Monday, February 28, 2005

Snow Day! Snow Day!

It's funny being on campus in the morning, when a huge snowstorm is predicted for the afternoon. Everybody is walking on eggshells, hoping to get The Call.

Having grown up in much snowier territory than I live in now, I'm still a little surprised at the threshold for a snow day here. Still, traffic being what it is, I'll happily take it.

Waiting to hear about a snow day has been a hallowed ritual since I was five years old. It still is. As The Boy approaches public school age (he starts the four-year old program in September. September!), listening to the radio in the morning will become a family ritual.

Nothing bonds a family (or a campus) like the delicious anticipation of slacking. People in Southern climes miss out on the ritual. You learn where your school falls in the alphabetical listing, and your pulse quickens as the announcer approaches the relevant letter. You learn just how many school districts actually exist out there. You learn just how many Catholic schools start with the word "our."

As snow day veterans can tell you, one of the rules is that you have to bake. (I don't make the rules, I just go with them.) Dad shovels, Mom bakes, the kids (if they're old enough) frolic in the snow and come in to watch cartoons. (Lest this seem sexist, I regularly offer to trade with The Wife. She smiles and refuses.) The Boy likes to try to help me shovel, which is both sweet and really awkward. He has a way of getting underfoot anyway; combine that with me swinging a large, heavy shovel, and bad things could happen. The choreography becomes fairly elaborate, as he moves unpredictably and I try to dump snow without injuring either The Boy or my back.

Every time the plow comes by and pushes another ridge of heavy, wet snow onto the foot of the driveway, I come to appreciate the myth of Sisyphus just a little bit more.

Buying a snowblower would constitute admitting defeat. That said, I'll probably break down and do it one of these years. Eventually.

Back to rescheduling meetings. If all goes according to plan, later today I'll be on the couch with The Boy, watching "Totally Spies" on the cartoon network. There are worse ways to spend an afternoon...

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Merit Scholarships and Bias

Warning: Extreme Heresy Alert.

Although my politics are strongly and unapologetically social-democratic, there’s an issue simmering in higher ed on which the people I agree with tend to be conservatives. For the life of me, I don’t know why the battle lines have been drawn where they have. It’s merit scholarships.

Simply put, I embrace them. I think they make tremendous amounts of sense. Let’s give the kids who busted their butts in high school a reward for it. Let’s say, with money and institutional backing, that taking challenging courses and devoting energy to academics is just as valuable as working on a good three-point shot.

For reasons that utterly elude me, the ‘left’ in higher ed is deeply suspicious of (if not simply hostile to) merit scholarships, and the ‘right’ embraces them. This offends me as an educator, and it offends me as a supporter of the left.

The standard ‘left’ argument against merit scholarships runs something like this: they siphon money away from need-based programs, they mostly benefit the well-off, they’re based on biased criteria (such as standardized tests), they go to people who would have attended college anyway, and they’re elitist.

My responses, in order, are: that’s another issue, who cares, hogwash, who cares, and give me a break, respectively.

To argue that they ‘siphon’ resources away from need-based aid (that’s aid awarded based on poverty, independent of academic ability) is to misunderstand the politics of financial aid. Need-based aid is packaged as a kind of altruism, laced with a pretty basic appeal to a few interest groups. Merit-based aid is packaged as a strategic move to enhance either a single institution’s ‘academic profile’ (meaning its place in the prestige pecking order), or as an economic development initiative. The two kinds of aid are not mutually exclusive, and historically haven’t been. While I can understand that the public at large should be unmoved by the prestige motive, the economic development motive strikes me as transparently correct. To suggest that economic development initiatives siphon money away from welfare is simply to get the history, and the politics, wrong.

(It also opens up the politically-fatal identification of financial aid with welfare. American political history has shown abundantly that programs identified strongly with the poor will be grossly underfunded over time, while programs the middle class feels it owns will survive, even if they also benefit the poor. For the left to willingly swallow a poison pill like this just defies belief.)

