Wednesday, May 31, 2006

The GPA Shuffle

An occasional correspondent dropped a line to ask about students who switch majors specifically to get certain courses dropped from their GPAs. At my cc, students have to get signatures from both faculty advisors and deans if they want to switch majors, so I see a lot of these.

Although it’s annoying when students are brazen about gaming the system, I’ll admit to some sympathy for the kid who switches from Nursing to Early Childhood when she realizes that the lab sciences are beyond her. Last year I wrote about a student I had advised, whom I called Otto, who had bombed badly in several semesters of Criminal Justice classes. When he got to me, I asked him why he kept doing badly, and he responded “I hate that shit.” So I asked him what he liked, which turned out to be psychology. When I asked why he kept majoring in CJ, he got that blank look that students sometimes get when they just plain hadn’t thought of that. The fact that he was able to get a fresh start when he switched struck me as reasonable.

(As it happened, he did relatively well after that, and eventually graduated and transferred.)

I’m as much of a stickler for academic integrity as anybody else, but I’ll also admit that part of the mission of a cc is to provide second (and third, and fourth) chances. Sometimes an 18-year-old will guess wrong, when it comes time to pick a major. Allowing that student to wipe the slate clean and start over again with newly earned grades seems fair to me.

Where it gets frustrating is with majors that are right next door to each other, in curricular terms, and the kid is just trying to dodge a requirement. But it’s tough to have a consistent rule on that, and a certain amount of gaming is inherent to any system. So I’ll admit that this particular shuffle bothers me less than many others.

What do you think?

Tuesday, May 30, 2006


The Boy turned five this weekend. (Hence, the previous post about toy packaging.) Without really intending to, we’ve had an entire theme week around his birthday – a circus, his first minor-league baseball game, a lego store party, and the family with cake. He’s doing alright.

In previous years, the themes were usually trucks or trains. This year, the theme is water: a slip’n’slide, a Batman sprinkler, a cool t-ball contraption in which a sprinkler pushes the ball into the air for him to hit. The weather has been perfect, and TB has been outside more than inside this weekend, usually dripping wet. We even broke out the inflatable pool, so he and The Girl have been in their glory. We’ve sunscreened them to within inches of their lives (TW and I both come from pasty peoples), and subjected the poor lawn to an old-school beating.

He starts kindergarten this Fall, which is a blessing. He’s ridiculously ready for it, and The Wife is looking forward to having more of a break each day. (Our district has full-day kindergarten, which, for reasons I can’t fathom, is still fairly unusual.) We live within safe and easy walking distance of the public elementary school, so he won’t have the bus to deal with.

It’s a joy to watch him grow into himself. He’s a good-looking kid. He doesn’t seem to have inherited my introverted side. He just throws himself into whatever he’s doing, utterly immune to self-consciousness. I don’t think self-consciousness has even occurred to him, bless his young heart. He makes friends easily, plays well with others, and manages to leave his most annoying behaviors at home. And somehow, by some fluke of genetics, he has the spatial gene. I’m utterly hopeless with that kind of thing, but he has the knack. Watching me try to fold a map looks like a Charlie Chaplin routine, but he can visualize and build entire cities out of blocks and make everything look preplanned. He can assemble complicated toys while I’m still struggling with the instructions.

I worry about the tortures of adolescence, and my own ineptitude for much of guy culture. To the extent that I’m his closest male role model, he’ll have to compensate for some pretty major blind spots. He’ll have to figure out on his own how to be handy, how to make a jump shot, and how to talk to girls. I don’t know how to play poker, couldn’t pimp my ride if my life depended on it, and have never given a hoot about March Madness. The teen years were a special level of hell, and I can only hope that I’ve prepaid for him in some karmic way.

Not only will he not learn some key fitting-in skills, he’ll even grow up predisposed to rejecting some of them. He’ll see Mommy and Daddy in peace vigils, he’ll switch between our churches, and he won’t have a tv in his room. In the long run, that’s good, but those Lord of the Flies years are tough. Anything that sticks out gets hammered down. I worry already, and it won’t be relevant for another 6-8 years yet.

But that’s for later. Now, he’s five, and that’s fine. Kindergarten won’t know what hit it. And the lawn will grow back.

Monday, May 29, 2006

Memo to Toymakers

From: Dean Dad

To: The Toymakers of the World

Re: Those *(#$)@&$ Wires on the Back of Cardboard Boxes Holding Toys In

I understand that security is an issue in these uncertain times. But honestly, is it really necessary to use coated piano wire to secure a cabbage patch doll to the back of a cardboard box? And then to use packaging tape to secure the wire? Have cabbage patch dolls been breaking loose recently? Are there sleeper cells of cabbage patch dolls lurking among us, plotting nefariously?

Have you ever attempted to free a cabbage patch doll from this wire? The only way to do it is with sharp metal, such as scissors. If you have ever observed young children, ever, in any context at all, you know they’re eager to get at their toys. Introducing scissors to that situation is not a good idea. Seriously.

While we’re on the subject, I’d personally like to do nefarious things to whomever decided that battery compartments on toys shall heretofore be accessible only with Phillips-head screwdrivers. Again, have you ever seen a child with a new toy? Is a screwdriver really a good idea? Back in my childhood, as I recall, battery compartments opened with a little latch. It worked fine. If you want to experiment with velcro or tape, more power to you. But honestly, anything requiring wielding sharp metal around jumpy young children is flat-out stupid.

At the rate toy security is moving, in a few years the only way to free a toy from its box will be to get all Dick Cheney on its ass, and shoot it open. Nothing can possibly go wrong with that plan.

I have one word for you people: string.

That is all.

Friday, May 26, 2006

"It's Only Temporary"

“It’s Only Temporary” is one of the great lies of academia. It’s right up there with the check that’s in the mail, the paper that was on the disk that crashed, and the dead grandmother.

With various construction and renovation projects in process and/or on the horizon, I’ve had to take very close looks at our space utilization recently to see what can be moved where to accommodate everybody over the next couple of years. In looking at what goes where, I’ve spotted several very weird uses of space. When I’ve asked people in the relevant departments why the arrangements are what they are, the answer is always the same: it was designed as a temporary solution x years ago (usually ten or so), and nothing better has come along since then.

This isn’t unique to higher ed. The K-12 system is rife with trailers that were set up as temporary overflow space, and that never went away. Some other colleges nearby set up trailers to handle the influx of baby boomers, and the trailers are still there. I have a theory that when the nukes come, the only things to survive will be cockroaches and trailers.

Most of the problem boils down to budgeting. With a chronic lack of resources, we resort to a ‘triage’ approach, since we don’t have the funding to tackle the entire system. When a temporary patch is put in place, that particular issue is no longer at the top of the triage list, and the temporary patch becomes de facto permanent. Over time, the patches pile up, and the overall picture becomes progressively less rational. Then when we actually have to do a major overhaul, the process is much more arbitrary than it should be, because we just don’t have the slack in the system to move stuff around cleanly.

To make matters worse, a real solution (as opposed to a patch) would require a substantial percentage increase in a budget from year to year, which is anathema in this political climate.

Student demand for class times puts some weird constraints on sharing facilities. Plenty of classrooms are empty in the mid-to-late afternoon period, but you can’t buy space around lunchtime. So we’re in the weird position of having both a space shortage and lots of open rooms at the same time. We’ve tried offering more classes during the unpopular times (4:00 in the afternoon, or anytime on Friday), but students simply refuse to sign up for them. Since most of our students have off-campus jobs, they need to be out of here fairly early in the day (or not start until the evening), or they can’t pay their freight. So what looks on paper like an obvious efficiency gain, isn’t.

