Friday, September 29, 2006

You Know the Class Observation Went Horribly Wrong When...

It's class observation season again. I have 25 (so far) in the next six weeks, and each one requires a writeup.

Having done this for several years now, I've developed a number of lines I've dreamed of using to prank some of the faculty. (Obviously, none of these is even the slightest bit true at my college, where everybody is practically perfect in every way. That's my story and I'm sticking to it.) Since that would likely be a Career-Limiting Move, I'll post them as hypotheticals instead. You know the class observation went horribly wrong when...

“The good news is, Prof. X is a charming drunk.”

“The popular perception of Prof. X's body odor is slightly exaggerated, at least to this back-row observer.”

“To be fair, some of the alleged facts were actually true. For example, it was Wednesday.”

“Happily for all concerned, Prof. X eventually zipped his fly.”

“Prof. X opened with a darkly-amusing anecdote that, if true, probably should have led to criminal charges.”

“While Prof. X's attempts to appropriate the argot of youth culture are well-intended, I would strongly recommend reducing the repetitions of the word 'fuck' to the single digits in any given class meeting.”

“Although some of Prof. X's observations about Brett Favre had merit, their relation to differential equations was, at best, obscure.”

“To our mutual relief, several students eventually showed up.”

“I was impressed by the scope of the technology at hand, and the fluency with which it was used. Students can do amazing things with cell phones these days.”

Thursday, September 28, 2006

College Names I Don't Understand

California University of Pennsylvania

Indiana University of Pennsylvania

Miami University (in Ohio)

Indiana University/Purdue University at Indianapolis (a backslash?)

Washington University (in St. Louis)

University of Phoenix (anywhere except Phoenix)

East Carolina University (there's no such state as East Carolina)

Slippery Rock

Practical Bible College

Beaver College (finally changed to Arcadia)

SUNYIT (admittedly, the entire SUNY system has lousy names, but that's especially ugly)

Hobart and William Smith (Huh? Shouldn't Hobart get his first name in there, too?)

Hamburger University (don't get me started)

Northwestern University (in Illinois. Illinois?)

Sewanee: The University of the South (pick one)

Bowling Green

Community College of Vermont (huh? Isn't Vermont a state?)

Community College of Rhode Island (ditto)

Do you have a good one?

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Ask the Administrator: I Need a Pep Talk!

A new correspondent writes:

I'm a mid-level administrator (as in, Director who reports to a Dean who reports to a VP, etc.) who just made a huge leap from working at small, private 4-year colleges (< 1000 students) over the past 22 years to what is to me a much larger (7000 students), public, 2-year college. I was ready for a change and for better pay, but I've had some meltdown moments after work/on weekends a few times since I started 4 months ago that make me worry about just how huge this transition is for me. I should add that I am a single mom with a lovely senior in high school at home who is going through the college application process herself at this time, and the place where I took my new job is going through a major computer system conversion. Plus I have aging parents with health issues about 5 hours away--my siblings--who also have health issues--live there and help some with that, but it's still a source of worry. So obviously--a lot of transitions and potential sources of stress going on at one time here. I'm only 44, so it's way too early to retire, unfortunately :)

By now you're probably thinking, why is this woman writing to me and not, say, Dr. Phil? I just was hoping maybe you could give me some encouraging words about how if I can survive this first year, I'll be okay (words of wisdom from your vast administrative cc experience, etc., etc.). I know the computer conversion stress is a huge piece of it, but it's also getting used to the dynamics of things in this different system. The processes of trying to work through the computer conversion issues and learning the school itself are also turning up other problems that seem to need to be solved fairly soon. I'm feeling overwhelmed at times with this elephant that the old saying tells us to "eat one bite at a time". My last job change seemed less stressful to me, in my memory, although it involved picking up and moving with my then 6-year-old daughter alone to a different place 140 miles away where I knew nobody. But at least the work environment was a definite improvement all around from what I left, and I feel that I meshed in there fairly quickly and smoothly. But here, I took a job in the same town, so no move was involved, but it has just felt extremely rocky to me at times along the way. People are nice in general, but I don't feel the same kind of camaraderie with people that I had with some colleagues at my old job (that may be partially because I haven't been there all that long, but I also think there was a different kind of personality dynamic at my prior small, liberal arts college).

Well, I'll stop rambling now. Any advice or encouragement would be appreciated!

People who have never had to deal with ERP systems don’t know just how godawful they actually are. (I forget what ERP stands for. Enterprise Resource Planning? Extreme Royal Pain? Something like that.) ERP systems are the systems that do the nitty-gritty back-office functions of a college: student records, degree audits, registration, that kind of thing. They never, ever, ever, ever, under any circumstances, come hell or high water, work right. They’re the Yugos of software, but much more expensive.

If you haven’t been involved in the process of ERP migration, you can simulate it by watching several consecutive hours of C-SPAN while getting a root canal as your dentist serenades you with his Sinatra-flavored rendition of ‘My Humps.’ There is a special circle of hell reserved for the bastards who inflicted these upon an unsuspecting world.

Traumatized? Moi? Why do you ask?

You’re right that migrating systems is a unique horror, made the worse by the outside world’s utter indifference to it. The relatively good news is that it really is temporary. At some point, the new system will be up and the old system down, and the proverbial ‘dull roar’ will ensue.

On a more global level, sometimes it helps to review the big picture. In my case, The Boy was born shortly after I had become Associate Dean at Proprietary U, just at the peak of its enrollment. The Wife went back to work when TB was about four months old. That first year in admin was one of the most stressful of my life. The Wife later confessed that there were days when, on her way to work, she’d think about what would happen if she just kept driving. (I was relieved when she said it, because I had thought the exact same thing.) Every minute was tense. We were exhausted, frayed, broke, scared, clueless, and shocked at the whole thing. (9/11 happened right in the midst of it, which didn’t exactly lighten the mood, either.) It was awful.

And it went away.

Your daughter will go to college. Your systems will migrate. You will make friends. These things will happen over time. The job will get better, or it will form the experience base for another job that actually is better. You will respect yourself for having pulled through. There’s an old lyric to the effect that you don’t know what love is until you’ve learned the meaning of the blues. William James had a line in The Varieties of Religious Experience about the wisdom available only to those who had “drunk too deeply of the cup of bitterness ever to forget its taste.” Nietzsche had one about how when you stare long into the abyss, the abyss stares into you. You will gain wisdom, and strength, and self-awareness, and the quiet confidence available only to people who have faced reality and stared that mother down. Had I not been a teenage pariah, I wouldn’t have had the wisdom later to recognize the grace of my wife. Had I not spent my twenties dirt poor, I wouldn’t appreciate the very real blessings of suburbia. Having been kicked around, I know not to kick others.

If you have the ethics and life wisdom to come through a really stressful period with your humanity intact, you are absolutely the kind of person we need more of, in academic administration and in the world generally. You can do this.

And I’m told the shower is the best place to cry. No shame in that.

(Okay, I’m not Knute Rockne, but waddaya want?)

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

'Happy Birthday,' as Sung by The Girl

Oppa Ya Ya Loo Loo
Oppa Ya Ya Loo Loo
Oppa Ya Ya Loo Loo
Oppa Ya Ya Loo Loo

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Duly Noted

From an article in the Sept. 29 Chronicle, based on a study by Cathy Trower and Richard Chait of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, on the factors that lead younger faculty to stay at a given college:

Janet L. Vaglia, an assistant professor of biology at DePauw University, in Indiana, says her level of engagement with her colleagues has been a key factor in how happy she is there. And Ms. Vaglia was particularly pleased to have a good cohort of professors her age. At her previous institution, she says, the older faculty members were "distant" and did not communicate with each other.

"a good cohort of professors her age." Hmm. Interesting.

Ask the Administrator: Academic Limbo

A new correspondent writes:

A year ago, I was told that a full time position would be posted to replace my
part time position and that I was welcome to apply for the new job. Since
then, the request for the position has made its way from the department
chair to the dean. This process was prolonged because both the department
chair and dean were replaced during the request process. I am on an annual
contract at this point. For a variety of reasons, I need a full time
position next year. Usually, my contract negotiation involves the receipt
of a memo in May, one month before it expires, informing me that I need to
request reappointment. There is no negotiation because the contract
limitations of my current position prevent me from being appointed at a
higher rate of pay or as a full time employee.

My impression is that dealing with this issue is not a high priority for
anyone and I would like to force the issue but I'm not sure how to do it,
nor am I certain as to when I should begin. I've considered looking for
another position at a different institution, just in case things go badly
for me during the recruitment for the new position (assuming it happens at
all) and to help with the bargaining over salary. My current plan is to
start looking for jobs in Spring and to go to my department chair to force
the issue when I have a firm offer from another source. How do you think
this would go over? Is there a better way to go about addressing this?