This objection is also painfully elitist, in that it simply assumes that lower-income kids won’t measure up if merit is the criterion. I can understand a 19th century European conservative holding this view – the peasants are revolting, the lower orders are so unclean, etc. – but for a contemporary egalitarian, no. The history of programs in which third-grade classes are promised free college tuition suggests that, given the right incentives, the ‘lower orders’ are quite capable, thank you. If the incentives are missing at the early ages, then let’s address that. Merit scholarships, especially generous ones, address that quite nicely.

“They mostly benefit the well-off.” Decoded, this means that kids from wealthier families are likelier to be college-ready than kids from less wealthy families. That’s true, and regrettable, but beyond what a college can control. If the public schools in poorer areas are frequently struggling, and they are, then by all means, let’s have at them. Let’s not pretend that it isn’t happening, and then simply wring our hands when the poor kids flunk out of college, which is the current ‘left’ approach. (The logical conclusion of this approach is the new ‘A for effort’ policy recently adopted by a small college in one of the Carolinas. Area employers are already shying away from that school’s grads. What is being achieved, exactly?)

“Biased criteria.” This chestnut should simply be retired. The analogies section of the SAT has been retired, along with such terms as ‘cotillion’ and ‘regatta.’ More to the point, the math section is, well, about math. If a kid can’t solve “2x + 4 = 10,” I don’t want to hear about bias. If more poor kids struggle on this section than they should, then the problem is in math instruction in the junior-high and high schools, or in what the kids care about, or both. (Interestingly, the score gaps that the ‘left’ takes as evidence of bias are actually higher on the math section. How this proves bias is entirely beyond me.)

“They go to people who would have attended college anyway.” This is probably true, and it may suggest limits from the point of view of a single institution. On a macro level, though, this is simply obtuse. It’s like objecting that Nobel Prizes go mostly to people who achieve a lot anyway. Well, yeah, they do. Scholarships are both incentives and statements of priorities. They tell the public what colleges value so much that they’re willing to pay for it. If it were up to me, I’d much rather tell the public about the access we’re granting the hard-working, smart child of a single mother than the free ride we’re giving some hockey player.

“They’re elitist.” As opposed to...? Academia is elitist, by definition. American society is elitist too, although along economic lines instead of intellectual ones. To pretend that higher ed doesn’t serve a sorting function for future employers is to live in a dream world. The sorting function is based on the (largely correct) assumption that not everybody can do this. What makes me more a lefty than a conservative is my conviction that academic talent exists independently of income. Poor kids can be smart, and rich kids can be dumb. (The same applies to adults, btw.) What makes academia worth preserving is that it deals in a separate currency, which is something like cognitive talent, or even truth. To wish that away in the name of egalitarianism is, in fact, to surrender completely to the economic hierarchy of the rest of American society. In academia, the smart blue-collar kid can beat the rich son-of-a-President. In the rest of our society, that’s not true.

I’m not arguing that standardized tests or GPA’s are perfect measures of academic ability, and I’m certainly not arguing for getting rid of need-based aid. (Actually, I’d increase it.) I’m just saying that anyone who truly cares about equality shouldn’t be bothered by incentives for honest achievement. One of my proudest moments as an educator was when a former student wrote me to express his gratitude for exposing a “poor blue-collar kid” to the classics. He developed a taste for them, and has become quite the intellectual, on his own terms. Nothing is too good for the proletariat, as one of my old profs liked to say. You can find brains in the dreariest places. Let’s give those brains access to higher education. Let’s tell the kid in junior high or tenth grade that doing his homework will benefit him just as much as going to practice. If I didn’t believe that, I’d have to go into another line of work.

Making Change, without money

My current school is trying to roll out a new program for the Fall. Without giving too much away, let’s just say it involves scheduling some classes for some timeslots we haven’t used before.

The etiquette of scheduling is that the department chairs are responsible for it, with input from the dean. I don’t micromanage, since I really don’t want to own that process. I owned it at my previous school, and juggling the needs of students, the logistics of classrooms, the preferences of full-timers, and the (largely speculative) availability of adjuncts was a real pain.

