Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Recent True Quotes

Two wonderful true quotes from my world over the past week:

1. The Boy, watching a weatherman in front of a map of the United States:
"Is he in space?"

It makes perfect sense, if you think about it.

2. One of my students this semester, on the final exam, introducing a paragraph:
"According to me,"

I really liked that. She cited her source, the statement is self-confirming, and it nicely blends humility and narcissism.

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Incentives and Intentions

Yesterday I endured one of those “how-do-we-do-this” operations meetings that drive managers to drink. (Happily, I was an invited guest for one meeting, as opposed to a member of the committee.) Without going into too much gory detail, the gist of it was how to get ‘continuing’ students (those who have already been here for at least one semester) to register online, rather than in-person. It’s fairly important for the college, since online registration saves a tremendous amount of labor. Most students have already made the switch, but there’s a non-trivial contingent that has steadfastly refused.

Leaving aside the dreary which-screen-is-which and which-bugs-can’t-we-fix discussions, the drift of the conversation was towards how to convince the holdout students to go online. Revealingly, everybody’s first instinct was to hold a series of workshops to teach the students how to navigate the website.

The group spent about a half hour discussing the logistics of the workshops, who would run them, and the like, while I sat in mute disbelief. When I finally couldn’t stand it anymore, I asked why we don’t just charge the in-person registrants an extra fee; premium service justifies a premium rate. Line up the incentives, and the behavior will follow.

There was a pause, followed by a round of “oooo.” You’d think I had landed from Mars.

In the years that this committee had been meeting, nobody had ever raised the issue of incentives. I was amazed.

Students who like to register in person do so because they don’t want to be bothered to learn another way, and/or because they like to be served. Workshops won’t change either of those; those who don’t want to be bothered certainly won’t be bothered to go to a workshop, and those who like to be served won’t attend, either. Workshops make sense if the desire is there but the know-how isn’t; with this population, it’s (almost) entirely the other way round.

The conversation that ensued was much more animated, but also revealing. As educators in a nonprofit setting, we’re so used to the ‘service’ ethic that the idea of intentionally creating an inconvenience is almost blasphemy. (That’s not to say that we don’t create inconveniences – we absolutely do – but they’re byproducts, not goals.) I argued that the same students who bitch, moan, and whine about having to navigate a website when in-person is available will miraculously get over it when it saves them fifty bucks. Those who are simply too prima donna-ish to bother are welcome to pay extra.

I’m not generally a fan of the run-it-like-a-business school of thought, but a little attention to motivation seems like a good idea.

The idea didn’t carry, of course – much too radical, and the Board of Trustees would have to approve it, which they wouldn’t, because it looks like a tax or it might disadvantage somebody or it’s just too complicated – but at least it shifted the discussion for a moment.

Monday, December 13, 2004

The Film Editing Theory of Administration

A friend at another institution emailed me with a story of his dean there, who is raising the tenure bar substantially for people already in the pipeline. My response to him follows:

Some deans think that raising the tenure bar dramatically is a way of
"raising the academic profile" of an institution. It's kind of like
being "tough on crime" by supporting silly sentencing rules; nobody really believes it will work, but nobody has ever been thrown out of office for being too tough on crime, either. It's a way for an insecure dean to pick up cheap points by toying with other people's careers. Unless it's part of a larger, coherent plan for the entire university, driven by the President, it's simply an arrogant career move by a mediocre manager. (It also saves money over the short term by making sure that nobody moves above the Assistant level. Some of those lines might go adjunct, and the rest can be doled out as favors to favored departments. It centralizes power in the dean's office.)

My philosophy of management, of which I am slowly becoming conscious,
is that it's like film editing; when it's done well, you shouldn't notice it. The job of administration, esp. at the middle level, is to put the conditions in place for faculty (and students) to be able to flourish, given the resources available. Part of that is being predictable. If everybody knows the rules, and has faith that the rules will be applied consistently, they can redirect their energies away from internal politics and towards actual productive work. Save the Bold Strokes for things that will actually help, like starting new programs, identifying new funding sources, or fixing the inevitable glitches in the machine.

For example, if I wanted to push a diversity hire, I would make that clear to the dept. chair BEFORE the search began. Agreement to that would be a condition of getting the line. Then, let the work proceed. Changing the rules in the middle, absent some sort of drastic change in the environment, is amateurish.

*After sending this, I came up with another hypothesis: Nixon's "Madman" strategy.
If a culture is too intensely static, a dean might be justified in overreaching simply to get a point across. That said, the "Madman" strategy is high risk, and only viable over the very short term. Long term, people have to know the rules.

Pinata Therapy, or, The Defenestration of SpongeBob

The Boy was invited to a birthday party this weekend, so we all went. It was held at a sports complex – basically, a big bubble that housed an ice rink, a video arcade, and a big indoor playground. Most of the guests were either three or four years old.

Most of the party was unremarkable, but there was a wonderful moment when they brought out a piñata of SpongeBob and had each kid take a whack. One kid knocked off one of the legs, sending it through an open glass door (okay, not technically a defenestration, but pretty durn close). I realized that adults could use piñatas, too. Let me take a few whacks at some carefully-selected characters, and reward me with chocolate at the end. I’d feel much better. Really.

Monday, December 06, 2004

December is the Second-Cruelest Month

One of the major differences between managing in a community college and managing at a for-profit is the greater importance of ceremony at the community college. Since the mission here is more diffuse (and altruistic) than at the for-profit, the college sustains any number of extra-curricular groups for the benefit of students and faculty. December and late April-early May are when every last one of these groups has end-of-the-year dinners, celebrations, performances, exhibitions, and the like, and one of the jobs of the dean is to attend as a way of giving the college’s impramateur to the event.

The late April-early May swing is the worst, since every single end-of-the-year event happens then, as do most of the faculty retirement dinners (a few happen in December, but most faculty wait until the end of the academic year.) Still, December has quite a few holiday-themed events, concerts, performances, etc., each of which is terribly important to the people involved. Attendance by the dean is noticed, and non-attendance is noticed, too. The only excuse I’ve had for non-attendance that anyone accepted was when two events happened at the same time – even administrators are subject to those pesky laws of physics. Short of that, it’s time to see and be seen.

While most of the events are enjoyable in their own right, the sheer number can be wearing. The late Spring rush is insane; last year, I averaged four nights a week for about a month; you can imagine how that impacts on parenting time. December is less severe, but it does put a dent in attempts to do holiday shopping, as well as in parenting time.

The etiquette involved is reminiscent of the old science of Kremlinology in the 1980’s. Dress must be appropriate; you must sit in the right place, with the right people. You must be light and companionable, remembering always that anything you say can and will be used against you at any time. You must greet the organizer upon arrival and again before departure; sneaking out the back is not an option. Late arrival is verboten, since it precludes the meet-and-greet beforehand. You have to remember that while this is the third event this week and next week will be worse and you really just want to go home and play with the kids, it’s the culmination of months of work by whomever, and anything less than ebullience will be forever remembered as both a personal and professional insult. (“The administration just doesn’t care about…”) Opinions are welcome, as long as they are positive.

The next day, thank-you notes are mandatory, as are effusions of spontaneous praise in the hallway.

In many ways, this should be filed under problems-you-want-to-have. Most of the performances, dinners, etc., are quite good, and it’s terrific that so many people at the college spend so much time and energy on ways to help the students. I’ll just say that if it weren’t for online shopping, I’d be sunk.