My major concern is timing - if I got an offer from someone else, I would
have to decide pretty quickly whether or not to accept. Since just posting
the full time position is not complete after over a year I'm not sure they
could respond in time. The paranoid part of me wonders if the foot dragging
is a sign that they're not really that enthusiastic about keeping me on and
are trying to wait me out to see if I'll just leave.

Any thoughts? Alternatives?

Look for other jobs.

Things may work out at your current college. It's true that the wheels can turn maddeningly slowly. But it's also true that circumstances change, that new managers frequently don't hold the same priorities as previous ones, and that a financially straitened college will, all else being equal, prefer the path of least resistance. Since it doesn't look to the college like you're going anywhere, there's no particular urgency to keep you. The path of least resistance is the status quo, which looks sustainable as long as you aren't making any noises about leaving and you keep coming back year after year.

I don't think you can force the issue without leverage. I'd absolutely advise against the bluff you can't keep. Don't make threats you aren't prepared to fulfill. If you do that and the college calls your bluff, you have relegated yourself to “difficult crank” status for the foreseeable future.

Once you have another acceptable offer in hand, you have leverage. At that point, you can threaten to leave and actually mean it. The new leadership won't be able to free-ride on your goodwill anymore; either the college steps up or you step down. If you've set it up right, you win either way.

From my side of the desk, I'll just add that (with rare exceptions) extended delay usually indicates low priority. (The exception is when external circumstances force delay. For example, right now the Perkins grant folks are diddling with the documentation requirements, so our grant request is floating around the federal bureaucratic ether. The entire administration of the college wants the grant to go through and the items to be purchased, but it's out of our hands now.) I'd guess, based on your synopsis, that your intuition of low-priority is probably right.

Good luck!

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

Monday, September 25, 2006

Musings on Turning 38

The Wife and I had a night out in Grad School City this weekend. We ate at a restaurant that she said has 'been there forever,' which brought me up short, because I realized that I still think of it as 'the new place.' (It started around '95 or '96.) I first started grad school 16 years ago this month. 1990 was a more innocent time. George Bush was President, we were at war with Iraq, the deficit was exploding, a major housing bubble had just burst – truly, a different era.

My grandfather was a Detroit Tigers fan going as far back as the Ty Cobb era. He saw Babe Ruth hit his 600th home run at Tiger Stadium. The week I was born was the week the Tigers went to the World Series on the strength of Denny McLain's arm. In high school, I remember Grandpa watching the 1984 team over the summer, and sensing that it was something special. (Anyone remember Lou Whitaker and Alan Trammell? Lance Parrish? Kirk Gibson?) For the last decade-plus of his life, Grandpa watched his Tigers play terrible, terrible baseball, and it pained him. (Actually, he mostly listened, on WJR. Most summer afternoons, he'd set up a card table and folding chair under a tree by his driveway, put the radio on it, and listen. He had his priorities straight.) This weekend the Tigers clinched a playoff spot for the first time since 1987. They're not my team, but I'll be pulling for them anyway. This one's for you, Grandpa.

Actually, to toast him properly would require either a Faygo or a Vernor's.

Grandpa is one of the reasons I don't fear aging all that much. He had probably the clearest sense of priorities of anyone I've known, which let him enjoy getting older well into his seventies. He didn't deny the physical fact of aging; he just didn't care all that much. (The seemingly dichotomous regimen of daily walks and daily naps pretty much captures it. Get your exercise, and get out of the house, but don't be compulsive about it.) What mattered, mattered, and the rest wasn't worth getting upset about. I admire that.

I also realized this weekend that by the time my Mom was the age I am now, she and Dad had divorced. Every memory I have of the house I grew up in occurred before she was the age I am now.

A wonderful professor I had in college died last month. The obit listed his age. Counting backwards, he was younger when I took his classes than I am now.

It works the other way, too. The Girl is starting to count ('one, two, fee...'), and The Boy is already almost at my shoulders (and I'm over six feet, so that's saying something). TB had his first town soccer league event this weekend. Even though both milestones are totally normal, they still both occasion bursts of parental pride. Parents take pride in the mundane.

Even when the mundane doesn't quite work. The Boy thinks 'pointment' is a word, as in “I need a pointment.” I don't know why it struck me funny, but it did.

Grosse Pointe Blank pretty much captured my attitude toward reunions, but sometimes I think it would be helpful to see how some of my classmates have aged. Last year I had a sort of chance to see how some grad school colleagues had aged when I saw them at my advisor's funeral. It's actually good for the mental health. I'm always disappointed when I see myself in the mirror and don't look 26 anymore; it's good to know that the folks I knew at 26 don't look 26 anymore, either. I don't have a monopoly on getting older.

The upside to working at a college with a very senior faculty is that, even at 38, I still get to be the Young Turk. This is not a small thing. Now I'm only 21 years below the faculty median!

Off to the gym...

Friday, September 22, 2006

Ask the Administrator: Hiring a President

An occasional correspondent writes:

If you were serving on a hiring committee for a new
college president, what sort of questions would be
good to ask? What sort of questions are probably a
waste of time?

It's a great topic, but it definitely requires context.

A few years ago I was taken aback when I heard a big muckety-muck say offhandedly, in an 'everybody knows' tone, that college presidents report to their development offices. At many campuses, that's pretty much true. As the funding challenges for many colleges have worsened, Presidents have become fundraisers-in-chief. The Chronicle, I think, did a piece a few years ago on the emerging model of a President who is almost entirely devoted to fundraising, and a Provost who actually runs the university.

It's frustrating, because the classic academic model of a college President as an academic leader has pretty much disappeared. Depending on the institution, a President may well be expected to be on campus only rarely and only for high ceremonies, delegating the actual running of the college to a Provost or VP's, so s/he can spend more time courting donors.

From what I've seen, this model hasn't yet become dominant at the community college level. Here, it's much more about establishing and maintaining relationships with local politicians and businesses. A President is the public face of the college, but s/he is also the person with private access to important outsiders (or, worse, without private access to them).

(When I worked at the for-profit college, the campus President was much more like a regional manager of a national corporation. External relationships mattered much less, and internal efficiencies and hitting profit targets absorbed most of the attention. In a revealing quirk of the organization, the Admissions office didn't report to the local campus; it reported to Home Office. The campus President, then, was effectively powerless to corral the Admissions reps when they over-promised. The college got a new President shortly before I left, and I actually felt bad for the new guy, since I don't think he knew about that quirk until after he had signed on.)

Internally, a President can certainly set priorities, and establish a cultural style that will eventually permeate much of the campus. Some Presidents like a top-down style; others prefer inclusionary processes, even at the cost of time. (Don't ask it that directly, though: I've never seen a candidate for anything admit to a preference for a top-down style.) Most Presidents will have a pet cause or pet program that will get special attention; this is normal, and to be expected. (If you can suss out ahead of time what a candidate's pet programs will be, you can use that as a basis for a decision.) In hard-to-define ways, a President's personality can make itself felt in the daily culture of a campus. If he rewards internal politicking, expect to see more of that; if his taste runs more to micromanaging or browbeating, expect to see more of that. My preference is for a more restrained style that puts emphasis on day-to-day consistency and setting the secure background conditions to allow others to excel, but that's me.

At public colleges particularly, a President is really the most important connection between the Board of Trustees, which makes the big financial decisions, and the college itself. If the Board of Trustees has a concern about a particular issue, and is considering counter-productive measures, it's really up to the President to convey the realities of the situation. If you have a candidate with Presidential experience elsewhere, I would absolutely ask about his/her experience with Boards of Trustees, and especially about times when s/he had to bring a difficult Board around on an important issue. It may sound like a picky detail, but nothing important happens without money, and Boards control the money. A President who can't deal with a Board will be an unsuccessful President.

Since so much of what Presidents do revolves around money, some colleges have made the leap to hire people directly from the business world. The theory is that someone who ran a huge organization and consistently turned a profit must know The Secret. I suppose it could work, but I'd bet against it. (The recent crash-and-burn of that banker President at CCAC, in Pittsburgh, didn't surprise me at all.) Other than the proprietaries, colleges and universities run by a different logic than do businesses, and that's not always bad. On the org chart, a tenured professor is many rungs below a President, but a President who thinks he can order around the tenured faculty is in very deep trouble. (Presidents who come from the military have even bigger shocks ahead of them.) Most colleges run on a combination of operating funds (tuition), philanthropy, public subsidy of various sorts (both direct and indirect, both federal and state), and investments. (I'm probably missing some biggies -- technology transfer revenues at research universities, say -- but you get the idea.) The core function – teaching – is typically done at a loss. Someone from the business world will be at a disadvantage in a situation in which revenues are only peripherally related to the product. Add to that a much-less-supine Board of Trustees than is typically found in corporations, plus cultural expectations of shared governance, plus a new generation of helicopter parents, plus constantly changing regulations and a litigious climate, and the Hard-Nosed Bottom Line Guy will look dangerously close to an idiot.