When I approached a couple of my better department chairs to warn them about the new format, their reaction was amazing. Hmm, they said. None of my reliables immediately jumped, so let’s just wait a year or two and see what happens. Unstated, but strongly implied, was ‘this too shall pass.’

Luckily for me, these are intelligent and reasonable people, for whom the argument “and next year will be” actually worked. Still, I was amazed at the speed with which they went from ‘this isn’t immediately easy’ to ‘let’s not.’

It would be easy to rail at the complacency of the tenured, and I won’t deny that that’s there, but I think there’s a more fundamental problem. If the program fails, they’ll get at least some of the blame. If it succeeds, there’s nothing in it for them except more sections to schedule. They have every reason to foot-drag. It isn’t a personality flaw or an irrational habit; it’s actually a very reasonable response to being confronted with what is, to them, a lose-lose initiative.

I suspect that some variant of this problem haunts the public sector generally. If a service provider gets really good at providing a service, the demand for that service will increase. High performance gets punished. (Something similar happens with popular teachers – their classes always fill or overfill, so they wind up doing more advising and more grading than their less popular colleagues. That’s not to say that popularity and quality are the same thing – easy graders can be popular despite being crushingly dull – but there’s usually some correlation, at least in my experience.)

Alas. Until we come up with some sort of well-funded, clearly defined merit system, we’ll have to rely on the kindness of colleagues. I’m not holding my breath...

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Mere Money and Prestige Money

Based on a recent communiqué from the Midwest, I now have two friends at research universities, thirtysomething doctorates with insane talent, whose tenure bids are in trouble because the money they’ve brought in with grants isn’t prestige money.

Apparently, money comes in two flavors: mere money and prestige money.

Mere money is handy for relatively profane purposes, like paying expenses or salaries, or buying stuff. Prestige money can do that, and more.

What more is left unsaid.

Both of these are public universities, meaning taxpayer-supported (one in the Midwest, one in the Northeast). I wonder if the taxpayers would take comfort in knowing that talented young researchers are getting no credit for bringing in mere money. Surely, better to suckle at the public teat than to bring in mere money. Let’s steer faculty away from, say, finding ways to pay for themselves – that’s what the taxpayers are for! Shun the drearily ordinary concerns of lesser folk, like paying bills.

Ugh. Thought processes like these are what create room for the for-profits. They may be vulgar, but at least they can count.

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

From Faculty to Administration

It’s been a relatively slow week, so I’ve had the chance to reflect on the most bracing change when I moved from faculty to administration. It’s the definition of ‘smart.’ On faculty, esp. coming out of the theory-drenched 90’s, the definition of smart was the ability to see hopeless complexity where others saw only the obvious. The obvious answer was, by definition, ‘complicit’ with some other set of assumptions that vitiated the good done by the obvious answer. Paying attention to what Foucault called the “capillaries of power” involved tracing ever-more-esoteric relationships between phenomena. Specifying a responsible party for just about anything was hopelessly reductionist; ‘agency’ as a concept was embedded in logocentrism, itself an imperialistic paradigm.

In administration, the exact opposite is true. After a problem is identified and a little group brainstorming has been done, the major task is to narrow down the possible courses of action. Reductionism is not a flaw; it’s a necessity. Pare down the possibilities to a few do-able “action items,” with responsible parties, measurable outcomes, and budgetary needs specified in advance. A good manager can move from problem to solution relatively quickly, and can summarize that solution clearly.

After years in pomo theory seminars, just getting used to the concept of ‘action items’ took some time. You mean we’re supposed to just pick something and do it? Now? Based largely on hunches? With crappy data? Or no data at all?

On this side of the desk, one of the real shocks has been to discover how many decisions are made on hunches. I don’t mean that as a criticism – an educated hunch is not entirely arbitrary – but just as a discovery. The tools of empirical social science, I’ve found, are useful almost exclusively after the fact, when they’re useful at all. As Hegel put it, the owl of Minerva spreads her wings at dusk.

