Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Starring The Girl

The Boy was out of town for the weekend, visiting Grandma. The Girl stayed with us.

If you aren’t a parent, it’s hard to convey the kind of quiet that sets in when a child isn’t there. It isn’t really peaceful, since you’re so acutely aware of the absence. (The Boy is both exceptionally tall for his age and REALLY energetic – his favorite game is Leap On Daddy’s Back From Behind! – and The Girl is much more easygoing. Kid population down 50%, but kinetic energy level down 80%.) It’s sort of like when you’re climbing stairs in the dark, and you think there’s one more stair than there actually is, and you sort of fall on the phantom stair without actually stumbling. You keep expecting the stair to be there. You’re just off-balance the entire time.

The Girl got the benefit of some undivided attention, of which she gets too little generally. The Wife took a few hours out of Saturday to have lunch with one of her friends, so Saturday was largely Daddy-Daughter day. We almost didn’t know what to do. We read Elmo books and dinosaur books and Grover books; we drew pictures with crayons; we built towers of oversized legos; we wrestled and tickled; she took a couple good naps. It was waaay too cold to take her outside, so we just did inside stuff. She usually gets overshadowed by The Boy’s energy, so it was good to see what it looks like when she gets to define some time.

I feel bad for The Girl sometimes. She’s an incredibly sweet kid, and she has the kind of laugh that would make Scrooge smile. But sometimes she falls victim to the ‘squeaky wheel’ syndrome, and he’s a lot squeakier than she is. She gets some special time with The Wife on weekday mornings when The Boy is at preschool, but special time with me is a little too rare.

She has a mischievous sense of humor. She hid behind a door, and when I walked past, she said a perfect ‘hello’ in exactly the tone I use. I jumped a little, and she laughed openly. I laughed too, recognizing myself in her. She has several of my mannerisms, including some that you’d have to know me pretty well to notice. There’s something humbling about seeing yourself reflected in a 19-month-old.

The Boy came back Sunday, and brought the usual cacophony. I read The Girl an extra story last night.

Monday, February 27, 2006

The Pseudonymity Meme

I don’t usually do memes, but this one spoke to me.

Is your blogging persona more serious than your real-life persona?

Less, actually. In real life, given the ‘public’ nature of my job, I have to choose my words carefully. This year I’ve learned just how eager some people on campus are to try to create issues and political drama out of nothing; as careful as I’ve been in the past, I’m even more careful now. On the blog, though, I can float ideas, think out loud, without worrying about the faculty union taking it as evidence that I’m out to get them. I have a freedom of speech on the blog that I lack in real life.

Do you think the only safe way an academic can write publicly is to write anonymously?

No, but for an academic administrator, it’s a good idea. Tenured faculty can write pretty much whatever they want. Untenured faculty have less freedom, but there’s a kind of freedom in relative indifference; even if people at your school found out, would they care? In my position, it’s pretty much a given that they’d care quite a bit. I think there’s a reason that I have the ‘candid administrator blog’ category pretty much to myself.

Do you think that your blog could ruin your career?

Yes. I certainly hope not; I’ve gone to some lengths to couch issues in structural, rather than personal terms. Writing “Bob is a dick” isn’t terribly useful to anyone else, and wouldn’t solve anything. Figuring out the structural mechanisms that allow dick-like behavior to thrive is both more useful and of more general interest, while also letting poor Bob off the hook.

Do you use a pseudonym out of fear?

Among other reasons, yes. Honestly, part of the fear is for my kids. I mention them from time to time, and I don’t know who’s out there. So they’re The Boy and The Girl.

What is the biggest drawback to writing pseudonymously?

Losing the c.v. line. I’ve had far more readers as “Dean Dad” than as myself.

I’ve also been subject to being dismissed as a fraud. When my ‘don’t go to grad school’ entry got picked up by some bigger blogs, some commenters started with “if he really is a dean.” I am, and it would be lovely to be able to use my real name, title, location, etc. But I just don’t think my campus (or the profession generally) is quite ready for that yet.

Has your blog allowed you to experiment with writing?

Yes, and that’s a blessing. When I started, it was mostly with mini-essays. Over time, I’ve mixed it up more, including transcripts of conversations with The Boy, open-ended questions, advice to readers who send questions, a playlet, and even a satirical compare/contrast essay. Mixing the genres has been one of the more gratifying parts of blogging. You’d be surprised how little room for, say, irony or satire there is in a dean’s memo. Yet irony and satire are as natural to me as breathing.

I’ve also discovered some wonderful writers through reading blogs. Bardiac, Aunt B., Dr. Crazy, and Bitch consistently produce interesting, timely stuff, Harvey makes me laugh out loud, and Danigirl is probably the best unpublished writer I’ve ever read. I hope she loses eligibility for that category soon.

Has anyone stumbled on your blog and found it accidentally?

Yes. Luckily, not from my own campus, as far as I know.

Have you outed yourself to any other bloggers?

Yes. I’ve chosen pretty carefully, and so far, everyone has been honorable. I’ve reciprocated, as far as discretion goes – in the “Ask the Administrator” letters, which are usually my favorite entries, I reveal only as much as the correspondent specifically allows me to.

Why do you use a pseudonym?

If you know the “Thomas the Tank Engine” series, you’ll get the reference: I want to be a Really Useful Blogger. While there are plenty of wonderful academic bloggers out there, they’re mostly either students or faculty. The administrative side is almost completely unrepresented. By dint of my idiosyncratic career path, I have a different angle on higher ed than most people, and one that’s mostly missing in candid public discourse. If I posted under my own name, I’d have to keep everything anodyne, which would pretty much guarantee banality. A pseudonym gives me the freedom to say what I really think, even if the thoughts are still only half-formed. I’ve received incredibly generous and thoughtful feedback (generally) from my readers, much of which has sharpened my own thinking and helped me on the job.

Honestly, although I’m sure an angry union rep could pick out a sinister-looking sentence here or there, I try to be constructive. Sometimes I need help with problems I’m facing, and the readers provide it. Sometimes I offer help to readers, by demystifying some of what goes on in the dean’s office. Sometimes I get ambitious and try to do larger structural issues, with mixed results. And sometimes I just write for comic relief, like the Curious George/Brokeback Mountain essay or the Elephants playlet; those get more hits than anything else I do. Kinda puts things in perspective.

(Thanks to jo(e) for starting this, and to Bardiac for highlighting it.)

Friday, February 24, 2006

Ask the Administrator: Torn Between Two Futures, Feeling Like a Fool...

A twenty-something correspondent writes (edited for length):


Help! I think I’m suffering from academic schizophrenia! As I move towards the final year(s) of my Ph.D., I’m absolutely torn about how I should approach my future in terms of my next job choice…I’m currently considering applying for a variety of types of positions in academia – all of which I think would be interesting and fulfilling. One of the things I find most stressful about the whole academic/job search thing is that it seems one needs to pigeonhole oneself into a particular type of track. Am I wrong in thinking that there might actually be gasp more than one way of working in academia that might make me happy?...Assuming that I have aptitude for both teaching and administrative careers, do you think it’s a good idea to undertake a job search which involves looking for multiple types of careers in academia? Any ideas of how to tell my committee which really only wants me to apply for 4 year college/university tenure track jobs? Do I have a shot at all these different types of jobs? I should say at this point that I have a happy and rich life with family, friends, and a long term significant other.

I don’t have any particular geographical parameters or family/partner issues influencing my job choice…I’m in my fifth year of a Ph.D. program at a well-respected public research university. I expect to file my dissertation next summer…my committee seems happy with my progress. Over the last few years I’ve received internal and external fellowships to pursue my research and I have a few publications as well as a book that I’m editing that will be published by a nifty academic publisher. My committee really wants me to go on the 4 year college academic job market starting next year (meaning Fall of 2006). In addition to my dissertation and graduate student life I am also the coordinator of a major grant which one of my committee members has received. Administering this grant involves lots of different sorts of administrative work as well as conference planning, meeting with the big administrative offices at our university…I’ve also been involved in different administrative appointments at my university within my department.

Do you think that these sorts of experiences would make it possible for me to apply for administrative positions in a 4 year college or cc? On top of all this I’m also an adjunct instructor at a local cc…I also have a few publications which are about the teaching of my subject (trying hard not to sound like just another snobbish academic to cc departments that might frown on my background).

Should I focus my search on one of these fields or try to do it all and find the best fit, assuming that I actually get offered a position somewhere?


