Thursday, April 28, 2005

Community Service

“Isn’t that something you’re sentenced to?” – apocryphal student comment

Among other changes, my current college is considering tweaking the criteria for faculty promotion to more tightly define the meaning of ‘community service.’ Until recently, any and all forms of ‘community service’were considered fair points to raise in a promotion application – diabetes fun runs, selling girl scout cookies, running for mayor, seeking converts for your religion door-to-door – anything (and I didn’t make any of those up).

It’s hard to argue against community service per se, but it’s also terribly hard to judge. If a professor claims to be active in his local Knights of Columbus, how do I know if it’s true? More to the point, why should I care? What if the community service had absolutely nothing to do with academia? What if it was, at some level, objectionable? And is it even legal, really, to reward church service with promotion in a public institution? (If a religiously-affiliated college wants to do that, I don’t have an argument. But we’re public, paid for and used by people of multiple and conflicting cultures.)

We’re trying to define the category more narrowly, to focus on outreach activities that have some relationship to the college. It’s a tough sell, though. It’s not a function of a lack of caring about the community, although some will try to interpret it that way. “Screw the Poor” isn’t really the legacy I’d like to leave. Pitched wrong, it could play into the ubiquitous (and deeply misplaced) rhetoric about ‘corporatization.’ In fact, it’s an effort to match our ambitions to our abilities. I don’t want to judge professors’ souls; I’d much rather just judge their work. If their work gets them into heaven, that’s fine, but it’s also way beyond my jurisdiction. What we can do as a college is both valuable and limited.

At its root, I think some of the pushback we’ve had has been based on a (mostly-unthinking) service ethic that seems especially endemic to academia. There’s a weird blend of arrogance and self-effacement in so many academics – we’re better than others because we’re selfless, and damn those who don’t recognize our wonderful selflessness! (I think that’s part of the reason that so many intelligent people would rather adjunct than administrate, even while they have trouble making rent: administration seems so, well, normal. It’s not noble. It’s not special. Adjuncting may lead to starvation, but it’s a noble starvation…) Competition for the moral high ground is fierce, and not for the meek.

Grad student neurosis, I suspect, is a natural and logical outgrowth of the combination of the weird service ethic of academia with declining job prospects. Be the best, most outgoing, most widely-published selfless person you can be. Trumpet your accomplishments, nonthreateningly, and without being too obvious. Break new ground, in ways that the tenured occupants of the old ground find both compelling and welcome. Be revolutionary, and a good fit. Maintaining sanity in the face of these messages takes either a superhuman sense of self or an awfully strong sense of irony.

What should be a common-sense change is colliding with some pretty deeply-embedded cultural norms. If we give up our sense of special-ness, how do we justify our low salaries?

Tonight is yet another benefit to thank those who loudly proclaim that they don’t need to be thanked. My attendance is mandatory.

Stay tuned…

Monday, April 25, 2005

Return of the Rubber Chicken Circuit

It’s ceremony season. As the end of the semester approaches (two weeks until finals!) every last program, department, and club has its end-of-year performance or celebration or gathering, and they all request the presence of the administration.

This battery of events happens twice a year – late Fall and late Spring. The late Spring version has more events, but no holiday shopping, so they roughly even out in terms of time commitment.

Woody Allen once said that 60 percent of life (or was it 90?) is just showing up. This time of year, that’s true. A deanly presence is a way of showing approval, granting an imprimateur, demonstrating support, etc. This holds whether I actually do anything or not. The trick is to be noticed, but not conspicuous; supportive, but not annoying; committed, yet non-committal; serious, yet chipper. It’s harder than it looks.

The next few weeks are six- or seven-day weeks with several late (post-10 p.m.) evenings, and a few breakfast gatherings. I don’t mind any particular event – some of them are actually fun, they’re all positive in one way or another, and I’ve learned to like the ubiquitous chicken in white sauce – but it makes family life a little tricky. (This is where the feminist argument about jobs presuming the presence of at-home spouses is dead-on accurate; a single parent in this position would be dead meat.) Last Spring, by the end of the run, The Wife was even more exhausted than I was. The In-Laws, bless them, have been generous about babysitting when the etiquette of the event requires The Wife to attend, too, but one can go to that well only so many times. Besides, The Boy has a heartbreaking way of asking “are you staying home today?” that I really get tired of saying ‘no’ to.