As technology gets more sophisticated, it also gets more specific. Labs that may once have been multi-purpose have grown specialized, simply because they had to. That creates a need to carve out more lab space from a static total, putting a squeeze on general-purpose classrooms. Dedicated labs (other than Nursing) are empty for more hours per week than regular classrooms, making matters worse. (Nursing is full pretty much all the time.)

Churchill’s old saw about democracy – the worst system, except for all the others – pretty well describes most of these temporary patches. They’re ugly, they’re barely acceptable, they don’t really make sense, but when you try to pick them apart, you discover constraints you didn’t even know existed. Yes, it’s odd to share that lab between those two programs. But you can’t move either out (for lack of a place to put it), and anything else you’d move in would generate nasty scheduling conflicts.

Ironically, the one thing that really is temporary is faculty. As budget constraints push us to a more adjunct-heavy faculty, we see much more semester-to-semester turnover in instruction. This strikes me as backwards, but there it is. Instructors come and go, but trailers are forever.

Thursday, May 25, 2006


As a kid, I used to play baseball in my backyard with some of my friends (and occasionally my brother). The house behind mine had a golden retriever named Cassandra who used to come out to the property line and watch wistfully, since her boy had already gone on to college. After a while, her resistance dropped, and sometimes she would join the game (usually standing on pitcher’s mound, such as it was).

Cassandra was a great dog, and she was my first encounter with the name. I remember liking the name, since it sounds nice on its own, but it can also shorten to any number of other things – Cassie, Cass, Sandy, Sandra, etc. Lots of flexibility. (I’ve also had a soft spot for golden retrievers ever since.)

Sometime in college I first encountered the myth of Cassandra. As I remember it (and it’s fuzzy), it boiled down to being cursed to speak the truth and not be believed. It struck me as an incredibly poignant fate. After all, the rational response to Cassandra’s curse would simply be to shut up. But somehow, that just wasn’t possible.

I was reminded of Cassandra by the Dixie Chicks, of all people. Their new single, “Not Ready to Make Nice,” is a response to their vilification by much of the country-music world when they came out against the Iraq war in 2003. I’ve never held much of an opinion either way on the Dixie Chicks, and the new song isn’t really anything special musically, but something about the proud defiance of a stupid and violent culture hit home with me.

For all of the hatred, slander, and self-righteous fury we progressives get thrown at us, there’s something redeeming in asserting our dignity unapologetically. After all, for all that we aren’t believed, we’re still right.

We were right about the Iraq war. Nobody seriously disputes that anymore. We were right about the Bush tax cuts being irresponsible. The deficit explosion under the Bush administration has pretty much settled that question. We were right (as far back as the seventies!) about the need for alternative energy sources; now even conservative Republicans working for think tanks drive Priuses. (Archival research indicates that it was a Democratic President, one “Jimmy Carter,” who first called attention to this.) We were right about the consequences of staffing the government with anti-government ideologues and cronies; after Katrina, this is no longer an arguable point. We were right about the growing wealth gap, about the state of our health care system, about the dangers to our civil liberties (Gitmo, tapping telephones of reporters, Abu Gharib), about the utter harmlessness of gay marriage (do you know what happened in Massachusetts? Nothing, really.), and the incredible harm to our standing in the world that results from an arrogant cowboy approach to diplomacy. All of these are beyond reasonable dispute.

Yet, for all that, we’re still on the outs. That’s why I think of Cassandra.

When we speak the truth, we’re called ‘strident.’ When we try not to be strident, we’re called flip-floppers. When we point out inconvenient facts, we’re called ‘out of the mainstream.’ By the time the mainstream finally catches up to where we’ve been patiently waiting, we’re called ‘tired.’ When we take offense to being slandered, we’re called ‘angry.’ When we turn the other cheek, we’re called ‘wimps.’

Honestly, I’m torn between a faith in the persistence of the truth over the long term, and a fear of the stupid shit than can happen in the meantime. The likeliest outcome looks like this: the government will pull all kinds of unbelievably offensive and ridiculous stuff, we’ll call ‘bullshit’ on it, we’ll lose public respect as people fall for God and Country, and the country will quickly decline along exactly the lines we said it would. By the time we’re widely perceived with having been right, the damage will be done.

Bravo to the Dixie Chicks for sticking to their guns. Cursed like Cassandra, they didn’t ‘shut up and sing.’ They’re pissed and they’re proud. It’s a heartening sight.

Cassandra, the myth, met a terrible fate. Cassandra, the golden retriever, got into the game. In this, as in so many things, the dogs have it. We have to get into the game. As Stephen Colbert would say, it's hard to play by the same old rules when there's fifty pounds of furry, smelly, drooling truth holding the ball.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Nemo, Monday-Tuesday

The Boy won a goldfish at a carnival at preschool on Monday. We learned this when The Wife went to pick him up, and he proudly pointed out his new fish. Thanks, guys.

Inevitably, The Boy named him Nemo. We devoted a Tupperware bowl to Nemo, and made him the centerpiece on the dining room table. He seemed content, and The Boy liked to watch him swim.

Yesterday, Nemo died. I was appointed funeral director, and carried out a classic suburban burial at sea, with The Boy at my side. No sooner had I flushed than The Boy started bawling.

For the next hour or so, The Boy was inconsolable. He wanted to know where Nemo went, and what would happen to him, and why he died, and whether all goldfish die at the same time. (He seemed concerned that his friends’ fish had outlasted his, which is probably true.) The Boy sat out dinner, which would be unimaginable under any other circumstance. He asked if Nemo would reach the ocean, and if he would come back to life when he did.

I told TB that Nemo was in heaven, and that he was an angel’s pet now. The Wife assured TB that it was okay to be sad, that we get sad when we lose a friend. TB slowly regained his composure and/or appetite, and eventually consented to dinner.

Bathtime conversation was a little odd.

TB: Who was that good President with the dark skin who made everyone stop fighting?

DD: Huh?

The Wife (from the next room): He means Martin Luther King!

DD: You mean Martin Luther King?

TB: Yeah.

DD: He wasn’t a President. But he was a great man who taught people to be nice to each other.

TB: He died.

DD: Yeah.

TB: That’s sad.

DD: Yeah, it is.

TB: That was before I was born.

DD: That was before I was born, too.

TB: That was before everybody was born!

DD: No, Grandma and Grandpa were alive then.

TB: Then how come they’re still alive?

DD: They’re older. They were younger then.

TB: Oh. Uncle Frank is 70! Grandma told me.

By bedtime, TB was pretty much himself again. We read Bartholomew and the Oobleck, talked about the field trip to the farm at preschool the next day, and kissed goodnight.

The poor kid. His little heart was broken, and he has no idea that this is just the first time. You want to protect your kids, but some things, you just can’t prevent. He’ll have his heart broken again and again, and ours will break right along with it. It’s part of growing up, and I know that, but part of me still wants to be able to hug him until the hurt goes away. I’ll have to learn to let go of that possibility over time, and the fact that it’s already started breaks my heart, too. I’m proud that he’s growing, but sometimes, part of me still misses the baby I could sweep up in my arms and make it all better.

I didn’t know the meaning of ‘bittersweet’ until I became a Dad.

Godspeed, Nemo. We hardly knew ye.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Kafka Goes to College

The Wife wants to take a few one-day, non-credit summer classes at my cc. She has taken a few of these before, and has enjoyed them tremendously. The free-tuition-for-spouses employee benefit is nothing to sneeze at.