Finally, of course, there's the basic yet underrated category of ethics. A President who takes liberties sets a corrosive tone in ways you won't even realize until the next President comes along.

Positives? I'd look for academic experience, diplomatic skills, persistence, and humility. Negatives? Cult of CEO, no academic experience, poor people skills, hard-charging type.

Good luck with your search!

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

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Hooray! It's Defective!

When I was still on faculty, I was visible to students. Since moving into full-time administration, I've become invisible to them. I think invisibility is one of the powers we get when we trade in our souls.

So anyway, I was in the cafeteria last week when I overheard several students talking. One of them asked the second one which classes he should take. The second one said “take anything with profs. X or Y. They're great. They cancel class a lot, and you don't have to do shit.”

Had this been the first time I'd heard such a comment, I would have filed it under “miscellaneous student myths,” like the A you get if your roommate commits suicide or the friend of a friend of this guy whose nephew works in Roswell. But I've heard this comment a lot, and have independent reason to believe it.

Unlike almost any other industry, in higher ed we have a substantial number of customers who are happier if the product is shoddy, or not delivered at all.* The incentives this creates are awful.

Part of the problem is the distinction between teaching and credentialing. Many students want the credential, but prefer not to be bothered with actual learning. They're busy, and it's hard, and there are just so many other things they'd rather be doing. If there's a relatively education-free way to get the credential, some students will be more than happy to take it.

A small but non-zero number of faculty have decided to exploit this quirk of our industry, and establish a sort of arms-control agreement with students. I won't ask much of you, and you won't bad-mouth me. In certain programs, people can make careers doing this.

To me, this is the real scandal of higher education. If David Horowitz were to change the object of his witch-hunt from liberals to layabouts, I'd be right there with him. The true parasites are fewer than in the popular imagination, I'd say, but they exist.

I've heard some say that over-reliance on student evaluations is at the root of the problem. I don't buy it.. If that were the case, tenured full professors wouldn't coast. Some do. I agree that charismatic goof-offs can get undeservedly-glowing student evaluations, but that's a symptom, not a cause.

Back in high school, I remember teachers invoking college as a sort of “wait 'til your father gets home” device to get us to study. In college, depending on the program, there sometimes isn't a credible threat. (Obviously, this wouldn't hold in hypercompetitive fields, like pre-med.) Contra Stephen Karlson, I've seen little evidence at this level that employers pay much attention to GPA's outside of a few specialized fields, so that threat isn't terribly persuasive. If a kid believes that a degree with a 2.5 GPA will get him what he wants, and he sees college as purely instrumental in the first place anyway, then why shouldn't he seek out the professors who won't make him work?

Aside from the obvious moral issues, there's a political issue here. Higher education has come under increased political scrutiny of late for many reasons, both good and bad. To the extent that we tacitly agree that what we teach doesn't really matter anyway, we undermine our own reason to exist. Those who attack us for having Democrats on the faculty are invited to bite my ass. But those who attack us for empty credentialing need to be made wrong.

Is there another industry in which the folks paying the bills are happier when they don't get what they pay for?

* Yes, yes, I know, I'm not supposed to refer to students as customers. Corporatization, blah, blah, blah. But if I'm going to do any kind of cross-sectoral comparison, it works reasonably well. Still, the comparison works if you substitute 'patients' or 'clients' for 'students.' How many patients want their treatment to fail? How many defendants want to lose their cases? I'm guessing the percentages are much lower than the percentage of students who don't want to be bothered learning.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Parents' Night

We just had Parents' Night at The Boy's school.

I know I'll get inured to these, but the first one is surreal.

First of all, every elementary school in America was built at the same time, with the same floor plan. You've seen it – squat, low-slung brick, with high windows that open out on the bottom; vertiginously long hallways with bathroom tile on the walls; every inch of space covered with construction paper. (Strangely, the standardization occurred without the savings of standardization.) Parts of the school are newer, and parts have been converted from their original use (a gym) to something else (a cafeteria). Other parts haven't changed since the school was built. The coatrack in The Boy's classroom looks like a perfect 1956 mass-production unit, sullied only by rust and God only knows how many germs. The drinking fountains are the regulation twelve inches off the floor.

The staff was overwhelmingly female, with an average age, guessing by appearance, of about 12. The contrast with the college was hard to miss. The principal was about my age, but she didn't stand out as especially young. The principal addressed the parents in the new gym, making sure to mention that the school had made progress in all 40 of the No Child Left Behind categories. What she didn't say was that the bordering districts, which are far wealthier and snootier, haven't done that. To her credit, she refrained from saying 'nyah, nyah.' I probably would have.

(Did you know that they have 'writing across the curriculum' in elementary schools now? She mentioned it by name. When she mentioned 'writing assessments,' I nearly fell off my folding chair.)

After the requisite brief talks by the various support staff (my favorite was when the school social worker told us that we should ask our five-year-olds how they negotiated their feelings today. Uh, no.), we were adjourned to the individual classrooms.

TB's class has 24 students in it, which strikes me as high for a kindergarten. Probably 8-10 kids' parents showed up, the Moms in jeans, the (fewer) Dads in office attire minus the ties. The teacher walked us through the kids' routines. The parents objected that the kids have far too little time for lunch, to which the teacher agreed and mentioned that the curriculum is far more demanding than it was even five years ago. As she wrapped up her presentation, the teacher did a brief 'how to prepare your kid to succeed' talk, in which she mentioned that the best way to prepare a kid is to read to him every day. She singled us out, saying “I know (TB) loves to read.” We nearly exploded with pride. Had it not been terrible form, we would have done the end-zone dance on the spot.

As we marched back to the cafetorium (is there any other institution, besides public education, that would even coin a term like 'cafetorium'?), we ran into the principal, and I asked the first of what I expect will be thousands of questions over the next few years. This one was about introducing Spanish to the kids, which they do now through occasional videos. I asked if they'd do any 'live' Spanish speaking. The principal assured me that the videos are interactive (“there are puppets involved.”). Since a significant portion of the school population speaks Spanish at home, I'm guessing that some Spanish interaction will occur anyway, but I still don't see the point of waiting until junior high to introduce a language. Every study I've seen says that languages are easier to pick up at earlier ages. I figure, start them when it's easy, so by the time it's not as easy they've already got the knack. But then, I'm one of those 'elitist liberals' who would rather spend tax dollars on language instruction than wars of choice. Alas.

I'm sure many more questions will follow, and the principal will eventually learn to hide when she sees me coming. That's okay. I won't look for special treatment for TB. I just want the school to be worthy of him. Is that so much?

And so it begins...

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Pirate Day Fragments

I've been too scattered to put together a proper post, so a few blog mcnuggets:

- It's Talk Like a Pirate Day! Yarrrr!

- My Mom informed me that Viagra is great for African Violets. I choose not to devote too much thought to this.

- The Boy (Incredulously): Daddy, you're even smarter than me!

- Actual exchange a few nights ago at dinner:
The Boy: I don't like salmon. It tastes like fish.
DD: Salmon is fish.
The Boy: eeeewwww!

- (As The Girl continues to make faces at us at the dinner table, because we laughed at the first one)
The Wife: You know, she thinks you'll let her get away with it because she's so cute.
Me: She is so cute, and I will let her get away with it, but that doesn't make it right.

- The Sunday New York Times had an article about the singer Diana Krall, in which she was described as “a strapping five-foot-eight.” I can't get past the word “strapping.” What, exactly, is that supposed to mean?

- Overheard in the hallway: “they said it was intent to distribute, but that's such bullshit. It's mine!”

- I've also overheard three references to in the hallway in the last week, and I don't spend that much time in the hallway.

- The Ford Motor Company is circling the drain, largely because it's getting its clock cleaned in the small car segment. The Ford Focus, its only entry in the small car segment, sucks. Ford owns Mazda. Mazda turned a profit last year, based in part on the award-winning Mazda3, a small car that competes seriously with the Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla. My annual suggestion to Ford: why don't you ask Mazda how they do it? Since YOU OWN THEM, they HAVE TO TELL YOU. This strikes me as preferable to going broke. This ain't rocket science.

- Thinking out loud: Mazda3 hybrid. I'm just sayin'...

- Whatever happened to Gary Sandy, from WKRP in Cincinnati? He had great hair; now he's gone.

- For that matter, whatever happened to Ann Jillian, from whatever the hell is was she was from?

- I'm thinking of trying my hand at national novel-writing month. Since I don't know jack about writing fiction, I'll rely on the blogosphere for guidance. Which premise should I use?