Deans wear several hats – academic leader, business manager, diplomat – but for the next few weeks, it’s mostly Public Face of the College. Not a bad thing, but an odd blend of passivity and publicity. The times I’m most noticed are the times when I’m part of the audience. I suspect this may be at the root of some of the faculty distrust of ‘administration’ generally – the times we’re most noticed are the times when other people are doing the work. What they don’t notice is that even if we went home at 11 the night before, we still dragged ourselves in by 8:30 the following morning, and stayed until 11 that night, too. (That’s not a royal ‘we’ – the deans here form a sort of foxhole camaraderie at this time of year. By graduation, we’re all running on fumes.)

I’ve developed a training ritual – the stash of caffeinated diet soda sits at the ready, the blistering soliloquies in the car on the way home are getting more heated, and I’ve noticed a much more aggressive lawn-mowing technique developing of late – but it’s still a tough month. I never thought I’d say this, but I’d almost rather be grading papers.


Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Profit and Purity

I’ve started reading one of those lefty-authored, bemoan-the-corporatization-of-higher-ed anthologies that became a genre a few years ago, and it got me thinking. The organizing conceit is that higher education was once a shining city on a hill, democratic, meritocratic, and open to all, but that corporate values have destroyed it.

It’s almost difficult to describe on how many levels this diagnosis is wrong.

The liberal arts college I attended in the 80’s (if you know higher ed, you’ve heard of it), one of those places routinely held up as an ideal of what liberal arts education looks like, was entirely consumed by a culture appreciative (worshipful?) of wealth. No, there was no ‘business’ major per se, but there didn’t need to be; the most common jobs, post-graduation, were in investment banking. Those who didn’t go directly to work instead went to grad school, med school, or law school, effectively postponing the vocational part of their education until after college. They didn’t forego it, they just postponed it.

At the respected research university where I got my doctorate, the liberal arts undergrads could be pretty easily divided into two camps: the prelaw and the lack-of-any-better-ideas. Since most undergraduate liberal arts courses taught there were 1. huge, and 2. built with utter indifference to the realities of student learning, less-driven students found the liberal arts courses much easier to fake their way through than others. The truly driven aimed at post-college professional education; the rest just wanted to get a degree with a minimum of work. (This probably also explains how the students could accept adjunct-ification with equanimity. If they don’t particularly care about content anyway, and college is really about sex and beer anyway, then who cares how the teacher gets paid?) How either of these embodies the purity of learning-for-learning’s-sake is beyond me.

At the proprietary school at which I worked before, there was no liberal arts major, but there were courses in the liberal arts disciplines. The techies took history, English, etc., partly to please accreditors and state regulators, but also as part of their professional preparation. Employers consistently complained about the rudimentary communication skills of our graduates; we jiggered and re-jiggered the gen ed courses specifically to (try to) improve those skills. Given a surfeit of help desk applicants, why not take the one who can actually write clearly?

At my current school, the ‘liberal arts’ major is the largest major. It is built, explicitly and without apology, for transfer. We do gen ed so upper-tier schools don’t have to.

The proprietary sector offers serious challenges to traditional higher ed, and is vulnerable to the critique that it’s much more dependent on public sector financial aid than is generally acknowledged. (Strip them of Title IV money, and the entire sector would vanish within six months.) But to pretend that the proprietaries descended like locusts on what was, until then, a pristine field is just silly.

So why does this genre (the academic jeremiad?) flourish?

Part of it, I think, has to do with the rise of adjunct positions and the loss of tenure-track positions. Newly-minted Ph.D.’s who can’t find full-time work are at a loss to explain why, and ‘corporatization’ seems as good an explanation as any. Part of it probably has to do with the justifying myths that graduate programs inculcate in their students, the better to justify the low pay and shabby treatment most grad students will encounter. Part of it has to do with the undeniable increase in the number and visibility of proprietary colleges. Part of it has to do with hamfisted or simply obtuse rhetoric from certain academic administrators. Finally, a good deal of it probably comes out of the (correct) recognition that nonprofits are subject to greater cost pressures than in the past, and that managers now have to watch budgets much more carefully (aggressively?) than they did a generation ago. If you want to call that corporate, I guess you can, but it doesn’t really clarify what’s actually happening.

Elite institutions can offer whatever they want, not necessarily because they’re purer, but because their students have the means for additional (professional) education after the degree. Job preparation is just as real; it’s just later.

To me, the relevant distinction isn’t so much ‘corporate’ vs. ‘pure,’ but ‘training’ vs. ‘education.’ Education can (and usually will) include some amount of training, but it’s broader in the sense that it’s about building skills that go beyond a single context. To my mind, it’s at least theoretically possible to have real education in a for-profit setting (and it’s obviously possible to have training in a non-profit).

