Wednesday, March 30, 2005

The Only Time I Will Ever be Happy to See Her Standing on the Couch

The Girl is standing! She needs help to get there, but once you prop her up, she can stand while holding onto the couch!

The look on her face was priceless. Pure surprise. Her knees wobbled, but she stood up for close to a minute before falling on her behind. (The other function of diapers – they’re like airbags for wobbly walkers.)

I think the exersaucer is the key. She loves it, and standing in it has strengthened her legs. She likes to bounce in it, when makes a lot of noise, generating complaints from The Boy that she’s too loud.

When he was her age, it sounded like a freakin’ freight train in the living room.

To the chagrin of The Wife, The Girl has inherited my eyebrows. I try to reassure The Wife that Brooke Shields has done quite well for herself, but she remains dubious. The good news is that they give The Girl an unusually expressive face; we always know exactly what she’s thinking. Last week we gave The Girl a very small taste of mostly-melted ice cream – she sucked in her lip, knit her brow, glared, then lit up, smiled, started moving her arms quickly, and laughing. All this in five seconds. No protective ambiguity at all, and bless her for it.

She isn’t crawling yet, but she’s close. She can prop herself up on her arms and push herself around, legs flailing behind her, so it won’t be long. She already goes for The Boy’s toys; once she gets some velocity, all hell will break loose.

It’s different this time. With The Boy, we were first-time parents, exhausted and scared pretty much all the time. Each new developmental stage brought pride and (especially) relief. With The Girl, since she’s likely to be our last, each new stage still brings pride and relief, but also a kind of sadness. We’ll never have anyone that young again. Putting away the bassinet was tough; putting away the exersaucer in a few months will be, too. As exhausting as this age is, there’s a sweetness about it. When I get home from work and The Girl sees me, she smiles and giggles and makes that cooing noise that only babies make. She won’t do that for much longer. I’ll be insanely proud when she starts talking, of course, but for now, I just want to enjoy the cooing a little longer.

Monday, March 28, 2005

Alligator Alert

They're at it again. According to this article in the Tallahassee Alligator (!), Republicans in the Florida legislature have voted in committee to pass a law mandating ideological 'balance' in college faculties. Gotta clamp down on those faculty socialists poisoning the minds of the youth. You know, all those socialist youth you see swinging elections to the Green party...

Last year, I did an entry on the 'viewpoint diversity' movement. I've reprinted most of it below, with an update at the end:

Conservatives have taken up the slogan of ‘viewpoint diversity’ to force colleges to hire more politically-conservative faculty. The state legislature in Florida is now moving to give this slogan the force of law.

I admit that my first response involved an unattractive combination of gagging and giggling. But, upon sober reflection, I realized that the idea has considerable merit. It just needs to be more fully fleshed out. As a public service, I’ve taken the task upon myself…

Start with the religious colleges. Their faculty are disproportionately religious! How can students possibly expect to be exposed to differing points of view? I’m pleased to hear the Republicans urge Lynchburg College to hire more Jews, liberals, and homosexuals. Catholic colleges and universities tend to have disproportionately-Catholic faculties; this too must stop! How can anyone fully embrace a faith until exploring the alternatives? I join the Republicans in calling upon every Catholic college in the U.S. to start a stepped-up hiring program for secular liberals immediately.

Some of the displaced Catholic faculty could find work at, say, Brandeis…

And what about the military colleges? The faculty at West Point could use some openly gay, vegetarian pacifists. The women’s studies department at the Army War College could use some beefing up…

Business schools are vastly overrun with Republicans. Obviously, a purge is in order. To make sure all points of view are represented, we could mandate that every other hire come from, say, the leadership of a labor union. One for business, one for labor. That’s fair!

What about the proprietary sector? Since the very nature of proprietary schools is capitalist, they need a counterbalancing faction of socialist faculty. After all, students mustn’t be indoctrinated. Dispatch the University of Phoenix to the MLA, stat!

In fact, why should we limit viewpoint diversity to colleges? Why not other important public institutions?

Over half of Congress is comprised of millionaires. That’s not representative! Let’s get a representative sample of Wal-Mart workers in there. Let them vote on tax policy. For that matter, let’s get the median income of Congress down to the national average. That might have some interesting effects on the laws about parental leave, health care, tax distributions…

And what about the judiciary? Rehnquist, Scalia, Thomas – outta there! 7 out of the 9 current members of the Supreme Court were appointed by Republicans – no wonder they threw the election to Bush! Make it an even split – hell, while we’re at it, let’s extend the income-diversity rule there, too. Let’s see what someone making $25k has to say about equal protection of the laws…


Apparently, affirmative action is only okay when it benefits conservatives.