- A bodice-ripper set among the decadent aristocracy of, well, let's call it England
- A thinly-veiled allegory of the Bush administration
- A murder mystery set in a graduate program suspiciously like my own
- An arch science-fiction comedy
- An annoyingly self-referential eat-its-own-tail pomo piece, like Charlie Kaufman
- A picaresque romp through suburbia, highlighting the all-too-human failings behind the vinyl siding
- A classic updated, with key characters made gay
- An Iowa workshop special, with well-off white people musing conflictedly over maiden aunts who drink too much
- A sin-fall-redemption story about a prostitute who – here's the twist – has a heart of gold
- An edge-of-your-seat thriller about a secret agent who looks suspiciously like Ben Affleck teaming up with a marine biologist who looks oddly like Scarlett Johansson to fight an evil madman who looks vaguely like Fred Dalton Thompson before he sets off a bomb that would destroy Los Angeles.

Scurvy swabs of the literary public, I await your wisdom! Yarrr!

Monday, September 18, 2006

Jonas Salk Presents the Polio Vaccine to the Faculty Senate

...and this, I believe, will end polio in our time. Any questions?

- Why weren't we informed of this earlier?
- What else haven't you informed us about?
- Does the Disabilities Committee know about this?
- Why polio? Why not cancer? My wife has cancer. Don't you care?
- Prick.
- Why not AIDS?
- Yeah, why not AIDS? Are you homophobic?
- You homophobe!
- I'm concerned about how this will impact women and minorities. Did you run this by the Diversity Committee?
- Whose budget did this come out of?
- Oh, sure, we have money for vaccines, but where's the checkbook when we want to expand my program?
- You haven't tested this on people, have you?
- This has been thoroughly tested for long-term effects on people, hasn't it?
- This is an attack on the culture of Persons With Polio!
- This is just an excuse to raise my copay. The union will hear about this!
- Is the Administration behind this?
- Those bastards.
- This is all so sudden. We need to respect the integrity of the process.
- Yes, integrity!
- Integrity! (mumble, mumble)
- I propose that the vaccine be tabled until next year, pending review by the relevant committees.
- (mumble, mumble)
- Which committees would those be?
- Good point. Let's establish an ad hoc task force to determine which committees properly have jurisdiction. Then we can have each committee thoroughly vet the proposal.
- I'll chair it!
- We have a volunteer. Is there a second?
- Second!
- Great! Any objections?
(Dr. Salk stares in mute disbelief.)
- Dr. Antedeluvian will chair the ad hoc committee. Who shall be represented on the committee?
- My division got the shaft on last year's committee.
- Your division wouldn't be able to find its ass with both hands and a map!
- Yours could, because that's where its head is!
- (“oooooooooo”)
- Colleagues, please. I propose one representative from each bargaining unit, one from the administration, and one student.
- (mumble, mumble)
- We'll address the cost issue as it comes up. All in favor?
- ('ayes' mumbled widely)
- Opposed?
(sound of crickets)
- Abstentions?
(sound of crickets yawning)
- The motion passes. Thank you, Dr. Salk, for your presentation. Dr. Antedeluvian's committee will convene next month to decide who can tell you what to do with your vaccine. Moving on to new business...

Friday, September 15, 2006

Theatre Review

In celebration of The Wife's birthday, we made the heroic trek to New York City for an evening of dinner and thee-at-ah. The Wife had been yearning to see Phantom of the Opera since sometime during the Reagan administration, so we did. Her Mom stayed over to watch the kids, so we could experience the joy of a restaurant meal at which neither of us is cutting anybody's food but our own, and she wouldn't have to drive back home in the wee hours.

I hadn't been to New York since our trip to The Colbert Report, which itself was the first time in longer than I care to admit. New York is great, but it's an exhausting day trip. I always get what I call “museum back,” a lower-back stiffness and pain that I only get in Manhattan and/or museums. The people-watching there is glorious; the sheer volume of pedestrian traffic, itself a novelty to this denizen of the 'burbs, is overwhelming. I've noticed fewer fat people, per capita, in New York than anywhere else, despite an astonishing assortment of restaurants. (Whether this is due to the constant walking, the ubiquitous stairs, or the appetite-dampening effects of bus fumes is a debate I leave to the experts.) Sometime in the last year or so, Mayor Bloomberg apparently issued a Mandatory Ipods Decree, so you could tell the bare-eared tourists from the bepodded native stock.

(Not that you need anything that obvious. Although I usually think of myself as an educated person, and The Wife is both attractive and sophisticated, when we go into Manhattan we both feel like we're wearing overalls and John Deere baseball caps. Cleetus, the slack-jawed yokel. New York is the only city that has this effect.)

I also got a restaurant recommendation from a colleague at work. It was a little place on restaurant row (46th Street, around 8th) called Becco's. It uses a 'prix fixe' menu, which I like to pronounce “pricks ficksee” just to annoy the French. For twenty bucks a person, you get antipasto and three kinds of pasta.

This bears explanation. Here in the 'burbs, talk of unlimited pasta conjures images of the Olive Garden, or maybe grad school. It usually means three different shapes of noodle in Ragu. If you want to be cosmopolitan and you don't care about cholesterol, you go for 'alfredo,' which in the burbs means creamed fat with flecks of green stuff in it. If you really, truly don't care, there's baked ziti.

No, no, no. This was altogether different.

The antipasto was the first clue that we weren't in the suburbs anymore. Out here, antipasto usually means shiny deli meats wrapped around thick cubes of cheese, all sprayed with something to make it even shinier. (Whoever came up with this approach seemed to think that the only problem with olive loaf is that it doesn't glisten enough.) This antipasto was almost meat-free. Most of what was on the plates was unidentifiable, but had been marinated in what I can only assume was the nectar of the gods. There was something resembling salmon, which was extraordinary, and a sliver of what appeared to be eggplant. I have never understood the fascination with eggplant. An ex-girlfriend once declared that if sex were a vegetable, it would be eggplant. We broke up. But this was amazing. Subtle, yielding, almost sweet underneath the marinade. Could this be what she meant? We were so young. But I digress.

The main courses were served in an almost military style. The waiters would carry impressive bowls – vats, really -- of whichever pasta was up. You'd nod 'yes' or 'no,' and if 'yes,' the waiter would scoop an imposing pile onto your plate. It was almost a buffet, but without getting up. Since nearly everybody in the place ordered the prix fixe, they could just cook it by the bucketful. It's an ingenious system, and it keeps the tables turning over.

The first was farfalle in a red sauce with basil. It was, by far, the most pedestrian of the three offerings, but still nifty in its own way. The noodles were obviously homemade. The sauce had the clumpiness of freshly-prepared stuff, and the basil leaves were big enough to actually mean something. It was tasty, and pleasant, and satisfying enough, but it seemed like the kind of thing I could do, or at least find, if I really put my mind to it. Not bad, but not special.

The second was linguine with clams in an olive-oil-and-garlic sauce. I've long been agnostic on clams. They can be pleasant enough every now and again, prepared properly, but they hardly seem worth the effort. (Fried clams, which my Mom calls french fried rubber bands, are novelty items, suitable only for amusing children.) But the linguine was revelatory. Balancing garlic and olive oil is tricky, since the textures are so different, but these folks knew what they were doing. It was lightly applied, which is key – there's such a thing as too slippery – and the linguine was fresh enough to push back a little with flavor of its own. Better, they didn't do the pretentious 'small food plus big plate equals culture' thing; it was piled in a manly heap, the way God intended.

Then, the canneloni.

I admit, I was well into my teens before I knew that canneloni wasn't invented by Chef Boy-Ar-Dee. I still think of it as a member of the manicotti family – edible, yes, but as uninteresting as baked ziti. Suitable, perhaps, for feeding large transient gatherings on the cheap, but nothing you'd ever order on your own.

This was the moment I realized that we were in the big leagues.

It was a simple noodle, draped over a filling of spinach and ricotta, all lightly coated in a cream sauce. (I don't remember the name. Something vaguely French.) But describing it that way is like describing Cassandra Wilson as a singer. True, as far as it goes, but so utterly reductionist as to be misleading.

I didn't know spinach could subsume itself so gracefully, that ricotta could be so smooth and subtle, or that a noodle could be so perfectly textured as to both put up a nice resistance to the sauce and still melt when eaten. The dish was so good that the moment actually become socially awkward. The fact that something so extraordinary could also be mass produced gives me hope for the future.

Prix fixe are my new favorite words. We're going to have to start eating our way down restaurant row, one prix fixe at a time. President Bush said we can help the war on terror by going out to eat. I'll do my part! Let bin Laden tremble at the mighty stewpots of liberty!

The play was adequate.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Tuckered Out

Tucker was the first one eliminated on Dancing With The Stars. Apparently, he wasn't clear on the distinction between 'dancing' and 'sitting down.'

How embarrassing for him.

Just wanted to call a leeeettle more public attention to that.

