Friday, June 30, 2006

Science for Kids

Last night I took The Boy to the public library for a presentation for kids about dinosaurs. The guy who did the presentation was a natural showman, and we both had a great time, but it was striking to see such a different presentation style.

To illustrate the earth being bombarded by comets and suchlike during the precambrian era, he had a kid come up front and don a helmet. Then, he pummeled the kid’s head with balloons, each balloon representing a meteorite. Everybody laughed. He brought fossils to pass around, which went over okay, but got the biggest reaction with...the parents out there know where I’m going with this...fossilized dinosaur poop. “Eeeww!” all around, and lots of laughter.

The show was very participatory, with plenty of props. He did a bit with a raccoon puppet (don’t ask) that brought down the house, and he must have called a half-dozen volunteers during the 40 minute gig. (TB raised his hand, but didn’t get chosen. The place was packed, so it didn’t come across as rejection.) He also threw in plenty of jokes for the parents, including a clever one about how they don’t believe in dinosaurs in Kansas, just to keep everybody happy.

The climax of the show involved two HUGE inflatable dinosaurs, brought to life quickly with electric pumps. There’s just something about a ten-foot-tall dinosaur staring you in the face that gets your attention.

As he concluded, he asked the kids how many of them want to be scientists when they grow up, and they responded as if he’d asked how many want dessert.

Yes, it was sensationalistic, and funny, and short, and entertaining, and it didn’t ask much of the kids. But they paid attention, and TB thought it was just about the coolest thing going. This wasn’t exactly his first introduction to dinosaurs; he corrects me when I get dinosaurs’ names wrong (“No, Daddy, that’s a diplodocus, not a brontosaurus,”), and doesn’t have any self-consciousness about it. To him, it’s entirely normal and natural that a five-year-old would be fluent in Latin names of prehistoric reptiles.

I know science will get harder as he gets older, but I don’t want him to lose the sense that it’s cool, and exciting, and liking it doesn’t make you a nerd.

Science-y readers: what piqued and kept your interest in science as a kid?

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Ask the Administrator: Informal Pre-Interviews

A West Coast correspondent writes:

I have sent out about 20 job applications for positions in student affairs or academic affairs. Many of the positions are at universities on the East Coast (because I would like to move) and I currently live on the West Coast. I am a little worried about getting interviews since I'm so far away (I chose NOT to talk about my desire to move across the country in my cover letter). When I scheduled a trip to one town near my top choice university (where I applied to for two jobs) I emailed the chairs of two different search committees and told them I'd be in town if they'd like to meet and talk about the position. I haven't heard anything from these committees officially, so when I sent the emails I was not sure what stage of the application review process they are actually in. One person responded and told me that she can't interview anyone until they get official permission from HR or someone, but she offered to meet with me informally if I wanted.

My questions are: 1) Was contacting the search committees a smart thing for me to do or was that pushy (eg. should it be avoided in the future?) and 2) Should I actually meet with this woman? Can it hurt my real chances at an interview if I meet with her informally? I'm unsure what would happen in this meeting -- I suppose I could ask questions about the position (I've got a few).

I’ve been on my share of search committees, for both faculty and administrative positions, and I’ve never heard of a committee chair or member just meeting an external candidate informally. (With internal candidates, it’s pretty much unavoidable.) I don’t think you did anything wrong in telling the committees that you’d be around – if anything, it might have saved them some travel reimbursement money, if they were going to interview you anyway – but I’d wonder about the wisdom of the committee chair offering to meet with you offline.

Admittedly, the market for administrative positions is often less glutted with applicants than the market for faculty, so some of the folks doing the searches may be less process-conscious than you’d expect on the faculty side. Still, they’re bound by the same open-search, non-discrimination rules as anybody else. It’s not unusual for first formal interviews (i.e. group interviews) to consist of prewritten questions that are the same for each candidate, specifically to ensure that everybody is treated equitably. An informal interview, granted out of convenience and prior to the naming of a list of interview candidates, could be viewed as an unfair advantage.

With the chair who offered you an informal interview, you’re in an awkward position. The interview really shouldn’t exist in the first place, but since the offer is hanging out there, if you walk away from it, it might be interpreted as a lack of interest in the position. I’d say the chair made a mistake, not you, and it’s not your responsibility to do the chair’s job for her. If she offered you a shot, you’re within your rights to take it. The fact that she dropped the ball by making the offer at all is her problem, not yours. (Don’t be surprised, though, if she backs off when you follow up and try to set a day and time. In her shoes, I would. If that happens, it’s not a reflection on you; it’s just a belated recognition on her part that she goofed.)

I’d recommend treating the interview as an opportunity for you to investigate both the university and the job. Ask LOTS of questions about both. (Example: does the job have a set end date? Many lower-level admin jobs in larger universities have a three-years-and-out rule; you'd want to know that sort of thing.) To the extent that you’re information-gathering, rather than auditioning, it’s harder to find fault. It could also give you a sense as to whether you’d want to work at either position at that university; if you decide you don’t like the community, or the housing prices are out of line, that’s useful information. Since you’re applying to another job at that same university, any community info you pick up will be relevant to both.

More broadly, it’s always hard to know how much enthusiasm (or projected enthusiasm) is too much, and a lot depends on the personalities on the committee. My personal preference is in favor of folks who follow the process as outlined, and reserve the energy for the actual interviews (and the subsequent thank-you notes). But that’s me. I was on a faculty search committee seven or eight years ago when one candidate – who was eventually chosen and turned out to be a rising star – nearly tanked her candidacy with too much initial pestering. Depending on how you read that, it’s either a cautionary tale, or the key word is ‘nearly.’

(One exception to the ‘respect the process’ rule: generally, beat submission deadlines by a comfortable margin. For reasons I’ll never understand, committees jumping the gun on their own deadlines is weirdly common. If the ad appears in mid-September with an application deadline of Nov. 15, get the application in by early October. At my previous college, deadline-jumping was almost standard procedure, and colleagues elsewhere have told me the same thing about their schools. My current one doesn’t, but it seems to be the exception.)

Wise and generous readers: what do you think?

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

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Building: A Mystery

Construction projects are nightmares generally, but they’re especially bad for colleges. I’m trying to get a handle on why that is.

Imagine that you’re buying a new car. You start with an optimistic but not ridiculous budget. You want something to haul the kids around, with a good reliability record and up-to-date safety features. You live in a region where both defrosters and air conditioners are pretty much mandatory.

You find a model you like. In the name of fiscal responsibility, you ask the dealer how much it would be without air conditioning, airbags, or an automatic transmission. You buy the stripped-down model, on the theory that you can always retrofit later. It has to be special-ordered, so it comes in after the rebate offer expires, but you figure you’re still coming out slightly ahead.

For the next two years, you pay out-of-pocket to add aftermarket options, one at a time. Each repair costs far more than the original option would have, and takes the car out of commission for days at a time.

Two years later, you’ve spent thousands more adding aftermarket products than you would have if you had just bitten the bullet the first time. (Air conditioning as a dealer option -- $800. As a retrofit, $2500. It takes a week to install, adding another $250 in rental car costs. And so on.) The car has spent lots of time in the shop getting things added, so you’ve paid for rental cars. Some of the aftermarket products aren’t really all that satisfactory, but you’ll take what you can get. You’ve spent considerable time driving around without air conditioning, airbags, and whatever else. And you probably wind up doing without a few of those options altogether, to compensate for spending too much on what you actually got. Your spouse criticizes you for pouring so much money down a rat hole; you respond, correctly, that you’ve paid careful attention to costs every step of the way, and that the costs couldn’t be helped. That’s pretty much how we do construction projects.

It’s easy, in the short run, for a college to decide to scale down a proposed project to cut costs. The problem is that the people charged with scaling it down are often not the end users, so much of what gets cut eventually finds its way back in, by necessity, leading to the dreaded-but-ubiquitous ‘overruns.’ (“Where are the electrical outlets?” “D’oh!” I’m not making that one up.) Too, price inflation in the construction world is rampant and rapid, so a project cut into ‘phases’ is guaranteed to cost more, in the end, than a project done whole-hog. What looks like prudence at the initial stage actually winds up costing much more, and yielding less, than just jumping in with both feet. And by the time the later phases roll around, the pressure to cut costs is usually even greater. So the later phases are broken into sub-phases, resulting in higher costs and lower functionality, leading to still more cost pressures. Inflation-by-penny-pinching.

(Renovation, which is often embraced as the less-expensive alternative to construction, brings its own unique nightmare: finding space for the displaced offices and people while the work is done. Storage is usually the first thing sacrificed, which is understandable, but which leads to equipment damage, trailer rental fees, and tremendous (and usually unbudgeted) diverted staff time. And has anybody ever seen ‘temporary’ storage trailers actually go away? Me neither.)

Yet the same mistakes keep happening, over and over again.

I’m all for deliberate consideration, measure-twice-cut-once, inclusion, etc. But there comes a time when someone has to make the call to pull the trigger. It takes calm nerves, a willingness to take risks, and an endurance for the inevitable Monday Morning critics. It takes the political skill and will to sell the relevant stakeholders on the wisdom of getting over the upfront sticker shock, which is considerable. It even involves a willingness to tell certain stakeholders that no, they won’t get everything they want, even if that was the original purpose of the project. It can’t be easy, or more colleges would do it.