In the past, my secretary pushed through some of the paperwork, and I walked the rest to the relevant offices. It wasn’t elegant, but it worked. This time around, I decided to test the student experience myself, and personally walk everything through, just like any other student.


Start with the terminology. What everybody on campus calls the ‘registrar’s office’ is intuitively labeled ‘records and registration.’ Then, what everybody calls the ‘cashier’s window’ is even-more-intuitively labeled the ‘Bursar’s Office.’ (It isn’t quite as archaic as, say, ‘exchequer,’ but it’s close.)

The registrar’s office was fine. The line at the Bursar’s was longer, but didn’t look forbidding. Then I saw it in action.

Every single student had some major issue. We don’t take that credit card; the Stafford loans get disbursed after the late fee deadline; you have to get a form from Admissions first; you have to get an advisor’s signature first. (I know that because everything was clearly audible in line, which raises some fairly obvious privacy issues.) There wasn’t a straightforward transaction in the bunch. Each one took far longer than it should have, and I finally walked away in disgust after twenty minutes of the line not moving. The cashiers could be described as Buddha-like in their calm, their pace, and their preternatural lack of urgency.

Undeterred, I decided to try my luck paying online. I’ve spent the last few years hearing about the glories of online registration, so I figured online would be faster than in-line. Nope. It took several minutes just to find the link to pay online; then I needed her student number (check), which prompted me for a password, which had to be obtained manually from the help desk during regular business hours.

I’m beginning to see a pattern here.

Might there be a connection between indifferent or negligent customer service and shaky enrollment? Might students who don’t know the ropes and are already intimidated simply throw up their hands in disgust and walk away?


Lucky for me, I got her a parking sticker when I started working here. There’s no telling how hellacious that process might be. And we don’t have to deal with financial aid or buying books.

From my days at the old for-profit, I know this isn’t unique to the public sector. Even the major for-profit college (you’ve heard of it) had a Byzantine and self-defeating process for registration and payment; students were constantly getting deleted for non-payment due to delays in financial aid (and their seats in full classes getting taken by others in the interim), or being blocked from registration due to phantom ‘holds,’ or, in one memorable semester, issued ‘dismissal’ letters two days after graduating. (The phone calls that week could charitably be described as ‘ugly.’) The logistics of registration defeated even a company with a profit motive to improve them.

We’re actually worse than the DMV now. There’s no excuse for that.

The only other sector where I’ve seen paperwork as daunting and stupid as this is health care. Nope, no cost issues there.

In olden times, I’m told, registration was carried out with index cards. (I remember literally penciling in my classes on gray index cards when I was in college. I’d drop them off at the registrar’s office, and that would be that.) Financial aid was always FUBAR, but I attributed that to government rules, rather than the college. Perhaps I was na├»ve.

It shouldn’t be that hard. It’s not like we’ve never registered students before. Why does this basic, fundamental process defeat bright minds?

Monday, May 22, 2006

The Metric System

I’m just old enough to remember the great Metric System debacle of the 1970’s.

Unlike every other country, the U.S. still uses miles, and feet, and inches, and furlongs, and pounds, and quarts, and gallons. Bits and pieces of metric show up in specialized applications, like laboratory science, medicine, distance running (5k races are commonplace), and, for reasons I’ll never understand, bottling. (At some point, the 2-liter bottle replaced the 2-quart bottle. Don’t know why.) But for the most part, we’ve remained proudly wedded to the old English system, which even the English don’t really use much anymore.

There’s a great book waiting to be written on the failure of the push to convert to metric.

Looking back, I sorta remember the backlash against metric occurring as part of the backlash against an inchoate sense that America was in decline. In the late 70’s, there was a weird, curdled-populist anger that manifested itself in CB radios and Proposition 13 and Ronald Reagan. It was a strange brew of xenophobia, misogyny, anti-communism, romanticism, evangelical Protestantism, redneck-ism, patriotism, jingoism, and a dumbed-down Jeffersonianism. (For the younger readers out there, picture an angrier Larry the Cable Guy. He’s exaggerated, but he’s recognizable.) It was in response to a whole series of national humiliations, ranging from Vietnam to Afghanistan to oil shocks, inflation, and the Panama Canal.

It was a different time.

Anyway, the metric system at that time came off as a sort of effete, Euro-Modernist import, shoved down the throats of Real Americans by the same smug coastal elites who got all self-righteous about banning smoking and conserving energy. To my memory, the song “Take This Job and Shove It” pretty much captured the spirit of the age. At that point, to suggest posting highway signs in kilometers was tantamount to announcing that you like to traipse through daisies and dress up like a pretty little girl.

Readers of a certain age – do you remember just what, exactly, was behind the anti-metric movement? I think this represents the dilemmas of American liberalism in microcosm.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

The Mother of All Freudian Slips

The Boy, recounting a play:

"The Lord, I mean, the Big Bad Wolf..."


Friday, May 19, 2006

Sunk Cost as a Motivator?

I heard an idea yesterday that gave me pause. We were discussing ways to improve enrollments and retention, again, when a professor suggested charging higher tuition in a student’s first semester, and lowering it each subsequent semester. The idea is to reward persistence, such that a student’s final semester before graduating would be nearly free.

Example (drawing on yesterday’s algebra discussion): if current full-time tuition for a semester equals x:

1st semester: 1.75x

2nd semester: 1.25x

3rd semester: .75 x

4th semester: .25 x

Or something like that. For part-time students, just pro-rate by credit hours. Use the ‘sunk cost’ fallacy to goad students to graduate.

I have to admit, I’d never thought of that.

Someone else had a variation on it: a graduation deposit. Have each new student put a chunk of money down as a graduation deposit, refundable with interest upon graduation. Sort of an incentive to stay the course. That one bothers me more, since it seems to create a perverse incentive for the institution.

Oh, wise and generous readers: what do you think? Would the sunk cost approach work, or would it just scare students away upfront? Would students just transfer in their first semester of coursework and screw us that way? The idea is just cool enough that I don’t want to discard it without batting it around first.

Thursday, May 18, 2006


Rudbeckia’s comment on my post yesterday about a one-year language requirement got me thinking. As someone who, by virtue of my office, must constantly be concerned about student retention, I have very mixed feelings about math. (One running joke at meetings about improving retention: “do we really need a math department?” We laugh, but the fact that the joke doesn’t get old tells you something.)

On the one hand, it’s one of the foundational disciplines, and some level of numeracy is clearly necessary just to be a functionally-educated person in our society. I don’t just mean arithmetic, either; if you don’t have a basic grasp of percentages and fractions, say, much of everyday economics (20% off!) must be mysterious. A basic grasp of statistics is essential to any kind of business or management position, as well as an informed appreciation of baseball. (To the extent that I can do math quickly in my head, it was mostly because of an obsession with earned run averages in my youth. Yes, I was a nerd.) Concepts like “compound interest” or “statistical significance” or “exponential growth” require a decent grounding in math.

All of that granted, I haven’t had to find the cosine of anything outside of a math class. Although I got through calculus 1, I’d be hard pressed to tell you what it was about, what it was supposed to convey, or just why the hell I had to take it at all. (There was something about integrals, whatever those are, and something about derivatives, whatever those are. And I get credit for the class!) And I still think that foisting geometrical proofs on innocent children is child abuse.