The real issue for traditional academics (of which, at heart, I am one) is proving our value to a culture that doesn’t, in any sense of the term, buy it. The short-term budget fix of going all-adjunct-all-the-time is a disaster, I argue, because it implicitly concedes the broader cultural prejudice that says that the content of what we teach doesn’t matter anyway. If we concede that point, we shouldn’t be shocked to see a cost-driven race to the bottom.

Right now, the for-profits compete on convenience and employability. Traditional higher ed, if it wants to regain lost ground, has to find a language for competing on quality. If a for-profit decides to try to compete on quality, I say, bring it on. (This happens in other areas of the market all the time; the word ‘upscale’ entered the language to capture the idea of charging more for an allegedly better product.) As long as the concept of quality (as opposed to ‘prestige’) remains merely implicit, it will be difficult to explain to a cost-conscious public why it should pony up even more money to hire faculty at $40k rather than adjuncts who total less than half that.

Thought experiment: some farsighted entrepreneur puts up a wad of cash to assemble a well-paid, highly-credentialed liberal arts faculty, and charges big money for tuition. (Let’s call it Mercedes U.) Mercedes U. is hard to get into, with rigorous academic standards, but it makes its money by selling quality. Would we object to ‘corporatization’ then? I wouldn’t. If the very thought seems outlandish, ask yourself why.

"All of a Suddenly..."

The Boy recently fired off "all of a suddenly." I really liked that, even if it's technically redundant. (I don't think it says anything that "suddenly" doesn't.) It's right up there with Liz Phair's "I woke up, alarmed" on my list of favorite phrases. Somehow, "all of a suddenly" makes sense.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Blame (and Envy) Canada

As a blue-state American, it’s hard sometimes not to envy Canada. They have a health care system that actually makes some degree of sense (more cars are made in Ontario than Michigan now, due entirely to health costs), a parental leave policy that recognizes that twelve unpaid weeks is a bad joke, a drug policy written by grownups, a Prime Minister who isn't a complete wingnut, and Holly Cole.

But this article in the Chronicle really took it up a notch. Apparently, the Canadian government is changing some rules to make it easier for ‘foreign’ students (including Americans!) to go to colleges and universities there.

As an American academic, I’m starting to worry. At the community college level, I’ve already seen steep drops in ESL enrollments, as the immigration restrictions have tightened. I’ve heard that graduate programs are having a harder time recruiting the best international students to come here, losing them to Australia, India, and (especially now) Canada.

Part of America’s great competitive advantage has been that we’ve been on the right side of the brain drain. Post-9/11, we’ve changed direction, and other countries are stepping in to (happily) take in the brilliant innovators we’re turning away. This is not good.

When the next Microsoft emerges in Toronto, we’ll be very, very sorry. Diana Krall and Holly Cole aren’t the half of it. We're in trouble, eh.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Do the Hustle: The Bradys at Midtier State

I’ve had some gratifying feedback on yesterday’s entry about the mismatches between graduate school and life on the faculty of a teaching institution. A few folks pointed out that I didn’t mention liberal arts colleges – true, though the same basic dynamic holds there. The elite ones – Williams, Swarthmore, Carleton – offer probably the best undergraduate education in America. Below the top dozen or so, though, the teaching loads start to increase, and you start to get the same pining-for-Cambridge dynamic on the faculty.

The lower-tier schools, I think, need to make a choice. Either embrace their identity as teaching institutions and go for it – which is what community colleges and proprietaries have done – or risk it all and go for the brass ring of research grant nirvana. The latter is much, much harder than the former, especially as government support for basic research is gradually supplanted by private-sector support, which has narrower interests. The ‘comprehensive’ model, in which a pretty-good university is pretty good at just about everything while excelling at nothing in particular, just doesn’t make sense anymore.

Look at retail. Wal-Mart does well competing on price. Everything from Target on up competes on niche. Sears, Macy’s, and the like struggle to survive.

Look at broadcasting. Remember variety shows? People of a certain age will recall absolutely dreadful shows from the 1970's (Tony Orlando, Captain and Tenille, the ubiquitous Bradys, etc.) that offered song, dance, sketch comedy, and even bits of drama, all of it unspeakably bad. Cable killed the variety show, which only existed in the first place because, for most of the country for several decades, there were only three or four things on at any given time. Given more choices, someone who wanted, say, comedy could find a comedy and not have to sit through the Brady kids doing the hustle to get there. With more (and better-defined) niches, the variety show died a welcome death.