I once heard a very experienced administrator talking about construction projects, and his advice struck me as brilliant in its Zen-like simplicity: only hire firms that have built something almost identical elsewhere, and tell them just to give you version 2.0 of what they’ve already done. Instead of doing the knee-jerk “we want to be on the cutting edge” thing, be the “fast follower” who gets the debugged version of what someone else has already spilt the requisite blood, sweat, and tears. This wouldn’t work for some very high-end, very specialized research facilities, but for teaching colleges, it struck me as retrospectively obvious. (Has anyone ever built an auditorium, smart classroom, or hockey rink before? I’m guessing ‘yes.’) Let some other college drop bodies on the barbed wire, so you can climb over those. Makes sense to me. Invest the saved millions (and we’re talking millions) in operating budgets – hiring faculty, providing financial aid to students, even marketing.

I haven’t cracked the nut of explaining why the same mistakes keep happening, though it’s not for lack of trying. Has your college found a way to avoid these same mistakes?

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

The End of the Beginning

The Boy has had his last day of preschool. He’ll have a summer vacation, then start kindergarten in September.

I took the day off for his last day, and went with The Wife and The Girl for both the dropoff and the pickup. At the pickup, he and his friends played on the lawn for about a half hour while the parents chatted and the younger sibs milled about. We took pictures, some of which required me jumping around like a monkey to elicit the necessary smiles, and the parents made plans for summer play dates.

(Since I’m rarely there, it was fun to watch the other kids react to having a new Dad in the crowd. A younger sister, who was probably two, just stared at me in raw animal fear the entire time. Her brother, one of TB’s friends, thought it was cool that TB’s Dad was there. Other kids didn’t seem to notice one way or the other.)

Our district has full-day kindergarten, so it will be quite a change from preschool. The Girl will get more Mommy time, which is good, and The Boy will have more going on, for which he’s ridiculously ready. I’ve already told my VP to expect me to be late to work on the first day of kindergarten; as a parent, there are some things you just don’t miss.

The last day of preschool brings a strange mix of emotions. There’s the obvious pride, since TB is growing into a real person, and an admirable one. There’s the wistful recognition that he’ll never be that young again, and that every step forward is also a step away. And there’s the guilt-inducing fear of ‘what the hell are we going to do with him for the next 2 ½ months?’ (As a parent, you get good at having multiple emotions at the same time. We’re proud/happy/sad/exhausted/frustrated.)

Pretty soon we won’t be able to call him a preschooler anymore. He hasn’t looked like one for some time – he’s astonishingly tall for his age – but we could take comfort in knowing that the height was deceiving. Now it won’t be.

The Wife, who will absorb the brunt of the summer vacation, has been working overtime to find things to keep them busy: kids’ storyhour at the library, playdates, swim classes, even a day camp. Still, even with all that, there’s an intimidating amount of open time. The Boy is a great kid, but he likes to turn it up to 11 pretty much all the time, and it can get wearing. When it rains or the heat is prohibitive, running him for extended periods just isn’t an option. We don’t believe in marathon tv-watching. And a few consecutive days of housebound status with two young children is enough to drive anybody bonkers. The Wife is a trouper, but even she has limits. We can prevail upon the grandparents only so much, and major travel just isn’t in the cards. I absolutely could not do what The Wife does. Could. Not. Do. It. And for the love of all that is holy and good, I have no freakin’ idea how single parents do it.

Arlie Hochschild was onto something. Sometimes work is easier than home.
So it’s once more, pining for the beach. Big Boy school looms. Changes are afoot.

Maybe summer won’t be so bad…

Monday, June 26, 2006

Thoughts on Washington, D.C.

Having done the weekend-trip thing with the whole crew to see my brother and his bride, I have compiled a few suggestions for our nation’s capital and its overall improvement. If any political candidates choose to take my suggestions and pretend that they came up with them first, I wouldn’t object. It would be our little secret, just like that one magical summer when...

But I digress.

Suggestions for Washington, D.C.:

- Have you people noticed how *(#$%U)@#% HOT it is? Moving the city to, say, Minnesota might help with that. I hear North Dakota is lovely this time of year.

- I suppose it’s possible to come up with a less attractive design for train stops than the dark-concrete-honeycomb, in the same sense in which it’s possible to find a worse candidate for husband-of-the-year than Kevin Federline. It could be done, but it wouldn’t be worth the effort. If you haven’t had the pleasure of the D.C. Metro, its underground stations have tubular walls consisting of charcoal-colored concrete, with a waffle pattern. You can get the effect by dying an Eggo gray, then shaping it like a tube of toilet paper, and imagining yourself standing in the middle. It’s unspeakably ugly. It’s a sort of cheesy-futurist/brutalist motif, apparently designed to send the subliminal message “move along to your doom, maggots.” It’s almost insulting in its heavy-handedness. You just want to say, “alright, already, I’m insignificant, these are the halls of power, great forces are at work, I am but a cog in a machine, we’re at war with EastAsia, yadda, yadda, yadda, I GET IT!”

- It’s time to rethink the whole “Beltway" thing. Is it ever NOT jammed? And how many airports does that city actually need?

- It’s waaay too #$%#)# hot.

- Traffic circles? Really?

- You get a different sense of ‘handicapped accessible’ when one of your company is in a stroller. The Smithsonian Natural History Museum, for example, has lots of ramps on the inside, but a forbidding set of white, heat-reflecting stairs on the outside. Luckily, the security checks move slowly enough that you can heave the stroller up one step at a time. You know, the security checks they have to protect the dinosaurs, which are *(#*%)#% EXTINCT, but that they don’t have for the Metro, that carries thousands of living, breathing people, usually all in the same car.

- Certain government buildings, and I’m not naming any names, carry a distinct smell of B.O. If the frickin’ Repo Man could put a little pine tree air freshener in every car, certainly the most powerful country in the world could manage a little Lysol. I mean, sheesh.

- This may be related to the unspeakable heat. Have I mentioned that?

Enough carping. The visit was fun, it’s always great to see my brother and his bride, The Boy got a big kick out of the dinosaurs (especially the T-Rex, whose pelvic bone was shaped such that The Boy pointed and laughed, “I see his winkle!”), and we learned that The Girl spooks cats. (Who knew?)

Major props to the restaurant that is apparently quite the singles hotspot at night, but a family diner during the day. During the day, they use the stage for stroller storage. The Girl’s stroller was parked next to some amps while we ate. Very cool.

Back to reality. The air conditioning in the office still doesn’t work, so the heat motif will continue. At least I won’t have to stare at fossilized reptile winkle. Unlike that one magical summer...

Friday, June 23, 2006

Left of the Dial

Since Oso Raro did a piece looking back on the Pet Shop Boys, I figured the occasion of the release of “Don’t You Know Who I Think I Was?,” the new Replacements compilation, would be a sufficient excuse to write about Paul Westerberg and the Mighty ‘Mats.

As a veteran of college radio in the late 1980’s, I absorbed the Replacements’ music pretty much by osmosis. They and R.E.M. were simply inescapable. R.E.M. eventually crossed over to mainstream success, but the ‘Mats (‘Mats, fanspeak for Placemats, fanspeak for Replacements) flamed out in 1991. The lead singer and songwriter, Paul Westerberg, has carried on an uneven solo career since.

My affection for Westerberg/Mats music is based partly on the music, and partly on the persona. Westerberg (fun fact: in the movie Heathers, the high school is named after him) is a distinct type: he’s a talented fuckup who succeeds despite himself and fails despite his talent. (One writer described the Replacements as “the little band that could, and didn’t.” That’s about right.) The Mats’ sound, when they were sober enough to play, conveyed both an ambition for greatness and an indifference to practice. Their aesthetic dictated that an album with such undeniable classics as “Satisfied” and “Answering Machine” also had to have “Gary’s Got a Boner,” which sounds pretty much like you’d think it would.

I discovered the Replacements in my twenties, and still think of them as capturing something about that age. They veered uncertainly from eloquent longing (“Skyway,” “Left of the Dial,” “Answering Machine”), to narcissistic drama (“The Ledge,” “Talent Show”), moping (“Someone Take the Wheel,” “Here Comes a Regular”), and stupid restless energy (“I Don’t Know,” “Alex Chilton”). Unburdened by musical competence but with a telling weakness for catchy hooks, they hid vulnerable self-awareness under bluster and jokes. Contradictory as hell, but accurately so, and full of good lines (“you’ve got a voice like the last day of Catholic school,” “how do you say good night to an answering machine?”). They made the best anti-video ever (“Bastards of Young”), and their concerts were famously feast-or-famine, sometimes both. (At a show I caught in ‘91, they delivered a show-stopping version of “Alex Chilton,” and followed it with about thirty seconds of a cover of “All Right Now,” before stopping because Paul forgot the words. It was an exemplary ‘Mats moment.)

Replacements fans couldn’t help but notice how much Nirvana owed the ‘Mats, or just how closely the early Goo Goo Dolls resembled them. The first thirty seconds of “Left of the Dial” sound like the best song Kurt Cobain never wrote. The Arctic Monkeys have a ‘Mats-ish sound, albeit with cockney accents.

