Thursday, November 30, 2006

A Brainstopper

This is absolutely true.

As I walked to a meeting yesterday afternoon, I passed two students in the hallway, sitting against the wall, talking to each other. They were both female, and I'd guess 18 or 19. What I overheard:

Student 1: I could convert you. I could make you a smoker.

Student 2: I'd love to be a smoker, but I'm donating my eggs.

It was all I could do not to stop in my tracks, turn to them, and say 'Huh?'

For the rest of the day, anytime I reflected on that conversation fragment, I could feel my brain actually stop. It has an oddly clarifying effect, like a palate cleanser. Almost a koan, really.

It would make a good short story assignment. Construct a narrative in which this conversation actually makes sense.

The best I could come up with is that the first student was basically teasing, and the second student is tempted by smoking as a weight-loss strategy but needs money more, which she could then use, presumably, to buy cigarettes. Or something.

I could write dialogue for a thousand years and not come up with Student 2's response.

What's the weirdest thing you've heard in the hallway lately?

Wednesday, November 29, 2006


A professor at another college once told me that he was tired of the administration giving all the fertilizer to the seasonals, and neglecting the evergreens. It's an easy trap to fall into.

Evergreens are those disciplines that have to get taught, no matter what. They also get called 'general education,' which always struck me as just a cut above 'miscellaneous' as a label. The usual suspects include English, math, history, science, and psychology, among others. What distinguishes these from most other departments is that the intro courses are required or highly popular among people who don't major in the disciplines themselves, so the teaching load is bottom-heavy. In a given semester, we might run 30 sections of General Psych or 50 of Composition 1, but only one each of Psych of Personality or Women in Literature. That's because Nursing and engineering and criminal justice majors take Composition and General Psych to fulfill 'gen ed' requirements, but only English majors go on to the literature classes.

In departments that are more self-contained, the teaching is distributed more evenly over the spectrum from intro to upper-level courses.

As a general rule, the 'gen ed' disciplines tend to accumulate higher proportions of adjuncts than the more self-contained disciplines. The adjuncts are usually clustered in the intro courses, since the full-time faculty (who usually have first dibs) generally prefer to stick to the upper levels, to the extent possible. (At a cc, it isn't really possible, so even full professors in psych and English teach plenty of intro sections.) Evergreen disciplines usually have pretty reliable labor surpluses, in terms of faculty, and they always have plenty of intro sections, so they carry staggering quantities of adjuncts.

The contrast to 'boutique' programs is striking. Any given program has a minimum of full-time staff it needs to run at all. If the program is small, that full-time staff will cover most of the sections. A new program carries with it the prospect of growth (which is usually why it got introduced in the first place), so administrators are more willing to put in additional resources, since there's a prospect of it paying back. If you grow the full-time cohort in, say, English, the payback is harder to measure.

Over time, the perverse outcome is that the central, core teaching areas are the likeliest to be outsourced to high-turnover, part-time instructors, while the smaller and more peripheral areas are likelier to get the full-time lines. I can't think of another industry in which this pattern would hold.

In most industries, off the top of my head, one of two patterns holds: either you have a full-time core and add temps for seasonal fluctuations (like retail at Christmas), or you have a full-time core and add 'consultants' (who are temps who get paid more than the full-time staff) for individual projects with sunset clauses. In the first case, low-paid temps help with peak demand. In the second, high-paid temps give you flexibility, albeit at a serious financial cost. In academia, we have highly-trained but low-paid temps who help with the core function. There's something deeply weird about that.

(The disparity is even more annoying when you contrast faculty and office staff. Office temps cost more than do full-timers, even while adjuncts cost less than full-timers. In my first year at my cc, I lost four professors and a secretary to retirement, and was only able to replace the secretary.)

My suspicion is that the uniquely awful situation of adjuncts in academia is a direct result of the unique institution of tenure. Tenure isn't the solution; it's part of the problem. The incredible lack of fiscal and personnel flexibility that tenure in the boutique programs imposes on the institution has to be made up somewhere. If a boutique program's enrollments slide, but its faculty still has tenure, there isn't much the college can do. But there will always be composition, and there will be retirements that can be adjuncted-out.

Worse, when a college struggles financially, one of the time-honored moves it will make to try to recover is to start some new programs that it thinks will sell. Any new program has to start with a full-time core. Any new program will lose money initially. That has to be made up somewhere, too.