That is all.

Ask the Administrator: Salary History

An occasional correspondent writes:

I'm writing to ask you (and also your readers) about an odd
thing I have come across in my job searching - the salary history
request. There are two jobs which ask for this - both are educational
outreach positions in science museums - and I don't really know how to
handle it. I've done some reading and I get mixed reviews - it seems
in business you can "make a stand" and refuse to divulge your
"confidential salary history" and that this can even work to your
advantage because you somehow "take control" of the application
process. It seems that in most cases though, the search committee
wants to weed out people they can't afford. I'm very interested in
these positions and I guess I don't mind if they know how much I made
as long as that doesn't prevent me from being considered for the job.
I have no concept of how the salary I was making in my previous job
relates to the normal salary range for these positions thus I feel
unprepared to make a decision about what to do. The other piece of
relevant information is that my job search has taken longer than I
expected and so I really need to secure a position soon. So while I'm
tempted to ignore what I think is an unfair request, I feel incredible
pressure to not anger the search committee at these museums by
'failing" to follow instructions.

My questions for you and for your readers are: 1) Is this a normal
request (to me it seems somehow illegal or inappropriate)? Maybe it's
specific to museums and other non-profit type sectors? 2) How should
I deal with this? Should I just indicate my desired salary range or
should I tell them exactly what I made at each position? Or, as some
things I have read indicated, do I have any ground to stand on if I
refuse to give my salary history in the initial application if I
indicate that I'm interested in the position and am willing to discuss
these details later?

I hate the 'salary history' question, because there's no way to get it right. If you come in lower than the employer expects, you'll have a heck of a time bargaining up. If you come in too high, the employer might very well skip you altogether, on the theory that you wouldn't take the job anyway. The strike zone is probably quite narrow, and, depending on the position, impossible to know from the outside.*

When I applied for my current job, the ad called for salary history and expectations. On the initial application, I put 'available on request' and 'negotiable,' respectively. It was my way of acknowledging that I had seen the request, but I didn't want to tip my hand too early.

On the occasions I've had input into ad copy, I've never requested either salary history or requirements. The former doesn't tell me anything I need to know, and the latter will become clear eventually anyway if it's relevant. Given the nature of teaching, it's not unusual in certain fields for people with experience in professions to want to teach their field, and to be willing to take significant pay cuts to do it. (I'll add that sometimes they're surprised at just how significant the cut actually is.) Salary requirements, in an initial application, always strike me as presumptuous (probably because they're almost always way too high). At my previous college, I remember an applicant for an entry-level assistant professor position in the social sciences stating a required minimum starting salary in the $70's. The committee had a belly laugh at that, and promptly relegated it to the reject pile. Had he not specified, we would have at least read the rest of his application.

Specificity on these issues at the outset may be irrelevant, or it may hurt, but I can't imagine how it could help.

If dodging the issue altogether is too risky for you, an alternate strategy is vagueness. Give very round figures, or, if you're especially gutsy and you work at a public institution, give the salary range for the rank you hold. (At my college, the salary range for an Assistant Professor is something like $32k to $90k. Don't ask.) You're technically answering the question, but you've left yourself a lot of room for negotiation.

If I were King of Academia, I'd make a rule that applicants should be told no later than the first interview what the position would pay. (If an institution wants to customize salaries according to some internal rubric about experience and degree status, it should do that before bringing people in for interviews.) If the salary doesn't meet the candidate's needs, she can withdraw gracefully at a moment when the institution still has other options. The 'car dealer' school of salaries – haggling, brinksmanship, etc. -- strikes me as dishonest, barbaric, and discriminatory as hell. This is especially true at the entry level, where the marginal differences between candidates are relatively small. (Named chairs and the like may still have to be customized.) Salary compression – in which newer people are sometimes hired at higher salaries than their senior colleagues – may still happen, depending on market conditions. That's a separate matter. But at least we'd inject some honesty into the process.

Reader, I answered her. What do you think?

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

*Even at public colleges! When I applied for this one, I called HR to ask the salary range. It was 30k wide. I could have looked up the salary of the previous occupant of this office, but given how heavily seniority weighs in these things, that only would have set me up for disappointment. “Transparency” is a relative term.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Ask the Administrator: Tenure for Administration?

A New England correspondent writes:

I work for a largish (by small New England state standards)
state university, as an "administrative faculty." Because we are a
state school, all the employees are state workers. We are divided up
into different unions, by both skill set, and educational
requirements. Generally, anyone who manages an (administrative)
department, i.e. payroll, accounts payable, etc., or works in I.T. at
a professional level, belongs to the administrative faculty union.

When we are hired (through a ridiculously drawn out, state
mandated process, that involves extensive searches, and choice
justifications to diversity and equity), we are hired for 1 year
terms. At the end of that term, we must be re-appointed to our
position. Its is very rare for someone to NOT be reappointed; in fact,
the union is so strong that just to fire someone for basic
incompetence is neigh impossible.

After working here for 6 years, we become eligible for
"continuing appointment." This is defined in our contract as
"analogous to the granting of tenure to an instructional faculty
member." Furthermore, they must determine to grant or deny it to us no
later than the end of our sixth year of full time service. If we are
not granted it, we must be notified by the end of our 7th year, and
not receiving it constitutes being fired. Failure to notify us that we
have not been granted it constitutes awarding it. (Got that? They have
to actually fire us after 6 years, or we get tenure by default.)

So, essentially, not only are our professors tenured, but
the administrators are as well, which is almost redundant considering
the strength of our union.

My questions are: Is it common for non-academic
administers to be tenured at universities? If it is common, are the
same standards used for both instructional and administrative faculty?
What is your opinion on granting administrators tenure? I realize you
do not like the idea of tenure (and for the most part I agree), but
granted that the professors are tenured, is it reasonable to extend
the same to the administration? One argument in favor of it that I can
see is that it prevents the professors from throwing their
un-fire-able weight around against the registrar, bursar, etc. What is
your opinion on the matter?

To give you some numbers to put our situation in
perspective, we have 15,000 students, just under 2,000 professors
(including tenured, full time and adjunct), and under 200
"administrative faculty" as defined above.

I've never heard of “administrative faculty.” If I'd had to guess the meaning of the term, I probably would have come up with “department chairs.” Apparently, that would have been wrong.

My admin experience has been at teaching colleges, rather than universities, so I'll just have to admit partial ignorance on this one. My understanding of the law is that anybody deemed “management” isn't eligible for union membership, though I could be wrong on that. Anybody who knows that body of law better than I do is welcome to comment.

My college used to grant tenure to people in administrative positions, but stopped the practice in the late 1970's. (We still have two or three veterans of that era on campus, holding tenure in positions that no longer award it. One of those is a fellow Dean.) Since most admin positions have turned over at least once since the Carter administration, most of the administration doesn't have tenure and isn't eligible for it. Obviously, we aren't unionized, either.

My position on this question may look self-serving, but I only want reciprocity. Either both deans and faculty get tenure, or neither does. To give faculty tenure but deny it to administrators essentially guarantees the success of faculty foot-dragging as a political strategy. If you institutionalize “this (dean) too shall pass,” you shouldn't be surprised at the emergence of a stagnant culture.

The argument against tenure for administrators is straightforward enough: power without accountability can lead to corruption, or, at least, to indifferent performance. Of course, paychecks without accountability (or power over students, without accountability) can do exactly the same thing.

Many colleges and universities adopt a strategy (a good one, to my way of thinking) of giving administrators faculty titles and tenure, so a low-performing Dean can be removed from the Dean's office and returned to faculty. There's no issue of unemployment, per se, but demotion (or what I sometimes think of as promotion) is a real possibility. The advantage of this is that it allows for some level of accountability, without making administrative positions so precarious that nobody in one would ever take a risk (or, nobody with faculty experience would ever take an admin position). It also guarantees that the folks in administration have some sort of academic background, which comes in handier than you'd think. The disadvantage is that, with a lot of turnover over time, you can get a substantial portion of the faculty who may or may not be the best uses of faculty lines.

The system at my college, in which faculty have tenure and administrators don't, strikes me as absurd. (I took it because a single structural absurdity struck me as far less objectionable than the day-to-day absurdity I dealt with at my previous job.) When I interviewed for this one, I asked why there weren't any internal candidates for it. I was told they wouldn't accept the loss of tenure, or the pay cut. I'm beginning to understand that the unspoken factor was a sense that the job is, in certain important ways, impossible. In a clash between a blowhard with tenure and a manager on an annual contract, guess who wins? Yup.

(The folks who succeed here in administration tend to adopt a MacGyver model. “Given only a paper clip, a foot of twine, and an 8-track tape of Three Dog Night, achieve cold fusion.” Take it as a challenge. After all, anybody could do this job if it came with tools...)

