughly equal.  Why they’d be equal in subsequent courses, but not in initial ones, is not obvious. In small programs, the follow-on course may be taught by the same professor as the initial one, raising a potential conflict of interest.

Student evaluations can offer insights that other kinds of evaluations can’t.  If I sit in on a class for a day, I may get a pretty good sense of how the instructor interacts with the students, the classroom climate, clarity of presentation, and the like.  I probably won’t get a sense of how quickly or slowly the professor returns papers, how the course unfolds over time, or whether -- and I have actually dealt with this -- the professor simply skips class every few weeks.  Students are uniquely situated to see things like that.

For me, the key isn’t so much what’s on the evaluations as how they’re read.  If they’re taken in strict numerical rank order as the sole guide to quality, then yes, that’s malpractice.  But if they’re taken as one input among many, suitable for certain kinds of information, they have value. Certain types of comments can be safely disregarded: “this isn’t the only class I take!”  “too much reading!” “hard grader!” Those are typically signs that the professor is doing her job. Comments showing gender, racial, or other bias in the students are signs that the evaluations should be ignored entirely.  But comments like “she’s great when she shows up,” if repeated by a significant number of students, raise a legitimate red flag.

At a previous college, I used to get a printout of the full-time faculty’s ratings in rank order.  I ignored the top 97% or so. When the same names kept appearing in the bottom 3%, I paid them extra attention.  In one memorable case, I asked the dean to do an extra observation of someone who brought up the rear over and over again.  She returned, shocked at what she had seen; apparently, the students were being kind. We developed an improvement plan that prompted a retirement.  His successor was a dramatic improvement, and the students responded accordingly.

I wouldn’t use student evaluations to distinguish the very good from the good; there’s far too much noise in there for that.  But when you consistently have the same couple of names scoring a standard deviation below the next-lowest, it’s reasonable to look at them a little more closely.  

Yes, course evaluations are imperfect tools.  They need to be triangulated with a host of other information.  But if we throw them out entirely, we’d lose some relevant information that we might not find out any other way.  It comes down to readers. If you have knuckle-dragging, mouth-breathing administrators, student course evaluations aren’t your real problem anyway.

Monday, December 10, 2018

Yes, but for a Different Reason

Longtime readers know that I have about thiiiiis much patience for the “undermatching” hypothesis.  That’s the idea that it’s tragic and awful when a student who could have gotten into someplace selective chooses a less selective college.  Although some of the partisans of the “undermatching” hypothesis try to couch their concerns in terms of altruism -- save those diamonds in the rough from terrible schools -- I know lifeboating when I see it.  If you take for granted that the majority of schools are, and must be, terrible, then don’t talk to me about egalitarianism.

That said, Monday’s piece in IHE about Texas’ 10 percent plan for admissions to the U of Texas actually confirms something positive that’s applicable across sectors.  Legibility matters.

On campus, that’s the cornerstone of the “guided pathways” movement.  At its best, the guided pathways movement assumes that students who have talent and drive, but may not have parents who went to college, would benefit from a more prescriptive curriculum.  Students whose resources are strained are less likely to waste them, the argument goes, if the directional arrows are clear.

Between campuses, though, it’s much harder to create those pathways.  That’s particularly true with more selective institutions, since they reserve the right to cut off students’ pathways as they see fit.  I can tell a student that if she follows the guidance in the catalog and gets decent grades, she will graduate in x semesters. But I can’t tell her with certainty that she’ll get into Snooty U.  That’s not up to me, and Snooty U doesn’t offer bright lines. A student can do stupendously well here and still not get in, based on whomever else happens to be in the pool that year and what Snooty U perceives its needs to be at the moment.  

For students with high cultural capital, that may not matter much.  The Boy is in the thick of the selective college application process now, so I’m seeing it up close.  He has the benefit of parents with graduate degrees, including a Dad who is immersed in higher ed, to help him read the tea leaves.  For instance, I’ve downplayed talk of a “dream school,” and compared the process to buying a car. You have some criteria, but within those parameters, several different models would do just fine.  Set your parameters, then compare deals.

Guaranteed admissions agreements can provide a sort of guided pathway between institutions.  That’s to the particular benefit of students who don’t have bespoke navigators of their own.

