Monday, November 29, 2004

Observation Etiquette: The Chuckles the Clown Episode

Observing a class is always at least slightly awkward. As the observer, I’m acutely aware of walking into an already-formed group and, at some level, trespassing. Some professors introduce me to the class, others pretend I’m not there; either way is fine with me. I never speak, beyond a ‘hello’ if introduced.

This semester I had a situation I’d never seen before. In three-plus years of observing classes, I’ve never before had to struggle to keep a straight face. This time, I had to, and it was close. The students were a small, tightly-knit group, obviously intelligent and clearly irreverent. The professor could fairly be described as humorless.

The class reminded me, in some ways, of Mystery Science Theater 3000 or Beavis and Butthead; it consisted of a running commentary, often quite funny, by the audience/students, on the lecture/movie/video. The standard puerile elements of student humor were there – bathroom references, crude sexuality, etc. – but it was laced with a knowing self-consciousness I don’t usually see. (One student, after a particularly silly remark: “I love taking arguments to ridiculous extremes.”) Highlights included the ethics of testing new medicines on prisoners, rather than animals (“what if the guy on death row has a boyfriend?”); wordplay (Prof: “Your argument buttresses his.” Student: “Huh-huh. Buttress. Huh-huh.”); and an entirely gratuitous reference to gay penguins (“gay penguins can be used to illustrate anything!”).

The professor didn’t react to any of it, which is either to his credit or a sign of being utterly humorless. I struggled throughout the class to keep an appropriately straight face, resorting several times to covering my face while I bit my lip.

Strikingly, the students who joked the most (and the most effectively) were also the ones most in command of the material. If anything, I got the impression they kept the patter going so they wouldn’t get bored.

Thinking that much of the interaction might have been affected by my presence, I asked the prof. after class if the students were always like that. He said they were.

This was a new one. I’ve seen great classes, so-so classes, and some not-very-good classes. I’ve seen new profs with stage fright, PowerPoint that didn’t, and student comments from the sublime to the ridiculous. But this was new.

It’s hard to be a fly on the wall when your face is bright red from stifling laughter.

Wednesday, November 24, 2004

My First Hire

This morning, while working out at the campus gym, an English professor in her 50’s confided that her nickname for me is “my son, the dean.” She is still one of the younger members of her department, and she started in the 1970’s.

A quick scan of the list of faculty in my division (over 80 full-time) revealed that exactly one fits the profile of a married white guy under 50. One wonders what a diversity officer would make of that. (The conservatives who constantly gripe about ‘liberal bias’ among college faculty somehow miss this point. I don’t know why.)

A study published by the American Association of Community Colleges looking at administrative pipelines at community colleges made an interesting point: in 1986, the average age of a Chief Academic Officer (one step below a President: usually titled either Vice President for Academic Affairs or Dean of Academic Affairs) was 49. In 2000, it was 54.

The AACC has issued a series of studies bemoaning the coming leadership crunch for community colleges, pointing to the diminished pipeline that typically leads to Presidencies. Yet there has been almost no systematic effort to connect the dots between the thin administrative pipeline and the lack of full-time faculty hiring.

Today was a banner day for me; I made my first hire. This after 15 months on the job, and as I’m about to lose numbers four and five. The new hire is, himself, over 40.

What’s especially striking about the top-heaviness of academia is that it stands in such stark contrast to, oh, I don’t know, EVERY OTHER INDUSTRY IN AMERICA. In the private sector, people can rise (and fall) quickly, based on a combination of skill, politics, economic waves, and dumb luck. While it’s a brutal world in many ways, it does, at least, produce some opportunity for new people with new approaches to break in. Academia stopped trying to do that sometime in the late 1970’s, and still hasn’t even attempted to come to grips with the implications of that.

Alas. On to turkey day.

Monday, November 22, 2004

Thank You Emails, or, How to Get Into Heaven Sooner

This morning I received an email from a former student who had taken classes with me back in 1997-98. It was gracious and kind, thanking me for making a real difference in his life. He has found a way to make a career out of what I had taught him.

As an educator, that absolutely made my day. I’m sure it didn’t take more than a few minutes to write, but I’ll be dining out on that one for weeks.

There’s a proverb attributed to Henry Adams, to the effect that a teacher never knows where his influence ends. It’s true, but it’s easy to lose sight of that in the quotidian flow of events.