The idiocy of the law is even deeper than it looks. Leave aside the question of higher-ed exceptionalism; what’s even more disturbing is the idea that everybody’s political thinking has to fit cleanly in certain boxes. If I’m hired to be the token liberal, and my thought evolves, I could lose my job! If I stitch positions together in ways that don’t reflect the approved categories (say, a Daniel Bell type – socially conservative, but left on economics), I don’t count, so I can’t get hired. Best to avoid thinking anything new.

For the idea of ‘viewpoint diversity’ to make any sense, we have to assume that all possible viewpoints are already known, as is the proper numerical distribution of viewpoints. We also have to assume that all of the interesting questions have already been asked, all answers to all questions coalesce into only two or three possible constellations, that political preference colors all knowledge (“Democrats argue that the atomic number for hydrogen is 1, but Republicans…”), and that students are perfect sponges for what their professors tell them. In other words, we have to be morons.


I can't imagine a worse idea for higher education than to prescribe the 'correct' answers in advance, whatever they are. Don't be fooled by the 'leftist professor' crap; if ideological balance had anything to do with anything, Bush would appoint several liberal justices to the Supreme Court to keep the conservatives honest. The Republicans control the Presidency, the Congress, and the Judiciary. They control the mainstream media, most state governments, and most of the wealth in America. It just kills them not to have a (legally-mandated!) clean sweep.

To make higher education the political handmaiden of anybody would be a tragic mistake. The purpose of higher ed, I always thought, was to expose people to ideas they hadn't seen before, to sharpen their critical thinking skills and enable them to take part in a democratic society as agents of their own interest. To declare that exposing someone to new ideas violates his 'rights' is both obtuse and insanely dangerous.

It's also a betrayal of one of the more honorable lines of conservative thought. As any serious student of American political history can attest, the postwar 'fusion' in American conservatism was held together by the glue of anti-communism. Anti-communism was premised on the (correct) idea that an open society (in which people are allowed to question those in power) is preferable to a closed one. Buckley, Taft, Popper, Friedman, von Hayek: all of these conservatives understood that absolutism leads to oppression.

Drunk with power, the new conservatives have forgotten all that. They believe that everything worth knowing is already known, and that, therefore, any questioning of the existing order can only be explained by bad faith. (This is a nearly perfect mirror of the old Soviet habit of explaining discontent with the workers' paradise as a psychiatric malady.) To them, the only role for higher ed is to produce workers.

Fox News's obsession with Ward Churchill makes sense, in this context. He's what Trotsky used to call a 'useful idiot.' Academically, he's a nonentity, but never mind that; he embodies the conservative stereotype of the left-wing professor, giving a convenient cover for a purge. Inflame populist outrage against some insignificant little twit, and channel that outrage to squash independent thought generally. It's an old move, but apparently, it still works.

I'm not naive about the limitations of the academy; as my regular readers know, I bump up against them with some frequency. That's not the point. The point is that education, done right, involves exposure to things you didn't know before. You build cognitive skill by engaging with ideas different from your own. Are some professors arrogant? Sure. So are some businesspeople, but I don't see conservatives calling for more regulation there.

The alligator's nose is under the tent. By all means, step on it.

Friday, March 25, 2005

Interesting Times

In terms of the storied curse, “may you live in interesting times,” these are interesting times. The Chronicle reported today that the American Association for Higher Education is disbanding for lack of member support. This, on the heels of the dissolution of FIPSE. The Senate voted to reauthorize the Perkins grant program, but didn’t get around to actually allocating any MONEY for it, so senators can claim to have been supporters of the program without actually paying for it. At my college, our president reported this week that our allocation from the state will be flat again this year, with likely cuts for the next several years.

All of that said, the mood among faculty and managers on campus seems to be “hang on.” I’ve noticed a disturbing willingness to postpone decisions, to hold one’s breath, cross one’s fingers, squint real tight, click heels together, and wish it all away.

It looks to me very much like the calm before a storm. Nobody wants to own up to making any of the changes that obviously need to be made, so they’re waiting for circumstances to force their hand. Maybe we can squeeze out one more year of (fill in the blank). Maybe a few more unreplaced retirements will buy us some more time.