My favorite guaranteed admissions agreements come with reasonable GPA requirements.  Telling a student at a community college that she can get into Flagship State if she graduates with, say, a 3.0 or better gives her a reason to keep plugging.  A bright line guarantee like that gives her assurance that her considerable efforts will be rewarded. Saying “well, it’ll probably help, but who knows?” can sound evasive to someone who’s already justifiably wary.  But putting the rules out there in public, in writing, in clear and understandable ways, can make the hard work seem worth the effort.

That wasn’t the intent of the piece, or of guided pathways, but I stand by it.  Students who start in community colleges benefit from guaranteed admissions agreements to four-year schools, particularly when the criteria are clear, legible, and reasonable.  When the rules are clear, the folks who don’t have professional tea leaf readers by their side stand a fighting chance.

Guaranteed admissions agreements can also help reduce the stigma of starting at a club that would accept you as a member.  They’re a vote of confidence by the receiving institution in the sending institution.

So “yes” to guaranteed admission, though not because it’s a way to finesse affirmative action.  That’s a separate issue. Yes because it gives every student here a reasonable shot.

Sunday, December 09, 2018

Public-Private Colleges?

My erstwhile Massachusetts colleague Lane Glenn, president of Northern Essex Community College, posted a thought-provoking piece about public higher ed funding over the weekend.  Some of it is state-specific, such as the reference to “9C” cuts (midyear cuts to appropriated allocations). But the conclusion strikes me as applicable, and challenging, across the country.

Glenn writes:

So, rather than spend more time haggling over how to allocate diminishing resources through a formula that will never work effectively; the best way forward for our campuses and our students lies in creating a new social compact for community colleges in the Commonwealth that relies on partnering with policymakers, employers, and supportive organizations like the Boston Foundation and the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation to help us transition into our new role as public-private colleges with increased attention to fundraising, employer sponsorships, return on investment, entrepreneurial business models, and, yes, helping every student to succeed.

“Public-private colleges.”  It’s a play on “public-private partnership,” but with much broader implications.

A typical public-private partnership is based on a contract, or memorandum of agreement, between discrete parties.  A public-private college is different. It has a public charter and a nonprofit mission, but the “private” funding that is now most of its budget comes from students collectively, and, in significant part, from the Federal government in the form of financial aid.  There’s no single entity on the private side.

Public colleges weren’t built on the same fiscal model as their private counterparts.  Elite private institutions often have significant endowment funds, which they can draw down at varying speeds depending on the needs of the moment.  (Ideally, they only draw down from interest or investment gains, allowing the principal to continue to build.) They rely on alumni as donors, and make fundraising one of the central roles of administration.  They also charge whatever tuition the market will bear.

To be fair, many non-elite private colleges are struggling now with what the market will bear.  They’re discounting their tuition by half or more just to keep students flowing in, hoping to make up the difference through fundraising or sheer volume.   That’s a difficult, and possibly unsustainable, way of leaving the existing model in place when demand is soft.

Community colleges in particular were built on the model of charging far less than the cost of production, with the difference made up almost entirely through public subsidy.  Fundraising was an afterthought in this sector; many community colleges didn’t even bother establishing fundraising arms (or foundations) until a few decades after the colleges were established.  

Over time, without ever quite admitting they were doing it, the various public funders have slinked away from their roles.  Community colleges have adapted piecemeal.

Glenn’s piece suggests, I think rightly, that it’s time to rethink the basic business model.  That will certainly mean ramping up the fundraising, even as some people raise a stink about “administrative bloat” in hiring development staff.  It will certainly involve more traditional public-private partnerships. It may go beyond that. If we accept as inevitable that public support will be far less than the cost of production for the foreseeable future, then we need to take a hard look at tuition levels.  (Alternately, if we want free community college, then we need to lock in dramatic and sustained increases in operating aid.) And we should make that tradeoff explicit and public, so the public understands what’s at stake.

Kudos to President Glenn for connecting the dots, and for giving us a framework within which to understand what we’re up against.  Now comes the tricky part...

Wednesday, December 05, 2018

Peak PBF?

Apparently, Massachusetts has dropped performance-based funding for community colleges.  I’m hopeful that this will be the start of a trend.

Performance-based funding sounds good intuitively.  If you don’t think about it very hard, it sounds like it would reward good performance and punish bad.  But it’s a terrible fit for community colleges.