Ironically enough, given the direction many of my posts have taken, this student’s first course with me was when I was an adjunct. I got hired full-time after that, and he took a second course with me when I was on staff. My adjunct semester was very much an audition period, so I gave it everything I had. Somehow, I think that’s different from ‘perpetual adjunct’ status, which so many academics find themselves consigned to now.

I remember hearing a theory that student course evaluations should be given about three years after the conclusion of the course – see what held up over time, rather than how entertaining the course was. There’s something to that, even if it would be institutionally more-or-less impossible.

Last year I did something similar, sending a thank-you email to my 9th grade English teacher. She was incredibly demanding – I used to refer to her as the ‘Grammar Nazi’ – but I never learned more in a class than I did in hers. Remarkably, twenty years later, she was still at the same school, with the same name. 9th grade English pretty much exemplifies “Thankless Job,” so I thought she deserved thanks. It didn’t take long to do, but I felt like I had made a small payment on a life debt, and her response was sweet and touching.

Teachers’ pay is famously underwhelming, but once in a while, the benefits can be really something.

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Conference Revelations

Conference travel, at this stage of my career, feels very much like a field trip did in elementary school. We’re all let out of our cages, roaming free on the bushveld, with no idea what we’ll find.

Last week I went to a mini-conference on the grant that I’m administering. It was useful in several ways, some intended, some not. Getting a night in a hotel, away from The Boy and The Girl, was a nice break; there’s still something wonderfully decadent about hotel stays. What was useful about the conference itself was discovering that many of the issues that plague my campus are, in fact, common. I was a little annoyed at the way that some people used “college” to mean four-year institution – the majority of college students in America attend two-year schools – but these things happen.

One of the things that struck me was that I was clearly the youngest manager in the room. Most looked like they were in their 50’s. There were a few people younger than me, but they were either postdocs working for managers, or office staff. The pipeline is looking thin.

A generational gap quickly emerged in the discussions, though it wasn’t really addressed as such. The 50-somethings take ‘diversity’ to mean ‘race,’ which, in turn, means ‘African-Americans.’ The office staff, the postdoc, and I took ‘diversity’ to mean sexual orientation, religion, and international students, with race and gender as secondary categories. I raised the point once, to no apparent resonance, but when a 50-something raised the same point later in the context of what an undergraduate had told him, it seemed to strike a chord. (A prophet in his own country…)

The disconnect between the generation in charge of higher education and the students in it is getting worse, only because the generation in charge isn’t reproducing itself. To a kid raised on “South Park,” what would diversity education actually mean?

I’d love to see a shift to honest questions, as opposed to pre-approved sermons. How (if at all) should we tolerate the intolerant? What does tolerance mean when it isn’t reciprocated? As student religious groups become more fundamentalist, evangelical, and/or self-confident, this is becoming a real issue. (That they draw aid and comfort from the Republican Party doesn’t help matters any.) It’s a stickier issue than just saying all races are equal, but honestly, aren’t sticky issues the ones where progress happens? I’m tired of students claiming that someone else’s free speech rights end at their own threshold of taking offense; I’ve scanned the Constitution, and I don’t see anything in it about a right to never be offended.

If we don’t get out in front of these questions, instead of repeating comfortable lessons of the 1960’s, I’m afraid we’ll just lose the attention of the young altogether. They’re already fleeing the liberal arts in droves, in favor of fields they consider more marketable. Our market niche is the pursuit of truth. Once we’ve found Truth, we’ve lost our reason to exist. If we aren’t intellectually honest in our own realm, the students are probably well-advised to go with something vocational.

One way or another, this train will leave the station. I’d just rather be on the train than under it.

Monday, November 08, 2004

I'm Officially a Soccer Dad

We signed The Boy up for a soccer class on Saturdays. This past weekend was the first meeting, and I took him. It meets in a gym at the Y.

The class is mostly 4-6 year olds, all boys. The warm-ups alone were worth the price of admission – watching 4 year olds try to negotiate jumping jacks is almost painfully funny. The Boy, true to his genetic heritage, struggled mightily to get the concept. Other concepts like not using your hands or kicking the ball to your partner (“I want my own ball!”) were a bit fuzzy, too. Still, he persevered valiantly, and even enjoyed himself, and I have to admit that it was the most fun I’ve had in a long time.

His unique style of push-ups should be patented.

This week, I’ll have to give him some home tutoring on the whole jumping-jack concept. The Wife will probably have to shield her eyes to save the marriage. I hope the neighbors are away…