I always feel like an underachiever when I read stuff like this.

Yes, you would probably be a good candidate for certain kinds of administrative positions – assistant deanships of special programs, or perhaps directorships of tutoring centers. I wouldn’t advise going that route initially, though.

Positions like those are terminal. You will have peaked, organizationally, on your first day. As long as you’re on the academic side of the college, broadly speaking, (which would include tutoring centers, but would not include, say, the financial aid office), your ceiling will be low without experience as full-time faculty. The salaries are lower than you might think, and the jobs repetitive after a while. And it will be harder to jump back on the faculty track, since some search committees won’t take you seriously and your Ph.D. would have passed its informal expiration date for a new hire.

To move into the positions that offer the possibility of leading to other things, you really need several years’ full-time teaching experience. Once you have that, you become a very viable candidate for all manner of other things, especially if you manage to finagle a department chairmanship.

(In fairness, I should indicate that my entire professional experience has been at small or mid-sized teaching institutions. I don’t know the admin structure of an Ohio State or a Stanford as well.)

As I’ve seen said elsewhere, you can have it all, but not all at the same time.

Having said that, in your applications for faculty positions at teaching-oriented places, I’d strongly encourage you to highlight your administrative background and capabilities. It’s an open secret that departments often dump what they perceive as the least desirable assignments on the rookie hires (outcomes assessment, say, or whatever the latest dean’s task force happens to be); if you communicate that you actually like that sort of thing, you’ll stand out. Most finalists for tenure-track jobs make strong cases for themselves as teachers and scholars, and you’ll have to, too. But if you can add to that a strong case for yourself as a departmental citizen, you’ll make an awfully compelling candidate.

Once you land somewhere, volunteer for some of those assignments. (Most likely, you’ll be pushing an open door!) Deans and others of our ilk notice, quickly, when a competent new hire steps up and performs well on the tasks that faculty always gripe the most about doing at all. At my college, there’s one pre-tenured professor who has done a nice job with several small administrative assignments, and he has already caught the attention of the vp. The combination of capable, willing, and sane is surprisingly rare.

The good news is, you can please your committee, cash in on your publications, and lay the groundwork for whatever career path you choose, all at the same time. You just have to be a little bit patient while laying the groundwork.

Good luck!

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at ccdean (at) myway (dot) com.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

In Which I Resort to Semaphore, Trumpets, Flashing Arrows, and a Spotlight

Danigirl occasionally posts what she calls ten-pages-in book reviews, in which she gives her impressions of a book she just started. It’s a cool idea, though I haven’t felt strongly enough early enough about a book to imitate it, until now.

I just started the 2006 edition of The Search Committee Handbook: A Guide to Recruiting Administrators, by Theodore Marchese and Jane Fiori Lawrence (Stylus Pub.). (Yes, I’m a nerd.) It’s a foundation supported guidebook for colleges and universities to give their search committees when recruiting deans and vp’s. On page ix of the introduction, Marchese and Lawrence observe:

The most significant – and least understood – change [in administrative searches since the first edition of the book came out in 1987] is the recent sharp decline in the size of applicant pools for administrative posts. In 1987, search committees placed ads and watched confidently as 100 to 200 applications arrived in the mail. Today, the same ad might bring 20 to 40 applications…The reasons for this sharp drop in the size of pools are many, albeit speculative. The tragic events of September 11, 2001, may have played a role in convincing more professionals to adopt a ‘stay put’ mentality toward their homes and careers. The cumulative effects of poor treatment in prior searches deter candidates from entering subsequent searches. The phenomena of dual careers, promotion from within, housing market distortions, restrictive pension rules, and geographic preference also keep candidates from moving. Too, able young faculty and staff look at the work demands that come with an administrative position, and at the revolving doors through which middle and senior managers come and go, and decide to pass on the ‘opportunity.’


If the kids weren’t in bed, I would have thrown the book at a lamp.

They start with an observation that I’ve seen echoed elsewhere, that the pool of candidates for administrative positions is shallower than it has been in a long time, and the trend is accelerating. Okay, interesting. And the reasons they offer?

September 11: Uh, no. That might explain a sharp drop that particular year, but the trend started well before 2001, and is still accelerating.

Poor treatment in prior searches: Presumably, this isn’t markedly worse than in the past. It’s real, but it can’t explain change.

Dual careers: Damn those women, getting jobs! Except they had jobs in the 80’s and 90’s, too. Not the culprit. Besides, some of those jobs were as administrators!

Promotion from within: Not new.

Housing market distortions: Okay, there’s something to this, but it would only explain regional drops, not national ones. Fewer Ohioans apply to schools in New York City? Could be housing. But if housing were the critical variable, we’d expect to see more New Yorkers apply in Ohio. Not the case.

Restrictive pension rules: Pensions are more portable now than they were then.

Geographic preference: Yeah, nobody had geographic preferences in the 80’s.

Revolving doors: Not new.

This stuff makes me nuts.

What’s the missing variable?


Hint: The median age of full-time faculty at my college is 59.

Hint: key on that phrase, “able young faculty....”

Hint: the job market for new Ph.D.’s looking for tenure track jobs has stunk for 30 years.


Let’s see, the pipeline starts with the faculty. Able young faculty, once they’ve shown their mettle after some time as full-timers, are the farm team for new managers. We haven’t hired able young faculty in meaningful numbers since the Nixon administration.


Could it be that glaringly obvious and huge labor market distortions have something to do with it? Could it be that most faculty, by their 60’s, have pretty clearly made up their minds about going into administration, and have either done it by then or have no intention of it? Could it be that a foundation-funded study missed something so breathtakingly basic that a blogger could find it on the first frickin’ page?

Nah. Must be the wives. First they got the vote, now this…

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Opting Out

For a variety of reasons, there seems to be an uptick in the number of people asking for the ability to opt out of individual class assignments or even course requirements.

Some of these requests are obviously valid: a paraplegic student ought to be exempt from the required swim test, and I don’t mind barring a 14-year-old from a figure drawing class that uses live nude models.

But I’m seeing more opt-out requests, and some of them are beginning to make me nervous.

We’ve moved aggressively to include more high school students in college-level classes with our regular students. In some ways, this is very much to the good: students who are bored to tears by a high-school curriculum or offended by high-school culture get a different option, our enrollments get a boost, and some kids who might not have thought college was for them find out it isn’t so bad. Some of the smaller high schools can’t afford to run sections of advanced classes, so it’s easier to send the students here. And some of the home-schooled kids outpace their parents’ expertise (or facilities!) in certain subjects before 18, and need someplace to go. (This is especially true in the lab sciences and foreign languages.)

I worry, though, that as the influx of younger students (and their parents!) increases, we’ll gradually come under increased pressure to make every corner of our curriculum inoffensive to the younger set.

We’ve had issues before with younger students in ethics classes, when the discussion turned to premarital or extramarital sex, and we’ve also had issues in literature classes, where the full panoply of human experiences is fair game. In both cases, parents have asked for alternate assignments. Deleting every ‘adult theme’ from Western literature means deleting a hell of a lot of literature. Even seemingly-innocuous courses like Art History can raise issues -- do you really want to be on the phone with an angry father, assuring him that “The Rape of the Sabine Women” really is part of the Western art tradition? It’s not much fun.

After getting burned a few times, we’ve put up some hoops for parents to jump through when signing up their high-school-aged kids for classes. Some of it has to do with academic placement, but much of it is to make sure that we don’t have battles over content. 15-year-old Jennifer wants to take Spanish 1? Good for her! She wants to take Women in Literature? Well, let’s think about that…

Sometimes you get caught completely off-guard. In my teaching days, I was once called on the carpet by an adult student for assigning Swift’s “Modest Proposal” in a composition class. (I used it to illustrate both ‘the persuasive essay’ and ‘satire.’) He asserted that anything involving cannibalism was completely out-of-bounds. I assured him that we wouldn’t revisit the theme again in that course (which we didn’t), but I was taken aback at the self-assurance with which this man, completely blind to irony, assumed that I was actually advocating cannibalism.

I know there are ‘culture wars’ going on all over the country. The Northeast is probably less affected than some other areas, but we get it here, too. As the home-school crowd grows (it’s our fastest-growing demographic), I’m concerned that some of the norms we’ve developed around open inquiry will fall victim to parental umbrage, well-meaning or otherwise. That’s not because our norms are politically loaded, necessarily – Swift is a dead white guy, after all – but because much of the most valuable inquiry in human history has been into sensitive areas. If we aren’t free to play ‘devil’s advocate’ from time to time, we can’t do our jobs.