At a really basic level, community colleges were never built to compete with each other.  They were built to serve local geographic areas. If a community college outside of Oakland scores well, will students from Los Angeles take notice and move there?  If not, why pit them against each other?

To the extent that it reflects the demographics of the students who attend a given college, it will tend to reward the affluent and punish the poor.  Over time, it pushes some colleges into death spirals. Given that most areas are served only by one or two community colleges, institutional death spirals don’t benefit anybody.  It’s not like a local restaurant drawing customers from another local restaurant, driving the latter out of business. It’s more like the one restaurant in town going out of business.  

In a more perfect world, public colleges and universities would cooperate with each other.  But when funding is competitive, cooperation becomes a harder sell. That’s already somewhat true with students; making it true of operating subsidies as well makes matters worse.

I’ve never seen the logic of PBF applied to police or fire departments.  “Crime went up in East Wherever. Clearly, the EWPD is doing a bad job. Let’s cut its funding until crime drops again!”  “Arson outbreak in East Wherever? Cut funding to EWFD until it stops.” The stupidity is obvious enough there. But somehow, people who would see the flaws in those will argue, straight-faced, that a community college serving lots of low-income students would do a better job if only it had a lot less money.

Even the argument from ‘incentive’ misses the point.  A few weeks ago, I attended a “visioning” conference hosted by the New Jersey Council of County Colleges.  The point was to look at trends ten years out. One speaker from the MDRC gave a talk extolling the success of the ASAP program at CUNY.  In q-and-a, I mentioned that while ASAP is impressive, it’s also expensive; we simply don’t have the resources to try something like that at scale.  I asked if the research had found inexpensive ways to improve results significantly at scale. He couldn’t name any.

Aside from cloaking punitive austerity in the Calvinist moralism of the marketplace, advocates of PBF tend to take a cartoonishly dark view of the people who manage colleges.  They don’t take seriously the idea that most of us are motivated, in significant ways, by the mission. That’s why we willingly take far lower salaries than our counterparts in the four-year world.  Hell, adjunct faculty work for vanishingly small compensation, in part because teaching means something to them. Cutting their pay even more wouldn’t be an incentive to higher performance; it would be a kick in the teeth.  

For that matter, I rarely see the logic of PBF applied to, say, tax cuts.  Logic suggests that if it works in one direction, it would work in the other.  But that would involve separating the idea from the ideology that spawned it, without which it wouldn’t survive.

Kudos to Massachusetts for letting a bad idea die.  Here’s hoping states flirting with the idea take notice, and states caught up in it start to ask some questions.  We don’t need performance-based funding; we need funding in order to perform.

Tuesday, December 04, 2018

Well, Yeah...

I was surprised to see the headline “Why Teaching Engineering Costs More than Teaching English,” but not because the content was surprising.  I was surprised that it was news.

The recent piece summarizes a report from the National Bureau of Economic Research.  It makes the point that classes in some fields are more expensive to run than others, with the more STEM or vocational classes generally running more expensive (with the notable exception of math).  

Faithful readers may remember this paragraph from a post this summer entitled “Things That Seem Obvious:”

“Hard” vocational programs are more expensive to run than “soft” academic ones.  The least expensive classes to run are the ones that can run well with thirty students per section, and without any specialized equipment.  That tends to describe the Intro to Psychs of the world. Hands-on classes in vocational areas require more equipment, more people to tend the equipment, and more instructors per student.  In practice, we engage in cross-subsidy, with the profits generated by, say, History offsetting some of the losses generated by, say, Nursing. This matters because many outsiders assume that if we could just drop the “ivory tower” stuff and focus entirely on job readiness, the budget would balance.  In fact, we’d go bankrupt. If you want to remake community colleges as entirely vocational, be prepared to pony up more money. A lot more.

That was in response to a question on Twitter about things that are obvious to people in a field, but not obvious to those outside it.  

Context matters.  The NBER paper refers to different salary levels by field, which really doesn’t apply here.  I’m in a collective bargaining setting in which the computer science faculty and the philosophy faculty get the same starting salaries.  (They vary with seniority and rank, but those are also independent of discipline.) So it isn’t a matter of engineers coming in at six figures while humanists come in at half that.  That’s not it. It’s subtler than that.