Paradoxically, the very need for change becomes an obstacle to it. We can’t take risks now! Money for new initiatives would come at the expense of continuing operations, which are already running lean, so let’s not chance it. Better to just hang on...

From the faculty who are just one or two years away from retirement, I can understand it. But from everyone else, it’s baffling. The tip of the fiscal iceberg is clearly visible, we’re heading right for it, but nobody wants to bother the captain.

Necessity is a mother, as the saying goes. It’s time to put it all on the table: tuition structures, the components of a college degree, faculty tenure, summer vacations, everything. Take a look at Duke’s “professors of the practice,” at college lobbying, and at building/construction priorities.

Hegel wrote that freedom is the insight into necessity. Waiting to be buffeted by external forces is not freedom, or even peace. It’s just suicide.

Sorry to be so airy today; I usually try to focus on specifics. This week the specifics just piled up faster than I could keep track.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005


The Fund for the Improvement of Post-Secondary Education (FIPSE) is one of the only agencies out there to fund projects that take comparative looks at multiple institutions. The Republicans in Congress have voted to de-fund the competitive pool for grants entirely, to replace it with 'earmarks' (pork barrel projects) for particularly well-placed Republican legislators.

The Irascible Professor said it better than I could, here.

Let me get this straight. In order to pay for the latest round of tax cuts and wars, we're going to de-fund one of the few agencies in higher ed that actually tried to make INTELLIGENT COST-CUTTING POSSIBLE.


Taking the Show on the Road

The speech went really well – it was gratifying to see such an enthusiastic response to the themes and topics I’ve been developing in this blog. I was the last item on the agenda, post-lunch and pre-going-home, but the faculty stayed an extra half-hour to keep the discussion going.

That’s not to toot my own horn – I make no grand claims about stage presence – but just to say that there’s an eagerness out there to get at the issues that higher ed seems to face over and over again.

This morning I heard from a friend at my previous school. They just had a major layoff of staff, with a major layoff of faculty expected at the end of the semester. Some familiar faces gone, others shuffled into roles that, well, wouldn’t have been their first choices.

Despite their very different profiles (for-profit tech school vs. community college), my previous and current employer share a few key traits, as do most colleges in America: low on the prestige hierarchy, tuition-driven, teaching-centered, and utterly below the radar of the mainstream media (MSM). Also, major and chronic budget issues that seem to defeat any sort of internal solution.

As far as the MSM is concerned, though, higher ed in America is confined to about a dozen institutions (Harvard, Stanford, Yale, MIT, Michigan, Berkeley…), affirmative action for admissions is the hottest potato going, and every professor in America is simply abuzz about Lawrence Summers’ latest bout of foot-in-mouth disease.

Makes ya wonder. Elite research universities are, all things considered, a very small piece of the puzzle. More students are enrolled in community colleges in America than in every other college and university combined. For us, of course, affirmative action for admissions is a non-issue; we take everybody. Lawrence Summers strikes me as vaguely embarrassing in a Shatner-esque sort of way, but he’s also, in my universe, utterly unimportant. He no more affects my world than do Brad and Jennifer.

In a way, I shouldn’t complain. The very blindness of the MSM (and the discipline-based ‘opinion leaders’ within academia) to the majority of colleges in America means that the issues I’ve been raising aren’t stale. If anything, to judge by my audience’s reaction, they have the novelty that comes from recognizing something familiar in a new way.

Well, enough of that. I have to get the dog and pony ready for a show tomorrow.

Thursday, March 17, 2005

Putting the Puzzle Together, Part 2: Commodity Hell in a Handbasket

I've started working on the implications of the health care/higher ed analogy. Assuming that our political culture is too far gone to embrace the obviously correct solution (use progressive taxation to fund single-payer health care, and use some of the savings to beef up basic research in the universities), what I think may happen is the emergence of something like HMO's in higher education.

Since our culture treats these things in a bass-ackwards way, let's assume that the rage for 'cost control' that gave rise to 'managed care' spawns similar offspring for higher ed.

Take the next step. Given the rise of distance ed, and the recent move away from charging out-of-county students a premium (gotta get those enrollments up somehow!), what's to stop some enterprising capitalist from starting an Efficient Degree Organization that compiles data on the cheapest and most convenient ways for students to put together degree programs? Take these Smith County College courses via the web, add a few Jones CC courses, transfer the batch to Midtier State, and pay the EDO either a flat fee or a percentage of the money saved.