Of course, for the devil’s advocate to be effective, he has to be persuasive, and that carries the risk of changing minds. At base, I really think much of the sudden eagerness to second-guess curricular choices comes from an unwillingness to accept uncertainty, to accept the possibility that you might change your mind. It takes a certain courage to venture into uncharted territory, especially in emotionally-charged areas. But that’s part of maturity. It’s part of real adulthood.

Anybody who has ever weathered a bad breakup knows the fear of uncertainty. Hell, asking my then-girlfriend to become The Wife took a gigantic leap of faith. Deciding to have kids took even bigger leaps. If you never grapple with uncertainty, you never really learn to make leaps in its face. (Or, worse, you make the leaps too quickly, with no reflection on their cost.) I’m brave enough to read people I disagree with, and to admit when I’m not sure. Too many people confuse intensity of conviction with truth. I prefer to think that truth is what’s left standing after the dust settles.

Moving too quickly from “this makes me uncomfortable” to “therefore, I shouldn’t be exposed to it” is dangerous. As a college, we’ve made the choice to bar underage students from certain classes, rather than water down the content, and I’m proud of that choice. As the political winds shift, I hope we stay true to our mission. If that means offending a few true believers, so be it. There are worse offenses than offending.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Two for Tuesday

Shameless Plug Alert! I've got a piece on long-term contracts (as opposed to tenure) in today's Inside Higher Ed.

This should be interesting...

Ask the Administrator: How to Apply for a Position that Doesn't Exist?

A new correspondent in a two-academic marriage writes (edited for length):

I have a question regarding how to successfully apply for a position that doesn’t exist.

The husband and I attended a 4-year regional U in our hometown. Hometown is also home to the local cc. After getting his Master’s, the husband taught for department X at the cc as an adjunct while I completed my Master’s. During the following summer, I taught one or two sections of a remedial support subject at the cc under the learning support (not department specific) division. Afterwards, we packed up for Grad School City, Ph.D.’s or bust.

Years later…Husband has completed his Ph.D. and is now in a tenure-track position in department X at a regional U near Grad School City. While ABD, I was also able to land a full-time position at a regional U near Grad School City teaching remedial courses (not a career choice, just the way the cards fell). I am now rapidly approaching completion, and both of us want to head back to our hometown.

Logically, we might consider applying for posted, vacant positions at the 4-year regional U in our hometown, each in our own departments. Without saying too much, there are some external circumstances that render husband an unlikely candidate at that U. As for me, my own field requires some clinical experience before I could get a tenure-track position at the U. I could gain such experiences in hometown, but it would take a while. Our gaze, then, logically turns to the hometown cc.

Unfortunately, there are no posted full-time positions available – only adjunct. Herein lies the problem. Is there a way we could appropriately express our interest(s) in teaching there to those who are in the position of hiring and, if the situation merited, “creating” positions? For that matter, can full-time positions be “created” anymore?

(A long paragraph follows detailing how well they’d fit the cc.)

As you can see, we’re eager to get our feet in the door, at least to the point that the powers-that-be can tell us if they like them or not! But how? Routine procedure calls for an opening and/or posting prior to application. Without that, is there a “proper” way to express interest? Perhaps one that has proven successful in the real world? The husband “knows” – to the extent that he would have said ‘hello’ to them in the hallway upon passing several years ago – a few people in dept. X, though he hasn’t been in contact with them since our move to Grad School City. The same dept. head is still there, though he only met the husband once or twice while working there (adjuncts reported elsewhere). I don’t know anyone in my department there.

Help! Recommendations? Advice? SOS! I wanna go home!


As I understand it, you want to return to your hometown, but your husband doesn’t make an attractive candidate for the local university and the local cc doesn’t have vacancies posted. You’re asking if positions are ever created for people, and if so, how to get them.

In answer to the question about creating positions, yes, but it’s very, very rare. For that to happen, the college (or a particular program) has to be in a pretty spectacular growth mode. I saw it happen at my old school (a for-profit technical college) in the 1990’s when anything connected to technology was hot and enrollments doubled in three years, but I haven’t seen it happen (or heard of it ever happening) at my cc.

Since cc’s are public institutions, the jobs have to be open to the public. That means that they have to be approved by the Board of Trustees (or whatever the local equivalent is), advertised with set criteria, and open to all qualified applicants. That’s not to say that hiring managers (dept. chairs, say) don’t sometimes try to bring in their favorites, and sometimes succeed, but the existence of the job itself has to be approved at high levels. Unless the college is simply rolling in money, that’s unlikely to happen just because someone attractive came along.

I receive unsolicited applications for phantom positions about once a week. I send them to the relevant department chairs for the ‘potential adjunct’ files, and send a “thanks for thinking of us, but we don’t have any openings” letter to the applicant. That’s true regardless of the quality of the applicant. At a public-sector college with limited funding, I couldn’t just hire on the spot even if I wanted to. And when I can hire, I strongly prefer a full, open, national search. Even if I preferred a more Don Corleone-style, HR would veto it.

Depending on the culture of the college (and of the specific departments), who to schmooze (or to what extent schmoozing at all would help) will vary. I find it creepy, myself, though I’d be na├»ve to deny that some people like that sort of thing.

I don’t quite understand the pull of the hometown. It may be perfectly lovely, but so are plenty of other places. The academic job market is national. Narrowing the search to a single town requires unbelievable luck, no matter how qualified you are. Narrowing to a single institution, for two jobs, simultaneously, pretty much requires divine intervention. Far be it from me to dictate to the divine, but I wouldn’t bet the farm on it. I’d encourage you to broaden your range of acceptable outcomes, in any of several possible ways.

Outside of the big Western states, cc’s are usually specific to individual counties. That means that there are probably neighboring counties with cc’s of their own within reasonable commuting distance; at the very least, I’d look seriously at those. If you can broaden your search from one college to three or four, that can only help.

I’d also recommend looking hard at one or both of you branching into either administrative or quasi-administrative positions, or looking outside academia. I don’t know what your scholarly fields are, so I can’t be very specific there, but positions like writing-center director or assistant/associate dean of whatever can actually be much easier to get than tenure-track faculty positions. (That’s especially true when you get away from the coasts.) The hours are more traditional than a faculty position, but the salary and benefits are comparable. These positions can also be more conducive to work/family balance, since you generally don’t take this work home with you. If the pull of the hometown is about family, this is not a small consideration.

Or you could look at alternatives to the hometown.

If all of this strikes you as true-but-irrelevant, at the very least, don’t advertise your ‘place-bound’ status at your desired cc until it would clearly work to your advantage. It’s easier to ignore adjuncts who clearly can’t or won’t go anywhere else anyway. Loyalty to place helps once a job is actually available – that’s when flight risk is a negative. Until then, you could fall prey to the old ‘why buy the cow when we can get the milk for (almost) free?’ Don’t pledge your troth to an institution before it pledges to you. You could easily get jilted at the altar.

Loyal readers – any thoughts on this one?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at ccdean (at) myway (dot) com.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Men in Hats, or, I'm Glad I Don't Teach Composition Anymore

With little ones, we don’t get out to movies very often. This weekend was a major exception, with two movies in two days. I took The Boy to see Curious George, and The Wife to see Brokeback Mountain.

Seeing two movies back-to-back prompted the inevitable comparisons, which, in turn, brought back memories of those awful “compare and contrast” essay assignments from my days teaching composition 1. What follows is a compare-and-contrast essay, in the style of a freshman composition student, about the two movies. I did my best to get the prose style right. For those who’ve never taught a class that involved grading freshman papers, you might want to take a stiff drink before reading more...


Although Curious George and Brokeback Mountain share many similarities, they also share many differences. Both involve men in hats, but the meaning of the hat changes.

Curious George is the story of a monkey and the man he adopts. The Man in the Yellow Hat works in a museum, where he never figures out that Drew Barrymore has a crush on him. He must be gay or something. He gets sent to Africa to find a statue that could save the museum. He doesn’t, but he could of if he had figured out how to read the map. A monkey steals his hat, which is like stealing his identity, but it’s a hat. It’s an example of nature’s inhumanity to man.

Anyway, the monkey follows the man back to New York City. They get into alot of adventures. Just when The Man and Drew Barrymore are about to hook up, George starts firing off a rocket. This is called symbolism. Then they go around the world again and again (The Man and George, not The Man and Drew).