In addition to the factors I listed last summer -- class size, equipment, staff to maintain the equipment -- I’d add relative availability of adjuncts.  Generally, it’s easier to find adjuncts in history or sociology than in computer science or engineering, particularly during the day. That matters when we have to allocate new full-time positions.  The enrollment crunch has made new hires scarce; we need to deploy them where they make the most difference. All else being equal, that means allocating them to the fields in which substitutes are hardest to find.

Over time, that leads to higher labor costs in the specialized fields relative to the gen eds, even when starting salaries are the same.  A department in which 75% of sections are taught by full-time faculty will cost more than one in which only 40% are. Compound that with smaller classes in hands-on areas, and the cost gap gets even worse.

This may all seem wonky, but it has implications externally.  Angry calls for colleges to tie themselves more closely to the job market are often based on the false premise that doing so would lower costs.  In fact, it would increase them significantly. Sages on stages are cost-effective; guides on sides in well-equipped labs cost a lot more. There’s a valid argument to be had about how much we should increase higher ed funding, and to what end.  But to have that debate, we have to know some basics.

Lectures are cheap; labs are expensive.  I don’t consider that news, exactly, but if putting it in headlines helps people connect the dots, I’m all for it.  Now, about that funding...

Monday, December 03, 2018


On Monday, Laura Runge posed a series of questions to me on Twitter that deserve a longer response than a tweet or two.  First she asked “who do you see as your primary/secondary audience for writing on admin? When (why?) do you feel moved to write on admin?”  She followed with “As a scholar, my purpose in publishing is to enhance knowledge of my field, promote my career, and raise visibility and stature of my home university.  I wonder if writing on admin might work at cross-purposes for the latter two?”

Or, put differently, why don’t my administrative colleagues elsewhere do something similar?  After all these years, where is everybody?

Honestly, my first audience for writing has always been myself.  Part of that is because it took a long time to develop a substantial readership, but mostly it’s because I use the process of writing as a way to work out what I’m thinking.  The old model of “figure out what you want to say and say it” only applies to easy cases; frequently, I figure out what I want to say as I’m saying it. On my better days, I go back and edit to bring some “I meant to do that” coherence to it, but really, part of the point of writing is to see where ideas go.  Sometimes they go where I thought they would, but sometimes they wander off. When an idea leads somewhere I didn’t expect, I’ve learned something.

Beyond my own clarification, though, I started with an audience of academics very much in mind.  In the early years, it was largely about outlining the various dilemmas of management in public higher ed.  I had seen some of the academic blogosphere before I started, and I remember being annoyed at certain widely held articles of faith that struck me as simply false.  Many of the early writers were adjuncts who were frustrated at not getting full-time offers. Their legitimate frustration often led to speculations about administrative behavior that didn’t describe anything I had seen or done.  Characterizations of deans as Snidely Whiplash-style cartoon villains didn’t strike me as advancing understanding of how colleges work. At worst, they could become self-fulfilling prophecies, scaring away good people and leaving only the most venal to step up.  The cliches about “crossing over to the dark side” speak to a cultural taboo that does more damage than many of us want to admit. They also cut off inquiry before it gets to the real structural, political, cultural, and economic causes behind austerity.

When I started, my kids were very young.  My wife and I both believe that both parents should be involved in substantial ways -- for “substantial” read “time-consuming” -- so I found myself trying to balance a more-than-full-time job with conscientious parenthood.  I noticed that most of the writing on “work/life balance” was by women, for women. There were obvious historical reasons for that, but I believed -- and still believe -- that the struggles around work/life balance won’t get easier unless and until men own them, too.  That’s where the pseudonym “Dean Dad” came from. It was a variation on “Professor Mom,” which everybody seemed to understand. It combined the two roles in which I spent most of my waking hours. My kids are in high school now, so the issues are different, but family life continues to be a topic because work/life balance continues to be a challenge.  

The career effects of writing like this could be described as mixed.  On the positive side, it has allowed me to participate in conversations I otherwise couldn’t.  I’ve met some amazing people. It has helped me understand issues more deeply, and therefore to be better at my job.  On occasion, one of my virtual messages in bottles lands on an unexpected shore and makes a difference there. For example, I was honored when Marion Technical College adopted and adapted my idea for a sophomore-year scholarship to encourage degree completion.  I’ve also had the chance to speak at various conferences around the country, which absolutely would not have happened without the blog. I always enjoy those.