Take the next step after that. Assume the EDO gets big, which it might. What's to stop it from negotiating group discounts? After all, if every community college in the state offers English Composition on the web, and the EDO has an impressive number of students, the incentive for any given college to cut it a break is substantial. We've entered what manufacturers call "commodity hell," in which the only way to compete is on price. After all, if the program is knit together from a pile of different schools, the prestige variable has been more-or-less tabled. What's left is price.

None of this would have been realistic before the emergence of internet courses, since physical distances would have been prohibitive. Nor would it have made sense when the public picked up more of the tab for higher ed, because tuition was low enough that any savings would have been too small to bother. Now, distance is irrelevant, and tuition is climbing fast.

If the EDO gets big enough, there might be some counter-pressure from the academic side, claiming that quality control has become untenable. The obvious legislative response would be...wait for it...drum roll, please...standard, external exams! Outcomes assessment, taken to the next level! The relation of colleges to degrees would become closer to the relationship between law schools and the bar exam.

It's not really all that otherworldly, if you think about it. Universities have already effectively outsourced their personnel decisions to publishers. (No book, no tenure.) Why not outsource degree decisions, too? Colleges would become something closer to Stanley Kaplan test prep centers.

Substantively, this is a terrible, horrifying idea. Academic freedom would wither away, good luck defining criteria for the exam, etc. Still, while nobody would advocate a system defined this way from the beginning, it could easily take shape in the interstices, while everyone just whines about cost.

(No sooner had I polished off this missive than the latest Chronicle of Higher Ed arrived, featuring an article by Dick Armey suggesting…say it with me, now…replacing subsidies to public colleges with tuition vouchers for students! My goodness, these people are predictable.)

Monday, March 14, 2005

Putting the Puzzle Together, Part 1

In preparing for a speech I’ll be giving soon about some of the dilemmas of higher ed, it hit me that higher ed and health care are similarly positioned, and facing many of the same issues.

Both are, at their core, labor-intensive. Doctor with patient, teacher with student. Both have endured tremendous infusions of technology, with their varying costs and mixed blessings. Both have been on the receiving end of de-professionalizing trends: HMO’s and managed care treading on the autonomy of doctors, and adjunct-ification treading on the academic freedom and security of the professoriate. Both have attracted unflattering public attention due to rising cost. (In fact, a non-trivial portion of the rising cost of higher ed reflects the rising cost of health insurance.)

In both cases, and contrary to almost every other industry, technology has moved in without so much as a nod towards economic efficiency. In the case of medical care, advanced technologies improve the quality of care, albeit at tremendous cost. The public gripes mercilessly about the cost, but refuses to entertain any serious conversation about reducing access or quality. (Much of the rhetoric directed against single-payer health care revolves around the bugaboo of ‘rationing,’ as if the market doesn’t already do that.) In the case of higher ed, we adopt new technologies because the industries for which we prepare students have adopted them, whether they save us any money or not (and they almost never do). For example, the photography program in my division has had to make major purchases to adapt to the onset of digital photography, but it can’t just stop working with film. It has to support both. Therefore, we purchase digital cameras, high-end computers, and advanced software, and still purchase enlargers, darkroom curtains (fireproofed, naturally, at additional cost), and the traditional trappings. Do we get better outcomes? Yes and no; we get a student ready to enter the field, just like we did before. It just costs twice as much, and those rising costs are taken as evidence that academics are lazy and out of touch.

Tuition has been rising more slowly than health-care costs, probably because the pace of technical advance has been slower and the costs of those technologies usually lower. (Naturally, there’s an exception for the allied-health majors, in which we have to adopt the technologies that hospitals have, just because hospitals have.) The trend towards adjuncts hasn’t hit health care in quite the same way, though I’m told that nurses now shoulder some of the tasks that doctors used to.

Both industries suffer by comparison to most of the private sector, which our political culture now regards as normative. A car company will adopt those technologies that promise to save (or make) money; everything else, it ignores. Neither a hospital nor a college has that luxury. When our prices rise faster than the car company’s, then, politicians make great hay attacking the out-of-touch elites (doctors and professors) whose presumed arrogance is (to them) the only possible explanation for comparatively rapid inflation. (Not for nothing, but car company executives’ salaries make professors’ salaries look simply pitiful.)

In both cases, what are truly and properly understood as public goods (health care, education) have been miscast as private goods, with predictable consequences. Whether I use the MRI machine at the local hospital or not, I benefit from its presence. I benefit from discoveries made possible by the treatments given to other people. In the same way, the economic benefits of an educated workforce benefit me, even when the education goes to other people.