I’ve heard math defended as the ultimate expression of logic, usually with the implication that people who aren’t good at math aren’t good at thinking. The argument strikes me as arrogant in the extreme. As a student, I remember intensely disliking the language of math. It seemed to be designed specifically to defeat understanding. (At some level, I’ve long suspected that the affinity of math/science geeks for hobbits and spaceships has to do with a taste for arcana. Either you have that taste or you don’t; intelligence has little to do with it.) At least with history or literature, I could picture what we were talking about. The stranger came to town, the countries went to war; got it. To this day, the concept of a negative exponent leaves me in a fetal position, quaking.

(I was that weird kid who actually preferred word problems to equations. At least with word problems, there was something to picture, no matter how banal. A train leaves Chicago...)

At my cc, and at most colleges I know, every student has a math requirement. And on the occasions when I’ve had access to the data, I couldn’t help but notice that math courses always have the highest attrition rates.

It isn’t just calculus, either. Sometime after I went to college, someone got the idea to repackage 9th grade math as something called “College Algebra,” which I still think is an oxymoron. College Algebra has high attrition. As much as I hated calc, I was fine with stats. But even statistics has high attrition. Hell, the remedial course in arithmetic – yes, arithmetic – has high attrition.

I don’t claim to understand that. Is it an American thing? Is it a generational thing? Is it a function of suspect pedagogy? I’m honestly stumped.

Wise and generous readers, I ask your input. Why does math stump so many more students than any other discipline?

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

One Year of a Language

What’s the point, really, of requiring one year of a foreign language in college?

The key word in that sentence is ‘requiring.’ I’m not asking what’s the point of learning a foreign language, or even of taking just one year. I’m asking what’s the point of requiring one year. Requiring, as in, you can’t take other things you actually want to take because you have to make room for this.*

One year of a language, if you only take it because you have to, amounts to squat. It’s certainly not enough to actually use. I took one year of (nameless language) in college, crashed and burned, and carried the scar on my GPA until graduation. I remember maybe a dozen words of it. The experience was loathsome, fruitless, and damaging. My only solace has been to watch that country twist in the wind ever since. My theory as to its sustained misery: it’s because of that miserable excuse for a language.

Why do we inflict this on innocent students?

Honestly, why do we let students wait until college before starting a foreign language? Every study I’ve seen indicates that the best ages for language acquisition are before puberty. I say, give ‘em Spanish from preschool on. (In Canada, French.) Add something else (French? Japanese? Urdu?) in high school. But to require a full year in college achieves…what?

And why are we giving college credit for a course that teaches the same material that the better school districts teach in the seventh grade, if not earlier? Is there any other discipline for which that’s true?

(And don’t hit me with the ‘remediation’ argument. Remedial courses don’t count towards graduation. First-year language courses do.)

I know that the first exposure to a foreign language can shed some light on grammar, if only by contrast. (I first learned what an ‘infinitive’ was in my high school French class.) And yes, there’s some exposure to ‘diversity,’ although I remember spending a lot more time conjugating verbs than learning about how people lived. But if you want exposure to diversity, require sociology. There are better ways to achieve these ancillary goods, and none of them involves flashcards.

Reality being what it is, I’m willing to offer (and grant graduation credit for) introductory foreign language courses at the college level. After all, there are limits to what high schools can and will do. But I’m still unpersuaded that we should go from ‘offering’ to ‘requiring.’

Your thoughts?

*I’m consistently astonished at how many otherwise-intelligent people will argue for a requirement on the grounds that a given class is good. I assume it is; that’s irrelevant. A requirement squeezes out something else. To me, a compelling argument for a requirement would have to address why a given mandated class is better than any other alternative. Address the opportunity cost.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Applying the Logic of Blogging to Academia

Why don’t colleges post their org charts on their websites, for all to see?

It’s an incredibly low-cost thing to do (most colleges already have org charts in HR; all they’d have to do is post them online). Scholars of higher education would have much more raw material to work from in doing studies of what works best. Colleges could swipe ideas from each other. (That may initially seem like a deal-breaker, but the fact is that most of the larger states already have systems of linked colleges. Besides, academics are better at information-sharing than information-hoarding. For that matter, wasn’t academia one of the places the internet initially flourished?) In fact, if colleges supplemented their org charts with some basic Institutional Research data, also posted openly, enterprising managers and other geeks could start to reap the rewards of easily-accessible facts.

If the regional accreditors, say, started mandating it, it would happen quickly. And it would be incredibly, almost laughably, cheap.

The folks who do open-source software would have a much easier time engineering work-flow software for academia, if they better understood the work flow of academia. Then we wouldn’t be held hostage by the likes of Banner, Oracle, Datatel, etc.

We could do a Moneyball of academia, applying actual data to test hoary chestnuts. Are Centers for Teaching and Learning worthwhile? Does the ‘provost’ model work? When does it help retention rates to increase the number of online sections, and when does it increase attrition? What ‘emergency’ budget cuts always wind up getting restored anyway? How many levels of remediation are optimal for student success? What’s the ‘tipping point’ in perceived quality for the percentage of classes taught by adjuncts?

Conceptually, none of these is all that hard. Individual colleges collect data on most or all of these questions, but the data are kept in-house.

Let productivity flourish, and resources will take care of themselves. More efficient internal processes, generated by the ‘value-adding’ increments of thousands of users, will free up precious resources for other things, like, oh, I don’t know, teaching and research.

Just a thought...

Monday, May 15, 2006

Good Dean, Bad Dean

A reader dropped me a note to ask what makes a bad dean, and what makes a good one.

It would be easy to trot out the old Anna Karenina “every good dean is the same, but every bad dean is bad in his own way,” but that wouldn’t really be true on either side.

I’ll start by saying that I’ve only ever worked as a dean at teaching-oriented places (a for-profit and a cc). So the world of a dean at a research university is probably quite different, and I really can’t speak to that. Anybody who can is invited to comment.

The role itself is highly context-dependent. Someone who makes a great dean under one vp may tank under another one, just because the two vp’s have different conceptions of the role. (In my six years of deaning, I’ve reported to five different bosses, and I only changed schools once.) Some vp’s (or deans of academic affairs) like to use the Trump boardroom model, in which deans engage in gladiatorial combat for resources. I find this model barbaric, and I freely admit that I would suck at it. But, for whatever reason, it’s not unheard of. The deans who thrive in this setting tend to be bloodthirsty cretins.

Some vp’s use deans as errand boys/girls, and/or as flak catchers. In this model, the vp makes the actual decisions, and the deans are human shields. I’m not awful in this role, but I hate it with a passion. Responsibility without control leads to stress, and once the faculty figure out how the game is played, they simply start bypassing the shields altogether. I’ve seen two ways to survive in this system; either simply don’t care, or put an incredible amount of time into schmoozing your faculty, to build relationships on a personal level to counteract your basic organizational irrelevance. I don’t care for it.

Some vp’s use deans as mini-vp’s of their own areas. This is certainly my preferred model, although it runs up against some natural limits. The most obvious natural limit is that many core issues (funding, facilities, union issues) cross jurisdictions, and can therefore only be handled at the higher level. Still, this model at least gives the faculty some reason not to spend all its time doing end runs around the dean’s office, and it carries the advantage of allowing experimentation.