Brokeback Mountain is about two gay cowboys. We know they’re gay cause they have sex. Also cause they don’t like Anne Hathaway, Michele Williams, and that chick who played Lindsay on Freaks and Geeks and is on ER now. They both wear cowboy hats, but not yellow ones.

The cowboys meet when their on the same sheep drive. They hook up cause it’s cold, but decide they like it. They go back to the real world and get married to women, but can’t stop hooking up in the mountains. Heath Ledger tells his wife he’s going fishing, but he’s not.

Eventually, they break up and Maggie Gyllenhaal’s brother dies. He wasn’t a very good cowboy. He always held his cigarettes like joints. Also, Anne Hathaway had funny hair.

At the end, Heath Ledger mumbles something meaningful to the other cowboy’s shirt, which is like a hat, but it has sleeves. This is called symbolism. The theme is man’s inhumanity to man, and their wifes.

Although the two movies were the same, they were also different.


If one of your students plagiarizes that for an assignment, I’ll be oddly proud.

Friday, February 17, 2006

The Tragic Boy

The Boy, in the morning, as The Wife tugged on his pant cuffs so he wouldn’t look like he was dressed for high water:

“I don’t feel like a person when you do that.”

It’s utterly crumpling when a four-year old says that.

Utopia, Version 1.2

Yesterday’s discussion about the ideal community college was wonderful – thanks to my readers for being so thoughtful and generous in your comments!

Reading all of those comments prompted me to think a little about what I’d do.

First, the obvious: as so many of you pointed out, small classes, reasonable teaching loads, onsite childcare (both day and evening), good public transportation, strong transfer programs, and locally-relevant vocational programs are simply essential.

Given all of that, I’d do some curricular and organizational tweaking.

First, I’d mandate at least one course in public speaking for every degree program. For the transfer oriented programs, I’d probably follow that with a course in debate or interpersonal communication. Educated people should be at least reasonably articulate, and I’m concerned that the ipod and IM generation isn’t getting that. Employers constantly complain about the communication skills of recent college graduates, and they aren’t only referring to writing. Composition is pretty much a ubiquitous requirement; I say Speech should be, too.

Second, when there’s room in the curriculum, I’d love to see mandatory courses in American Government and something like Personal Finance. Equip the students to defend themselves in the real world. Teach the math of insurance, the sociology of consumer credit, and the basic structure of the government. (Maybe this could be developed into an interdisciplinary course on contemporary reality? But who would teach it?...) In fact, something like “the logic of organizations” might make a nice unifying rubric. A boy can dream...

Organizationally, it’s time to look seriously at long-term renewable contracts for faculty. I'm working on a longer piece on this topic that I hope will be done shortly.

Politically, I’d hope to gain support from across the political spectrum for giving people with drive a chance to become more economically productive. How to translate that into sufficient, sustainable funding is a major question. I’d also love to see the Age Discrimination in Employment Act revised in a few ways. Bring back a mandatory retirement age of 70, and allow hiring for diversity to include age. Without the occasional younger faculty role model, I think we really miss opportunities to reach students.

Technologically, I strongly believe that podcasting offers possibilities we have only begun to imagine. I’d also recognize serious academic blogging as a form of professional development; to my mind, the kind of work that Bardiac or Bitch, Ph.D. posts is clearly professionally relevant, even if it’s different from the traditional article-that-three-people-read.

Finally, I’d institute a serious goose control program. The damn things poop all over the place.

Thanks, everyone, for the ideas! I don’t know what I’ll be able to use, but it’s good to be reminded from time to time that we are capable of far more than we’ve done.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Utopia CC

I have an invitation for my readers.

I’m trying to design the perfect community college in words, to have a coherent position from which to evaluate the ones that actually exist. A goal for which to strive, if you will.

I’ve also learned that the collective wisdom of the blogsophere dwarfs my own.

So, the invitation:

Give a characteristic (or several) of the ideal community college.

Possible angles: what does it do? Who does it serve? How is it structured? How is it funded? How is it different from what’s out there now? What’s worth preserving? Who are the students? Who are the faculty? How/where does teaching occur? How does the college measure success at fulfilling its mission?

For the sake of discussion, let’s assume that the laws of physics still apply. So we can’t solve the parking problem with hovercrafts, or staff the security force with superheroes. That’s too easy.

Waddaya think?

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Bond Issues and Gift Certificates

I like gift certificates. They’re easy to find, they admit a certain humility on the part of the giver (“I know you like movies, but I don’t know which ones you have, so...”), and they’re great fun to receive when they’re applicable to the right places.

All of that said, there’s a reason stores sell them. They lock up cash for a specific purpose.

Bond issues are like that, too.

Bond issues are usually allocated for construction and/or major capital outlays. The money is ‘earmarked,’ similar to grants, and cannot be used for other purposes. It’s not unusual for the availability of earmarked money to cause a college to recalibrate its priorities; if one area can be funded externally and another can’t, it’s a pretty sure bet which one will get done first.

I like bond issues. I’m glad that we can use bond issues to pay for the construction costs for new academic facilities. If we couldn’t, we probably couldn’t build at all.

That said, it’s a hard sell to a pressed state legislature to increase allocations for operating budgets in the face of a large bond issue. They see it as overlap. It isn’t, really: if we don’t have the operating budgets to pay faculty to teach in the spiffy new building, it’s hard to say just what purpose the spiffy new building is supposed to serve.

This is the same objection I have to the idea that we can replace reduced government operating support with private philanthropy. Private philanthropy is great, and I’m all for it, but it almost always comes with strings: reporting requirements, ‘matching fund’ requirements, restrictions on use. Only in very rare cases can it be applied to salaries or labor costs generally.

Think of bond issues or philanthropic gifts as gift certificates, and operating budgets as money. I’m always happy to get relevant gift certificates, and they can reduce my use of cash in certain very-well-defined contexts. But I can’t pay my mortgage or utilities with them. For the basic needs that comprise the overwhelming majority of my spending, only money will do. For the college, that means unrestricted operating funds.

I’m concerned that a well-intentioned move towards bond issues could poison the well for increased operating budgets, which is, by far, the greater need. I’m always happy to see cool new buildings go up, but if I have to fill them with adjuncts, I’d consider it a mixed blessing at best.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Sick Days, or, I Never Thought of That

Managing can be depressing. It’s depressing because you can’t just avert your gaze, like a normal person, when people do boneheaded things. You have to take it all in, figure out just what the hell they were thinking, and then try to talk reason with them. They usually get offended and accuse you of horrible things, then go back to receiving signals from the mothership. And they have tenure.

For example, there’s a loophole in our sick day policy. Sick days accumulate until retirement, at which point they’re paid out up to a maximum in the mid-five-figures. (The same does not apply to administrators, btw.) Most faculty do everything possible to minimize their use of sick days, to preserve the big payout. The size of the payout strikes me as immoral, but at least it rewards good attendance, which is something.

Now assume that one professor has shifted his gaze to another part of the contract. There, it says that using three or more sick days in a row requires a doctor’s note. This professor has accumulated plenty of days over the decades, and is spending them now at the rate of two a week. Since the contract sets the threshold for verification at three consecutive days, he can do this and get paid for it until the cows come home.

The catch, of course, is that he has classes. That is, he’s scheduled for classes. On any given day, it’s a crapshoot. And his students (and their parents) are getting surly.

In a rational system, he’d be invited to take a long walk off a short plank, and that would be the end of it. But with tenure and a union, there isn’t much I could do. I could, theoretically, start turning down the sick leave requests, but the union grievance would hit faster than you could say ‘featherbedding,’ and the union would win. The contract is very clear on the rules for sick days.

At the heart of the problem is that nobody thought of this in advance. It’s so ridiculously unprofessional, so obviously beyond the pale, that the folks who wrote the contract originally probably never thought of it. But contracts being contracts, and tenure being tenure, I can’t address the blind spot until the next contract negotiation. Even then, the folks on the union side would surely balk, since it would never occur to them to do something so plainly stupid, so they’d try to sniff out my nefarious underlying motive.

(It’s not unlike the Seinfeld episode in which George was fired for having sex with the cleaning lady on his desk. He defended himself by saying nobody told him he couldn’t have sex with the cleaning lady on his desk, so how was he supposed to know?)

Ideally, I’d be able to ask him informally what was going on. If there was some sort of major personal issue he was trying to balance, we could talk about FMLA leaves or personal leaves or whatever else. But assume that he’s as evasive with me as he is with his students.