In a way, the discovery is liberating. Decisions that some on the outside take to be indicators of sinister underlying motives are often completely unconnected. In fact, when confronted with accusations of sinister underlying motives, a manager’s response of ‘huh?’ is frequently both honest and accurate.

That’s not to deny larger political realities, but instead to suggest that actions may, in fact, be more intelligible than sometimes thought. To my mind, this is cause for optimism. Extrapolate this lesson to, say, the government: if we assume that (say) Bush has a few core convictions, a few empirical assumptions, and very little patience, we can explain a remarkable proportion of his actions. I’d argue that his core convictions and assumptions are largely wrong, but they’re intelligible. (That’s probably at the core of his popular appeal – people who don’t follow politics all that closely or understand it all that deeply can understand Bush. That wasn’t true of his opponent, sadly.)

This Fall we’re rolling out an entirely new program, based pretty much on a shared hunch that it might work. I know that I’ve settled in as a manager because I’m okay with that.

Perils of Shopping with The Boy

To give The Wife a break, I took The Boy with me when I went Valentine’s shopping this weekend. Among the places we went was a local chocolates store, since The Wife believes, correctly, that chocolate is the food of the gods.

The Boy ratted me out! On Monday, while I was at work, she took him there to get something for me. As they walked in, he declared loudly “Hey! I was here yesterday with Daddy!”

I won’t be confiding any launch codes any time soon...

Thursday, February 10, 2005

An Exception

A few months ago, I swore off openly political blog entries, on the grounds that I didn’t have anything to offer there that wasn’t easily available elsewhere. I’ve stuck to that rule, and plan to continue to, but I have to make an exception for something that will absolutely eviscerate community colleges.

Bush's proposal to increase the Pell grant maximum by a whopping 2.4% a year got the headlines; what got ignored was, if you read the fine print, he’ll pay for it by ELIMINATING Perkins funding for equipment for community colleges. Right now, and for many years now, community colleges (are/have been) able to pay for equipment for ‘career-oriented’ programs through federal Perkins grants. At my college, we spend several million a year on equipment for programs that equip students for employment (as opposed to transfer to a four-year school). Programs like hospitality management, graphic design, photography, and nursing (!) rely heavily on Perkins funding. We couldn’t afford to run them without it, barring some huge infusion of cash from the county or state (ha!).

In the State of the Union address, he quickly mentioned community colleges, praising our workforce development contributions. Leaving aside that we do more than that, the fact that he wants to eliminate the funding that makes it possible for us to DO workforce development is simply appalling. In the short term, we’ll have to make up the difference by raising tuition, which is probably fine by him – conservatives like to fund public goods with ‘user fees,’ which completely defeats the purpose of public goods. It’s like charging you every time you call the police. It’s objectively insane, but you gotta pay for all those tax cuts and wars somehow.

(As it stands, our annual tuition is far enough below the existing Pell cap that raising the cap won’t net us a dime. Anybody who bothered to investigate the community college sector would know that’s true nationally.)

Bush is a fraud, a fool, and a knave. That he would have the gall to kill us as he praises us is both shocking and, somehow, not. Shame on him, and shame on everyone who voted for him.

Enough politics for today. I have to start revising equipment budgets downward.

Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Lula Saves the History Department?

In this, as in so many things, a Brazilian Socialist shall lead us…

I heard recently that the President of Brazil has decided to junk Microsoft as the software provider for all of the government computers, in favor of Linux and open-source applications. Lula, as he’s known, would apparently rather spend money on food and education programs for the poor than on licensing fees.


What if…we took all the money we’re funneling to Gates and company, and used it instead to, oh, I don’t know, hire faculty? Use Firefox instead of Internet Explorer, OpenOffice ( instead of Microsoft Office, Linux instead of Windows, Picasa instead of Photoshop, etc. It’s sort of like switching prescriptions to generics. It’s not a perfect solution – assume some pushback from beleagured IT departments, to start – but it beats the hell out of adjuncting-out the History department.