By dropping the category of ‘public goods’ from our political conversation and elevating the standards of mass retail as the basis for judgment, we have fundamentally misunderstood and mismanaged two of the most important pillars of our society.

The United States has, by far, the most expensive health care system in the world, but its results are nowhere near the top when measured by such standards as life expectancy, infant mortality, or percentage of population covered. We’re spending the most, but getting mediocre performance. We’re screwing it up.

In higher education, the picture is both murkier and more positive. On the high end of the prestige hierarchy, we still draw some of the best minds from around the world to the U.S. for undergraduate and graduate education (although that has slowed somewhat with the Bush administration’s clampdown on immigration, post-9/11. Richard Florida, among others, has called attention to the Bush brain drain, with the best minds from other countries eschewing the U.S. for study in Australia, Canada, or India. We don’t feel it now, but when the next Microsoft emerges in Bangalore or Canberra, instead of Seattle, we’ll be in trouble.)

On the low end, our uniquely-American community college system has drawn international interest for its ability to bring the benefits of higher education to the middle and working classes at reasonable cost. For all its flaws, it’s a wonderful system, founded on a clear understanding that an educated workforce is, in fact, a public good.

What to do? I haven’t finished the speech yet...

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Higher Ed and the New York Yankees

First, a disclaimer: I can’t stand the Yankees.

That said, they make an awfully good metaphor for a recent development in higher ed.

The Yankees’ modus operandi (at least, during the years when Steinbrenner isn’t suspended) is to treat their farm system as trade bait. They rarely promote from within; rather, they send away their promising younger players, preferring to pay top dollar for established veterans. The upside of this strategy is that the Yankees land some great talent, and they don’t have to put up with learning curves. The downsides, though, are several: the costs are astronomical (they have the highest payroll in baseball, by a large margin), established players don’t come with guarantees (Raul Mondesi, anyone?), their best years are often behind them (Jason Giambi, anyone?), and they lose out on some wonderful, cheap young talent.

This is, more or less, the situation facing colleges now when they do administrative searches (albeit at dramatically lower salaries, alas…).

Historically, academic managers (chairs, deans, vice presidents, provosts) have emerged from the faculty. Faculty who show promise have often risen through the ranks, carrying with them the ground-level knowledge of what is involved in actually teaching. The pipeline starts in the faculty.

With the move over the last twenty or thirty years to a mostly-adjunct workforce, the opening of the pipeline has narrowed dramatically. (In baseball terms, we shut down the farm system to cut costs.) As with any promotion system, the effects were felt first at the bottom: graduate students suddenly had tremendous difficulty finding stable, full-time employment. The effects have moved up the food chain over time. After more than a generation of skimping on new blood, many colleges now find themselves scrambling to find qualified people willing to take on administrative positions. In my home state, for example, several academic VP searches have been extended, simply for lack of desirable candidates. From what the Chronicle reports, the same is becoming true even of college presidencies.

As with the Yankees, lack of development at the early levels leads to greater costs and desperation at the higher levels. Oddly, though, I haven’t seen anywhere (except in this blog) a connecting of the dots.

The recent articles (and whispered scuttlebutt) about extended searches are still treating each extension as an isolated event, a fluke. The committee is too picky, or the cost of living in that area is too high, or the fundraising demands have spun out of control. Even allowing some truth to each of these, the more glaring and fundamental explanation has gone completely unaddressed: if you cheap out on your farm system, you just aren’t going to get the talented rookies.

The Yankees can sort of get away with it, since they have the luxury of infinite budgets. Colleges (generally) don’t, and I don’t see that changing anytime soon.

I’ve noticed the consequences of these developments in my own career. Coming out of graduate school, I couldn’t get arrested. After a spell of borderline employment, I latched on to a faculty position at a proprietary college – twelve-month teaching calendar, no prospect of tenure, all service courses, etc. For several years, I applied for faculty positions elsewhere, never landing one. After moving into administration, though, and shifting my search to administrative jobs, I suddenly became a (relatively) hot commodity. My current employer, to whom I am eternally grateful, hired me as a dean; it hasn’t hired a new professor in my academic discipline since the Nixon administration. Now, some neighboring colleges are struggling to fill VP positions, bemoaning the lack of good candidates. We recently had a consultant’s visit for one of our programs, and I was her tour guide for the day; our President specifically asked her not to recruit me. (I know that because she told me, with a mischievous plausible-deniability grin.)