In terms of personal traits, I’ll respond with what a dean in a reasonably functional culture would need. Some basics – solid academic credentials (to gain the respect of faculty), intelligence (without this, you’re roadkill), good communication skills (the core of the job, really), patience with trivia, a pretty unflappable temperament (temper tantrums are death to credibility, and constant worry won’t help either), the ability to multitask, the ability to not take other people’s anger personally (since you’ll see a lot of it), the ability to stand your ground when attacked, and at least some sense of the big picture. Plenty of brilliant faculty make or would make lousy deans, since they don’t have the unflappability, the patience with administrivia, or the stamina to put in all those hours physically at the office (or out at events) without getting conspicuously (and damagingly) cranky. This is especially true in June, July, and August, when faculty are away and you still have to come in every damn day.

Depending on context, you might also need skills in facilities management, grantwriting, labor relations, customer service, political infighting, amateur psychoanalysis, kissing up, threatening, praising, interviewing, and public speaking, among other things.

(I’d give myself pretty good marks on most of these, with room for improvement on schmoozing, infighting, and kissing up. Nobody’s perfect.)

One of the reasons that baseball is superior to most human endeavors is that the skills needed to succeed in the minor leagues are the same skills (more or less) needed to succeed in the majors. But the skills of a good department chair are often quite different from those of a dean, and those of a dean may be very different from those of a vp. Micromanagers or control freaks can thrive as department chairs, but they become less effective as they climb the ladder. The higher you go, the more the big picture matters.

How do you spot a lousy dean? It’s tough, since sometimes what looks like a lousy dean is, in fact, a capable manager dealt a crappy hand. Still, there are telltale signs. Is your dean prone to public displays of temper? Does s/he change direction on a dime? Does s/he play favorites? (NEVER NEVER NEVER do this.) Does s/he cut a lot of backroom deals? Have you caught her in a lie? (If so, did she ‘fess up?)

Readers’o’mine – what deanly traits have you seen work or not work?

Friday, May 12, 2006

Mother's Day

The Wife, before she was The Wife, loved kids. It was one of the first things I learned about her. She had a niece on whom she doted, and she always noticed little kids when we were out.

The Wife is amazing. When we started dating, I remember getting large pizzas and her matching me, slice for slice. That’s incredibly rare in the dating world. Her relationship to food is like a guy’s, yet she’s still a head-turner after two kids. How she does that, I have no idea.

Marriage was a relatively easy adjustment. Parenthood was the tough one.

When The Boy came along, everything (pronounce every syllable slowly) changed. Looking back to our pre-parenthood days, I’m astonished at how much free time we had. It’s simply unthinkable now.

Nature plays a cruel trick on new parents. Your moment of maximum cluelessness coincides with the baby’s moment of maximum dependency. Add sleep deprivation and the normal worries of new parents, and you have a recipe for insanity.

The first two years of parenthood were really hard. The Boy was spirited from the start, and the two-career marriage led to constant time shortages, kid-handoff-crises, oh-my-god-he’s-sick-again-I-can’t-call-out-again crises, round-robin pinkeye (if you don’t know what I mean, consider yourself lucky), and a bottomless pit of guilt. The Boy was in daycare during the hours we both worked (we staggered our shifts to the extent that we could), so he brought home every virus and germ his little body could carry.

When The Girl came along, we threw in the towel on the two-career thing for a while. There’s only so much stress you can carry. Besides, by the time you pay for two full-time daycares, it’s almost a wash. It’s tight, but as long as the cars hold out and nothing catastrophic happens, we can do it.

So my M.B.A. professional wife is a stay-at-home Mom, at least for a while. Even marrying a gender-conscious academic guy who had a single Mom himself couldn’t prevent the pull of cultural gravity.

It drives her crazy sometimes. Trapping a smart and lively mind in a routine of legos and “no, you can’t watch cartoons yet” and “don’t tackle your sister” is cruel and unusual. As hard as rubber chicken season is for me, it’s so much worse for her. When I’m out late, she’s flying solo with the kids all day, and stuck with the housework, too. There are times when it’s almost too much.

Rubber chicken season is almost over, so I’ll be able to reintroduce myself to the family. The Boy starts kindergarten in the Fall. The Girl is lower-maintenance than The Boy, and as they get older, certain things get easier. There’s light at the end of the tunnel.

And she’s a fantastic Mom. She keeps her sense of humor, even when others couldn’t. The kids are wonderful, which is largely her doing. I knew she was pretty and funny and graceful when I married her. I didn’t know how strong she was.

Some decisions are just right. Seven years ago, I made one of those.

Happy Mother’s Day, honey.

Thursday, May 11, 2006


I have a couple of departments that form a sort of conveyor belt of students; the first remediates, and the second offers credit courses in the same discipline. Tensions between the two departments have been simmering for some time, and they recently boiled over when the remediation group submitted an outcomes assessment plan that was lacking in a few key areas. The chorus of “I told you so” on the one side, and “back off and leave us alone” on the other, was hard to miss.

I met with the remediation department to discuss its outcomes assessment plan, and how to fix it. They were tolerant, but obviously unenthusiastic, until I stumbled upon the right motivator: if they got good enough data, and the data supported what they thought it would, they could show the second department that the second department was actually the problem. When they started envisioning some “in your face!” scenarios, their motivation level picked up dramatically, and they left cackling and scheming to develop a really rich outcomes assessment project.

In a perfect world, appeals to improved student learning and fulfilling our educational mission would have been enough. We live in an imperfect world.

Voting follows the same principle. It would be nice to say that the people I vote for are all public-minded, wise, honorable devotees to the common weal, and that disinterested attention to the public good is the only motive I (or they) need. But no. In fact, the most emotionally-satisfying moment in voting comes when I mutter under my breath “take that, you bastard!” while voting against someone I dislike. My vote for Kerry wasn’t so much a vote for Kerry as a vote against Bush. That wasn’t unusual for me; I have a long history of voting against people. It’s much more fun, and more honest, too.

I know it’s ethically suspect to do the right thing for the wrong reason, but sometimes the alternative is to leave the right thing altogether undone. Engineering scenarios wherein people will happen to do the right thing by deliberately doing the selfish thing is a delicate art.

At its best, the free market works that way. At its best, the tort system works that way. Both are prone to all manner of abuse, obviously, since both are founded, in the end, on base motives. But when everything is in balance, each is astonishingly productive (the first of goods, the second of safety).

As a teacher, I tried to use grades that way. I’d set up fairly elaborate grading schemes to create incentives to do the things that I suspected would lead to the most effective learning; students did the wholesome thing (learning) as a byproduct of doing the selfish thing (chasing the grade). Once I got it fine-tuned, it served both my interests and theirs.

Oddly, sometimes people feel guilty about public-spirited motives, and seem to need some sort of self-interested excuse to be public-spirited and not feel prissy or judgmental. Nina Eliasoph wrote a great book about that back in the 90's (Avoiding Politics), but I’m sure there’s much more to be done there. Someone who might have wanted to buy a hybrid car last year, but would have refrained for fear of seeming like the kind of person who buys hybrid cars, can now seize on high gas prices as an excuse. “It’s not that I’m some kind of environmentalist (horrors!), it’s just that three-dollar-a-gallon gas is killing me.” Okay, I guess. For some reason, feminism is especially prone to this kind of backhanded compliment. “I’m not a feminist, but...” is a surprisingly common phrase.

Parenting is a constant battle of intentions. Be good and Santa will bring you toys (as if that’s why you should be good). Come to church and we’ll pick up donuts on the way home (as if that’s why you should go to church). At least with parenting, there’s hope that the kid will mature, and will someday be able to toss away the ladder once he’s on a higher ethical rung.