I still haven't seen a systematic effort to address the causal connection between tenure and adjuncting. Richard Chait published a book a few years ago, The Questions of Tenure, in which he examined a few isolated, marginal colleges that had moved away from tenure systems to see what happened. The research design there was so basically flawed that the book really doesn't help. I don't much care what happens when Life Support College in East Briarpatch abolishes tenure for its fifteen faculty. That doesn't answer the question. (For the record, Chait found that abolishing tenure didn't matter much either way.) The real issue is systemic.

I'll take it farther. The dream of tenure motivates people to pile into overcrowded fields, thereby replenishing the reserve army of adjuncts made necessary by tenure's costs. (According to Freakonomics, drug dealing works by the same principle. Most dealers make below the minimum wage, all told, but they stick with it on the off-chance of becoming one of the conspicuous winners in a winner-take-all, tournament-style system. This strikes me as an undesirable parallel.)

A friend of mine applied for a position teaching history at NYU. NYU has a program, apparently, in which full-time faculty are hired on non-renewable three-year contracts to teach the gen ed evergreens. He complained that it was exploitative. I thought it was innovative, and actually admirable. The real alternative wouldn't be dream positions; it would be ever more adjuncts. I'm not wild about the 'non-renewable' part, but I would guess it's a way to get around the AAUP guidelines about the tenure clock. My preferred model would be full-time multi-year renewable contracts, with renewal premised on both performance and enrollments. Am I right to prefer it? I haven't yet seen a rigorous analysis that would convince me either way. It's a guess, and it could well be wrong.

But I'm tired of apologizing for a failing status quo. The existing system is broken; any serious conversation about it has to start from that premise. There's an inexorable pull to starve the evergreens to feed the seasonals. Do that long enough, and you're in for a nasty winter.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Faculty Websites

My college is considering hosting individual faculty webpages off our main webpage faculty directory. The idea is that anyone interested in finding out more about Professor Doe could click on her name, and the link would direct the viewer to Professor Doe's specific page.

Technically, this is no great shakes. Politically, it's a nightmare.

Some professors refuse to participate altogether, claiming that anything other than name, rank, and serial number violates their privacy. I find the position hard to fathom – a mailing of our master course schedule, with names attached to sections, goes out to every house in the county – but as with so many things, the reasonableness of a position is in inverse proportion to the fervency with which it's held.

To my mind, listing recent publications, areas of research interest, and, in certain disciplines or where it makes sense (like art), samples of professors' work should be no-brainers. The point of the exercise is to show off the high caliber of faculty we have, to entice students (and parents) who might not take us seriously otherwise (due to the cc stigma) to check us out. We have a strong faculty, so we might as well market that.

The complications ensue when we start moving from 'thin' to 'thick' content. Listing academic degrees and courses taught is pretty objective. Listing research interests is trickier, though presumably a word limit could prevent anybody from going too far off the deep end. Allowing broader open-ended statements, or links to external content, could bring some very ugly and sticky questions of endorsement.

Say a professor has a blog. (Unthinkable, I know, but bear with me.) If the professor's page on the college site includes a link to the blog, is the college implicitly endorsing the content of the blog? If so, does the college have the right to vet the content? If it is endorsing but has no right to vet content, then the college has no choice but to ban links altogether; the alternative is equivalent to giving professors blank checks on the college account. (This is one of the great many reasons that my blog is pseudonymous, and even has a disclaimer in the prefatory paragraph on top. I want to make absolutely certain that nobody mistakes my musings here for the official positions of my college.)

In a discussion with my department chairs, one kind-hearted soul suggested that we should go with the most open-ended format possible, subject to approval based on 'reasonableness.' I can't even imagine the legal questions that would raise. If my idea of 'reasonable' differs from somebody else's, which it would any time the content came into question, I'd be pushed quickly into an untenable first amendment corner. Since a cc is a public institution, we have to walk some fine lines with freedom of expression. Suppose a professor links to a page sponsored by and in praise of a fundamentalist religious group, or a political candidate, or radical environmentalists, or pick your poison – do we have the right to say no to that? If not, do we at least have the right to distance ourselves from it?

Ironically enough, the legally clean way around the free expression issues is to greatly restrict the venue in the first place. Once you allow some political speech, you have to allow pretty much all of it, and there are some folks who would push the limits just to make a point. Since we can't go around alienating our taxpayers, we have to prevent that kind of stuff from coming up altogether.