As Westerberg moved into his thirties and forties, the songs didn’t get worse, but the albums did. Self-awareness is his gift, and that actually ripens with age. His best solo stuff (“Things,” “It’s a Wonderful Lie,” “AAA”) reflects a man confronting his own failings, finding solace in catchy melodies. (He even did a surprisingly affecting, surprisingly rocking tribute to Sylvia Plath, “Crackle and Drag.”) The problem, though, is that the contradictions that had given his early work its urgency were largely gone. Most of the tracks on his 90’s and later work sound forced, which he has admitted they mostly were. He has too much self-awareness, and too little craft, to fake it convincingly. When he’s faking, you know it. “Actor in the Street” or “We May Be the Ones” can be physically painful to listen to, since they fail on every level: melodically, vocally, lyrically, everything. They’re the aural bile of a man who hates his job.

But even the failures are accurate. I don’t have the same drive for drama or restlessness in my thirties that I did in my early twenties. At 22, the prospect of dying face-down seemed vaguely romantic; now it just seems pitiful. There’s a time in life when you can sing, with goofy conviction, that “all I want to do is have beer for breakfast.” If you’re lucky, that time passes.

It’s also hard to maintain the striving-amateur pose at a certain point. After a while, you either develop competence and go with it (R.E.M. and the Goo Goo Dolls did that), or you find something else to do. Westerberg’s efforts at capturing the romantic, shambolic slacker become less convincing, over time. By the time he did Stereo/Mono, he had to resort to doing his own incompetent drumming and letting the tape run out on his single best performance, mid-song (characteristically, a cover of “Postcards from Paradise,” by Flesh for Lulu), to maintain the amateur vibe. It’s a nice trick, but that’s all it is.

Still, whenever he puts out something new, I perk up and listen, fresh hope flowing. For the first few notes, there’s a rush of familiarity, like hearing from an old friend. A few songs repay the attention; most don’t. Then I remember that I’m not 22 anymore.

Westerberg never really broke through to popular notice – if you’ve heard him at all, it was probably doing “Dyslexic Heart” in the movie Singles back in the early 90’s – and his oeuvre really doesn’t compare to the best singer/songwriters (Dylan, Waits) or even the most persistent and interesting of the subsequent generation (Kristin Hersh, Liz Phair). But, if you were there at a particular place and time, he got it. Periodically reconnecting with that place and time is gratifying, even if only to confirm how much distance has opened between then and now.

In an interview in the New York Times plugging the new cd, he admitted that he hasn’t listened to it. That’s about right. The “man without ties” is now his ten-year-old son’s baseball coach. Enfants terrible grow up. He’s busy now doing the score for an animated movie. I’m fairly sure it will suck. But I’ll listen anyway.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Meritocracy and Losers

Is a meritocracy necessarily a good thing?

Before I get keel-hauled over the gangplank, or however the metaphor works, I'll say upfront that I don't have a preferred alternative at the ready. I'm not shilling for primogeniture or the rule of capricorns. It's just that meritocracy has some consequences that I'm not sure we've thought through.

Parkinson’s law suggests that the meritocratic design is self-defeating; people will keep getting promoted for being good at their jobs until they reach a level where they aren’t good anymore, and that’s where they’ll stay. There’s some truth to this.

But there are other, less hackneyed, objections. Let’s say that we liberals purify the educational system sufficiently that nobody’s talent goes to waste for lack of tuition money. (For the record, I consider this a worthy, noble, and unfinished endeavor.) There would still be a hierarchy of talent. And the sneaky underside of meritocracy is that it suggests that those on the bottom deserve their fate.

Over the years, we’ve sort of assumed that ‘vocational’ programs will meet the needs of the folks who would otherwise spend their time filling out the left-hand side of the academic bell curve. Sometimes this works, but it’s not at all clear to me that academic skills are irrelevant for the skilled trades, or that we’d want them to be. The hosts of ‘Car Talk,’ for example, have engineering degrees from MIT, and they work(ed) as car mechanics. Those engineering backgrounds give them an ability to talk about cars with a depth of understanding you don’t always find. They’ve parlayed that ability into a sort of celebrity status.

A sociologist named Michael Young coined the term ‘meritocracy’ when he used it as the title of his dystopian novel, written in the late 1950’s. (It was set a few generations into the future.) The conceit of the novel was that all industries were organized by rigorous merit, with the result that the lower classes were horrifically exploited, since anyone in the lower classes with any ability was quickly reslotted somewhere else. The ones left over were the ones incapable of defending themselves. And nobody else defended them, since they lost fair and square. Over time, it came to resemble a caste system.

The real economy is much more diverse than this, of course, and what counts as merit in one industry will be irrelevant in another, and vice versa. (The skills of a great cruise director and the skills of a great software engineer may or may not overlap.) But the overall direction is recognizable, and kind of scary. To the extent that we combine an assumption that meritocracy is a Good Thing with economic polarization, we come up with a default cultural assumption that the rich are rich because they deserve it, and the struggling struggle because they deserve it. And if earthly wealth is really a reflection of God’s favor, then any sort of redistribution is clearly immoral. Don’t give health care to people without jobs – they don’t deserve it! Don’t penalize success!

I’m in the paradoxical position of saying this, while also believing strongly that many barriers to meritocracy – racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. – absolutely need to be defeated in its name. My college recently instituted domestic partner health benefits for employees, mostly to help us recruit the best faculty, and I think it’s great. Meritocracy beats the crap out of most other systems, at least as far as morality and productivity go.

Maybe what I’d prefer would be a little more humility mixed in. Talents are, in part, a function of luck. Good health is, in part, a function of luck – no matter how well you take care of yourself, you could get hit by a truck tomorrow. Luck can change. I’m fumbling around for the political rhetoric that combines a recognition of talent and hard work with a recognition of shared human frailty. Yes, some will be paid more than others, and I’m okay with that. The smart kid who worked his butt off to become an oncologist deserves more than the smart kid who cruised by on attitude. I’m fine with that. But there’s a limit to how low we should let the bottom be, because there but for the grace of God goes anybody. And to say that it’s deserved strikes me as immorally arrogant.

Happy Birthday to Blog

Today, the blog enters the terrible twos.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

He's Ready for Kindergarten

The family is seated at the dining room table, having dinner.

The Boy: Let’s see who can be quiet the longest!

Dean Dad & The Wife, silently: Yessss!

TB: Ready? Go!


DD makes googly eyes at The Boy.

TB: Ha! Daddy!

DD: You lose!

TB: Again! Ready? Go!


DD pantomimes impassioned nose-picking.

TB: Ha! Daddy!

DD: I win again!

TB: Ready? Go!


TB pulls his ears forward and opens his eyes wide, looking like Bat-Boy from the Weekly World News

DD: (snarf)

TB: I win!

DD: Good one.

TB: Ready? Go!


TB makes the exact same Bat-Boy face again.

DD: Ha!

TB: I win!

DD: I’ve got a good one.

TB: Ready? Go!


DD stands up and scratches one buttcheek.

TB: Gross! Daddy!

DD: Heh, heh, heh.

TB: Ready? Go!


TB stands up, turns around, and scratches both cheeks with brio, smiling broadly.


TB: I win!

DD: One more.

TB: Okay. Ready? Go!

The Girl burps.

Hilarity ensues.

The Wife reflects on some of her life choices.

I don’t even want to tell you how many years of formal education were represented at the table.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006


(No, not the religious kind.)

I’m increasingly convinced that one of the secrets to success (except for those lucky blankety-blanks who are naturally brilliant) is the steadfast belief that, no matter how absurdly convoluted and hopeless the current situation seems to be, you’ll find a solution. You don’t know yet what it will be, how you’ll find it, or when you’ll find it, but you believe that you will.

On any given day, I usually don’t know what my next blog post will be. But I have faith that I’m come up with something, and a related faith that, over time, enough of them will be good enough to make the weak ones forgivable. (“Ask the Administrator” queries are always welcome, since they’re freebies, as far as topics go. Bring ‘em on!)

Some people have faith in their ability to solve hard math problems. Some have faith in their ability to build stuff, or fix things, or walk into a room and socialize breezily and winningly with whomever they happen to meet. That faith isn’t always accurate, and it’s certainly not always rationally defensible, but it’s functional. (I once heard a major league baseball player comment that no matter how much he respects or fears a given pitcher, every time he steps to the plate, he thinks “I can hit this guy.” The day he stops thinking that, he’ll stop hitting.)

As a new professor, I remember being shocked at a student behavior that never even would have occurred to me: kids just throwing up their hands and walking out of an exam in the first five minutes, saying defeatedly “I can’t do this.” There were exams that kicked my butt – especially in geometry, which I still think is an elaborate prank – but it never even crossed my mind to just walk out in the first five minutes. There have been subjects that tested my faith, and times when pretty serious faith was required. If you don’t have that faith, and the subject doesn’t come naturally, you’re bound to fail.

How do you teach faith?

I’ll grant upfront that there’s a component of arrogance to this kind of faith. When I pick up a book in an area I find interesting, it’s usually with the thought that I’ll be able to understand it, pick it apart, argue with it, and learn from it. That thought is a necessary (but not sufficient) precondition for its own fulfillment. I consider that an okay kind of arrogance, as long as it’s kept in reasonable check.

Too many kids either never develop this kind of faith in their academic abilities, or get it beaten out of them. They compensate by loudly demanding that courses be easy and entertaining. Since they don’t think they can meet challenges, they avoid challenges, and try to de-fang those they can’t avoid. Backed into a corner, they crumble, or cheat, or walk out, or complain to the dean; the one thing they don’t do is suck it up. Then, when they crash and burn, they take it as confirmation that challenges are bad.