For some reason, academics seem less comfortable with this paradox than most people. I don’t know if it’s because the profession weeds out the money-motivated by dint of low pay, or if it’s the Calvinist cultural overhang, or if it’s the idealism inherent in the assumption that everybody is capable of learning. Maybe it’s something else altogether. But it’s dramatic, and it puts us at odds with much of the rest of the culture. Outside of academia, it’s common sense that the reason to go to college is to get a good job and have a successful career. But if you want to see heebie-jeebies at work, just say that to humanities faculty. “What are you going to do with that?” is like fingernails on a chalkboard to a philosophy professor.

We need to get over this uneasiness, and start engineering the paradox to our advantage. We’re fairly smart folk, as a group; this shouldn’t be beyond us. The more literate culture that might result would be a fine thing. If we also happen to improve our salaries in the process, well, that’s okay too...

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Dean Libs

I thought it might be fun to apply Mad Libs rules to decanal memos. Example:

Please hand in your annual report to your chair no later than May 23. The department chairs will then provide summary reports to the deans no later than June 5.


Please hand in your (noun) to your (noun) no later than (date). The (adjective) chairs will then provide (adjective) (plural noun) to the (plural noun) no later than June 5.

It’s easy and fun! Let’s try a harder one:

I am in receipt of a formal (noun) by a student named (month) (city). She alleges, among other things, that in your class of February 10, you caused her great (emotion) by (gerund) her out in retaliation for her earlier comment that the class (verb). Several other (plural noun) confirm her story, including a suggestion that you had (past pluperfect) too much that morning.

I am formally requesting a (noun) with you and your (adjective) rep to (verb) this matter. Please (verb) your availability with my (adjective) assistant no later than Friday.

Fame and glory to the best entries...

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Podcasting and DRM

My wise and conspicuously good-looking readers – I seek your wisdom.

Some of us at my cc are flirting with the possibility of enabling and encouraging (not requiring) faculty to put podcasts of their lectures on password-protected sites for their students. We use a standard web platform for all of our distance ed courses, but some faculty also use that platform to post online ‘enhancements’ to their traditional classes. (Popular uses include posting copies of syllabi and assignment handouts, a gradebook, and links to websites for supplemental reading.) Given the ubiquity of ipods on campus, and the realities of an entirely-commuter student population (we don’t have dorms), it seems like an obvious winner to allow students to listen to lectures in the car.

That said, I’ve stumbled onto some complications that I don’t know how to finesse.

Password-protection can keep non-students away from the mp3’s for a while. But once a legitimate student has downloaded Professor Bob’s lectures on The History of the Fork onto his ipod, what’s to keep him from simply reposting them elsewhere without password protection? What’s to keep him from copying them, distributing them, selling them, or otherwise doing the kinds of things that password-protection is supposed to prevent?

I know that some of the legal music-download sites use Digital Rights Management software to put what amounts to a self-destruct mechanism on downloaded stuff, so if your subscription lapses, you lose access to your music. (My local public library does something similar with audiobooks – you can ‘check them out’ for a short time by downloading them onto your mp3 player, but they self-destruct at the borrowing deadline.) But the DRM software I’ve seen is fairly buggy, and it doesn’t work with ipods specifically (as opposed to other brands of mp3 player). Since students seem to choose ipods far more often than other mp3 players, requiring them to purchase other players on top of the ones they already have would be, um, let’s go with ‘unpopular.’ Relatively few brands work with multiple flavors of DRM, so student choice would be pretty constricted.

For that matter, what’s to stop a curious administrator from ‘eavesdropping’ on a course, once the mp3’s are out there? And what if that unscrupulous cretin doesn’t like what he hears? What if the David Horowitzes of the world (or their left-wing doppelgangers, if you prefer) decide to start eavesdropping on classes in suspect disciplines, and packaging selected quotations out of context (hell, even in context) to make yet another political argument against academic freedom? What if helicopter parents start monitoring their kids’ classes, and start policing content they find unsuitable for tender young ears? What if local politicians decide to justify funding cuts by finding quotes they know would look silly in a headline?

(There are also the more mundane issues about student attendance, but I expect that canny faculty can find ways around those.)

In sum, is there a way to embed a reliable ‘self-destruct’ mechanism that doesn’t unduly restrict student choice of hardware, isn’t ridiculously buggy and/or expensive, and will combine increased access for enrolled students with safeguards against undue exposure?

An Update on The Peeps

Last month I did a post about a moral dilemma I was facing with trying to staff an offsite course for very conservative Christian homeschoolers. One of the professors who regularly teaches one of the courses they wanted – I called her Jen – was conspicuously committed to some lifestyle choices that would not go over well with the homeschoolers, whom I called the Peeps (in honor of Bitch, Ph.D.’s fixation with marshmallow peeps).

Anyway, I’m glad to say the situation resolved itself without too much drama. I asked the department chair to throw the class open for volunteers. None of the full-time faculty (including Jen) had any interest, mostly due to workload. One of our adjuncts, whose temperament and self-presentation should mesh nicely with the Peeps, took it. So the immediate crisis is resolved, Jen can be Jen, the Peeps can be the Peeps, the class will get taught, the sun is shining, the birds are singing, and there is peace on earth.

Whew. But thanks to all the commenters on the previous post for the thoughtful input! It’s good to know that there’s this incredible resource to turn to when I bump up against my own cognitive limits, which is pretty frequently.

Monday, May 08, 2006

A Small, But Positive, Change

According to IHE, the University of Wisconsin at Madison and UVA are both expanding their recruitment of community college graduates. While the local cc’s are presumably elated, the predictable hand-wringing about watering-down has already started.

I could gloat, but honestly compels me to admit that this story is much less earth-shattering than it looks at first blush. It’s a positive development, but it’s hardly ‘man bites dog.’

The positives here are twofold: very talented cc grads will get the shot they deserve, and data trumped mystique in executive decisionmaking. I don’t see a downside to either of those.

The data that both universities looked at indicated that cc grads who transfer in graduate at the same rates (sometimes slightly higher) than ‘native’ students. Nothing succeeds like success, so the argument for gatekeeping looks a bit silly when the data contradicts it. (My cc did a similar study in reverse, and found that our grads who transfer actually outperform ‘native’ students at the public four-year colleges in our state.)

Rather than asking whether students who can be just as successful should have the same chance, which strikes me as a no-brainer, the right question is why students who spent their freshman and sophomore years at flagship state universities are no more successful than local cc grads.

I’ll divide the answer into two parts: why the flagship state students aren’t all they’re cracked up to be, and why cc grads are no worse than their flagship state counterparts.

First, the flagship state students. Why are they less successful than we might expect, given the fairly intense competition to get in?

Let’s see – 18 and 19 year olds, first time away from home, fresh out of high school, huge anonymous classes, lots of teaching assistants and/or adjuncts, the travails of dorm living, fulfilling distribution requirements with courses they really don’t want to take, no clue what they want to do when they grow up and very little serious academic or career advisement to be had. Nope, no clue.

Then, the cc grads. Why are they just as good, if they weren’t pre-screened by a selective Admissions office?

The key word is “grads.” Students who graduate with an associate’s degree are, pretty much by definition, survivors. Yes, cc’s generally have much higher attrition rates than selective colleges. Some of that reflects open-door admissions; some of it reflects different goals the students have; some the more-challenging life circumstances that cc students often face, which is why they chose a cc in the first place. Grads, though, are the ones that didn’t drop out. They’re the ones who were able, for whatever reason, to get their stuff together and keep it together long enough to complete a degree program.

