Tuesday, August 31, 2004

Fun with Faculty Meetings

My ‘division’ (the academic departments of which I am the dean) had a meeting yesterday, so I got to stand in a lecture hall in front of 80 faculty and try to set the agenda for the coming year. These are people whose full-time job it is to stand in front of lecture halls, so a certain amount of stage fright is justified.

It went relatively well, actually, but I was surprised at what struck them as important. When a professor complained about students committing plagiarism with impunity, I offhandedly noted that he should just refer the student to the college disciplinary committee, and that would be the end of that. He (and many others) expressed surprise, and asked if I wouldn’t hold the reporting of students against the faculty.


I reassured him that I considered reporting cheating simply part of a professor’s job. Later, he sent me an email asking to have that comment in writing, so he could paste it into the faculty union newsletter.


These people are really scared. Somewhere along the line, they got the impression that they would be punished for enforcing the rules. (I gave him the blurb, btw).

The student-as-customer mentality has seeped even deeper than I had thought. A little of that is probably a good thing – to the extent that we can streamline the Byzantine registration procedures, we’ll all be happier – but to extend it to legalized cheating is just a bit much. It’s the difference between a store competing on price and a store putting out a sign saying ‘Shoplifters Welcome.’

Some of this existed at my previous school, but that was a for-profit, where ethical and scholarly imperatives competed (at a disadvantage, frequently) with stockholder returns. This is a community college; profit is off the table. Yet the pressure, apparently, is still there.

I wonder to what extent this is a sign that we’re using the wrong measures. If our sole criteria for measuring institutional success are enrollment numbers and graduation rates, faculty have every incentive to take it as easy as humanly possible on the students. (This is, more or less, the situation in American high schools.) What makes our higher education system the envy of the world (as opposed to our secondary education system, which is fairly broadly pitied) is that colleges are allowed to flunk people out. We are allowed to have standards – that’s why college degrees carry weight with employers. Not everybody can get one. To the extent that we define student attrition as institutional failure, rather than a cost of doing business, we are hollowing out our reason to exist.

Anyway, I reassured the surprisingly-frightened troops that I’d back them. We’ll see if it works…

Friday, August 27, 2004

Registration, Speed Limits, and Whining

Part of the sheer joy of being a manager during registration is manipulating the course caps (enrollment limits on any given section). By definition, this pisses absolutely everybody off, and is absolutely necessary.

Faculty want the smallest classes possible, both to increase potential attention to each student and to keep the grading load down. Students want small classes, as long as they, personally, can get in. (When they’re excluded by a low cap, they suddenly convert to fans of open enrollment.) VP’s of finance love huge classes, amortizing faculty salaries over the most tuitions possible. The fire marshall has something to say about class sizes, as does the dean of students, the marketing committee, etc.

About once a month, some highly-placed official asks me why we set a given cap at, say, 30, knowing full well that we’ll gradually inch it up to 35. Why not just start at 35 and not change it? That way, you’re not inadvertently punishing early registrants.

That’s the kind of superficially sound logic that seems compelling unless you actually know what you’re talking about.

One of the first laws of registration is that certain time slots are universally popular. (At my current institution, that’s Monday through Thursday, late morning to early afternoon.) They will fill immediately, no matter at what level you set the cap. Given limited faculty and limited rooms, you can run only so many of these. The next law of registration is that there is always some non-trivial number of students who will show up after you’ve hit the limit who absolutely, positively have to have that particular time slot, lest they fail to graduate, lose financial aid, lose their off-campus job, miss their carpool, question their faith, develop tremors, or have to get up before 9:00 a.m. These students say (sometimes sincerely) that if they can’t get that time slot, they can’t attend school at all.

Given the reality that most colleges are enrollment-driven, we really aren’t in a position to tell those students to take a hike. So we bite our lips and squeeze them in.

So initial course caps function like speed limits – you set them with the assumption that they will be broken. If you want people to drive 65, you post 55. If you want classes of 35, you set limits of 30. It’s sort of an opening bid. If I started at 35, I’d get 40.

By raising the burden of proof for the 31st student, I can drive some of those potential 31sts to take other sections – Fridays, early mornings, late afternoons, etc. – without which we’d be in deep trouble. Those who simply can’t take the other sections are invited to try their luck at a peculiar version of ‘queen for a day.’ In essence, we wind up rewarding student whining, which I’m convinced bleeds over into the classroom.