The real tragedy of it is that some of the lack-of-faith is actually misplaced. I’ve seen students blossom when they get that first taste of unexpected success; usually, after that, they’re the most motivated in the class. I wonder how many more could have done that, but just never got that first break.

How do you teach faith?

Monday, June 19, 2006

Ask the Administrator: Why Are Administrators Such Vile Creatures?

A new West Coast correspondent writes:

I'm a tenured community college professor in California. With all due
respect, what baffles me about most Deans, at the college where I teach, is
all the time they waste and all the time they expect faculty to waste on
dead or dying projects or frivolous minutia committees when the real issues,
the main problems, are ignored or never mentioned like the ten pound gorilla
in the main quad. For example, in California, over half the community
college students never graduate with two year degrees nor do most transfer
to four year institutions. Classes, on my campus, are crammed with hardcore,
bully-students and severe remedials who are operating with about fifth grade
skill levels. Yet, all these "diverse" students demand college degrees,
except they don't actually want to attend class nor do they want to study or
for that matter learn. When a student erupts in class, as they often do,
raging at a professor, if the prof goes to a Dean, the student is supported.
A prof always loses in a face off with an antisocial student at the college
where I work. Yet, these HUGE issues are never addressed. What say you, Mr.

The short-and-snarky answer: you’re supposed to manage your own classroom.

The mid-length answer: the primary business of the college is teaching, and that’s the job of the faculty. The job of the administration is to do the background work (tending to funding, accreditation, funding, legal compliance, funding, articulation, funding, public relations, and funding) that enables the teaching to happen at all. When an issue outside of our usual purview comes up, there’s an understandable impulse to want it to just go away, and appeasement achieves that goal in the very short term. (In the long run, it’s suicide, but I’m constantly amazed at how many people don’t seem capable of making that cognitive leap.)

The long answer: different colleges have different ideas of what, exactly, deans are supposed to do. (This is partially a function of the fact that different colleges have different missions. A community college is open to all comers, by definition. A weed-‘em-out premed program has the luxury of taking a harder line on certain issues than a cc does.) At the proprietary school at which I used to work, the default assumption was that the customer was always right. I did what I could to blunt the more ridiculous applications of that assumption, but I was always swimming upstream. Eventually, I got tired of it and left.

If a college is mired in ‘survival’ mode, it will easily fall prey to short-term thinking: whatever you do, don’t lose a tuition-paying student! Anybody who has ever taught knows that this is self-defeating, since you’ll eventually hit a point at which the courses are so watered-down that the better students start to bail, out of disgust or boredom.

It takes relatively far-sighted leadership to be able to instruct your middle managers (i.e. deans and department chairs) that the customer isn’t always right. Some colleges have that; many don’t. My current one does, which is a blessing.

I’d add, though, that what looks like taking the student’s side is often just due diligence. Students who feel slighted, for whatever reason, will grasp at whatever straw seems likeliest to work at the time. Some of those straws are legally radioactive, and automatically trigger investigations. I’ve had cases in which, if it were up to me, I would have told the student to give me a *(#$)@# break, but I really didn’t have the option. So I asked a few questions, which predictably got the professor’s hackles up, and which, I’m sure, fed the myth that we’re all sycophants. Comes with the gig.

(Once in a while, of course, a wild complaint turns out to be true. Those are even worse.)

Part of the image problem of deans stems from one-sided confidentiality rules. Let’s say Student Sally accuses Professor Pete of gender bias, manifested in her grade. Since that’s one of the magic triggers, I have to investigate. I ask a few questions, gather a few facts, and decide that Sally is just upset because she got a bad grade. Sally appeals, which almost always happens.

How does that story make its way through the faculty grapevine? The Dean is out to get the male faculty. He’s a slave to the ‘diversity’ police. He’s one of those politically correct administrators; why didn’t he just tell Sally to take a flying leap? Sure, he lost this particular one, the ratfink, but it wasn’t for lack of trying. Remember that other dean ten years ago who drove Professor Fred to a nervous breakdown? Now this! Down with deans!

Confidentiality rules forbid me from rebutting this story, even though it’s crap. Over the years, these stories pile up, so when I come a-knockin’ to investigate the latest allegations, people immediately (and uncritically) assume the worst.

(The trap holds, whether the accusation is true or not. If it isn’t, then I’m a prick for even investigating. If it is true, chances are, many faculty colleagues don’t believe it, so I’m a prick for pursuing it. Either way, I’m wrong. Comes with the gig.)

Don’t restrict your critical-thinking muscles to classroom use. A little digging frequently reveals that widely-held faculty beliefs about administration are often, at best, unfounded, and frequently worse than that. And a surprising amount can be explained by understanding that the better deans actually delegate teaching to the faculty. That’s why we talk about matters other than teaching. We assume that the faculty has the ‘teaching’ part of the college well in hand. If that assumption is wrong, the college is in very deep trouble.

In terms of minutae, silly committees, and the like, I pretty much get to choose which criticism to endure: that I bother faculty with too much detail, or that I fail to involve faculty and run my area like a dictator. (Some of the loudest complainers about ‘faculty governance’ high-tail it out of town in May, not to be seen again until September, and they don’t see the contradiction.) Over the years, some of us choose to err on the side of openness, and yes, that can involve tedium.

And yes, some deans are morons, figureheads, or pigs. Some faculty at my college would include me in one or more of those groups. Comes with the gig.

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

Sunday, June 18, 2006

An Excerpt from The Boy's Custom-Made Father's Day Card

The Boy made me a Father’s Day card in school. He wrote his own name on it, and dictated the body of the message to his teacher, who wrote it down. One sentence:

I like it when you play bat-and-ball with me in the backyard.

Me, too.

Friday, June 16, 2006

The Three Kinds of 'A' Student

In talking with an old friend the other day, we got on the topic of the kinds of students who tend to get A’s. To generalize wildly (and yes, there are plenty of exceptions, and yes, every student is different, and yes, most people combine the categories to some degree, and yes, we’re all God’s children, blah blah blah), they pretty much fall into three camps.

The Three Kinds of ‘A’ Students:

1. The Dutiful
2. The Brilliant
3. The Maniacal

The dutiful ones usually have high overall GPA’s, because they get A’s in everything. They do their homework, make flashcards to study, use highlighters, participate constructively but carefully in class, pay lots of attention to presentation, and are usually, in my observation, female. In high school, they talk down their performance on any given graded assignment after it’s in but before it’s returned; when it’s returned, they make certain to learn the hierarchy of grades. In college, I didn’t see as much of that, though I’m told it existed in the premed majors.

As a professor, I gave these kids A’s because they did everything they were supposed to do, and did it well. These kids usually go on to more education, because they’re so good at it, and they wind up in the credentialed professions (medicine, law) or higher ed. They are perfectly good at doing what is supposed to be done. Innovating, not so much.

The brilliant ones are the ones the other students resent the most. They just seem to have a knack for whatever the subject is, often to such a degree that they don’t even break a sweat. They’re more common in the math/science areas, but they pop up elsewhere, too. I’ve known several of these, and can say that they don’t mean to be annoying; it just happens. These are the ones who go on to ridiculously prestigious research posts, where they make groundbreaking discoveries and don’t see what the big deal is. I strongly believe there’s a genetic basis for this. Either you have the gene or you don’t. If you don’t, you’ll never really compete on the same level with those who do. These people exist, I think, to prod the rest of us to reflect on the randomness of life, and the hubris of believing that anybody can do anything with enough effort. Luckily for the rest of us, these folk are relatively rare.

Then, there are the maniacs. The maniacs have the lowest GPA’s, since their energy is directed only where they want it to go. These are the people who look bored most of the time, then break out with cryptic statements that are alternately brilliant and insane. These are the ones who will blow off a third of the class meetings, and spend the other two thirds arguing with the professor at a surprisingly high level. (They’ve also been known to fume quietly for entire semesters, then produce the best papers.) These people can be deeply, intensely annoying, but I strongly believe they’re also the source of most innovation and most progress.

I’ve had plenty of these as students and as friends, and I have to say, I’m sympathetic. These are the ones who reject the “well-rounded” ideal, in favor of targeted excellence. Their overall GPA’s are often fairly modest, but that’s more a measurement error than anything else. (A ‘B’ average can reflect lots of B’s, or lots of A’s and lots of C’s. To my mind, that’s an important difference.) They’re prone to enthusiasms, and the oddly off-balance knowledge of autodidacts. But they also bring the most dedication to a single area, which is why they tend to produce the most interesting and risky work. I had a girlfriend in grad school who fit this category; her speciality was unbelievably sophisticated spontaneous narrative. (Aunt B., over at Tiny Cat Pants, has this same gift.) My brother definitely leans this way, which makes him incredibly fun to talk to. I lean this way, too, though I faked enough dutiful behaviors to make it less obvious.

Although I can't prove it, I suspect that the maniacal ones are the ones likeliest to start their own companies, develop work-arounds when conventional approaches get stuck, and martyr themselves to their work when it's the right work. That single-mindedness they (we?) have can actually be an asset.

I don’t worry about the ‘Brilliant’ group; they’ll survive anything, the lucky bastards. But I worry sometimes that academia is too geared towards the Dutiful, and too quick to punish or shame the Maniacal. The “overall” gpa as an indicator definitely favors the dutiful over the maniacal, even though the maniacs’ best work is almost always better. ‘Distribution requirements’ were written by and for the dutiful. The concept of ‘prerequisites’ has Dutiful written all over it.