Even relatively simple things, like photographs, raise all manner of questions. Should the photos all be in the same format? If so, should the college hire a professional photographer? If we allow people to submit their own pictures, what do we do with silly and/or inappropriate ones? How do we define inappropriate in the first place? I get a headache just thinking about it.

If we could count on a general understanding that external links are exactly that – external – and reflect nothing other than the individual professor's taste, I wouldn't have a problem with them. But in this political climate, that's simply not a realistic assumption. Somebody is going to link to something that sets somebody else off, and it's off to the races. Given that netiquette is still evolving, and that my college and county have relatively high average ages and very conservative politics, I just can't be confident that everybody would read things in the spirit in which they're intended.

Does your college have individual faculty webpages? If so, how does it handle these issues?

Monday, November 27, 2006

Parent-Teacher Conference

Last Week, The Wife and I went to a parent-teacher conference with The Boy's kindergarten teacher.

TW and I actually high-fived as we left.

His teacher commented that he loves to read, and that his vocabulary is much richer and more expressive than most of his peers'. She asked how old he was when we started reading to him; TW commented that we have a photo of me reading The Runaway Bunny to him in the hospital the day after he was born (which is true). Our theory was that it doesn't really matter that infants don't understand what's being read to them; what matters is that they get lap time, they hear your voice and words, and they get used to being read to. By the time they're old enough to get something cognitive out of it, the emotional link is already there. We've done the same with The Girl, and she's already wild about books at age 2 ½. (She actually finishes sentences when we're reading books she knows. It's kind of unnerving. “George was...” “Curious!” Her attempts to pronounce “binoculars” (from Curious George Goes to the Beach) absolutely melt my heart.)

The teacher also commented that he's very considerate, liked by all, and very happy there.

I know TB is a great kid, and I know we've worked hard to prepare him and caught any number of lucky breaks, but it's still incredibly gratifying to hear praise like that from his teacher. He's really thriving at school, and he loves it there.

He's had plenty of preparation. Since TW worked until TG was born, TB was in daycare full-time from age four months to about age three. At three, we downshifted to a few days a week, mostly to save money. At four he went to our town's public four-year-old preschool program five half-days a week. By the time he got to kindergarten, school was old hat. I'm a little worried about TG in that respect – since TW has been home with her since birth, she hasn't had the same exposure to preschool. We'll start dipping a toe in the water next year, but those first few separations will be hard.

(The director of the daycare TB went to was wise beyond her years. She suggested to TW dropping him off about 15 minutes early on the first day, so she'd have time to cry in the car before driving off. Turned out to be a good call.)

I worry a little about his school. Property taxes in our town are levied on the “squeal like a pig” theory, and the town is fully built-out, so school funding pretty much is what it is. The district eliminated buses a few years ago, and the classes are a little bigger than I'd like. (TB's kindergarten has 24, with one teacher, a part-time aide, and two room Moms, one of whom is TW.) State aid is flat or declining, so, as with my cc, the school is doing the best it can with what it has. It's still in decent shape, but the future looks tough. The voters are (justifiably) cranky about continued tax increases, the school-age population is climbing, unfunded mandates drop from the sky like anvils, and we can't realistically expect a shopping mall to come along and generate new revenue.

I'm not asking the school to work miracles. I fully expect that TW and I will be TB's primary teachers for a while, and that the habits we try to inculcate at home will have a major bearing on how he does. That said, though, I want his school to be worthy of him. He's a smart, sweet, earnest kid who honestly wants to know all kinds of stuff. I want him to have that chance.

Friday, November 24, 2006

As Turkey Day Ended...

(actual conversation)

TW: What are you grateful for, Daddy?

DD: I'm grateful for Mommy, and TB, and TG. What are you grateful for, Mommy?

TW: I'm grateful for Daddy, and TB, and TG. What are you grateful for, TB?

TB: I'm grateful for Daddy, and Mommy, and TG, and...

(drops trou, moons me)



That's my boy!

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Happy Thanksgiving

The Girl's first word this morning: "Turkey!"


Best wishes,


Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Buried Treasure

Sometimes you win one.

Once at my previous college, and once again here, I've found someone who had been out of favor with a previous regime (or two) who actually had something positive left to contribute. In both cases, once I made an effort to pull them back in, they started making notable contributions to the institution.

It takes a few years to suss out who these folks are. It takes some intelligence-gathering, but also a good gut instinct, since much of what passes for information is, in fact, slanted. And more often than not, folks who've been exiled to Siberia have been exiled for a reason.