I'll admit some sympathy with the idea of an administrators' union. I'd love to file grievances against a few professors, but that's just not reality.

I imagine that someone from the private sector reading this must be convinced that I'm writing from Mars. Alas, no. This is how academia works. At its best, it allows brilliant minds the freedom to be brilliant, while still holding accountable the folks who handle the money. At its worst, the abuses are beyond belief. It's an anti-institutional culture, on a foundation of tenure within set institutions. That's why folks from private industry often crash and burn when they try academia. The Chronicle just reported that the banker whom the Community College of Allegheny County (Pittsburgh) hired to great fanfare a few years ago is leaving early with his tail between his legs. Well, yeah. You can't run a college like a bank. Even if you know that intellectually, the instinctual behaviors are hard to fake. Either you get it or you don't. Most don't.

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

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Scientific Method, with The Boy

Yesterday, after playing quietly with The Girl in another room, The Boy wandered over and asked:

"Didja ever notice how if you shine a flashlight in (The Girl)'s eyes for a reeeeallly long time the black dots in her eyes get smaller?"


Ask the Administrator: Notes on Notes

A regular correspondent writes:

I study math teaching at
the college level. I've lately been pondering this
thing that is the difference between what an
instructor says and what the instructor writes on the

Typically, on the board is a series of highly
organized, highly symbolic results. There's not a lot
of natural language. In English I'd imagine there's
an analogue.

Mostly, the logical connective tissue, the 'thought
process' is part of the instructor's talk, but not

We basically know that students only write down what's
on the board. We think that the stuff we say is
really important and is the 'way we think' that
students need to learn. We want students to get
better at writing this stuff down.

What do we do to help students to take better notes?
What did you do to help students take better notes?
What do you do as an administrator to encourage your
faculty to help students take better notes?

It's a great set of questions, especially from the perspective of someone like me, since I absolutely suck at taking notes. The 'notes' gene must be recessive.

One of my pet peeves is the abuse of PowerPoint. I'm willing to grant that PowerPoint (and similar programs) can be useful in certain contexts. It's great in classes with lots of charts and graphs (economics leaps to mind), or in classes that use maps (history), or in classes where visual representations are the core of the subject matter (art history). For art history, PowerPoint can offer a much more elegant alternative to the old slide carousel, and that's great.

But I'm also convinced that PowerPoint can exacerbate the problems students have with note-taking. It makes things look finished, which many students will take as implied permission to disengage; why take notes when you already have them? It also implicitly promotes a 'bullet point' style, which may be fine for certain subjects, but which can be death to nuance. (“Death to Nuance” would be a good name for a band.) Finally, there's a risk any time you turn off the lights. I dropped an art history course in college after one day when I fell asleep ten minutes into the first class; it was pretty clear that I just wasn't gonna make it. Some of us prefer 'live' to 'canned' presentations.

In the subject matter in which I got my degree, the connective tissue is almost entirely the point. There are a few basic facts that lend themselves to the bullet point presentation, but most of the action is in the interstices between bullet points. If students focus so much on the few canned facts that they miss what makes them important, the point of the class is lost. This happened more often than I care to admit.

But at least my subject usually employed English. In something like math, explanations are usually much more elegant when given in specialized language, but students' facility in that specialized language is frequently shaky. So even if the students copy everything faithfully, they may (and often will) miss the logic behind it.

(I won't make any grand claims about my own potential in math, but I will say that many of the math teachers I had didn't even try to get at the underlying logic; they just drilled techniques. While the memory was fresh, I could 'plug-and-chug' reasonably well, but throw in any kind of twist and I was hopelessly lost. Anecdotal evidence suggests I was not unique in this.)

What do I do as an administrator to help faculty help students take better notes? Nothing, really. I consider that the faculty's job to figure out. As an instructor, I wouldn't want that kind of administrative meddling in my pedagogy, so I try to live the golden rule on that one. Still, informal conversations (and blog entries) seem pretty non-invasive.

So, an open question to my wise and good-looking readers: what have you found effective in getting students to take notes that will actually make sense later?

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

Monday, September 11, 2006

The Last Possible Minute, and Beyond

The Boy loves when Buzz Lightyear, from Toy Story, says “To Infinity, and Beyond!” He doesn't get the joke; he just thinks it's a cool, superhero-ish thing to say.

The bane of this time of year is students trying to sign up for classes at the last minute, and beyond. And they don't usually have academic superpowers.

Students trying to win exceptions to 'add' deadlines almost always use the wrong approach. Conditioned by years of rewarded whining, they come in with the standard 'queen for a day' hard-knock stories, begging for compassion. This is exactly the wrong strategy.

The reasons for 'add' deadlines are several. Operational considerations matter – financial aid reporting rules, registrar needs, and the like. Faculty preferences matter – it's a pain in the neck to try to bring a kid up to speed after a class has started, especially if it has met more than once. But the biggie is actually compassion for the students.

Experience and internal statistics indicate that adding a class after it has started dramatically increases the likelihood of failing. The later the add, the surer the flop. (As we used to say at my previous college, last in, first out.) Since we don't consciously try to exploit our students, we don't want to take their money (and the taxpayers'!) when we're reasonably certain that it's for a fool's errand.

As a Dean, I'm the appeal of last resort for students who are trying to add classes at the last minute and beyond. There aren't that many when taken as a percentage of the student body, but when you see every single one of them personally, it feels like a lot.

Knowing that, what would be the most persuasive appeal for getting into a class late?

Begging? No...

Whining? No...

Flirting? No...

wait for it...

Show that you're so exceptionally able that you'll be able to handle it!

The flaw in that, of course, is that if you were so exceptionally able, you probably should have been able to comply with the official deadline in the first place.

There are times when a truly able student comes in late, and those are the times I'm likeliest to bend. As a cc, we get the local kids who initially went away to school, then turned tail and came back home in two days. (It's much more common in September than in January.) Sometimes the issue is the moral turpitude of dorm life, sometimes it's financial and/or familial and/or medical, sometimes it's just really advanced homesickness. Since most colleges start around the same time, by the time the kid has come home and gathered her thoughts sufficiently to try us, she may have missed the deadline. In those cases, if the kid shows a strong high school record, I'm likelier to cut some slack.

But the reason for the slack isn't compassion; it's probabilities. I'm looking for a sign that the kid who wants an exception is herself exceptional. Absent that, it's not gonna happen.

There's a moral ambiguity involved in saving students from themselves. Part of me thinks that, all else being equal, a big belly flop may be just the learning experience that would stick. But I've also taught, and I know how demoralizing it is in a discussion-oriented class when people stream in a week or two late. And from the standpoint of a steward of taxpayer resources, there's a limit to the amount of bad money I want to throw after good. I don't want to have to explain why a kid who signed up in October for a class that started before Labor Day, went twice, and failed, was entitled to publicly-funded financial aid. That's not a good conversation for this public servant.

Besides, sometimes hearing 'no' is a learning experience in itself. One of my bloggy sparring partners likes to say that the natural check on colleges' impulse to lower standards is employers' unwillingness to hire graduates with weak skills. I've seen remarkably little evidence of that – from what I've seen, the business climate at any given moment has a far greater impact on the rate of hiring than do graduates' writing skills, particularly for entry-level positions – but I will grant that employers prefer people who can be counted on to show up for work. If we teach by example that deadlines are meant to be broken, we're not doing anybody any good. Telling a kid he can't get into class two weeks late is also teaching, in its way.

I love the smell of 'add' forms in the morning...

Friday, September 08, 2006

The First Day of Kindergarten

Yesterday was The Boy's first day of Kindergarten. I went late to work to join the family on the walk there.

The weather was beautiful, The Boy was excited, the camera worked, everything went as well as could be hoped. The kids (and parents) gathered outside the school in a courtyard as the teachers waited for everybody to arrive. TB recognized a few faces from his preschool program last year, which helped with his comfort level. The families gathered there were reassuringly multiracial, just like his preschool had been, so TB will get some exposure to reality. His teacher was calm, TW and I kept our composure, The Girl was well-behaved, and I couldn't have asked for it to go any better.

Driving to work after that took real effort. When the mask fell, so did a few tears.


Yes, I'm biased, but he's a great kid. He's weirdly wise for his age:

TB (calling me at work): What are you doing, Daddy?

DD: Oh, just catching up on some paperwork.

TB: What do you do with paperwork, anyway?

As taxing as he can be at home, he's a little gentleman in public. He plays enthusiastically and well with girls and boys, and is usually the social glue holding any given set of kids together. He can be disarmingly sweet:

The Wife: What do you want to be when you grow up?


TB: A Daddy!

He's ridiculously ready for school, and the school is great (and public! And close to our house!). I know it'll be good. TW and I are proud of him. But it's still a milestone, a step in the gradual moving away from the little guy he's always been to the young man he'll be. He's not a preschooler anymore. He's moving into ages I remember.