To the extent that any of this is right, it matters to the extent that we staff incredibly important institutions with people who got good grades. If those people share a common blind spot, it will get written into the fabric of those institutions, amplified over time, and elevated to an informal theology. That’s not to say we want maniacs running everything – nooooooo, we do not – but the right maniac in the right role is a revelation. A slight maniacal tendency in an otherwise dutiful soul can bring creativity to routine, solutions to problems. To the extent that we tamp down those tendencies, we wind up with the kind of people to whom it wouldn’t occur to find groupthink objectionable. They think it’s natural. It’s what they do.

Anyway, those are my maniacal rantings, blissfully unaware of real scholarly literature on any of this stuff. The blogosphere lends itself to that, which is its appeal and its curse. Now I’ll go dutifully to work...

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Groundhog Boy

The Boy, this morning, at breakfast:

"My winkle is pointing straight up! That means it's going to be a sunny day!"



Our foreign languages department keeps running into the same issue over and over again, so I thought I’d see if the blogosphere has a solution.

Students who took, say, two years of Spanish in high school (and who just graduated high school) frequently sign up for Spanish 1 here, figuring that it will be an easy ‘A.’ More often than not, the students are bored out of their minds by the class, since they’ve already learned the material, and stop coming. Then they fail, and the complaints begin.

During advisement, advisors routinely ask students if they’ve taken a language in high school, but since advisors don’t have access to the high school transcripts, the students can lie with impunity. Many do, thinking they’re outsmarting the system.

For some reason, languages seems to be the only department for which this is a major issue. I haven’t seen this kind of behavior in, say, math, where a student might have already had trig in high school. (It’s a nonissue in the subject areas high schools don’t teach.)

There’s a related issue of native (or semi-native) speakers taking classes in their own language. There, too, it’s tough to catch, and many of the students are in a peculiar position of having good vocabulary but terrible written grammar, or of mixing (say) Spanish with English such that they don’t especially master either. But they don’t study, since they assume it will be a cakewalk, and then fail.

Has anyone out there found an effective way to deal with these issues? I’d love to place every student appropriately in the first place, but the information to do that isn’t always available. And a student who perceives an incentive can easily bomb a placement test, if she just wants the ‘easy’ level. Anything helpful would be appreciated!

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Northern Town Isn't Flat

A few months ago, I did a piece on the decline of Northern Town, and how it seems to refute the thesis that education plus internet equals prosperity. Last week I finished Tom Friedman’s The World is Flat, which claims precisely that education plus internet equals prosperity. Yesterday, the New York Times reported that census data confirms my suspicion. If you can access it, check the map. It’s quite striking. Most of New York State, and most of Pennsylvania, is losing 25-to-34-year-olds at an alarming rate. Worse, the more educated the young people, the more likely they are to leave. In fact, according to the article, the total declines for that age group would have been even more striking if not for a large influx of prisoners.

Replacing educated thirty-year-olds with inmates is not the path to success.

The major employers up there have been stagnating or declining for decades. (In the comments to the March post, I described living there as “like living in an afterthought.”) As one twentysomething was quoted in the article, “When you think Rochester, you think Kodak. But you also think layoffs.” Exactly. It’s similar in Buffalo. Quick quiz: what’s the largest employer in Buffalo? SUNY-Buffalo. Not exactly a growth industry, and not exactly a taxable property, either. You can get away with that if you’re an Oneonta or a Potsdam, but a Buffalo is much too big to rely on a university.

The median age of Binghamton residents is up five years since 1990. Absent an invasion or plague, that’s utterly breathtaking.

If Friedman is right, this region should be doing quite well. It has urban centers, surprisingly strong public schools, educated populations, and broadband. The housing is cheap, the cultural institutions stronger than you’d expect, and the infrastructure generally is already in place. If the world is flat, this place should be ready to boom. Yet the free-fall is, if anything, accelerating. (The article mentions that the exodus over the last five years is even greater than it was in the 1990’s, and that’s saying something.) The area is providing good educations to its young, then exporting them. The ones who stay behind are, with exceptions, the ones with nowhere to go.

My area is also losing young families, but for the opposite reason: here, property values have so thoroughly outstripped salaries that entry-level workers have simply been priced out. It’s a problem, but it’s a very different problem. In Syracuse, the housing is plenty cheap, but anybody with options gets the hell out.

Yes, the winters in the Northern Town region are unforgiving, but that’s true in Minneapolis, too. The winters were unforgiving fifty years ago, too, but the towns thrived then. I don’t think climate is the critical variable.

The social scientist in me, as well as the Northern Town expat in me, finds this fascinating (and frustrating). It’s as if there’s a big pile of dry kindling and newspaper sitting in the hot sun, and nothing is catching. For decades. And nobody knows why.

In the comments to March’s post, somebody raised the point about the Eries and Scrantons of the world not being transportation hubs. It’s a good point – the original impetus for the Buffalo-Albany corridor to develop was the old Erie Canal – but I suspect that if a big employer set up shop in one of those cities, people would find ways to get there. Besides, Baltimore and Newark are transportation hubs, but I wouldn’t describe either as thriving.

Business writers have plenty of clich├ęs – tipping point, critical mass, event horizon – to convey the idea of change that happens first slowly, and then quickly. Upstate New York and most of Pennsylvania (except the Philadelphia area and, to a debatable degree, Pittsburgh) are performing natural experiments along these lines. At what point does decline inflect, and go from gradual/chronic to irreversible/catastrophic? At what point does a city (or region) cease to be viable?

Other places have gone through boom/bust cycles, and a few (Gary, Indiana, or Flint, Michigan) have simply flatlined. But this is a huge area (the article quotes its total population as 15 million, roughly twice New York City), and the decline has been going on for decades. This isn’t the Dust Bowl. It’s utterly invisible to most of the country, which imagines New York as New York City, plus its burbs, and Pennsylvania as Philly and Pittsburgh. Culturally, it’s a strange mix of Midwestern and Redneck, with traces of Canadian along Lake Ontario. Culturally, it’s farther from Manhattan than Chicago is.

Is there a culture that simply defeats initiative? It’s certainly possible to point to specific mistakes that specific companies made – if Xerox hadn’t handed the GUI over to Apple for free in the 1970’s, Rochester might be a very different place now – but it seems like, in a region of 15 million people, there would have to be at least a few with initiative.

If Friedman is right and the world is flat, this region is an unparalleled investment opportunity. If Richard Florida is right and economic growth will be based in big cosmopolitan cities with lots of creative young people, this area is circling the drain. With educated young people high-tailing it out of there, the errant entrepreneur with a great idea would have to leave to find the workforce she needs. At a certain point, there’s nothing to be done.

Can Northern Town be saved? Should it be?

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

"Pursuing It Aggressively"

One of the frustrations of administration is that nothing ever really goes away. When a faculty member is asked to take on a major new project, it’s fairly common for ‘release time’ or ‘course release’ or ‘reassigned time’ to be granted, which basically means that a course (or two) is taken off her plate to make room for the major project. Chairing a department usually brings a teaching reduction, but so can other things, like being the faculty advisor to the student newspaper, or running the campus reaccreditation self-study. The release time rarely makes up for all of the actual time spent, but at least it’s a gesture towards recognizing that time is finite.

For administrators, there’s no such thing as release time. When I get (or start) a new project, it’s just something else added to the pile. In fact, if something actually gets taken off your plate, it’s usually a sign of a loss of confidence in you, and it’s frequently a precursor to having everything taken off your plate. Some projects have natural sunset dates, but projects come much more frequently than they go.

The paradox, of course, is that time is finite for us, too.

The gap between the principle of infinite addition and the principle of finite time is made up for by a liminal status assigned to certain projects, a kind of walking death. Nobody has ever actually declared the project dead, but nothing really happens with it, and nobody especially minds. Eventually, people start to use phrases like “fell off the desk” or “got overshadowed.” (At my previous college, the approved code phrase to use whenever someone mentioned an undead project was “we’re pursuing it aggressively.” It meant precisely that you weren’t. Every manager understood this. “What happened with Writing Across the Curriculum, anyway?” “We’re pursuing it aggressively.” “Oh.”)

I’m not a big fan of liminal statuses generally, but in practice, managerial limbo serves an important function. To actually declare a project dead would usually involve assigning blame. In fact, many projects die not at the hands of a single assassin, but by general neglect. To blame any one person for what amounted to a tacit institutional decision to prioritize other things would be silly and counterproductive.

More to the point, people’s instincts are often smarter than their intellects. If nobody can muster the passion for something, and they’ve had plenty of time to try, there’s probably a reason. It may not be anything they can articulate, either for lack of self-awareness or for political sensitivity, but it’s there.

On another level, every campus has a few blowhards who love to make big stinks for their pet causes, but somehow never show up to do the scut work of follow-through. Actually killing their pet causes wouldn’t be worth the fight, since these people have tenure and nothing better to do. Letting their pet causes wither on the vine, though, accomplishes the desired effect without the collateral damage. (I suspect that this is at the root of some of the ‘do-nothing administrator’ rants to which many blowhards are prone.)