But there's something especially satisfying about finding buried treasure. It's a much milder version of proving an inmate innocent. Sometimes, folks have been exiled for personality conflicts, or because of long-forgotten political alignments, or for really unsavory reasons – race, sexual orientation, etc. After years of being dumped on, people with tenure but without political clout often just decide to keep their heads down, teach their classes, and nothing more. They don't lose their jobs, but they don't contribute as much as they could, either, since they've received messages to the effect that their contributions aren't welcome.

At Proprietary U, there was a wonderful professor who had been cast out to the academic hinterlands by succeeding administrations. She was one of the most senior people there, a lovely person, and a talented teacher, but she didn't fit the mold that a few deans had in mind as they built the program. They treated her like the red-headed stepchild of the program, to the point that most of the newer hires had never seen her any other way. When I moved into administration, I started trying to figure out why she had been cast out; I never did find a reason that made sense. Over the course of a few conversations with her, I made clear to her that, as far as I was concerned, her period of exile was over, and that I'd need her help if we were going to have a successful program.

It was one of my best moments as a manager. She blossomed, stepping up in parts of the program that really needed help and sharing the benefit of her experience with the rest of us. As she showed her real strengths, you could see the attitudes of some of the newer hires shift a bit; they simply didn't know she had it in her.

Recently, I've been able to replicate that success here. A professor who has been here for a very long time has been on the outs for the last ten years or so, for reasons lost to the sands of time. Again, I've sniffed around, trying to figure out if there's a rational reason for his exile, and I haven't found any. To the contrary; from all that I've seen, I've been impressed. Whatever drove the political winds back in the day just doesn't strike me as relevant (or even discernible) now.

Once I felt confident that his exile was unjustified, I started looking for the right role for him to step into to redeem his standing here. When one came along, I had to risk some serious capital with the VP to take a flyer on this guy, since the VP had also picked up on the lingering stigma. To the VP's credit, he let me try it, and the guy has really impressed. Even the VP has recently conceded that this was the right call, since the guy has been consistently and conspicuously hitting it out of the park in his new role.

Bringing someone good in from the cold is almost like making a new hire, only without the hit to the budget. The programs are stronger, morale is higher, and the not-too-subtle message goes out to other faculty that historical gossip (or favoritism) counts for a hell of a lot less than current performance. It's incredibly satisfying from a dean's perspective, since everybody wins. It's relatively rare, since it takes a special kind of stupid to waste a valuable resource for an extended period, but then, managerial stupidity is endlessly renewable. It's one of those really gratifying times when the morally right thing and the pragmatically right thing are the same thing. It isn't quite as good as actual hiring, but in this budget climate, I'll take it.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

The Tap on the Shoulder

This week I have to do one of my absolute least favorite parts of my job, which is to recruit a tenured faculty member to serve on a committee. Given that this is not a popular committee, and that the bylaws of this one require that the faculty member be tenured and of relatively long standing at the college, there is really no graceful way to do this.

We have any number of formal standing committees on campus, most of which are constituted by a dumbed-down version of John C. Calhoun's theory of concurrent majorities. Each committee has to have 'representation' from all kinds of campus stakeholders, with the proportions varying only somewhat according to the subject matter jurisdiction of the committee (so, for example, we have department secretaries on the curriculum committee).

I've tried asking a few folks directly, only to receive the 'hollow yes' followed by backing-out-by-email.

There's an episode of “Sex and the City” in which Carrie gets dumped via a post-it note; that's roughly how I feel about folks who back out by email.

I've tried asking department chairs for suggestions, but they react as if I'd asked them to sacrifice one of their children. Which, in a way, I have.

I could lurk in the hallways, rubbing my hands with glee and cackling maniacally, waiting to pounce on some unsuspecting denizen of the tenured warrens, but I'm pretty sure HR has regs about that sort of thing.

It's getting to the point where I'm starting to consider the kinds of measures typically used in The Boy's kindergarten class. Musical chairs is looking pretty good. “Everybody who thinks they're not on this committee, take a step forward. Not so fast, Johnson!” The cheese stands alone.

For all of the wringing of hands and gnashing of teeth about administrative overreach, it's incredibly hard to get tenured professors to serve on committees. Oscar Wilde once said of socialism that he would be a socialist, but he likes to keep his evenings free. The spirit of Wilde lives on, albeit frumpier and less witty.