On the negative side, though, some people prefer to hire folks who don’t have paper trails.  I’ll just leave that there. I take pride in writerly ethics -- you won’t see anything in my writing along the lines of “you won’t believe how drunk Ottmar was yesterday” -- and try never to do harm.  But there are people in the world who manage simultaneously to talk up “transparency” while getting nervous that someone who writes has left a record to critique. Ironically enough, in the course of addressing work/life balance, I seem to have simultaneously installed my own glass ceiling.  Yes, that can be frustrating. That may explain why the niche remains pretty unpopulated.

Still, the point of the enterprise wasn’t really careerism.  (If it were, I wouldn’t have used a pseudonym for all those years!)  It was to help people understand a reality that they frequently get wrong, in the cockeyed hopes of helping to make it better.  It’s a lot of work, and I don’t know if it has helped or not. But the educator in me has to believe that putting truth out there in digestible form, for extended periods, has to do some good, somewhere.  That’s what classroom teachers do. This is my version of teaching, even if I’m figuring it out as I go along.

Sunday, December 02, 2018

Writing Papers on Phones

Is a smartphone a necessity for college students today?

On Twitter over the weekend, arguing against Sara Goldrick-Rab, somebody posted that “Maybe today’s college students should NOT be buying $1200 phones.  That would be a start.” The predictable kerfuffle ensued.

It’s a variation on “I walked to school uphill.  Both ways.” It’s a “kids today…” argument deployed to slough off any sense of responsibility for the challenges that today’s students face.

The students at my college, an open-admissions commuter school, have certain things that I didn’t have.  Cars, for one. Smartphones, for another. I didn’t need a car, since I lived on campus, attended full-time, and had a work-study job that was an easy walk from the dorm.  And smartphones hadn’t been invented yet. I wrote papers in the campus computer center. That was usually okay, except at the end of the semester when everyone else did, too.  

Here, now, many students have cars, and from what I see, nearly all have smartphones.  (For the record, they don’t come anywhere close to $1200. The ones I see are usually a couple of years old, and often with cracked screens that look like spiderwebs.)  Does that make today’s students a bunch of entitled loafers?

No.  Not even close.

The expectations they’re held to are much more demanding than the ones I was.  At a basic level, the complete lack of dorms means that students need either to live very close to one of the few bus routes, or to have access to a car.  My ability to go without a car wasn’t premised on my hardiness; it was premised on a dorm. A cheap used car costs a lot less than even a single year in a dorm room.  And even if they live near a bus line, the part-time job(s) they hold effectively require cars. That’s before considering other family responsibilities many of them have, that I didn’t.

Smartphones have, in fact, become necessities.  We have some computer labs in which students can write papers, if they choose, and they’re popular at crunch times.  But most students work significant hours for pay, and don’t have the option of devoting extended blocs of time to a computer lab. (If they all did, we wouldn’t have the capacity to handle it.) They need to be able to compose on the fly.  In some cases, they also need to be able to do internet research on the fly, which was unthinkable in my student days. (Back then, how portable a phone was depended on how long its cord was.) You can’t access the LMS from a pad of paper; you need something with internet access.  When assignments are posted online, and required to be submitted online, it’s churlish at best to regard internet access as extravagant. And of course, emergency alerts go out by text message.

I’ve seen students use smartphones to take pictures of PowerPoint slides in class, an option that would have helped me tremendously.  Some professors actually use them as high-tech clickers to take polls in class -- if I were teaching poli sci again, I’d be all over that.  Some course readings are only available online. In fact, some professors -- and I hope to see more -- have gone entirely to Open Educational Resources; the money saved from one or two free online textbooks would more than offset a low-cost phone.  

I have old enough eyes that I wince at the idea that many students write papers on their phones, but they do.  I’d much rather see us develop some sort of chromebook or laptop rental program, so students would have access to a full-size keyboard and the ability to jump between screens.  I didn’t have that option as an undergrad, but I didn’t need it; students today do.

The first computer I owned cost about $1200 in 1990 money, equating to about $2300 now.  And that’s without the cost of the printer, which tractor-fed paper in glorious dot-matrix.  Combine a $200 phone and a $200 chromebook, and you’re coming in much cheaper than I did. This is not extravagance.  It’s adaptation to a new environment.