New administrators, whether from within or without, have to learn the difference between the undead and the living. It’s tough, especially at first, since it’s rare that anyone will own up to the fact that a given project has been shelved, until, all at once, everyone does. Sniffing the difference between “Oh, &^%$#%! I forgot! We have to do that right away!” and “Yeah, that’s out there...” takes time, sensitive ears, and pretty good intuition.

Once in a while, an undead project lurches back to life. (This seems to happen with outcomes assessment whenever the accreditation deadline looms.) This is almost always driven by external events, and greeted with a general rolling of the eyes. Sometimes the new kid in town raises the undead innocently, and gets the dreaded “that’s a great idea for you to do” response, which is a kind of punishment. Do that a couple of times, and you either learn the warning signs or find something else to do for a living.

Fighting ‘undead’ status assigned to your pet project is incredibly difficult. Even raising the issue is seen as sort of rude, since the whole point of tacit agreements is that they’re tacit. Typically, unless there’s either a change of key personnel or a really clearly relevant and important external change (i.e. a new state reg), it’s a quixotic exercise. Nobody will actually argue that you’re wrong, because you probably aren’t, and they don’t want to have the discussion anyway; you just won’t get follow-through, even if you ‘win.’ It’s like punching a cloud.

Temperamentally, I’d much rather go with explicit ‘times of death’ on the projects that need it, but if you wait for those you’ll wait forever. Limbo is frustrating, but it’s too useful to go away.

What’s undead at your campus?

Monday, June 12, 2006

Banana Love Monkey

This weekend we went to a carnival, and The Boy won a stuffed monkey-and-banana playing one of the games. He immediately named it Banana Love Monkey. There aren’t many times in life when you get to use a phrase as immediately winning as Banana Love Monkey, so I say, when the opportunity comes along, take it.

He has another stuffed monkey, named Cheeky Monkey, that he keeps in his room. Last night, as he got ready for bed, he introduced Cheeky Monkey to Banana Love Monkey, then carefully arranged them on either side of him under his sheet. A few minutes after I finished reading to the whole menagerie and kissed TB goodnight, I walked past his room and saw TB reading a book to Cheeky Monk and Banana Love Monkey. I’ll be able to embarrass the daylights out of him with this story when he’s 13, but I think it’s sweet.

The other great linguistic breakthrough this weekend belongs to The Girl. She spoke her first sentences! “Hello, Mama,” which was followed shortly by “Hello, Daddoo.” (It’s always Daddoo, rather than Dada, Daddy, or Dad. I’ll take it.) She still doesn’t have a name for The Boy. I suspect she thinks of him as a force of nature, rather than a person who can be reduced to a name. Her favorite word is “No,” which is right on schedule for the terrible twos next month.

The Wife took The Boy to see Cars on Saturday night (she reports that he was quite gallant), so The Girl and I were on our own. I took her to the park, where another Dad was supervising his three-year-old son, whom I’ll call Sparky. Sparky took an immediate shine to The Girl, and started following her around as she climbed on the jungle gym/slide thing. The Girl was unimpressed by Sparky, but taken with his Dad. She just stared at the Dad, quite unabashedly, flashing those big baby browns at him and smiling. The Dad even commented on it at one point. Guys her age are so immature.

These moments probably don’t mean much to anyone who wasn’t there. It’s just that I know it won’t always be this easy, and I just want to capture it while I can.

Back to the salt mines...

Friday, June 09, 2006


Before the Civil War, certain states claimed a right of ‘nullification.’ (I think South Carolina, led by John C. Calhoun, was at the forefront of this.) What they meant was, in essence, the right to override or ignore federal laws with which they disagreed. After the Civil War, the supremacy of the federal government was established, and the concept of nullification was retired, or relegated to the crackpots.

Nullification is alive and well in academia, though.

I’ve been actively working on articulation agreements with nearby four-year colleges. The pattern my colleagues and I have found is consistent: the chief academic officer is enthusiastic, the deans are willing, but the department chairs shoot everything down after the fact. We can sign whatever agreements we want, but in each case, the individual departments retroactively veto it.

It’s terribly frustrating. What it means, in essence, is that articulations have to be negotiated on a chair-to-chair basis, department-by-department. (I’ve also noticed that when the chairmanship changes hands, new chairs frequently nullify agreements negotiated by previous chairs. They don’t tell us in advance, of course; we find out when students come back to us upset.)

Although it’s inefficient, self-serving, and terrible for the students, the most annoying aspect of nullification is its intellectual dishonesty. I’ve never heard a coherent principled argument for it, nor have I ever heard a department admit that this is what it was actually doing. Instead, every case is presented as special. Every case is an exception. I often find out after the fact, when a tearful student shows up, asking why she has to retake 12 or 15 or 24 credits in her major. Phone calls to departments usually go unreturned, or, if returned, prove unhelpful. (“I’ll get back to you” translates, roughly, as “I need to screen my calls better, and will, from now on.”)

When pressed, chairs will sometimes fall back on ‘academic integrity’ to justify refusing to take courses to which their college has already committed. But I don’t buy it; if our freshman comp is good enough for the rest of the college, it’s good enough for that department. Besides, if integrity is the issue, the department should be able to make that argument openly and publicly. The fact that it’s done post hoc suggests that it’s a ruse.

The real issue is jobs. The receiving department doesn’t want to “give up” too many credits, since it needs the FTE’s to justify its resource levels, so it denies as many credits as it possibly can. It can’t admit that, of course, so it does theoretical somersaults and backflips to justify turning down whatever we offer. When we contact the chief academic officer at the receiving college, we get the “there’s nothing I can do” response. The usual suggested compromise is to accept the disputed courses as ‘free electives,’ which is where credits go to die. Very few bachelor’s programs have meaningful numbers of free electives (if any), so a course designated as a free elective is a wasted course. They know that, of course, which is why they do it. They can claim that they’ve recognized our classes, without actually giving up the credits. Intellectual dishonesty again.

From a taxpayer’s perspective, this is a boondoggle of the highest order. We receive state funding, as do the public four-year colleges. That means that every course Suzy has to repeat is subsidized by the taxpayers twice. I’m not a big fan of budget cuts generally, but here’s one I can actually get behind.
In practice, nullification is a logical outgrowth of the fact that faculty have tenure and administrators don’t. Passive resistance, a war of attrition conducted mostly by foot-dragging, actually works. I don’t know of any other industry in which this kind of behavior would be tolerated, let alone rewarded.


Next week I’ll try again with another college. Hope springs eternal…

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Accidental Administrators

The Chronicle has a surprisingly intelligent piece on ‘accidental administrators’ – people who move into administration without ever really having planned to. It’s written as advice to folks who find themselves in that position, and the advice is actually good.

A few points I’ll add:

- Learn to anticipate random, groundless, indignant anger. When it hits you, which it will with dispiriting frequency, you’ll need to maintain a level demeanor while simultaneously talking your accuser down from high dudgeon and trying to figure out just how the hell he reached the conclusion he reached. It’s a delicate balance, since you’ll have to try to take seriously statements that, in your faculty role, would have prompted you either to leave the room or to ask if your interlocutor forgot his tinfoil hat. Don’t capitulate to it, but don’t inadvertently feed it by being too conspicuously dismissive (for example, by asking about the tinfoil hat).

- Try to suss out your supervisor’s intuitions. Although there’s a pleasant fantasy out there of managing ‘by the book,’ the reality is that there is no book, and there never will be. Situations come up that nobody could have foreseen, whether because external circumstances changed, or technology changed, or a weird permutation of a rule arose, or somebody forgot his tinfoil hat. (Pop quiz: you run across a professor in the hallway, and you’re 95% sure you smell alcohol on her breath. What do you do? Be prepared to be blamed, no matter what your answer.) When those situations come up, your supervisor will expect you to make the exact same judgment call s/he would have made. If you don’t know your supervisor’s point of view well enough, you will frequently get this wrong and lose political points. If you find that your supervisor’s intuitions are consistently wrong or objectionable, it’s time for something else or somewhere else.

- Intuitions are not the same as intentions. I had one vp whose stated intentions consistently contradicted his actions. After a while, I learned to observe his body language more than his words. Although many considered him a liar, I eventually reached the conclusion that he honestly believed what he said while he was saying it; he just thought that every single case he ever ran across was an exception. Some people just aren’t burdened with self-awareness.

- Pay attention to the difference between the org chart and actual practice. Sometimes a particular department will be the President’s pet, or a particular chair will be widely regarded as Lord and High Master of (whatever), or a vp’s secretary will make the actual decisions. Too literal a reading of the org chart will result in grave missteps, for which you will be blamed.

- Be prepared for faculty to suddenly treat you differently. I discovered this at my previous school, where I went from faculty to admin. Within weeks, I noticed that some faculty with whom I’d been comfortable were suddenly chilly towards me, and others who wouldn’t have given me the time of day suddenly found me endlessly interesting. People have issues with authority, and you often don’t see those issues coming until they’re there. Just don’t mistake brownnosing or phobias for truth.

- Beware the hollow yes.

- People will disappoint you. You will disappoint yourself. It’s just part of the job.

- Cultivate a life outside the job. It will keep you sane.

- Learn the boundaries of the possible, and forgive yourself for them. There are any number of changes I’d make if I were King of the College, but I’m not. There are any number of projects I’d start if I had infinite resources, but I don’t. I’ve found that many faculty seem to assume that deans are far more powerful than we actually are, which leads to both groundless fear and impossible expectations. Strive to leave it better than you found it; leave the fantasies of superpowers to others.