In trying to find a faculty job, I struck out. In looking for administrative jobs that pay substantially more, I hit paydirt fairly quickly. There’s something askew here.

Colleges need to connect the dots, and need to look at full-time faculty not simply as a more expensive alternative to adjuncts, but also as an administrative farm team. The alternative is bidding wars, which would work out fine for me personally, but which are, in the long term, a losing strategy. The Yankees didn’t win the Series last year, or the year before, or the year before that, or the year before that…

Friday, March 04, 2005

Earf and the Grim Reefer

The Boy’s latest obsession is the planets. Mercury, Venus, Earf… It’s great fun to hear him wrestle with the English language. He has his letters now, and he frequently asks how particular words are spelled. You forget how many un-phonetic words there are until a three-year-old starts pop quizzing you on them.

We got him some books about the solar system, which became immediate favorites. One of them mentioned Neil Armstrong walking on the moon; The Boy didn’t believe it! When I assured him it was true, he asked “why?” I wasn’t sure how to answer that.

This morning he announced, pitch-perfect and apropos of nothing, “I’ve been tossing and turning on an old mattress.” It’s almost unnerving.

One of his favorite cartoons is “Billy and Mandy,” which features the Grim Reaper as a character (don’t ask). Yesterday he referred to the Reaper as the Reefer. The Grim Reefer. I would have corrected him, but it was actually an improvement.

Thursday, March 03, 2005

The Paper Trail Theory

I just plowed through four piles of documents submitted by faculty and chairs, recommending various professors for promotion, tenure, or reappointment. Were I a martian encountering them all for the first time, I’d wonder why earthlings are so upset about the educational system: according to the files, everybody is practically perfect in every way!

Except that they aren’t. And many of the people who wrote those documents have said very different things to me in person. They just don’t want to commit it to writing.

And here’s where the whole ‘paper trail’ theory of management falls down. According to the paper trail theory (wait – if I want this to catch on, I have to use capital letters: okay, according to The Paper Trail Theory…), whenever some sort of correction or improvement is needed, the manager should document the problem (sorry: the issue…) in a steadily escalating series of writeups. That way, should the low performer continue to fail to improve, any adverse action can’t be characterized as arbitrary or capricious.

Where it collapses is in the differential weight given to written (as opposed to spoken) criticism. Since we don’t want to demoralize the low performers, many of whom have tenure and are therefore bulletproof (or at least immovable), we try to be encouraging. Anything negative is communicated orally, when it’s communicated at all. Since some well-entrenched figures have shown previously-unsuspected gifts for drama when they’ve been criticized in the past, their chairs have decided that it just isn’t worth the trouble.

The net result is a herniating pile of documents crossing my desk, testifying to the unadulterated wonderfulness of all and sundry. This, in the name of ensuring accountability.

The perverse result, of course, is that any adverse actions that have to be taken (and they do!) wind up looking more arbitrary and capricious than they actually are, since the paper trail seemingly contradicts them. (Close reading, of course, reveals that there are actually different levels of praise; to suggest anything less than superhuman powers, in this in-house scheme of grade inflation, is in fact to call someone a blithering idiot. But good luck getting that to hold up in court! “Your honor, when I referred to Prof. X as ‘the best teacher I’ve ever seen,’ you need to read that in contrast to when I referred to Prof. Y as ‘the best teacher God has ever seen fit to create, in this epoch or any other.’” That’ll fly.)

I came to the party late enough to see the forms in a late stage of evolution. They used to have two categories: recommended and not recommended. That didn’t work, since everyone was recommended (for promotion, or tenure, or whatever). So another category was added: highly recommended. Then everyone was highly recommended. Now there’s a fourth category: Most Highly Recommended, which, predictably, everyone is. In my crabbier moments, I like to imagine what the form might look like in ten years. Extremely Highly Recommended, with Sugar on Top. So Superlatively Recommended That the Confines of Mere Language Fail Me. It’s sort of like solving the problem of too many A’s by giving more A-pluses.

Ironically, these same people complain at length about grade inflation for students.

Although I’m philosophically opposed to grading on a curve, I’m beginning to see the logic. If you stipulate, in advance, that there will be a lower end, someone has to fill it. With each person considered independently of every other, though, it’s awfully tempting for the front-line manager just to write nice things and save the nasty stuff for meetings.