Rigid rules, like tenure and union contracts, lend themselves to loophole-seeking. I know that faculty get jumpy at any mention of ‘ managerial discretion,’ but without it, this kind of abusive behavior can go on for years.

In my faculty days, I’d roll my eyes at someone like this and go on about my business. Now, this is my business. And there’s not a damn thing I can do to address it.

What does your school do about sick days? Have you had any issues like this? Is there a solution I’m not seeing?

Monday, February 13, 2006

Let's Play...Name the Impeachable Offense!

Which of the following is an impeachable offense in the US?

- Spying on American citizens without a warrant
- Shooting an innocent man in the face at point-blank range
- Establishing torture camps all over the world
- Receiving consensual oral sex from an adult

Take your time, now…

Snow, As Seen at Different Ages

We got a boatload of snow this weekend (for my Canadian readers, that’s roughly a metric boatload), and I still haven’t bought a snowblower, so I had plenty of time to reflect on snow as I dug us out.

Snow, as seen at different ages:

Childhood: Cool! Snow forts! Snowmen! Snowball fights!

Teens: whatever.

Twenties: whatever.

Thirties: #*#(@*%&*@*$@)$@($*%

To add insult to injury, the snow fell Saturday-into-Sunday, meaning we don’t even get a snow day out of it.

We had planned to attend a baptism on Sunday (what The Boy called a ‘bathtism,’ which is actually a pretty good description, if you think about it), but had to cancel. We had planned to go to a major sports event on Saturday night, but had to cancel. So we had a very wound-up boy, a somewhat wound-up girl, a disappointed mom, and a disappointed and increasingly achy dad.


Times like these I regret having been born without the ski gene. The ski gene allows otherwise-normal people to actually celebrate snow, since it brings with it the opportunity to pay lots of money to go careening down mountains at high speeds, surrounded by other people doing the same. I don’t have that gene, and neither does The Wife. If there’s anything to natural selection, I assume that the ski gene will gradually die out, as its bearers do Sonny Bono’s into the next world. Until then, we just have to humor them.

(I’ve noticed that many of the same people afflicted with the ski gene also have the camping gene. These people pile astonishing amounts of Gore-Tex and Fleece into their SUV’s to get back to nature. Don’t ask me...)

The one winter sport I’ll admit enjoying is the luge. I’ve never actually tried it, but it looks insanely fun on tv. It’s the ultimate suburban dad sport: lie down, go fast, win medals. Sign me up! That German ‘sausage’ dude is secretly laughing at us.

Every year at this time I resolve to buy a snowblower. Maybe that’s for the forties...

Friday, February 10, 2006

"Results Oriented" and Constructive Failure

Scanning the management lit, I keep saying references to ‘results oriented’ managers, and I keep gagging. Since my subconscious is smarter than my frontal lobe, it sometimes takes a while to decode the gagging, but I think I’m figuring it out.

The appeal of “results oriented” management (which some might infer that I endorse, from yesterday’s entry about the wonders of data) is that it’s supposed to cut through the rhetoric. In some ways, it does: acknowledging success by someone who otherwise gets on your nerves is a sign of maturity. Acknowledging when someone you like is just plain failing is similar.

Yet, I still wince.

In practice, the folks I’ve worked with/for who would describe themselves as ‘results oriented’ have usually been impatient, self-impressed blowhards. They’re reductionist, arrogant, closed-minded, and generally rather stupid.

I think it’s because they’re thinking small.

Good management, as I see it, sets the background conditions to encourage constructive experiments. Among those background conditions is a sense of trust and security, so that an experiment failing won’t be seen as an employee failing. Freedom to fail is a prerequisite to sustained progress.

A good manager will be able to discern the difference, consistently, between constructive failure and garden variety screwing-up. A bad one won’t.

Constructive failure results from the rare blend of careful planning, a willingness to take risks, and the universe’s sense of humor. In my teaching days, I used to fail constructively in the classroom all the time. I’d spend weeks preparing a really nifty role-play or simulation, only to have it fall flat in class. It was annoying, but I wasn’t wrong to try it. Keeping the teaching interesting required periodic experiments, not all of which worked. To their eternal credit, the folks who first hired me to faculty gave me the room to try stuff, and didn’t hold the occasional laying of an egg against me. I try to exercise the same discretion now.

Truth be told, many of the most successful teaching moments I had were refinements of earlier failures. The breakthroughs required the failures.

Garden variety screwing-up is different. It can show up even when you’re not trying anything new. It’s often a result of apathy. (My favorite moment in the neglected classic film Office Space: “It’s not that I’m lazy. It’s that I just don’t care.”) Screwing-up is frequently a result of lacking the big picture, whether by cognitive limitation or just not caring.

A manager who throws his weight around, loudly demanding results, will increase the number of screw-ups (since nobody will admit when they’re confused, since it would be held against them) and decrease the number of constructive failures (since he won’t see the ‘constructive’ part). When the willingness to experiment fades, the breakthroughs will cease, and the decline will begin. The irony is that the decline will be a direct result of a focus on results.

In a way, I see this as applied science. The scientists and engineers I know (and I know LOTS of them – it’s a hazard of nerd-dom) are very clear on the fact that many experiments don’t work. They get frustrated, of course, but they don’t assume that a failed experiment is a sign of a failed scientist. It’s just part of the process.

I’m trying to get this point of view across to some folks who are very, very averse to failure. It’s a harder sell than I imagined. “Humility Unto Greatness!” doesn’t rally the troops. But I’m working on it...

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Wisdom Alert!

Every once in a while, I stumble across a sentence so good that I stop cold, exhale, admire, and curse the fact that I didn't write it first. The best ones are both wise and well-formed.

I found one today at tiny cat pants:

“I love shitty men who treat me bad and I love them because I hope if I can change their minds about me, it will prove to me that I can go ahead and change my mind about me.”
– Aunt B., Tiny Cat Pants

Read it slowly, at least twice. Think about it.

Bless you, Aunt B., for explaining both my bachelor years and the last two Presidential elections. And curse you, Aunt B., for expressing in one sentence something I hadn't been able to solve in 30-something years.

Nicely done. Now back to the regularly-scheduled blog.

I Heart Data

It’s time to start making decisions about which departments will get to hire new full-timers for the Fall. Per usual, the demand for new people exceeds the supply of funding, so the VP and I have to make some choices.

Listening to my chairs, I get a particular impression of where the needs are. Looking at the data, I get a very different impression.

Seized by inspiration (okay, impatience), I ran the course counts for the last two semesters, and manually counted off how many sections in each area were taught by adjuncts. Through high-level math, like addition and division, I found the percentages in each area. Suffice it to say, the percentages are a pretty bracing reality check.

The relationship between chair complaints and objective reality is almost random. One department is nearly all full-timers, and the chair of that one (wisely) doesn’t complain. Other than that, I could find no relationship between the truth and the complaining. The loudest (and most self-righteous) complainer is actually in the middle, slightly below the mean. The department in the worst shape complains a bit from time to time, but nothing like most others.

Maybe it’s the social scientist in me, but I’m fascinated by the mismatch between perception and reality.

Malcolm Gladwell has a pretty good essay in this week’s New Yorker about empirical studies of the costs of homelessness. He notes that most people think of homelessness as a chronic condition that can be ameliorated through broad provision of social services – soup kitchens, shelters, etc. Drawing on the work of some people who actually went into the trenches and did some counting, he found that the bulk of the social costs of homelessness (medical care, mostly) derives from a very small percentage of the homeless. Narrowly-targeted but dramatic interventions in a few hard cases produce greater results than broadly-provided but shallow instances of help, like soup kitchens. Gladwell notes that narrowly-targeted, dramatic interventions are hard to sell, since they’re morally counter-intuitive (i.e. they seem to be rewarding bad behavior). But from an objective cost perspective, they’re far more effective.

He describes it as the difference between a standard bell curve and something that looks like a hockey stick. Interventions that target the entire length of the curve won’t achieve very much, since most of the curve doesn’t matter much, and the part that does matter needs far stronger interventions than we would ever apply across the board.

I’m quite taken with this idea, since it seems to explain a persistent frustration of mine. In a tenured and unionized setting, interventions are damn near impossible unless they’re across-the-board. But the across-the-board interventions mostly just hassle the majority, who didn’t need it anyway, and are far too weak to affect the really awful few. The perception of what constitutes fairness pretty much forbids anything that might actually be effective.