- Take solace in the big picture. Every college I’ve ever seen has had its share of, um, let’s go with ‘personalities.’ (This is also true of businesses.) The colleges function anyway. This is the beautiful paradox of institutions, which very, very few people appreciate. This is why I could never be an anarchist.

- An old boss of mine once said that you should always try to remain on speaking terms with the person you used to be. I see more truth in that, the longer I’m doing this. In my case, I choose to hang my hat on ethics; whatever mistakes I’ve made (and am currently making, and will make next…), they’re not the result of corruption or self-dealing. Whatever crap I’ve had to wade through in a given day, whatever names I’ve been called, whatever I’ve been accused of by others, I still see a good man in the mirror the next morning. If the day comes when that’s no longer true, it will be time to do something else.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Ask the Administrator: Trailing Spouses

A new correspondent writes:

I'm sure the "trailing spouse" issue is a loaded weapon waiting to be
cleaned, but I wonder if you have any words of wisdom. My wife just
applied for a teaching job at a university in a different city.
Meanwhile, I'm currently the director of IT at a small college. I've
worked in higher ed IT for (double digit) years now, and would prefer to stay
there rather than go corporate--though obviously, if push comes to shove,
I'll take what I can get.

Is there any point to my wife raising the issue of whether I might expect
any assistance finding a job at some point during the interviewing
process? If so, when? I have already quietly applied for a couple of
nearby jobs (no takers yet) and I don't expect to get one handed to me on
a silver platter. But it seems if there is help on offer, I should take
advantage in the best way possible--without raising it inappropriately and
turning it into a side issue for my wife's search.

This should be easy; no tricky emotional issues here!

As with so many things, the answer depends on your place in the market hierarchy. If your wife is a superstar, or if she’s in a ridiculously high-demand/low-applicant field (like Nursing), or if the school is in the middle of nowhere and has serious ‘flight risk’ anxieties, she has considerable negotiating power. (Some colleges in the middle of nowhere actually prefer hiring couples, specifically to reduce flight risk.) In that case, I’d suggest shooting for the moon once it’s clear that the deal is moving towards closure. On the other hand, if she’s one among many applicants, you really can’t expect much.

There’s a very, very famous university (you’ve heard of it) in my state that decided it could outsource its trailing spouses to neighboring colleges. Apparently, it had failed to land a few superstars in recent years due to trailing spouses, so its solution was to establish a statewide database on which its neighbors could see the c.v.’s of trailing spouses. I’ll call it SpouseNet. The idea was that the rest of us would be so eternally grateful for the also-rans from Snooty U that we would happily employ them, just to bask in the reflected glory of knowing that we had somehow contributed to the continuing greatness of a school that wouldn’t otherwise share its bottle of Evian if we were on fire.

As you can imagine, SpouseNet has been, to date, a complete failure. It was conceived in a typical fit of institutional narcissism, with absolutely no attempt even to address the neighboring schools’ obvious question, “what’s in it for us?” Since there’s no incentive for us to placate Snooty U, and we are bound by some pretty stringent open-search/anti-discrimination laws, we ignore SpouseNet altogether, except for occasionally asking “what were they thinking?”

(On the other hand, there’s a hefty chunk of change to be made for some enterprising type who sets up shop in an area with lots of colleges and establishes a temp agency for adjuncts. “I need a cultural anthropologist, stat!” Anybody who has ever chaired a department with significant numbers of adjuncts knows that there’s always that one last section to staff two days before the semester begins, it’s full of students, and absolutely nobody can take it. A temp agency for adjuncts – call it Kelly Profs – could be the number a harried chair could call. “Hello, Kelly Profs? I need three daytime sections of freshman comp covered, starting Tuesday. No problem? Wow! Thanks, Kelly Profs!” Dollars to donuts, someone does this in the next five years. Hell, if I had the entrepreneurial zeal and absolutely no soul, I’d do it myself.)

Back to you. Something you could do, once your wife is in the negotiating stage as the final candidate, is ask for access to the college’s Career Services office. This costs the college next to nothing, so it’s easy to throw in, and it would give you the considerable advantage of access to people who really know the local market. It’s a far cry from a guaranteed job, but it’s something that even a cc could afford to do, and it might help. Obviously, this is a higher-payoff strategy in a densely-populated area.

College budgets and policies are generally tight enough now that, other than the really flush and elite institutions, the days of ‘creating jobs’ for people are pretty much over.

In practice, I’ve seen trailing spouses frequently become either long-term adjuncts or, over time, hybrid faculty/support staff. These are valuable roles for the institutions, precisely because they pay squat. Once you’re typecast as ‘place-bound,’ the institution has very little reason to pay you very much. (Back in the 1980’s, my Mom worked at the cc in Northern Town. When she asked for a raise, she was turned down, and told, point-blank, that it was because she was a “place-bound female.” Mom being Mom, she immediately found another job three hundred miles away. You don’t mess with Mom.) Using the Career Services folk at the college to find work with another employer in the same area is probably your best bet. The other employer won’t see you as a trailing spouse, so it won’t feel that same kind of leverage over you.

Good luck!

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

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Faculty Hiring: A (Belated) Response

There was thought-provoking piece over at IHE last week about faculty hiring at community colleges. (Thanks to PPP for highlighting it.) It’s an account of a discussion at the annual meeting of NISOD about the ways in which cc’s structure faculty search committees and carry out searches.

The money quote, for me, is at the end: “Some boats need to be rocked.” Exactly so.

For a harried department chair, there’s often an easy default hire on hand: a long-term (or sometimes short-term) adjunct who has demonstrated ‘loyalty,’ who plays well with others, and who clearly wants the job. The temptation to hire the default candidate is strong, especially when a department is highly insular. Hiring somebody who shows up for class, who doesn’t bring anything new and scary to the table, and who won’t present any sort of leadership threat (read: leadership qualities) is easy, and makes everybody already in the room happy.

The key phrase there is “already in the room.”

Since departments tend to be very small worlds, a top-heavy department with a top-heavy search committee will often fall victim to the temptation to hire a slightly diluted version of what they already have. Someone adequate, traditional, who won’t rock the boat or make the incumbents feel underqualified for their jobs. It strokes everybody’s ego, makes no enemies, and fills the immediate need.

That’s when the dreaded Heavy Hand of the Administration has to make itself felt.

Ideally, the time to come a-knocking is after the committee has been constituted, but before it has started reviewing applications. Issue a charge to the committee detailing what the administration will or won’t accept in a new hire, then step back and let the committee execute its charge. (This is also a good time, as the article makes clear, to reiterate the distinction between ‘minimal’ qualifications and ‘desirable’ ones.) But sometimes that doesn’t happen, or happens but doesn’t get the job done, and the committee sends forward a safe nonentity.

We’ve developed a process of winnowing, wherein the faculty search committee narrows the pile of applications to 7-10 candidates for interview, then puts the best 3 forward (unranked) to the dean. The dean then interviews those three, and nominates the best one to the vice president.

Yes, my criteria for ‘best’ will sometimes conflict with the department’s. That will also be true come tenure time, so I say, better to get that out in the open at the point of hire. When there has been conflict, it has usually been because the department has looked for the cleanest fit, and I have looked for the most potential to bring something new to the table. In the best of all worlds, the same person fits both. But sometimes not, so our process gives the departments a chance to winnow out the truly objectionable, but not to simply clone themselves unchecked.

In the short time we’ve had this process, it has mostly worked. Most departments figure out pretty quickly that the way to get somebody good through the process is to engage early on in a serious discussion of criteria. The process also allows for recognition of good-faith disagreement among the members of the committee, though, in practice, groupthink reigns.

(I’ll admit that the process doesn’t work as well in fields with relatively few candidates, like bio or Nursing. But that’s not the fault of the process; no process will get blood from a stone.)

One department tried to game the system by nominating its first choice and two obvious losers. I actually sent them back with an order to produce more viable candidates or lose the line altogether. Tempers flared, but it was the only responsible thing to do. Their favored candidate eventually won, but at least it was (eventually) a fair fight.

The IHE article falls back on the predictable categories of race and ethnicity as reasons to do searches differently, but I’ve found that those aren’t the only critical variables. Sometimes you need a fresh pedagogical approach, a different specialization, a different set of contacts, or simply a different perspective. (If the law allowed, I’d also say a different generation. But apparently ‘diversity’ doesn’t include age.) Sometimes you need the first non-technophobe, or the first feminist, or the first who can introduce a new subfield. Race and gender sometimes map onto these, but not always and certainly not cleanly.

The comments on the IHE article were puzzling and disheartening. Broad allegations of power-mad administrators appointing puppet committees, mostly. As Alicia Silverstone put it in Clueless, “As if!” In my experience, the administration has to counterbalance the tendency of some departments to try to clone themselves. The idea that I have puppets among the tenured is simply silly. (It may be true somewhere, but I’ve never seen it.) Deans come and go, but tenured faculty are forever, and they know it. Hiring is one of the few moments of true accountability to the institution as a whole; to simply abrogate that opportunity and allow unaccountable faculty free rein to ride their personal hobbyhorses would be irresponsible.

How does faculty hiring work at your college?

Monday, June 05, 2006

What I Learned This Weekend

- A small car seems ever-so-much smaller when a family of four is stuck in it for most of two days.

- Some things never change. Northern Town was gray (check), rainy (check), and unseasonably cold (check).