He's oblivious to all that, of course. To him, this is just the next step. It's a place to make new friends, learn new things, have fun, go on field trips, and just get out of the house. (Keeping all that boy-energy in the house is a challenge beyond measure. How TW does it without going postal, I don't know.) He'll come home with stories about boogers and school lunches and kids throwing up; we'll experience the joys of navigating the public K-12 bureaucracy (they have no idea who they'll be dealing with – Bwa-ha-ha-ha-ha!); The Girl will gradually sneak her way to that age. Soon it will be quotidian reality.

I just didn't know it would be this soon.

Ask the Administrator: The Case of the Dissed Adjunct

A member of the academic proletariat writes:

I'm a sessional instructor at Big Deal U. I have
taught the same course for four years now, and love
it; great students, fun course and a collegial
atmosphere. The teaching unit recently went through
some changes and the collegial atmosphere has taken a
beating and now I'm starting to think so have some
more important things.

This course requires a room with technology,
preferably TV, VCR, DVD, internet access and Power
Point capability. After three years of cobbling this
together in an unwired room I finally got a great room
last year and the course improved because of it.

I have always had TA support for this course. Last
year the TA hours were cut in half, which was not
great but we made it work. This year I was led to
believe I'd have the same TA hours, and three weeks
ago was asked what type of candidate would be

After signing my given-to-me-at-the-last-moment
contract on Tuesday I received an email from the
Director on Wednesday telling me that a) my room has
been changed to one without AV equipment (I can order
AV equipment but this always means that it is late,
there is more set up, etc.) and b) I have no TA
support at all for this course.

I'm trying not to over-react, but I feel angry.
Classes start next week, I signed my contract with the
tacit understanding that I would have some TA support
and I requested the same or similar classroom again
for this year. I'm being paid to teach something that
is supposed to take 10 hours a week, without the TA
hours my workload has just increased by 4 hours a week
without any extra pay and at the last minute.

Even though there is no reason for me to do so I
attend curriculum meetings, social events and write
student reference letters when asked to. I have been
a good employee, the course is highly regarded by
faculty and students (it is a required course, too)
and yet I've just been shafted.

The students have also been screwed. I'm going to have
to remove an assignment in order to keep my hours
reasonable, and while they won't miss the work they
will miss the practice doing the research method they
are supposed to be learning. They will watch me waste
time dealing with technology issues; I may not even be
able to use Power Point and have to waste Unit
resources photocopying, which will also eat up more of
my time.

So, should I suck it up or protest? And if I protest
how can I do it effectively and create positive change
instead of just bitching?

Thanks Dean Dad (and commentators!),
PO'd sessional

Beware the ‘tacit understanding.’

I don’t see a painless answer to this.

One option is to suck it up, put on a happy face, be a good girl, and trust in the benevolent fates. That has been your strategy for the last four years. As Dr. Phil says, how’s that working out for you?

Another option is to quit in a huff. Were there more time before the class started, that would be my recommendation. But it starts next week, the students (who aren’t at fault) are registered and waiting, you’ve signed a contract, and walking out at the last possible moment should be reserved for personal emergencies, medical incapacity, and similar exigencies. Offended dignity, to my mind, doesn’t cut the mustard. But that’s one man’s opinion.

The middle option is to take the course, let the Director know of your unhappiness with the situation, and make clear that this will be the last time you take it unless you get, in writing, assurances that you’ll have what you need next time. You won’t be rehired, but at least you’ll be able to sleep at night.

Creating positive change is an admirable goal, and there are probably special cases where adjuncts or temporary faculty have been able to do that. But from the point of view of a harried Director under cost pressures from above, a temp on a crusade is an easily-replaced pain in the neck.

It sounds like you’re an admirable, ethical, dedicated instructor who has done her best despite lousy pay and no security. In other words, you’re enabling your own abuse.

One of the many dirty little secrets of academia is how much work is done based on goodwill. In some cases, the goodwill is reciprocated; when that happens, the sun shines, the birds sing, spiritual peace reigns over the land, and all is well. More often, though, the goodwill is unilateral. The dedicated adjunct gives the college far more than it ever gives back, inadvertently making it possible for the college to continue to rely on adjuncts. Naïve good intentions allow terrible exploitation.

A close friend of mine was once offered a horrible one-year position in June. It amounted to a pile of adjunct courses strung together. It was at a school in an uninviting clime, teaching huge sections. He had nothing else in the hopper, no spouse to support him, no independent wealth to fall back on. He said no.

Since then, his career has come together admirably; he’s on the path to tenure at a respected university, with a research project in the hopper that’s going to surprise a lot of people. I can’t prove ‘instant karma,’ but it’s hard to deny that saying no to a terrible opportunity created the possibility of something better.

My vote, given the late date, is to take the third option – teach the class, let it be known what your conditions are for teaching it again, and look for other opportunities to take when your demands aren’t met.

Wise and worldly readers: what do you think?

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

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Ask the Administrator: Gathering Intel

A disciplinary colleague writes:

I've just been appointed to an ad hoc committee that will serve to advise the administration on a particular issue: whether or not we can feasibly combine three departments (call them x, y, and z) into one.

The administration is pretty clear about why it wants to do this: these three departments suck. Specifically, they make only a modest contribution to the "life of the campus": their faculty don't teach General Ed courses, rarely serve on committees, don't publish, and don't get their students into grad school (all things that are highly valued here). Even more important, the departments make no effort to link their material to the broader "vision of the liberal arts" that is the lifeblood of this place.

The administration wants to combine the three departments, and appoint (from outside) a chair to oveersee the new, 18-member (huge by our standards) departments.

In short, the administration wants more control over what these people do with their time.

Needless to say, many members of the depts. involved are none too pleased with this development. They have (for years and years) resisted any sort of change the administration tries to implement, and now the situation is so bad that the head of one of the depts. can't even be in the same room as the Dean.

So here I am on this ad hoc committee, which overwhelmingly agrees with the administration's plans (though the depts in question don't know this). My question is this: what is the best way to approach members of these departments, to glean information about the reasons for their resistance, the likelihood of being able to implement such a change, etc.? How can we best find out what we need to know, namely, "How bad will the fallout be when the administration makes this change, and what might we do to soften the blow?"

I admire your Dean for undertaking such a risky strategy! The danger in putting three non-performing groups together is that you get one big turkey farm. Worse, the turkeys can confirm each others’ sense of being put-upon. Whoever takes that chair position will have a tough row to hoe. The short-term gain is hard to fathom.

Best case, you’ll generate some self-selection in terms of retirements, and the new chair will be able, gradually, to reshape things through new hires. Worst case, you’re generating what Obi-Wan Kenobi would call “a wretched hive of scum and villainy.”

If you just go in asking for issues, you’ll get all manner of crap thrown at you. I’d suggest a more elliptical strategy:

- Concentric circles, starting from the outside. Ask the folks in the career placement office, grad school advisement (if you have something like that), and the various support services who deal with students directly. What issues do they see?

- Once you have some idea of those, work up two or three scenarios to present to the more sober-minded members of the prospective department. Ask them to compare the advantages of each. Make sure the status quo is not one of the options.

- Ask the members of the affected department(s) for other options, again making clear that the status quo is off the table.

- Come up with a clear set of advantages from the change, and gather political support for those. (For example, the savings in release time from collapsing three chairs into one would create an opening for a new program in program k.)

In my experience, low-performing faculty are incredibly good at finding flaws in other people’s ideas, but much weaker at actually generating anything constructive themselves. If you go in asking politely for feedback, you’ll get your head handed to you. If you set the terms of debate such that they can’t just spew their usual self-interested clouds of ink, you stand a much better chance of learning something that’s actually useful.

Good luck!

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

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

The Long-Suffering Boy

The Boy last night, after dinner:

"Daddy, I've imaginationed three times today! Now can I watch tv?"

Partly Cloudy in the Sunshine State

According to the Chronicle, the University of Florida is planning major cuts to several academic departments, even while growing others, in order to align itself better with student demand. Two quotes jumped off the page. First:

Florida expects about 80 of its 780 faculty members in its College of Liberal Arts and Sciences to retire in the next three years, and the university plans to replace approximately 26 of them.


'The immediate reaction from faculty was one of anger and surprise,' said Robert B. Ray, an English professor. 'Where the blame lies is difficult to assess at this point.'

(Cuts will fall on English, philosophy, religion, and Germanic and Slavic studies. Growth would accrue to biology, botany, chemistry, criminology, psychology, and zoology. Cuts will include cuts in the number of graduate students admitted to the affected programs.)

As a card-carrying administrator, all I can say is, 'wow.'