If we want students to focus more on their studies -- which I absolutely do -- shaming them for having smartphones isn’t the way to go.  Instead, reducing the non-academic demands on them is likelier to work. That means making political decisions about entry-level wages, tuition levels, operating support for colleges, and mass transit, among other things.  Locally, it means adopting OER at scale and taking food insecurity seriously. Over time, it means recovering the understanding that middle classes don’t occur in nature, and that they’re created through deliberate public policy choices.  That would help.

If the sight of a student typing a paper on his phone upsets you, get him a laptop.  If you can’t manage that, at least stop bashing him for doing what he can in a setting that’s much tougher than it used to be.  I remember, because I was there.

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Friday Fragments

I spent Wednesday and Thursday of this week at the Middle States conference in DC.  In the course of two days, I had several “you are THIS old” moments.

  • Needing to use the flashlight on my phone to read a menu
  • Being greeted by the daughter of someone I used to work with
  • Sharing memories of Gary Hart’s presidential campaigns

It sneaks up on you.  


The conference itself was more useful than I remember previous years’ being.  It’s the only major higher ed conference I attend regularly that isn’t devoted specifically to community colleges, so there aren’t as many familiar faces at this one.  And some issues sound different across sectors. (“That’s worth spending some endowment money.” “&*(%$&#^”)

Still, as with the dog that didn’t bark, I was struck by some of the things I didn’t hear.  For all of the talk of student success, for instance, I didn’t hear a single mention from the stage of achievement gaps.  Admittedly, I only attended one panel at a time, but still. There was plenty of talk of graduation rates, but none at all of achievement gaps or student basic needs.  That wouldn’t have been true at a gathering of community college folk.

I’m convinced that panels at conferences like these should either include examples of failure, or at the very least, include a designated critic.  That’s not nearly as radical as it may sound. At APSA conferences, for instance, it was common practice to include a “discussant” on each panel. That person’s job was to get the discussion going, often by bringing up a polite but relevant challenge.  Practitioner conferences generally don’t do that, but they should; the discussions could become both more nuanced and more useful. There’s an art to doing the discussant role well, but it can add needed context to the discussion. Without one, you’re just left to hope that people in the audience will ask the right questions.  Someone whose job it is to enable a deeper dive could add real value.


No matter how much pressure is applied, I will not admit how much time it took me to master the MetroCard machine at Union Station.  I’ll just say that it was enough that I don’t want to admit it, and that I owe some flustered commuters behind me an apology. In my defense, you’d think “buy new card” would be an option.  I’m just sayin’.


Friday will be the celebration of life for Rich Sorrell.  It’s one of the best reasons I’ve ever seen to cut a conference short...

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

TB's Law

On the train to DC for the Middle States conference, I caught up on a few podcasts.  (My inner ear can’t tell the difference between a car and a train, so reading was out of the question.)  One of them, Planet Money, discussed a few “laws” of corporate behavior that started out as joking asides, but which came to be recognized over time as accidental truths.  Parkinson’s law, for instance, states that work expands to fill available time. That was apparently a wry aside in a paper, meant as a throwaway line, but it turned out to be largely true.  The Peter Principle -- everybody rises to their level of incompetence -- was much the same.

Both were born in sarcasm.  Sarcasm allowed the floating of forbidden truths that could be tested and accepted only after they were put forward in a non-threatening way.  

Most of us have had the experience a few times of hearing a sarcastic or wry throwaway line and being stopped cold by the abrupt recognition of truth.  Most of us have also had the experience of hearing misanthropy excused as “just telling it like it is,” and coming away feeling vaguely soiled.

It got me thinking about the boundary between the two.

As a general rule, I’ve found that people who like to preface statements with “I know this isn’t politically correct but…” are usually about to say something ignorant.  It’s not a perfect indicator, but it’s much better than random. (Sometimes it’s worse than that. Experience has taught me that the appropriate response to “I’m not racist but…” is “Please stop talking now.”)  Courtesy can feel restrictive to people who don’t consider others worthy of it; if that’s your starting point, then entitled rudeness can feel liberatory. I won’t name any public figures here, but several leap to mind.