Over time, various across-the-board policies pile up as the attempts to corral the few loose cannons keep failing.

What’s so lovely about data is that it doesn’t pull punches. It shows quite clearly where ‘reputational knowledge’ is simply wrong.

Now comes the hard part. How does one do surgical interventions in a process-oriented, tenured, unionized setting?

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Almost a Sweet Moment

At dinner the other night:

DD: My day, blah blah blah

The Boy: Excuse me?

The Wife: Hold on, TB. My day, blah blah blah.

DD: Yeah, that’s hard.

TB: Excuse me?

DD: Hold on, TB.

TW: And then…

TB: Excuse me?

TW: (sigh) Yes, TB?

TB: I just wanted to say two things. One, I really love you.

DD, TW: Awww.

TB: And two, I have some chicken stuck in my teeth.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Save Perkins!

Okay, I don’t usually go in for anything this directly political-advocacy, but desperate times call for desperate measures.

According to IHE, Bush’s 2007 budget includes, once again, the total elimination of the Perkins Vocational and Technical Educational program. (This is separate from the Perkins loan program, which provides loans to students, which they also want to eliminate.) The Perkins Vo-Tech program provides funding directly to community colleges to buy equipment for programs designed to prepare students directly for jobs.

Without the Perkins program, we would have to shut down many of our most popular and successful occupational programs – culinary arts, nursing, graphic design, just off the top of my head. These are areas in which students who are looking to join the workforce quickly can lift themselves out of minimum-wage hell. Through hard work, these students gain the skills to become productive citizens who pay taxes into the system.

The colleges pay the operating expenses of these programs ourselves. We usually take losses on these programs, which we cross-subsidize by moving the ‘profits’ from the more traditional ‘chalk-and-talk’ disciplines. We do this because we recognize an obligation to the community to provide an avenue for people with a work ethic (but without wealthy parents) to get a foothold. Technology in these areas advances rapidly, and we simply couldn’t cover the costs of keeping up with industry standards in these fields if we had to cover all the costs ourselves.

Community colleges are the lowest-cost providers of higher education. We provide no-frills education and training in locations close to where people live. We serve students who can’t afford to go elsewhere. But we’re not welfare agencies – students have to do the work, learn the material, and get the credentials through their own efforts.

What, exactly, is the objection to this program?

It seems to me that liberals should like us since we help the poor and struggling, and conservatives should like us since receiving the benefit of our help is contingent on working hard. In fact, when the Bush administration tried the same move last year, it was defeated by a bipartisan coalition concerned about protecting job-training programs. A substantial number of Republicans joined the Democrats on this one, understanding correctly that the alternatives to job training are more expensive than the training itself.
When we train a struggling single mother to become a registered nurse (and we do!), everybody wins.

In IHE, the only justification offered by the administration is a sense that Perkins is redundant with No Child Left Behind. That doesn’t make sense at all: NCLB stops in high school. NCLB doesn’t cover equipment purchases. Whatever its merits, it’s simply not applicable at this level.

I’m sure that the administration would respond by challenging us to develop other revenue streams. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, and we’ve been working on it for years. Philanthropy is great, as far as it goes, but it’s not reality to think that philanthropy will fill gaps this large at this level. Our graduates tend not to give six or seven figure gifts; relatively few registered nurses are millionaires. Businesses and hospitals occasionally help if they see an immediate and direct payoff, but they have immediate cost pressures, too, and no business wants to foot the bill to train someone to go work for a competitor.

Add to those considerations the greater ‘strings’ that attach to philanthropic gifts, and the greater costs of fundraising, and the greater cyclical swings and unpredicatability of funding from year to year, and it quickly becomes clear that philanthropy simply can’t fill the gap by itself. Large capital purchases are budgeted years in advance – we just can’t sustain programs on whims.

I have no great faith in the Bush administration’s taste for listening to reason, as my regular readers know, but this is just too basic. Training the economically-marginal for real jobs is central to our mission, and we can’t do it without external capital funding. If you can, please let your representatives hear you on this one.

Creating Emergencies

“Professor X is out next semester, and nobody else can teach his classes. We need to make a hire!”

Well, wait a minute.

The culture of my college, and of many others, has included a strong presumption in favor of whomever is in the room at the time. If you hire someone as a one-semester replacement, and a tenure-track line opens in that area, there’s a widespread (and, to my mind, unwise) assumption that the temp will get it. So emergency hires frequently become the full-time staff.

This is a terrible idea on multiple levels.

What you’re looking for in an emergency fill-in and what you’re looking for in a permanent hire are two different things. With the former, you want a good sport who’s ready to work and who will generally play well with others. Professional development, if any, is strictly a footnote. In a permanent hire, someone who shows no inclination for professional development is a disaster waiting to happen. So someone who might make a great temp might not be a great full-timer.

On another level, establishing an ‘audition period’ prior to hire as an informal but widespread expectation pretty much guarantees inbreeding. People won’t move for one-semester tryouts. So your temps will be local products, probably from the same few graduate programs that produced most of your current staff. It also extends the ‘apprenticeship’ period, which, as I’ve argued elsewhere, is already intolerably long. Graduate school is the apprenticeship, if anything is (and its claim to that is rapidly eroding).

Even more basically than that, you don’t make long-term decisions on short-term considerations. A tenure-track hire will be with you for several years at a minimum, and possibly several decades. Making a decision about that based on the convenience of a single semester is simply irresponsible.

Depending on the size of the department or program, requests like these will sound different. In a tiny department or program, I wouldn’t expect a deep bench. If someone is out, gaps in coverage are to be expected. In a large department, though, I would expect a competent chair to have developed his people enough to ensure at least some cross-coverage, especially for the basic courses. If, say, a Psych chair has a department of 15 faculty and complains that he doesn’t have anyone to teach General Psychology, I can only assume that he’s either lying or flagrantly incompetent. When a department has more than a dozen faculty, I should be able to assume some level of backup for the intro courses. If not, they haven’t hired right, and I’m not going to reward that.

Some departments that think themselves savvy have developed a habit of creating emergencies to get what they want. Withhold key information until something explodes, then use the explosion to argue that this is no time for the usual time-consuming process and we need to hire the favored candidate right now. Apparently, this worked in the past, with a previous administration. (As John Belushi put it in Animal House: “There’s a time for thinking, and a time for acting. And this is no time for thinking!”)

Breaking that habit is an ugly process. Saying ‘no’ to an emergency hire comes off as the height of arrogance, as unspeakably cold, etc. But it has to be done. Full-time faculty positions are far too few and far between to waste on pet mediocrities; I won’t be railroaded out of doing a real search by some contrived drama. Until they figure out that the rules have changed, departments will stick with the behavior that worked in the past, and simply ratchet it up when it doesn’t work. So the short term is ugly, with charges and countercharges and escalating drama and frantic searches for adjuncts. But it’s the right long term move.

Steady as she goes...

Monday, February 06, 2006

Ask the Administrator: Too Soon to Jump?

A new, recently-relocated correspondent writes:

I left Midwest State last summer to become a department chair at Historically Black Southern College. Without going into too much detail (mostly about teaching at a historically white institution to teaching at a historically black institution), I’m thinking that I made a very big mistake. The position of Department Chair is very interesting and challenging, and my identity as an academic and a professor has undergone some profound changes. But HBSC, like many historically black institutions, has more than its share of financial, administrative, and facilities problems. There’s some stuff I can change or control, but most stuff I can’t. For instance, I wish the fighting over resources wasn’t so damn bitter, but there are so few resources to go around in (my state) and people are scared that they’ll lose the little they have. However, there are other problems, like old regime vs. new regime and the ‘pig in a python’ metaphor describing nearly all of my department’s faculty, which has turned HBSC into a more vexing problem and less of a complex, interesting challenge.

So my question is: when is a good time to bail? Will my administrative skills be credible after two or three years? And should I look for another administrative position to replace this one, or can I go back to being full-time faculty? I’m at the Associate level, and I have a book coming out in Fall 2006. I’m hoping that these will make me more marketable. I need advice. (Can I also admit here that for the last ten years, I’ve been thinking on and off about chucking it all and joining the Foreign Service? Yes, Condi Rice would be my boss, but that can’t last forever.)

I’ve never worked at a Historically Black college or university, so my knowledge of them is pretty limited. All I’ll say to that is that they certainly have no monopoly on financial, administrative, or facilities problems.