The grads who apply to transfer tend to be the best of the already-smallish bunch that graduates at all. These are often the kids who had the talent and drive to go elsewhere, but whose family circumstances (whether financial or otherwise) made that impractical. In some cases, they’re just late bloomers; in others, they may have had to work through some personal issues before they could focus seriously on their studies. The key point is that these students proved, over two or more years at a cc, that they were capable of performing academically at a high level.

In other words, the best cc students match up pretty well with the average flagship state students. This seems about right to me. Our average student may be weaker, but our transferring grads are better than our average. Since most student attrition happens in the first year of college, those who graduate from a cc have already made it through the most dangerous year. In effect, we offer a second sift through the applicant pile, highlighting a few hidden gems who were missed the first time. Nothing wrong with that.

Hooray that UVA and UWM based a decision on reality, rather than snob appeal. But I don’t foresee the floodgates opening. This is a wise move that will probably have a positive, though notably small, impact. The cohort for whom it’s relevant is smaller than partisans on either side of the issue seem to imagine.

Friday, May 05, 2006

How to Give an IT Director Fits

Warning: Only use this strategy when you have easy access to a defibrillator.

“I’ve been thinking, wouldn’t it be cool to transition the entire division to Macs?”


Thursday, May 04, 2006

The Curse of the Ombudsman

I’ve been corresponding with a reader not far from Northern Town who is thinking of moving into administration. A position opened up at his college, and he applied, but now that he sees some of the details, he’s thinking of withdrawing. The Chronicle had a similar piece yesterday about someone in college marketing. Reading the email and the article just a few minutes apart got me thinking about how to analyze a potential admin job, and what warning signs to look for that the job has been (whether intentionally or not) set up to fail.

Some of them are obvious. If the ad mentions anything about functioning well in an environment of ambiguity, STAY AWAY. That’s the HR department’s equivalent of air horns and sirens telling you that the organization’s head is firmly implanted in its keister. Keep an eye out, too, for phrases like “highly politicized environment.” I’ve actually seen that one a few times, and I honestly have to wonder who would apply for that.

More commonly, the ad is fine, but bad stuff turns up on closer examination of the position itself. Who do you report to? Does it make sense that you report to that person? Are you eligible for tenure? (If the position involves supervising tenured faculty, this is huge.) Do you have dedicated staff support? Is the mission of your nook of the organization clearly understood? Does it make sense? Is your nook of the organization consistent with the larger goals and direction of the college? Does your concept of the job match that of whomever you’d report to?

I got nailed on that last one once. I had imagined the position involving using professional judgment to bring particulars in line with the overall direction of the school. My manager imagined it as errand boy for his micro-level diktats. Not good.

Turnover can be revealing. The ideal, I think, is slow-but-steady turnover, in which change is neither unheard of nor all-at-once. If six positions, all in a vertical row (VP of academics, deans of academic areas, department chairs) are being advertised at once, there was probably a purge. (The same is true if multiple very senior positions are advertised at once – say, three vice presidents.) I’d be concerned about the next purge. If you’re the first new hire since the Eisenhower administration, be prepared for all manner of forehead-slapping moments as you try to make sense of patches and overrides encrusted with layers of history, and for all manner of distrust as your very presence serves to remind some very defensive people of their own mortality.

Would you have the leverage to get done what you need to? I call this The Curse of the Ombudsman. In every organization I’ve seen that actually had an Ombudsman, nobody would take her calls, since they were never good. So the Ombudsman became what Tom Wolfe called a flak-catcher, absorbing blows from angry students/parents/clients/citizens on behalf of the organization, but without the power to do much of anything about them. Departments treated the Ombudsman as something between a mascot and a mosquito.

These aren’t always easy to spot upfront, of course, but a few strategically-directed inquiries can be helpful. How large a budget do you have? Are you relying on other departments to do work for you, and if you are, what incentive do they have to comply? Ask to see an organizational chart (very few places put these on their websites, which I consider a terrible shame), and study it very carefully. And don’t take a job when the sirens are flashing before you’re even there.

I don’t think positions that are set up to fail are usually the result of malice. If anything, most of the time, organizations aren’t fully aware of what they’ve done. Most people aren’t that good at systems thinking, and it’s always easier to blame the incumbent than to redesign a structure entirely. Throw in the chronic budget shortages and a dose of optimism, and you have prime conditions for creating positions that won’t work.

Have you ever had a position that was set up to fail?

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

City Names that Make Me Smile, or, The Fruits of Sleep Deprivation


Walla Walla







Rancho Cucamonga

Lake Titicaca



Here in the Northeast, there’s a convenience store chain called Wawa. There's a city called Mahwah. I don't know if there's a Mahwah Wawa, but there should be. I’m waiting for them to open a store in Walla Walla, so there could be a Walla Walla Wawa.

In Princeton, there’s a small shuttle train the locals call the Dinky, which has a stop near a Wawa. If a similar train were built in Walla Walla, you could catch the Walla Walla Wawa Dinky. I could say that phrase all day long.

What city names make you smile?

Sleep…need sleep…

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Management by Baseball: A Book Review

Despite the title of my blog, I don’t really confess much. This will be an exception.

A few years ago, when I first became vaguely aware of the blogosphere, I checked out a few of the then-popular blogs, saw little but links to instantly-obsolete news stories, and wrote it off.

That changed when I saw a story in Slate about baseball bloggers. One of the bloggers mentioned there, Jeff Angus, did a blog in which he used baseball to illustrate his theories of management. I checked it out, and immediately became a fan. Unlike most of the blogs I had seen up to that point, most of the entries were mini-essays, rather than single-paragraph link farms. It read like a really good newspaper column that just happened to be online. That, a good writing style, and a fusion of two topics I find endlessly fascinating, and I was hooked.

When I started my own blog, I adopted the same color template as MBB, as a sort of homage.

Following the obvious trajectory, the blog has led to a book: Management by Baseball (Collins, 2006). (Maybe there’s a lesson there…hmm…)

Like most good nonfiction, Angus’ book is based on one great idea. In this case, it’s that the measurability of success in baseball (wins and losses, most notably) makes it an incredibly good test lab for management theories. Baseball fans’ famous fetish for statistics provides ample feedback for various management strategies, and the high financial stakes for most teams provide powerful incentives to succeed. In baseball, more than in most industries, it’s hard to succeed entirely through office politics; either you win games or you don’t, and the results are quick, public, and (somewhat) clear.

Although Angus careens confidently from era to era and team to team, a theme quickly emerges: managers who pay attention to feedback about both their environments and themselves are most capable of managing change. Angus’ straw men, who are entirely too recognizable in real life, are “Bitgods,” for Back In The Good Old Days. Bitgods typically achieved success in a particular environment based on behaviors that made sense there and then; when the environment changed, the Bitgods didn’t, but instead became dogmatic, bitter, and cranky. Decline ensued. When the times changed, Bitgods blamed the times.