For that matter, what if a consortium of universities were to develop an open-source student-management software platform? (That’s the set of programs used in registrar’s and financial aid offices – track tuition payments, financial aid disbursements and eligibility, grades, etc.) Right now, every college I know spends megabucks on proprietary systems that never quite work right. If they aren’t going to work anyway, what are we paying for?

In fact, if memory serves, the entire freakin’ internet was developed by the nonprofit sector, for the nonprofit sector. What if we used it to go back to its roots, and save a HUGE chunk of change that could be devoted, instead, to closing our budget gaps?


Monday, February 07, 2005

Teeth! And, How to Pick Up Girls in Church

Big weekend on the home front.

The Girl has teeth! Two little ones in front, on the bottom. And, bless her, she hasn’t even fussed. The only change we’ve noticed has been more chewing of her toys, but that’s pretty standard six-month-old behavior anyway. It’s kind of sad to think that we’ll never see her toothless smile again, but part of the definition of parenthood is actually feeling pride at little things like new teeth.

The Boy had his first kiss, in church, of all places. The Wife took him to Mass (as the resident non-Catholic, I stayed home with The Girl). He brought some toy cars to keep himself occupied during the sermon, and he played with them on top of the pew in front of them. Sitting in said pew was another family with a girl about his age. The girl watched TB intently as he played with his cars, then leaned over and, without warning, gave him a kiss on the forehead. As The Wife tells it, he recoiled, as if from a bad smell, but then smiled shyly.

The Wife thinks it’s because TB is so cute. I suspect the car – “Chicks Dig Hot Cars” is one of those rules that, apparently, starts early.

When they got home, The Wife kept talking about the kiss, but The Boy kept talking about his car. There’s something reassuring about that…

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Best Sick Leave Form, Ever

The following is an actual reason given on a sick leave form by one of my faculty:

- Bronchitis, and a general malaise

I liked that. Imagine the possibilities:

- Flu, and a dark sense of foreboding

- Feverish, and gripped by a nameless fear

- Headcold, and ennui

- Coughing, and humming with dark portent

- Sniffles, and the vapors

Actually, Sniffles and the Vapors might be a good name for a band. For a while as grad school wound down and I was staring at the prospect of unending unemployment, I toyed with the idea of forming a power-punk band called Jonny and the Postdocs. You know, fall back on the relative safety of show business in case the risky academic thing didn’t work out…

Marathon Meetings

In the last week, I’ve had two meetings that each broke the four-hour mark. Both were productive, in different ways, but four-plus hours can be a bit taxing.

For the first hour, all is well. Everyone brings out their best material, bons mots fly, ideas are exchanged, the sun shines, the birds sing, and life is good.

In the second hour, we get serious. We look at possible unintended consequences, we discuss institutional history with similar initiatives, and we try to forecast likely issues with implementation. Not as much fun as the first hour, but still, time well spent.

In the third hour, though, attention starts to flag. Doodles become more interesting. Language gets franker, as accepted euphemisms are replaced with the ‘everybody knows’ directness of the exhausted. We start unpacking clichés (true quote: “Every year, we’re told it’s a bad budget year. I’ve been here twenty-five years, and we’ve never had a good budget year.”). Personal hobby horses are ridden hard. Sentences get shorter. We interrupt each other more.

By the fourth hour, we’re moving into what scholars of religion call a liminal state. We veer wildly between the absurdly long-term and the absurdly immediate. Daydreaming spins out of control, and anecdotes about people who worked here twenty years ago take on a weird immediacy. Frustration simmers. I have to look at my notes to remember what we decided two hours ago. The effect is not unlike drunkenness, even though none of us has had anything harder than a diet coke.

We haven’t actually cracked the five-hour barrier yet, though we came perilously close at one of them. I’m almost curious to see what would happen. Would we break into spontaneous musical numbers? Have collective, out-of-body experiences? Name ourselves after visions (“call me Runs Into Deer”)? Most unlikely of all, come up with new revenue sources?

Stay tuned…