But sometimes a sarcastic aside can be helpfully clarifying.  

A few years ago, The Boy was on a terrible Little League team with a coach who didn’t let him play much.  After the nth consecutive loss, in which TB barely got to play at all, he seemed unusually deflated on the ride home.  I asked him what was wrong. He responded that “it’s hard to just sit there and watch other people suck.”

I’ll call that TB’s Law.  It was actually my primary motivation for going into administration all those years ago.  I looked around at who was already there, and at who might join them if I didn’t, and I just couldn’t abide the thought of watching them suck.  TB’s Law explains a lot. This year’s bumper crop of new Congressional candidates was largely motivated by TB’s Law. TB’s Law can even override imposter syndrome; when I started spending time around community college presidents, I started thinking things like “hell, if they can do it…”  That’s TB’s Law at work.

Portability is probably part of the key to a good accidental sarcastic law.  If the content is too situationally specific, it won’t resonate. It has to touch on some larger truth, and ideally, it should be pithy.  Dorothy Parker was a master of those, as was Oscar Wilde. Twitter is the natural medium for sarcastic asides; both Parker and Wilde would have owned the medium.  

Wise and worldly readers, what accidental nuggets of truth have you heard muttered in sarcasm lately?

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Pro-Tip for Colleagues

This one is specifically for my counterparts at semester-based colleges everywhere.  It’s based on hard-won experiential knowledge, and I share it in the spirit of prevention.

Be gentle with faculty between Thanksgiving and Christmas.  It’s a brutal time of year.

They’re in “grading jail,” a dispiritingly accurate term for the deluge of grading and grade-related emergencies that comes at the end of the semester.  Worse, in the fall, grading jail coincides with the runup to the holidays. Stress plus stress equals, well, more stress.

This is the time of year when even the most patient folks can get a little harried.  Students are stressed and pushing for ninth-inning rallies; faculty have more grading than at any other time of year; and the holidays are, well, the holidays.  

A little kindness can go a long way, especially now.  

Monday, November 26, 2018

Syllabi and Depositions

Yes, a syllabus is a contract.  John Warner posted a thoughtful piece yesterday in which he tried to escape the language of contract, preferring to think of his syllabus as “some mix of plan, promise, and manifesto.”  He pointed out that students don’t really get to negotiate syllabi, and that some classes are required, so the language of voluntary agreement seems strained. Worse, legalisms can get in the way of recognizing the particularity of students.

To which the admin in me says, that’s all well and good, but it’s also a contract.

If you’ve ever had to give a deposition, you’ll know what I mean.  

If a professor’s grading practices or classroom practices are challenged by outside agencies -- whether private attorneys or state divisions of civil rights enforcement -- what matters is whether the professor stuck to the policies denoted in the syllabus.  Significant deviations from the syllabus, especially bespoke ones for particular students, raise signal flares for “arbitrariness.” At that point, the burden of proof shifts to the professor to show that a given decision or practice wasn’t discriminatory. Proving a negative is a tough job.

In reading Warner’s piece -- which I consider well-intended, humane, and done with the obvious and unobjectionable goal of doing right by students -- I was struck that he assumed that any dispute would be contained within the classroom.  That’s possible, but far from certain. Colleges have appeal procedures for students, and once an aggrieved student has exhausted the internal processes, she can go external.

When that happens, the rules change dramatically.

When the venue in which the dispute takes place moves from the classroom to some external setting, nuance gets lost.  Suddenly what matters isn’t what you “know,” but what you can prove to someone who wasn’t there at the time, and who may never have been in your position.  

As with writing, audience awareness matters.  A tweak that may seem obvious or unobjectionable to an experienced teacher may strike a civilian as high-handed or devastating.  Let’s say that you notice that students struggle with exams, but do pretty well on group projects, so you “call an audible” and substitute a group project for an exam mid-semester.  A student who did well on an exam but who struggles with group work cries foul, and cites the syllabus. If that dispute makes its way to me, in the absence of something compelling, I’d have to side with the student.  That’s because a syllabus is a contract, and you’ve breached it.

In my experience, campus administrators have generally (and properly) given broad deference to faculty in matters like these.  But that’s because we have some understanding of how classes actually work. Move the venue outside the academy, and you’re suddenly being judged by people who have never taught a class in their lives.  Some of them may even harbor longstanding grudges against past professors or teachers who treated them dismissively. The farther you get from the syllabus, the more you leave yourself open to that.