To my mind, the comprehensive university is the variety show of higher education. A little something for everybody, but none of it terribly good. Hire faculty (when at all) to teach, and give them substantial teaching loads, but fire them for not publishing enough. Field sports teams, but don’t give scholarships for them. Offer lots of terminal masters’ programs. Respond to industry, but slowly. Try to “raise your academic profile” while adjunct-ing out most of your teaching. Charge employees for parking.

What’s the point? The model made sense, sort of, when geography was paramount, or when public subsidies were generous enough that public midtier schools could charge next to nothing. Now that they cost a lot more, and students are more mobile than ever, what do they offer the typical kid that a cheaper or more convenient alternative wouldn’t?

The catastrophic news for today’s grad students is that this is precisely the group of schools, historically, that formed the backbone of the academic job market. Since they rarely hire full-timers anymore, the job market has bifurcated into the elites and the teaching colleges. Grad schools do a fantastic job of preparing students for the elites, but a criminally negligent job of preparing them for the teaching institutions.

As the proprietaries grow and the community colleges claim a growing share of the ‘traditional student’ population, I just don’t see how the so-so midtier schools can continue in their present form. With ESPN, the Cartoon Network, Comedy Central, and Bravo, who would watch Sonny and Cher now? Why are we still training our best and brightest to do the hustle?

Sentence You Never Want to Hear, and a Haiku

Great fun with the dentist. A sentence I heard, that you never want to hear, ever:

"You don't seem to be responding to the novocaine."

What tipped him off?

In honor of my dentist, I've composed a haiku:

die, die, die, die, die
you evil, sadistic prick
novocaine, my ass

I still think "Little Shop of Horrors" was a documentary.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

How Grad School Fails, or, Playing Well With Others

I’ve been reading a whole bunch of grad student and junior faculty blogs lately, and enjoying them, but I couldn’t help but notice a persistent theme. They (accurately, to my memory) invoke the value systems of graduate school, which are hugely different from the value systems at a community college.

See if you can spot the subtle differences:

Grad School Ideals:

Break new ground, nonthreateningly.
Get famous.
Publish, publish, publish.
Climb the ladder.
Teach as little as humanly possible.

Community College Ideals:

Teach a lot, and at least fairly well.
Get along with colleagues.
Do something positive for the college as a whole (as opposed to your department).
Put down roots in the community.
Stay reasonably current in your field.
Do right by your students.

Grad school works pretty well at inculcating a crippling self-doubt, inuring academics to low pay and insecure work conditions, and reinforcing a (surprisingly brittle) prestige hierarchy. As far as training future academic employees for non-elite schools, though, it’s a colossal failure.

Most faculty don’t think of themselves as employees. They think of themselves as independent contractors, loyal to their discipline rather than their institution. This was, I think, a distinctly twentieth-century development, and a bizarre one.

The Harvards of the world can coast on their research money, and that’s fine, but most colleges and universities can’t, and never will. Most are, and will always be, tuition-based. To the extent that’s true, it would be rational for them to look for faculty who are good teachers, good institutional citizens, and good colleagues; good research is nice too, but peripheral.

That’s what every community college I know does, and a fair number of four-year colleges, too. (So do the proprietaries, for that matter.) Combined, these are the majority of colleges in the U.S. (I’m not as familiar with the Canadian system.)

Some midtier schools (you know who you are) try to emulate Harvard’s system, in hopes of ‘raising its academic profile,’ or climbing the hierarchy to where the research money flows like manna from heaven. Good luck with that. In reality, they wind up neither fish nor fowl, firing good young faculty (who are frequently better than their tenured executioners) in the name of recasting themselves as something they will never be. Meanwhile, their budgets suffer the strain of unrealized ambitions, the students get crabby as their increasingly-adjunct professors come and go, and the state legislature, smelling blood in the water, noses around for more.

Higher Ed suffers from Harvard Envy. As long as the prestigious research university is taken, whether explicitly or implicitly, as the only legitimate model, we’ll continue to waste tremendous amounts of money and talent. Training all those Ph.D.’s for jobs that (increasingly) only exist at the top of the food chain doesn’t make sense.

The Prima Donna model (the suffering artiste, the noble but misunderstood intellectual, etc.) works pretty well at Yale, but it crashes and burns here. We want serious thinkers, yes, but not so serious that they can't play well with others. I didn't learn that in grad school.