This makes absolutely nobody happy. I feel like a sellout every time I raise a cap, but I know that holding the line isn’t a realistic option. The faculty get mad because they take the initial caps literally, students get mad because they have to jump through multiple hoops or take less convenient times, the staff get crabby because this is a very labor-intensive method, and I get blamed all the way around. Yet nobody has the stomach to try the alternative, which is to tell the desperate students to come back in the future when they can get their stuff together.

This is part of the reason that administrators are so high on online courses. It isn’t that you can put more people in any given section – the amount of written feedback required really precludes that – but that you can get around the timeslot games. Since online courses are asynchronous, and don’t require classrooms, you can eliminate the timeslot shuffle. It’s hard to overstate the appeal of this to a harried dean.

I’m still not entirely comfortable with the ethics of all this – I’d much rather give the conscientious early registrant that 35th seat than some talented last-minute whiner – but until I’m allowed to tell students to take a walk, that’s the way it has to be.

Tuesday, August 24, 2004

Fun With Registration

The students are back, which is good and bad. This is the time of year – the last in-person registration before Fall semester – when the emergencies crop up. This is also the time of year when I get blamed for not being psychic: how come I didn’t know that there would be a sudden surge in demand this year for Japanese? Don’t I care about the students? They’re paying a lot of money for this! And it has to be between 10 and 2, no Fridays…

Nothing is quite so humbling to the idealistic academic as in-person registration. The sheer let’s-make-a-deal quality of the interaction is off-putting; any illusion of programmatic coherence becomes impossible to sustain when you see, up close, just how many decisions are made on the basis of what doesn’t conflict with some kid’s job at the bagel shop.

I’d estimate I get lied to about once every ten minutes at registration. I had this at another college – what do you mean you need to see a transcript? It’s not fair that I have to pass algebra before taking engineering – you’re trying to bilk me! And – my personal fave – I took that course before (so what if I failed it?)!

In the spirit of public service, here’s a hint to all the prospective students out there: don’t make a major life decision with less than a week to go. It doesn’t do wonders for your options.

The whole student-as-customer mindset comes crashing headlong into reality at registration. What do you mean I can’t take 15 credits in nine hours? Why can’t I have the most popular time slot at the last minute? Do you have anything really, really easy? I don’t want to have to read. Does that class have homework? I carpool with my friend who works part-time with different hours each week – is that a problem? I have to miss the first three weeks of class – is that a problem? I know it meets on Tuesdays and Fridays, but I have to work on Fridays – is that a problem? I took something sorta similar to that at my old school in Uzbekistan 15 years ago, and left the transcript at home – can’t you sign me in?

Ugh. Times like these, The Boy seems almost grown up.

Tuesday, August 17, 2004

Adjunct Nation

Why is it that higher education is the only industry with highly-credentialed pieceworkers?

Adjuncts at colleges and universities hold graduate degrees – usually master’s, but increasingly doctorates – and get paid peanuts. Someone teaching at my current institution could teach 8 courses a year and total $13,000, without benefits. That’s less than a part-time secretary with a high-school diploma makes. The shocking thing is how many adjuncts are around and available. From an administrative perspective, such cheap labor solves some short-term financial issues quite neatly, even if, I suspect, it slowly erodes the intellectual capital of an institution. (In saying that, I don’t mean to impugn the intelligence of adjuncts, but merely to echo Aristotle’s observation that contemplation requires leisure.)

The financial logic is compelling. Yet only higher ed seems to have latched onto it. Why not other credentialed professions?

Imagine adjunct surgeons. For about $35 an hour, they will perform surgeries on an as-needed basis. Finally, a solution to the rising cost of health insurance! Doctors who couldn’t afford health insurance seems like poetic justice.

Or adjunct cops. Whenever a crime wave breaks out, or a political convention comes to town, local bruisers would join the force at a low hourly rate to wield what Max Weber called a monopoly on the legitimate use of force. What could possibly go wrong?

Adjunct attorneys! The key issue here is pay. Lawyers are often paid by the hour now; why not drastically lower the rate? After all, there’s no shortage of lawyers! Let the market work its magic. $45/hour, tops. If you don’t like it, work at Burger King. As with professors and surgeons, the pay only covers hours actually ‘at work’ (i.e. in the classroom, in the courtroom, in surgery) – preparation is strictly on your own time and your own dime.