That said, the real question here is what you should do next. In my experience, most faculty who move into administration don’t like it. (That’s one of the reasons that community college leaders are talking about an impending ‘leadership crisis,’ even as they face a labor surplus in the ranks of prospective faculty.) There are plenty of good reasons not to like it: increased hours on campus, more exposure to other people’s issues, constant cost pressures, inability to duck personality conflicts, snarky attitudes from faculty who uncritically assume that all administrators are just failed scholars, etc. (For more examples, just keep reading my blog for a while!) It’s definitely not for everyone.

If you’re still in your first year as a chair, and you have a book coming out, I see no reason that you couldn’t be a credible candidate for a faculty position (depending on the market in your field at a given time). If fighting for resources and dealing with other people’s crap really bothers you, faculty is probably the right role for you. I have several former deans among my faculty, most of whom couldn’t be persuaded by any legal means to try it again. Depending on the department, a professor with some administrative experience might actually be preferable to one without, especially if the department is looking for someone to be the coordinator of a small internal program. Since your adopted state was one of the ones hit hard by Katrina, you could always cite the post-Katrina crises as your reason for wanting to leave, and nobody could fault you for that.

If you want to stay in administration but in a different setting, one year is probably too quick. Responding to ads now, you’d have a big six months of administrative experience, which is less than most interim chairs have. From a dean’s perspective, I’m not going to hire someone to a chairmanship who was overwhelmed in his first year of chairing elsewhere. Yes, the situation at your college may be uniquely difficult, but these jobs are difficult generally. If you jump that quickly, I’d take it (fairly or unfairly) as a sign that you can’t take a punch. If you want to move into a chairmanship at another college, I’d strongly recommend toughing it out at HBSC for at least another year or two.

(One of the perks of administrative positions, perversely enough, is that it’s remarkably hard to measure performance from the outside. Even a below-average chair, with a few years’ experience, looks better than a new candidate, simply because the below-average chair at least has some experience. Yes, it means that a distressing number of uninspired retreads carve out careers in these roles. But there are also enough commonalities between managerial roles at different places that a dean can be relatively certain that someone who has put in some time has seen much of it before.)

If you’re not sure yet, and there’s no emergency (family, financial, that sort of thing), I’d recommend sticking it out for another year. Let the book come out, and ride that wave. At the very least, you’ll get over the shell-shock of the first year of managing and have a better idea whether the problem is the location or the role itself. If the problem is really the location, you’ll be better positioned as a candidate with a little more experience behind you. If the problem is that you just hate the role, then by all means, escape.

As for the Foreign Service, I have absolutely no idea.

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at ccdean (at) myway (dot) com.

Friday, February 03, 2006


I’ve got a few nuggets of ideas floating around, but they don’t seem to be entire blog entries unto themselves. This has been too rough a week to give them the time they need, and it’s good to clear the slate from time to time, so here goes:

- Bush says we’re addicted to oil. He also says we have to drill in ANWR. That’s like telling a pothead he can kick the habit by growing his own.

- Is Kevin Federline entirely necessary?

- I didn’t know this until recently, but The Carpenters’ classic slice of American cheese, “Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft,” was actually a cover! A Canadian band called Klaatu did it first. (Does that make it Canadian cheese?) That means that the Carpenters heard it and decided to do it themselves. Why? Why?

- Single-payer health insurance IS pro-business. Lots of people who would like to start their own businesses don’t, because they don’t want to lose their employer-provided coverage. If coverage came with citizenship, they could leave their corporate gigs to start their own businesses. If it’s true that entrepreneurialism drives economic growth, single-payer is a pro-growth idea. Why doesn’t anybody ever mention this?

- Ford cars suck. Mazda cars are quite good. Ford owns Mazda. Couldn’t Ford, say, ask Mazda how they do it? For that matter, couldn’t Ford put a Ford nameplate on a Mazda? I’m perplexed. Ford insists on turning out ugly, unreliable, steaming piles of crap, even while owning a high-quality import brand. Meanwhile, tens of thousands get laid off. I’m at a loss.

- Back in the 80’s, Apple changed the computer industry by putting out a superior piece of hardware (the Mac) that used superior software (the gui). It refused to license Mac clones, lost market share due to price, and nearly died. Now, Apple changed the music industry by putting out a superior piece of hardware (the Ipod) that uses superior software (Itunes), and it refuses to allow the Ipod to use music subscription services or to allow other mp3 players to use Itunes. Has Apple learned nothing? Sandisk now has a 4 GB flash player a hundred dollars cheaper than an ipod nano with the same memory, and it’s compatible with multiple subscription services. How long before Creative or Sandisk eats Apple’s lunch?

- I propose a Constitutional amendment limiting the State of the Union address to 15 minutes. Enough already.

- With the advent of hands-free cell phones, I don’t always know if the guy talking to himself in the hallway is on the phone or insane. This is vaguely unsettling.

- As a kid, I was addicted to “In Search Of,” with Leonard Nimoy. (I know, I know…) One episode that really stuck with me was about killer bees. We were supposed to be inundated with killer bees by the year 2000. What happened to the killer bees?

Back to the salt mines…

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Ask the Admin: The Good Girl at the End of Her Rope

A woman in dissertation hell writes (edited for length):

I am an ABD student at a major research university. This is my fifth year there, and my first year on the job market. I spent the last two years, roughly, out of residency. Grad school city and Spouse City are pretty far apart, so frequent trips were not exactly feasible. Before moving to Spouse City I hadn’t finished my prospectus; I did it here, and defended it via conference call.

My advisor (an Old, Venerable Superstar) was from the very beginning against my moving out, and claimed that finishing a dissertation out of residency is basically impossible. Skeptical as he was, he was still supportive, and in fact, he was generous enough to invite me to spend a 2-week vacation with him and his wife – a time when I actually started to make some progress on the diss. After that, things deteriorated.

I should also mention that I’m married to a professional who makes a lot of money and that, without the structure of grad school around, I’ve gradually slipped very much into the role of housewife. Add to that that my husband (whom I love very much and have no intention of leaving) is very demanding on housekeeping and organizational stuff, and that I come from a country that encourages such a view of women, and that no matter how feminist my views have become, I felt obligated to pay for the benefits of a good life here by focusing on my wifely/housekeeping duties and not on my dissertation. I read, I gathered my sample (a very large, rich, and hard to tame sample), but I couldn’t really focus on any of that in writing. Plus, I had online teaching to do, which sort of drained me of my remaining time.

At the end of last April, I went back to grad school city where I received a very stern lecture from my advisor, which amounted to “you’ll never finish. Go home.” I cried, I went home, and over the summer, I cranked up 2 large chapters. When Fall came, the job search began (major time guzzler), plus I had the equivalent of 3 classes online (60 students), which, toward the end of the semester, in particular, bogged me down to no end…

[The advisor told her that he will remove his letter from her file, due to a lack of confidence that she will finish anytime soon. He offered to continue to work with her, but only if she agreed to return to grad school city for a year.]

While he can’t retract the letter from the places where I’ve already sent it, he will withdraw it from my file – so I won’t be able to apply for jobs between now and whenever he changes his mind.

A year away from my husband will result in immense strain on our marriage – which already went through some really strenuous times in the beginning. I am positive we would not make it, were I to leave.

I proposed instead 1-2 week stays over a period of several months. This is still going to be bad since we just bought a house (we plan to move in the summer) and we have a dog who is unnaturally attached to me, plus it’s a logistical nightmare (in terms of renting, etc.), but it’s better than a 1-year stay. I also suggested that we do this after we sit down with my sample and I show him what I’ve been doing so he can tell me where and why or if my study is fundamentally flawed. I requested a meeting in the following weeks (in between my campus visits).

He has yet to reply to this. I know that he’s disappointed in me and I’m making no excuses for myself. I knew it would be hard to write a dissertation out of residency but I didn’t imagine that being ensconced in a department is actually that crucial. It is. I wouldn’t advise anyone to leave like I did.

Still, I’ve invested so much time and effort in grad school (believe it or not, I used to be a model student with a 4.0 GPA, lots of conference presentations, and even a couple of published articles). I have a very strong will to finish, but I can’t move back for that long. I’m thinking that I won’t be the first or last to take longer than two years to finish a dissertation. I know I can’t realistically be done in September.

And more crucially, do you have any idea at all how I should handle my next job search? Should I drop out altogether, or should I still go to the interviews? What if the school I’m interviewing at next will get a hold of my advisor and he tells them that, in his opinion, I’ll never finish? I want to be honest with them and tell them that it’s going to take me at least another year longer to finish than I originally planned (and wrote in my resume). Is this going to eliminate me from the competition by default? Is there even any sense in me going? I already think I’m at a disadvantage for being a non-native English speaker (with an accent!) in the humanities; I’m not sure how correct this is, but it’s a fear of mine.