Baseball has its share of Bitgods, to be sure. Anybody who follows the game can rattle off the elements of the familiar jeremiads: pitchers don’t pitch complete games anymore, free agency destroyed fan loyalty, the designated hitter rule bastardized strategy, expansion ruined everything, etc. In tenured academia, Bitgods rule the roost, almost by definition. Kids today…

The chronic problem for Bitgods, of course, is that everything changes. (Angus is terrific on this, tracing changes from ballpark to ballpark, era to era, and manager to manager with aplomb.) What Angus terms the Law of Problem Evolution (p. 77) pretty much guarantees that “success is the enemy of adaptability” (p. 206). In a passage referring to the 2004 Houston Astros that could just as well apply to just about any organization, he notes that

Any manager with a shred of ability will solve some kinds of problems, and no matter how good, will leave some problems unsolved. The manager, as a human being, has strengths and weaknesses, high aptitudes and black holes of incapability from which no wisdom escapes. Over time, the problems within an organization that a manager can solve get solved, and the ones he’s not good at solving fester and become an ever-greater proportion of the remaining problems. For most managers, this plaque of unsolved problems will usually destroy their effectiveness. And for the manager who follows, there’s a much better chance that the residue of unsolved problems will consist of ones that the newbie can solve. (p. 80)

Hence, Angus advises new managers to make a big splash in their first three weeks on the job, preferably by listening to line staff and picking some low-hanging fruit that doesn’t happen to be in your particular blind spot. The credibility gain from the early, easy successes will come in handy as you head into murkier territory.

(In my case, the easy, low-hanging fruit was speedy writeups for class observations. For reasons I can’t fathom, my predecessor used to let several months elapse between observing a class and reporting on the observation. I shortened the turnaround to 24 hours. The faculty response was immediate and positive.)

Where Angus gets most interesting is in his data-driven rejection of much conventional wisdom. The one that jumped off the page for me was his cavalier dismissal of leadership as an analytic category. (“Leadership is rarely worth spending time on…and it’s generally ephemeral” pp 172-3). When “the talent is the product,” as in baseball, academia, and most cutting-edge service professions, the issue is much less about ‘leadership’ in the traditional sense than about sussing out, evaluating, and managing change. Like Jim Collins in Good to Great, Angus notes correctly that the field-general style (his preferred term is ‘martinet’) is only one of many, and usually not the most effective. Self-styled ‘leaders’ are often too full of themselves to take sufficient notice of changes in their surroundings. By the time they notice, it’s too late.

He’s also particularly good on “the diseconomies of scale” (p. 62), a component of the sclerosis of success. As organizations grow, the layers within them multiply, adding to the communication overhead. Over time, efforts to rein in the chaos (procedures manuals, flurries of memos) act as drags on productivity, until a smaller, nimbler competitor with lower communication overhead comes along and eats the bigger company’s lunch.

Anybody who has tried to manage academic departments will nod in rueful recognition at this one. Much of what we call ‘administration’ is really an attempt to fight organizational entropy, and the fight gets harder as the organization gets larger. When the people in the organization are senior, immovable, and card-carrying Bitgods, the task is that much harder.

I enjoy Angus’ work, and the book is a treat. It doesn’t get caught up in CEO-worship, like so much business lit, and it has a refreshingly irreverent sense of humor that never becomes sophomoric or cheesy. I would have preferred to have Angus’ Laws actually compiled in a single list at some point, and I think he’s far too generous to George Steinbrenner, but those are quibbles.

The more basic issue I have with it, though, is external. When Angus refers to a manager, he’s using the term in the specific baseball sense of a chief operating officer, a top dog in the field operation. But most ‘managers’ in businesses or colleges are ‘middle managers,’ responsible for mediating between directives from above and realities on the ground. In baseball terms, we’re ‘coaches’ (as in third-base coach, bench coach, etc.), rather than managers. The job description for a third-base coach is very different from that of a manager, just as the job of a dean is very different from that of a chief academic officer. We don’t often have the option of making the big splash, and we face the tricky issue of maintaining credibility with the talent (players, faculty) without actually being the people to make the key decisions (managers, vice presidents/provosts). With a few exceptions (Angus rightly notes the Mets’ pitching coach, Rick Peterson), it’s hard to measure success for a coach. Office politics probably loom larger, simply by default.

Still, it’s unfair to review a book not written. I’d like to see Angus take on, say, what makes a good first-base coach, how we know, and what it could mean to middle managers everywhere. Maybe that’s the next book. Until then, devour Management by Baseball for what it is: a well-written, data-grounded, intelligent demystification of management, with baseball as a prime example. It’s a great idea done well.

(I promise no more baseball postings for a while.)

Monday, May 01, 2006

Fair-Weather Fans

The Wife and I had the chance this weekend to partake in one of life’s great pleasures: first-row seats at a minor-league baseball game.

Minor-league baseball is sheer glory. It has all the poetry of the majors, but you can get good seats, the prices won’t kill you, people bring their kids, the players are human-sized, and the teams go out of their way to entertain you between innings. (The mascot races are always good, and I like the t-shirt cannon, but our favorite is the dizzy bat race, in which two large men put their heads down on bats and spin around quickly several times before racing each other down a baseline. For some reason, the sight of beer-bellied men falling dizzily to the ground always amuses both of us.)

The beauty of seats right off the field is that you can play aristocrat for the evening. When we sat down after the anthem, I waved to the players and, in my best faux-European accent, allowed that “you may now play for my amusement.” Not bad for twelve bucks.

One of the few consolations of growing up in Northern Town was a damn fine minor league baseball tradition. Sure, the old stadium was a dump that eventually had to be razed because the pigeon droppings on patrons got to be excessive, but it was cool. A few of the players I saw as a kid in Northern Town went on to substantial major league careers, earning me the right to say to other baseball fans “I saw him when.”

We’re planning to take The Boy to his first game this summer. The stadium has a grassy knoll off right field that it calls the turf club – five bucks a ticket, bring your own blanket. Kids like to roll down the hill, chase each other all over, etc., while parents watch the game. During the sixth inning, the p.a. played “cotton-eyed joe,” and all the kids on the hill started dancing jigs. It was laugh-out-loud funny, and very sweet. I think TB is ready.

The only flaw in the evening, and it was a major one, was that it was unspeakably cold. Indecently cold. What Lewis Black calls can’t-finish-a-sentence cold (“The runner is JESUS CHRIST IT'S COLD”). The wind whipped in from center field as if we owed it money. We actually passed on the seventh-inning stretch, since the idea of standing up and absorbing more wind was just too painful to contemplate. We spent most of the fifth inning in the gift shop, just to get out of the wind. Ordinarily, prying my butt out of a first-row box seat at a ballgame for anything other than a snack run would require either a medical emergency or the 82nd Airborne. Not this time.

Now that we’ve thawed out, I’ve given some thought to the ‘fair-weather fans’ tag. True Fans like to disparage fair-weather fans. True Fans, who show up to games no matter the weather or the state of the team, like to believe that their faith redeems them in the eyes of the team. True Fans believe that fair-weather fans, who only show up on nice days or when the team is actually good, are johnny-come-latelies, prostitutes rather than lovers.

Horseshit. True Fans are morons.

I say this, not merely because it was unfit for man or beast that night. I say this as a trained social scientist.

Take the Chicago Cubs. (Please!) The Cubs have a great many True Fans, fanatics who show up at Wrigley on pain of unemployment, divorce, and even watching the Cubs actually play. As a result, the team makes money whether it’s any good or not. Which is why the last time the Cubs won the Series, the wind that whipped in from center field came off a glacier. If the owners don’t have to pay extra to field a good team, they won’t. (Until, in a rare moment of lucidity, the Red Sox hired Theo Epstein, they suffered from the same syndrome.)

Team owners will pony up for winners when there’s a reason to, like increased attendance when the team is good. Fair-weather fans provide the incentive for a team to actually get good. If not for the fair-weather fans, the suffering of the True Fans might never be redeemed. We’re the reward for excellence. We’re the reason not to get complacent.

That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it. We’ll pick a nice day for the next game, and feel no shame at all. And I’d like The Boy’s first game to be a win. After all, it’s best for the team.