First, kudos to the U of F for actually trying to make some choices. Too often, a college/university will decide to cut simply by 'attrition,' rather than by some kind of coherent strategy. I'm a fan of picking a direction and moving in it. Better to do a few things well than many things badly.

Second, though, if they honestly believe that they can predict, with any level of accuracy, that 80 faculty will retire in the next three years, they're smoking something powerful. There's simply no way for them to know that. Since there's no mandatory retirement age for tenured faculty, senior faculty can stick around indefinitely. You can hurry the process by offering buyouts, but the article doesn't mention buyouts, and the level of buyout you'd need would almost certainly wipe out any budgetary savings for several years. Absent a mandatory cutoff or a voluntary buyout package, the only way to gain certainty would be to hire hitmen.

Replacing 26 out of 80 sounds painfully familiar. Expect nasty, bitter fights over which departments get to replace. I don't know if Florida allows or practices affirmative action, but if it does, I can envision some truly nasty (and expensive!) lawsuits coming down the pike. This is going to get ugly.

A fearless prediction (and all predictions guaranteed or your money back!): the faculty will claim to have been shut out of the decision-making process, the usual accusations about autocratic administrators will fly, compromises will be made, a few deans will be replaced, and the university won't look in 2010 the way this plan says it will.

Ironically enough, the way to implement the plan would have been not to announce it. Just do it. I don't recall any great far-reaching policy debate in the last thirty years or so about the desirability of moving to a half-adjunct higher ed system; it just happened, bit by bit, as individual institutions did what they needed to do to survive within difficult budget parameters. By announcing it, the university made it a political issue on campus, and all the standard interest-group politicking will ensue. Whatever else happens, the 'me-first' interest groups will be more than willing to sacrifice the coherence of the plan to protect their own turf.

The quote from the English professor is revealing. His first instinct is to insinuate procedural irregularities (that what 'surprise' is code for); his next move is to look for someone to blame. His subsequent invocation of Larry Summers is a thinly-veiled threat to get administrators fired. Blaming the management is easier than thinking, and allows you to occupy the moral high ground.

I'll just put this out there and endure the inevitable flaming: English graduate programs should take fewer graduate students. The production of excess labor is what makes exploitative adjunct hiring possible in the first place. As long as the supply of English Ph.D.'s far exceeds the demand, which looks to be the case for the foreseeable future, it's irresponsible not to reduce graduate programs. I can understand English departments not wanting to hear that, but it's true. Right now, graduate education in the humanities is a sort of pyramid scheme, in which the folks at the top of the pyramid (the tenured faculty at R1's) are sustained by the exploitation of those lower in the ranks (graduate students, adjuncts, etc.) If we can't break up the pyramid altogether, we can at least do damage control by shrinking it.

I forget the source of the quote, but there's a famous line somewhere about the difficulty of getting a man to understand an argument when his paycheck depends on him not understanding it. I don't expect any department to welcome cuts, and I would expect an English department, in particular, to deploy all manner of rhetorical weaponry in its own defense. Whether the administration at U of F has the intestinal fortitude to stick to its guns remains to be seen.

A situation like this really highlights the tragic conflict at the heart of my administrative philosophy: I want both openness and recognition of reality. Sometimes the two go together, and that's great, but it's not unusual for them to conflict. Telling an ensconced, senior, overstaffed (and therefore internally powerful) department that some of its resources will be transferred to smaller departments is provoking a fight, and that fight will not be fought fairly. Strong leadership can, in principle, keep the project from going off the rails, but the temptation to cave will be strong and ever-present.

Good luck, U of F. You'll need it.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Remediation Redux: A Response to the New York Times

The New York Times finally recognized that community colleges exist, devoting approximately one percent of the ink to us that it usually devotes to Larry Summers and Harvard.

It's disconcerting to be 'discovered' when you've been there all along. In fact, recent research indicates that many community colleges were founded before anybody even knew who the hell Larry Summers was. But I digress.

The article acknowledges that many college students arrive with serious skills deficits, outside jobs, and family obligations. Some may never have made it through a serious book cover-to-cover; some may have only the foggiest grasp of algebra. (I've heard math faculty say that every year, somebody raises a hand and asks 'why are you doing math with letters?')

I've written before on the dilemmas of remediation, so I'll just do a quick gloss here. CC's get blamed for high enrollments in remedial courses and low graduation rates, but we're also supposed to be open-admissions. Open admissions will lead, as sure as day leads to night, to high levels of remediation. Why that's our fault still escapes me. What the alternative is supposed to be escapes me, too – do we want higher-cost for-profit remediation? Should we just open up the high schools? Is adult literacy not really important anyway?

A few more thoughts on remediation, in response to the Times:

At my current college, we're working with some of the local high schools to combat 'senioritis' (the sloughing off of academics by high school seniors) by enrolling 12th graders in college-level classes. We've hit an unanticipated roadblock with placement tests. Many of the students who have been cruising through high school have placed developmental with us. After a considerable amount of back-and-forth with the department, the high school, and the testing center, I think I've located the gap. We test different skills. The high school defines 'good writing' as error-free prose. The college defines 'good writing' as 'sustaining an argument.' So the high school kids take our essay exam and write “See Spot run,” which got them accolades in high school; they place remedial with us, and get terribly upset.

My concern there is that with the current push for some sort of standardized national outcomes assessment test, we'll move to the high school model. It's easier to count errors 'objectively' than to assess the weight of an argument, so I'm worried that, in the name of uniformity, we'll move to error-counting. “See Spot run” will become exemplary.

On a more mundane administrative level, the article highlights the glaring flaw in the move to define higher education as a private good. To the extent that cc's and other less-selective public colleges are forced to become more tuition-driven, it becomes harder for us to deliver bad news to students. If a student marches out the door upon being told he needs remediation – a fairly common occurrence, in fact – then the institution shoots itself in the foot financially by doing the right thing. At my previous employer, a for-profit, the bar for remediation was set so low that almost nobody was placed into it, despite some glaring skills deficits. That was a policy decision set to ensure that we didn't blow the sale when a student came to enroll.

When public colleges got smaller percentages of their budgets from tuition, it was easier to hold the line on these issues. As the public sector has shifted its funding to prisons and tax cuts, we've had to rely more on tuition, making the temptation to lower the standards much more compelling. If we're serious about fixing skills deficits, we have to stop punishing the colleges that actually try.

The other alternative, of course, would be to abolish mandatory placement tests and mandatory remediation altogether, leaving each to the option of each individual student. I prefer this option, truth be told, but it doesn't solve the fiscal problem; it only postpones it. If we let students sign up for whatever they want, and a significant number overestimates its collective preparedness, then we need to be prepared, as institutions, for dramatically higher drop/fail rates. Experience suggests that the necessary second step would not happen, and the path of less resistance – that is, lowering standards – would become irresistible. Again, as long as our institutional survival is predicated on student headcount, we should be expected to act in the interests of our own survival. The responsible thing to do would be to de-link operational funding from tuition, such as used to be standard in earlier decades, and is still standard in the K-12 system. I have no illusions that the public is ready for this.

Remedial courses cost more to teach, by and large, than do credit-bearing first- and second- year courses. The sections are kept smaller, for obvious reasons, and the support services required (writing center, math center, etc.) are pure cost to the institution. Dropout rates are higher, meaning that recruitment costs are amortized over fewer semesters. Many colleges try to compensate by farming out most of the remedial courses to adjuncts, but the savings from that strategy are finite (and mostly already realized by now), and the costs of that strategy to students are potentially devastating, if high faculty turnover leads to spotty quality. If cc's are to be the homes of remediation, which I think is the case by default, then we need to be willing to plow non-tuition funding in.

Even if, by some miracle, we were to effect great improvements in the public high schools, we would still have tremendous remedial needs at cc's. We get significant numbers of immigrants, people with GED's, returning adults, and speakers of English as a second (or third, or fourth) language. Fixing the high schools wouldn't affect any of these groups. Yes, we absolutely should improve the high schools, but that doesn't solve this issue. (And realistically, any improvements in the high schools would be incremental. We might get the remedial percentage lowered a few points, which would be a good thing well worth doing, but we wouldn't eliminate it. Simply not going to happen.)

Some people try to evade the issue of remediation be referring to job training, rather than 'education.' If we don't get all hung up on 'knowing how to read,' the argument goes, we can get folks into secure, well-paying jobs. It sounds good until you realize that almost every well-paying job requires literacy. The skills we're talking about at this level are really prerequisites to both academic and career programs.

In this, as in so many things, defining a public good (an educated citizenry) as a private good (a credential for making more money) works fine for those at the top, but screws over those at the bottom. Thanks to the Times for noticing the existence of the bottom. Any time it would like to bother doing some actual analysis, that would be great.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Picture Pages

A caption contest in the comments, for a brief photo essay consisting of The Boy, The Girl, and a blimp:

There's a metaphor in here somewhere...