Day of Atonement

Today's actual, no exaggeration to-do list:

1. Four-hour meeting about technology issues.

2. Finish tax return.

3. Get tooth filled.

Committee meeting, taxes, AND the dentist! My cup runneth over.

Musta done something pretty rotten in a previous life...

Thursday, April 07, 2005

The Scariest (Common) Student Question

What Should I Take?

Such an innocent question, but it still scares me. How the hell should I know? It’s easy if the student already has a desired major and a track record of success in it – then it’s just a matter of checking the transcript against the remaining requirements. Usually, though, those students don’t ask, since they don’t have to. Usually, the question comes from students who have absolutely no idea what to study. They’re in college because, at some level, they (or their parents) think they are supposed to be, but they don’t know why.

It’s a tough one. I usually respond with a question, something along the lines of “what do you care about?” or “what are you good at?” or even “what do you want to do when you graduate?”

Sometimes students surprise me. I’ve been working with one for about a year – I’ll call him Otto – whose lack of self-awareness is simply breathtaking. He was carrying a zero-point-something GPA (lower than a D) after three semesters, stubbornly trying to succeed in a major that he chose because his friends were in it. Otto came to me at registration to ask if I could sign off on letting him try yet again. I asked him why he wanted to keep doing something he obviously hated. He just stared blankly. I suggested that, judging by his transcript, the only classes he actually flourished in were in another discipline. He agreed, saying those were the only classes he actually liked. I asked why he didn’t just switch majors.

(Sound of crickets)

Otto is in the new major now, and thriving. Last semester he carried a B-plus, he’s on track for graduation, and he’s already looking to transfer to a four-year school. All it took was for someone to point out the obvious.

I wonder how many Otto-like students we have who just never have that talk.

It’s tougher with the kids fresh from high school. They don’t have a track record yet, so there’s really nothing to judge. They ask someone to pick a major for them, as if we can see into their heads. I usually default to the generic transfer program, on the theory that it gives them more time to decide, but it’s astonishing how completely they expect clairvoyance.

When we talk about students from disadvantaged backgrounds and the struggles they face in college, we usually talk about either academic ability/preparation or money. I wonder, though, how much of it is just not knowing the rules of the academic game. It just never occurred to Otto to switch majors. Once he did, he was fine. He has the ability to be a pretty good student, when he’s taking subjects he actually cares about.

How do you teach ‘savvy’?

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Vultures and Budgets

It’s hard, sometimes, not to feel like a vulture.

My office got a call today from a very senior professor asking about the paperwork for retiring. He makes over $100k. His replacement, assuming I’m allowed to hire one, would probably come in somewhere in the $40’s. The difference, or breakage, just goes into the black hole of the general budget, to help balance that. (If I’m not allowed to hire one, and we go with all adjuncts, the breakage would be even greater, but at considerable cost to quality.)

From the college’s perspective, this is free money. If we hire the replacement, we’ve kept the staffing levels constant, but cut the budget significantly anyway.

In this budgetary climate, this means that managers spend inordinate amounts of time speculating about retirements.

Salaries here are determined entirely by seniority and contractual, across-the-board raises. They are completely independent of job performance. Some senior faculty are quite good, but there are some whose best work is behind them. They make very high salaries (I have several in the six figures), but often produce at a lower level than their junior counterparts. Since they have tenure, and the Supreme Court in its infinite wisdom abolished mandatory retirement ages for professors (the cutoff used to be 70, which strikes me as reasonable), they leave only when they decide to, or when their health decides for them.

My current college has a very top-heavy full-time faculty, in terms of age and seniority (and therefore salary). Retirements have been fewer and farther between than anticipated, so savings from breakage haven’t been as forthcoming as had been assumed.

In a different fiscal climate, we could prime the pump by offering retirement packages. Philosophically, I’m not a big fan, but it would solve some short-term issues. The state is sufficiently strapped at this point, though, that packages aren’t going to happen. The taxpayers get very crabby about retirement packages, and I can’t say they’re wrong.

So I get unduly excited when a senior professor steps down. I wish that wasn’t true – if the budget were sufficiently flush that it didn’t matter, or if the mandatory retirement age came back so we could anticipate and budget accordingly, or if salaries and raises were tied in some meaningful way to performance – but there we are.

Vultures of the world, unite!

Monday, April 04, 2005

We're Raising Him Right

A few mornings ago, we walked into The Girl’s room to find The Boy standing on a stepstool, peering into the crib, serenading her gently with his inimitable version of “Thunder Road.”

“You ain’t a beauty, but hey, you’re alright…”