As we careen towards the end of the semester, I’ll reissue my periodic warning to well-meaning faculty everywhere: extra credit is a minefield.  If you must do it -- a major “if” -- then you need to offer it to everybody, and in writing. Offer it to some and not others, and you’re laying yourself wide open to claims of bias.  Offer it verbally but not in writing, and you’re defenseless against disputes about what you said. If you must do it, put it in writing and offer it to everyone. Better yet, don’t do it at all.  Let the grade reflect how the students performed in the class.

In grade disputes and similar sorts of hearings, I’ve never had a problem defending a professor’s policy that she included in the syllabus and followed in practice.  If she gives three exams, one paper, and a class participation grade, then that’s what she gives. That’s not open to dispute. But if she goes rogue and starts improvising, it’s much harder to defend her, even if she meant well.  

It’s dreary to focus on legalisms, I’ll admit, but we can’t just wish them away.  I think of a syllabus as a combination of offense and defense. Offense is the inspirational part; defense is the “what if I get sued?” part.  You need both. Yes, it’s frustrating that people who have no idea how classes work can sit in judgment, but they can. Playing a little defense upfront can prevent much greater harm later.  By all means, make a plan, a promise, and a manifesto. But give a moment’s thought to that awkward moment when a lawyer with an agenda asks pointed questions about battlefield decisions you made with the best of intentions.  Those moments are even less fun than writing syllabi.

Sunday, November 25, 2018

Rich Sorrell

My Dad taught at SUNY Brockport, a small public liberal arts college in Western New York. As a kid, I saw some of the faculty from time to time, whether sneaking downstairs at parties my parents hosted or accompanying Dad to work (or to Wegmans).  I was much too young to have any idea of what they were like as scholars or teachers, but I got a pretty decent view of how some of them were as people.

My favorites were always the ones with sly smiles and wry humor.  They were the ones who made you feel smarter just by being around them.  They didn’t try to impress, because they didn’t have to; they knew what they knew, and they mostly enjoyed watching people and cracking gentle, left-handed jokes.  You could learn a lot about someone by the way they treated a child.

Rich Sorrell, a longtime history professor at Brookdale, was in that mold.  I liked him from the first time I met him, because he had that same blend of ironic and courtly that I recognized from childhood.  He died this weekend, teaching right up until his final week.

Rich had a story for absolutely every occasion.  American history was his field, but he construed the topic broadly.  He would throw out lines about Woodrow Wilson in the same conversation as references to the Doors and people who worked at Brookdale twenty years ago.  But every reference was with a smile, and usually as part of a story designed to make a current situation seem less scary.

A couple of years ago, right before final exams, a group of lost-looking students stopped me in the hallway to ask where his office was.  I led them there, knocked, and said something like “some of your charges are looking for you.” Rich immediately smiled, extended his arms, welcomed them in, and started doing that courtly thing he did so well.  I could see the students exhale with relief. I left feeling like that was the best thing I would accomplish that day, which, in fact, it probably was.

Rich helped with the Foundation for years, too.  He had hit the top faculty rank decades earlier, but he kept showing up out of a sense that it was the right thing to do.  To use an archaic term, he was a gentleman.

He was a veteran of Western New York too; we WNY expats tend to find each other.  Every so often we’d laugh at what New Jerseyans call “winter,” which just isn’t the same.  If it isn’t snowing sideways, it isn’t worth getting worried about.

His wife, Sally, worked at Brookdale for years, retiring only a few years ago.  Each year I’d worry that he’d follow her, and each year I’d be relieved that he didn’t.  

He had the gift of perspective that the best historians have.  We didn’t always agree, but when we didn’t, he had a wonderful way of placing the issue of the day in some broader context to allow us both to laugh at it.  A gentle laugh is a fine thing.

His family, students, and colleagues will miss him terribly.  He was a warm and gentle scholar who cared about his students right up to the end.  If he were to have the last word, he’d embed it in a funny story, and then laugh that warm laugh that told you it would be okay.  

It will, eventually.  Until then, I’ll just imagine him telling a story, the corners of his eyes crinkling with anticipation as he approaches the punchline.