- Cheap hotels make up the difference on towels (I think it was a 40 grit), toiletries (BYOT, apparently), and television reception (the worst I’ve seen since the pre-cable days of the 70's).

- Over the Hedge is a better movie than you’d think.

- The street grid of Northern Town has changed so little in 20 years that I can still navigate it pretty well.

- Tim Horton’s donuts has invaded the United States. I foresee a skirmish with Krispy Kreme and Dunkin Donuts. This is all to the good. For my money, Krispy Kreme has the best donuts, Tim Horton’s the best coffee, and Dunkin Donuts the best locations. Of course, this may require more investigation. Can’t rush to judgment. More data needed. I may pick up some data on the way to work today...

- Apparently, “making change” is no longer used as an example in high school math classes. One cashier was utterly defeated by trying to make change when I paid a $4.88 tab with a $5 bill.

- If you go more than a mile off the highway, and you’re more than 20 miles from the nearest ‘city,’ you see a side of America you don’t usually see. Damn. I mean, Damn.

- Although “Cracker Barrel” is a fairly retro place, props/snaps/kudos for having a changing table in the men’s room. You’d be surprised how many places still don’t.

- After three days of hamburgers, fast food, and assorted junk, I actually crave vegetables.

- If you watch a major-league game on a high-def tv, you can actually pick out blades of grass on the field, faces in the stands, and the exact moment the shortstop boots an easy grounder.

- My pensive, wry, and ironic attitude towards human failings hardens into animal rage when, a half-hour from home, some missing evolutionary link in front of me in a Suburban decides to go ten miles under the speed limit, indefinitely, for no particular reason. Some fairly un-deanly language gets used.

- After three days of close-quarters, incessant togetherness, I am one surly so-and-so. The introvert goes on overload. The whole ‘fortress of solitude’ thing suddenly starts to make sense...

- Good health news about one parent can be quickly counterbalanced by worrying health news about the other.

- The Boy is hungry every minute of the day, except at meals. I have no idea how this is possible.

- Walkers come with wheels, brakes, seats, and storage compartments.

- Certain public parks feature lots of cars parked, with people sitting in them and engines running. I choose not to devote too much thought to this.

- Nothing is more interesting to The Girl, at any given moment, than whatever The Boy is playing with at that moment. It loses its mysterious appeal when he hands it over.

- As cute as The Girl is when she sleeps, she’s even cuter when she sleeps on my Dad’s lap.

Friday, June 02, 2006

Roadtrips and Radio

The Wife, The Boy, The Girl, and I are piling into the trusty four-cylinder compact today and making the trip to Northern Town to see my Dad. I’m insanely grateful to whomever invented satellite radio, since there are long stretches in which the only ‘regular’ radio stations I could pick up are either Christian or right-wing political talk. Granted, we’ll probably listen to the kids’ channel more than anything else, but I’ll take Laurie Berkner over Rush Limbaugh any day of the week.

I’ve had a love/hate relationship with radio for decades. There’s something beautifully simple about radio as a medium – since it’s only audio, it’s remarkably conducive to allowing you to do other things. (I don’t believe in watching tv while driving, for example.) I was a dj on my college radio station for three years, a job at which I sucked, but I didn’t suck any worse than anyone else, and it was fun. This was back in the era of ‘vinyl.’ For the younger readers out there, music was once recorded on ‘record albums,’ which were like flat, black Frisbees. They had to be played on ‘turntables,’ which involved dropping ‘needles’ into ‘grooves.’ The turntables were powered by coal, which we hauled up from the mines before each show.

My music show was a hoot, since I knew next-to-nothing about jazz, which was more than anyone else at Snooty Liberal Arts College knew, so I passed for an expert. (“Miles Davis? Trumpet, right?”) In a moment of insanity, I also volunteered to host the Community Affairs program for a while, at which point I discovered my complete inability to conduct a good on-air interview. (My long-suffering then-girlfriend, trying to be encouraging after a show: “Well, the silences are getting a little shorter…”) But, in good college-radio fashion, I adopted a mild form of the sort of reverse-snobbery of Jack Black’s character in High Fidelity. I’ve never really lost that, either; to my ear, most commercial radio is far less interesting, and only slightly less painful, than a visit to the Evil Dentist. After all, once you’ve heard The Replacements on a station with a transmitter less powerful than a good blow dryer, hearing Aerosmith on the Lite FM station just leaves you cold.

(The best book ever written about the college-radio aesthetic is still Sarah Vowell’s breakout book, Radio On. Dar Williams’ song “Are You Out There?” also gets it right.)

Since college, I’ve only been a listener, and usually a disappointed one. NPR has its charms, and there was a brief spell in the early 90’s when alternagrunge reigned and you could actually hear Belly or Nirvana, but otherwise, mainstream radio got ugly. By the time Britney hit big, I was reduced almost entirely to NPR.

Then I discovered the joys and curses of satellite.

Since I have a long, solo commute (I used to work for Greenpeace. Greenpeace! Now I have a long solo commute. The shame…), I listen a lot to the modern jazz channel on the way to and from work. The music ranges from brilliant to painful, but at least it tries to be interesting, and there aren’t any commercials. When something really terrible comes on, I switch to the comedy channel or alternative-rock greatest hits.

With the family, though, the weird-ass modern jazz goes away, and the kids’ channel comes on. It’s a very different experience. Some of the music is actually pretty fun, in a simple-and-melodic kind of way, and The Boy’s laughter at “Poop Goes the Weasel” or “Funky as a Diaper” more than redeems the songs. Some of the music is dreadful; I’ll actually switch channels over TB’s protests when the Pokemon rap (I’m not kidding) comes on. Still, the drive takes most of the day, and that’s a hell of a long time to listen to the theme from Kim Possible.

Satellite is a sort of Faustian bargain for radio. Since it’s subscription-based, it can carry channels with small audiences, and since it’s international, even a single niche channel (like modern jazz) can find enough listeners nationally to sustain itself, even if there aren’t that many in any one market. (It’ll be a cold day in curriculum committee before the Lite Hits FM station plays Soulive or Medeski, Martin, and Wood.) But the increased diversity available to a given listener comes at the cost of a decreased diversity of providers. The joy of college radio is/was its sheer amateurism, the way you never really forget that you’re listening to students in a given place. Satellite is from no place. To the extent that it slices audience from lame local stations, it will decrease the number of dj’s overall.

(If dj’s go the way of elevator operators, college radio will have to rethink itself. And podcasting is a very different animal, since it’s asynchronous and intellectual property laws bar most music.)

It’s sort of like the effect of Amazon on small bookstores. Small bookstores can’t compete with Amazon on selection or price, so folks like me whose book-buying tastes are, um, let’s go with ‘idiosyncratic,’ flock to Amazon. For the individual book-buyer, this is an unalloyed good. Overall, though, it reduces the number of providers of books. I don’t much mind if a Waldenbooks goes to the great mall in the sky, but the really interesting, quirky stores bring something to the table.

So this modern-jazz-loving, reverse-music-snob, former-Greenpeace, lover-of-independent-media will spend the better parts of two days burning fossil fuel, listening to themes from cartoons beamed down from a conglomerate in outer space. The things we do for love…

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Things I Don't Do

I’m leaving the wool suits at home this week, since it’s hot and humid and the a.c. in my office isn’t working. I don’t do wool when the a.c. isn’t working. It’s just one of the choices I’ve made in life. Since the misery index has been making me thoroughly cranky all week, I’ve had occasion to reflect on other cranky choices, other things I don’t do:

- Heat. Maybe it’s the Swede in me, maybe it’s the Northern Town upbringing, but I wilt in the heat. I’ll switch to hybrid cars, I’ll support mass transit, I’ll cut down on travel, but you can pry the central air conditioning from my cold, dead hands. I wonder if any Canadian colleges have openings?

- Botany. Never cared, never will. If you want to see my eyes glaze over, just drop the word “azalea” in my presence. (“rhododendron,” “peony,” or “vinca” will have the same effect.)

- Nascar. I don’t care how much flak we Northern liberals take for it, I just don’t get the appeal. It’s traffic, and I get enough of that without watching it on tv.

- Singalongs (other than ‘happy birthday’).

- “Team-Building Exercises.” The tyranny of extroversion in our culture reaches its shark-jumping moment here. I would rather visit the Evil Dentist than endure a team-building exercise. I once took out my contact lenses shortly after chopping jalapeno peppers; I would rather do that again than endure another team-building exercise. The worst part of team-building exercises is that you aren’t allowed to object to them. Be very suspicious of anything that can’t tolerate rational scrutiny, whether it’s the Bush administration or some cornflake trying to tell you that devoting a workday to a rope trick is the secret to success.

- “Get Psyched!” (also, “Get Pumped!”) See “Team-Building Exercises.” I manage my own emotions, thank you very much.

- Camp. I came to this revelation in my twenties, when I was *#$&#) poor. “Roughing it” is fun only if you aren’t roughing it in real life. No, thanks. If I want a real vacation, I’ll take several days in a nice hotel in a big city. The hotel will have central air. The city will have events. Life will be good.

- Chuck E. Cheese. ‘Nuff said.

- Watch tv on a cell phone. Are you *(#()$(@#%& kidding me? Is there such a shortage of tv that we’re reduced to watching it on one-inch screens in every spare moment? This is a solution in search of a problem.

- Anything involving Adam Sandler.

What don’t you do?