At any rate, many tears and much hyperventilation and anguish have been happening over this. I am trying to focus, but it’s hard.

So, any advice?

(re-edited for greater anonymity)

Wow. And I thought my life was stressful!

Several impressions, then some suggestions.

First, your advisor sounds like a jackass of the highest order. You may be stuck with him, for professional reasons, but you really shouldn’t internalize his issues. His desire for control (a two week vacation with his wife?) is clearly stronger than his desire to help you flourish as an independent scholar. Look at him as an obstacle, not an oracle.

Second, if you don’t need the money, why are you teaching all those courses? If it’s for love of teaching, you can love one section just as much as three. Scale back!

Third, it is absolutely possible to finish a dissertation out of residence (unless you’re using a specific lab or specialized equipment). I have friends who have done it. One actually finished her dissertation in law school, which struck me as a bit extreme, but she did it. In the humanities, what Virginia Woolf referred to as a door with a lock and a room of one’s own (updated to include a good internet connection and a sturdy printer) is pretty much what you need. You can find that in grad school city, on the East coast, or in the middle of nowhere; it shouldn’t much matter.

The whole residency thing strikes me as a proxy. After all, it’s likely that your academic career will be someplace other than grad school city; if you’re only productive when in your advisor’s shadow, you won’t be productive as an assistant professor. You need to learn to produce on your own, wherever you happen to be.

Which brings me to the bigger issue. You’re trying to please two dominating men, while also fulfilling some internalized idea of what a good academic is (my explanation for all that teaching). Bluntly, it can’t be done. In trying to be the Good Girl, you’re stretching yourself way too thin. The concept of spending one week per month in grad school city strikes me as insane – the advisor will consider it too little, your husband too much, and your sanity will pay the price.

I won’t address your marital dynamics, because I’d be waaaay out of my depth on that. But you’ve clearly chosen to make preservation of the marriage a priority, so let’s go with that.

From the tone of the letter (the original was considerably longer and more agitated than the excerpt here), it’s clear that you’re badly frazzled. You’re trying to please everyone, to make everyone happy, to not say no. You’re trying to please 60 online students, a control-freak advisor, a high-maintenance husband, and any number of prospective employers. The advisor and the husband are in a tug-of-war over you, and either or both could easily become upset if you received a job offer requiring you to move (having just bought a house!). Plus the stress of the dissertation itself, the vagaries of the market, and whatever else happens along.

Time out.

My recommendation? Radio silence with the advisor until you have a full draft to show. Scale back the teaching dramatically, if not altogether. Have a very frank talk with your husband about the time it takes _per day_ for you to write productively. Skip the market for now. Focus on writing. Finish the dissertation. Finish it on your terms, so that it’s your work (rather than an extension of your advisor’s). Get the confidence and standing that comes from owning your craft. Stay the hell away from grad school city until you’re there to defend the dissertation.

More broadly, give yourself permission to take a break from the Good Girl role. When necessary, and it will be, embrace your inner bitch. You will have to become your own scholar.

Will the advisor welcome you back when you arrive with a finished product? I don’t know, but you certainly aren’t going to get anything constructive from him any other way. Help that’s premised on control isn’t help. Whether he’s disappointed in you or not is irrelevant; you need to produce, to own your own worth.

Will the husband be able to deal? I don’t know, but I’m guessing that the payoff from increased sanity should more than compensate for a few hours each day at the computer.

Less juggling, more focus. Get the degree in hand, earn respect as your own person, and hit the market on your own terms. Since you don’t need the money, I don’t see much reason to do a panicked search. Solidify your standing, and the chips will fall where they may.

Good luck!

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at ccdean (at) myway (dot) com.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Simple Truth

Harv nails it. Check it out. It's the one titled "Where would you hide..."

Ask the Administrator: Late-Night Calls from Deans...

The female reader who wrote a while back to ask about convention interviews (and clothing tips!) writes with an update:

You and your readers were so helpful when I was preparing for the Major
League Convention interview that I'm back with another question.

The interview went well and now I've been asked for a campus interview. A
few days ago, a few days after arrangements for the campus interview were
finalized and one week before the interview itself, the dean of the college
called me, at home, on a Friday evening. He wanted to talk to me about my
ABD status. We discussed the particulars of my situation (I am ABD not
currently enrolled in a PhD program, but if I had the opportunity, yes, I
would prefer to finish my degree). We ended the conversation with him
reassuring me that we'd discuss this further at the interview itself (so
the interview is about what I would need to do to finish? rather than why
I'm a good candidate for the job?). The job announcement specifically
stated that although a PhD was preferred, it was not required. I checked
with a friend who works in this system (but different dept. and campus) and
she found out that members of this dept. do make tenure without the PhD
(including the current chair, who interviewed me at the conference). I
also checked and only a couple of the faculty members in this dept. have a
PhD. That said, all but a handful of faculty at this particular campus
have a doctorate. So I went ahead and applied. Although the conversation
was very friendly the entire situation troubles me. I'm hoping you might
offer me some insight from a dean's perspective.

ps The clothing advice was great! I hope the chair has no recall of what I
wore because I'll be wearing the exact same thing for the campus interview.

I’m glad the convention interview went well, and I agree that my readers are uncommonly brilliant, charming, witty, and good-looking. Happily for me, their sartorial advice is far better than my own, as The Wife could attest.

Questioning ABD’s is tricky. In this office, I get lied to at least twice a day. “There’s a perception out there” means “I think.” “It’s not what you did, it’s how you did it” means “I don’t like what you did.” “How was this decision made?” means “I disagree with this decision.” And “I’m almost done with the dissertation,” well, you get the idea.

Some of us, having been burned by terminal ABD’s many times, start to discount excuses. That’s not to say that we don’t hire ABD’s at all – sometimes you have to – but it does mean that you probe the excuses more aggressively to see if there’s actually any merit to them. Not currently being enrolled would certainly raise a red flag.

One of the frustrations of the academic job market of recent years has been the rapid ratcheting-up of requirements for new hires, relative to the people already there. It’s mostly a function of supply and demand – if you can get a good Ph.D. for about the same price as an M.A., why the hell not – but it does create some weird dynamics in hiring, in which people who never got doctorates require new hires to have them.

A term like ‘preferred’ in an ad allows the institution some wiggle room. In an odd way, it’s actually honest: all else being equal, someone with a Ph.D. will have an edge, but sometimes all else isn’t equal. Depending on the needs of the college or the department at a given time, it can be a heavy preference or a light one.

For example, at my previous college, we moved from a two-year school to a four-year school fairly rapidly while I was there. Meeting the state regs for four-year status required hiring some bona fide Ph.D.’s, post-haste (which had a lot to do with how I got hired in the first place). Once we crossed the magic threshold, the Ph.D. dropped from a requirement to a preference. At my current college, which is content to remain at the two-year level, we like Ph.D.’s, but we care mostly about good teaching.

If a Dean called you at home on a Friday night, I’ll assume the college sees this as a relatively important issue. (In five years of deaning, I’ve never called a candidate at home on a Friday night.) Why it’s important, I don’t know. I’ve been in negotiations before where I’ve been told that hiring the M.A. candidate I really want this time will require me to hire someone with a Ph.D. in hand next time. There may be an accreditation issue, or a union issue, or a salary issue (which could actually work in your favor). More nefariously, there could be a favored internal candidate without a Ph.D., and the doctorate was the leverage the Dean was using to break the inbreeding. There’s really no way to know at this point, and it probably wouldn’t help if you did. At this stage of the game, there’s nothing to be done pre-interview except to figure out how best to present the strengths you actually have. If the Ph.D. were a deal-breaker, they wouldn’t have invited you to campus. They did invite you, so you should assume they take you seriously. Show your real strengths, don’t apologize for anything, and ask lots of questions. Make sure they’re worthy of you.

As for wearing the same outfit the second time, could you maybe accessorize it differently? Again, I appeal to my female readers for advice on this point.

Good luck!

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at ccdean (at) myway (dot) com.

All Hail Prof. B!

Bitch, Ph.D.’s link to my elephant play yesterday brought more blog traffic than I’ve ever had in a single day.

I’m glad she uses her powers for good, instead of evil.

Thanks, B.