Adjunct airline pilots! How many kids grow up wanting to be pilots? $50/hour, covering only time spent in the air. See how long they linger on the tarmac now…

As with our adjuncts, low performers (defined however their managers choose) can be dropped without notice, new people called in at the last minute, etc. Keep a few full-time positions around, just to keep hope alive, so the adjuncts don’t go into a more secure line of work, like show business.

For some reason, academics with doctorates are willing to tolerate conditions that no other trained professionals would even dream of accepting. If academic adjuncts used the same billing logic as, say, business consultants, they would insist on reimbursement for preparation time, travel, meals, and course materials, and would quintuple their rate.

You’d think smart people like professors would have figured this out by now. Colleges pay adjuncts so little because they can. But why can they? Why are Ph.D.’s willing to allow themselves to be so badly exploited, often for years on end?

Monday, August 16, 2004

Bob Frickin' Vila

I’m an academic, a recovering nerd, a devotee of the life of the mind. Last week I could be found in the basement, frantically bailing out the French drain while waiting for the power to come back on so the basement wouldn’t take on water again. (It worked, btw. The power came back about two hours before it started to rain.)

Sometimes I wonder about science and engineering in America. For all of the tremendous advances we’ve made, I’m still in the basement, bailing water frantically, hoping that the telephone pole repair folk finish before the rain starts. Why? Because the house is made of termite food (and highly flammable, at that!), the basement features lots of wallboard that is easily destroyed by water, and we haven’t yet mastered DRAIN technology.

I question our priorities. We’ve got the best minds of a generation devising ever-more-pornographic computer games, but we’re still building our houses out of termite food and protecting them with sump pumps that haven’t changed meaningfully for decades. As near as I can tell, neither water nor gravity has changed in any significant way since before we developed the concept of ‘shelter,’ so you’d think we would have made some progress by now.

My barometer for when things get desperate is when I start to know what I’m doing. I’m not Bob frickin’ Vila, and I don’t pretend to be; I’ve dealt enough with basement-drain issues now that I can knowledgably critique sump pumps. That ain’t right.

I hereby challenge the engineers of the world: how about less time dealing with ever-faster ways to deliver pornography to desktops, and more time dealing with WATER? It covers the majority of the globe, so this isn’t quite special pleading. Samples are relatively easy to find. It falls from the freakin’ sky. Heck, check your basement.

Monday, August 09, 2004

"The Tallest Three-Year Old I've Ever Seen"

The Boy had a pediatrician appointment last week, during which the doctor pronounced him “the tallest three-year-old I’ve ever seen.” I believe him, too – The Boy is a moose. I’m not short, and neither is The Wife, but The Boy is much taller than either of us was at his age.

At one level, this is kind of cool. Certainly, he wouldn’t be growing that quickly if he weren’t basically healthy, and to the extent that his size can deter bullies, I’m all for it.

Still, I can’t help but feel a slight trepidation for the kid. Big kids are expected to be athletes, which I just wasn’t. If he gets his coordination from me, he’ll fall prey to the Jeff Goldblum syndrome.

Gender expectations die hard. If he stays as tall-for-his-age as he is now, he’ll be a conspicuously big guy by high school. With that, he won’t have the option of blending in.

I wasn’t very good at boy stuff. I was gawky, slow, introverted, and generally awkward. (I still am, but it matters a lot less now.) Between nature (my chromosomes) and nurture (my general cluelessness about guy culture), the kid could be in for a rough patch.

We’re going to sign him up for some classes at the Y, on the theory that early intervention may help. Still, and as much as I reject much of what I consider the stupid brutality of guy culture, I don’t want The Boy to go through what I went through. There’s no need to contribute another hammerhead frat boy to the world, but I know enough about adolescence to know that some protective coloration could spare a lot of pain. Let him get ironic distance on it later – first, arm him to get through it.

Kids at those ages are the shock troops of gender roles – girls who aren’t hot and boys who aren’t athletes never stop being reminded – and they aren’t shy about enforcement.

The schizophrenia of parenting hits home. Even though I reject many of the values those age groups hold, I want him to be able to hold his own on the terms I know he’ll confront. Even though I was among the least athletic kids I knew, The Boy will be counting on me to prepare him for guy culture.

Here’s hoping some double-recessive genes slipped through…