Given just how senior the faculty is, most have long since developed immunity to appeals to civic virtue or the better angels of our nature. Administrative overreach strikes many as exactly the kind of problem that other people should get to work on immediately. By default, the 'good soldiers,' of whom there are several, are already overbooked, so I can't just go to them. I could always use scare tactics, threatening them with the consequence of having to live with decisions made by those who bothered to show up, but they seem to prefer waiting for bad decisions to happen and then filing grievances. I don't know why.


Any ideas out there?

Monday, November 20, 2006

The Holiday Shuffle

Since we're getting into holiday season again, I'm staring down the barrel of multiple long drives with the four of us stuffed into my little car for hours on end.

This gets old very quickly.

This weekend we did the first of many – 4 ½ hours there on Saturday, 4 ½ hours back on Sunday. Truth be told, we felt lucky to make it in only 4 ½ hours, since we usually hit at least one really nasty patch of construction that adds a good (bad) half hour. (Anybody who has driven on the East Coast can attest to the traffic.) Since the car is small and the children are young, we have to stuff it with carseats and young child paraphernalia, snacks, and whatever we can find to keep them entertained/distracted while we're moving. The Wife usually winds up with bags between her feet and a sore neck from constantly turning around to tend to whatever emergency cropped up this time.

The Boy and The Girl have developed their own very specific tastes in music, and they can get pretty demanding when they're bored and/or frustrated, so just keeping up with that is draining.

Although there aren't many of us in the extended family, each subunit of the family lives in a different state. None of the destinations are quite far enough to justify flying, but they're all too long to make driving really convenient. Even Amtrak doesn't really help, since it's only of value in going from city center to city center, and we all live in suburbs.

The holiday shuffle has changed over the years. In my teens and even into college, the big issue was seeing both parents (they're divorced) for the right amount of time. When they lived in separate and non-adjoining states, this was not a trivial challenge. (For an eerily accurate portrayal of a teen's-eye-view of 'amicable' divorce in the 1980's, see The Squid and The Whale. TW and I watched it at home a few weeks ago. When it was over, I held her for a long, long time.)

In grad school, affording to go anywhere at all was the issue. I recall a few times driving the Toyota Tercel up to Northern Town, hoping against hope that none of the failing systems would finally give out en route. The worst happened one year when the Tercel threw a rod almost exactly halfway between Northern Town and home. A week of rental car hell ensued. I still think I'm get time off purgatory for that one.

I also have an issue with the idiot who decided to put all the major holidays in blizzard season. Saturnalia, my ass. It's unsafe to put people on the highways for long distances in late December. There were treks to and from Northern Town on which I seriously wondered just what the hell I was doing on the road in the first place. Have you ever had to pull over on a major highway because the 18-wheeler in front of you kicked up so much slush on your windshield that it overpowered your wipers? I have. Have you ever driven 15 mph on a nearly-deserted highway because it was snowing sideways so intensely that you couldn't see well enough to go faster? Me, too.

Every so often, we think about buying something bigger to at least make the drive less cramped. (The Mazda5 looks sort of interesting – anybody out there have feedback on that?) But that would involve spending money we don't have right now, and it would only solve a peripheral problem.

When did entertaining the kids in the car become mandatory, anyway? I remember as a young kid spending many hours in the back seat of my Dad's Ford Maverick (Motto: “At least it's not a Pinto!”) on the way to one set of grandparents or the other, bored out of my mind. It built character, or something. Kids today...

I know I'm being churlish. In the grand scheme of things, it's wonderful that we have people worth driving to, and are soon to have even more. The visits themselves are worthwhile, and relationships require tending. As soon as my lower back stops hurting, I'll take the long view. Until then, I'll just be crabby and sore. The joys of pushing 40...

Friday, November 17, 2006

Joe Girardi and Managing Up

Joe Girardi, the recently-fired manager of the Florida Marlins, just won National League Manager of the Year. He was good enough to win manager of the year and bad enough to be fired at the same time.

This got me thinking.

Girardi's firing offense, such as it was, was an impatience with the team ownership. The owners took a micromanagement approach, encroaching on what Girardi thought was properly his job, and he took public umbrage. So the owners fired him, despite the obviously-outstanding job he did with a team that had remarkably limited resources.

(Whether Girardi deserved 'Manager of the Year' is another question. For the National League, I would have voted for Willie Randolph. But that's a quibble.)

Sometimes there's a real, direct, consequential conflict between what your superiors want and what's actually good for the organization.

When that happens, the folks in the middle have a terrible choice. Comply with the silliness out of short-term self-preservation, pick battles selectively, comply outwardly but disobey below the radar, or pull a Girardi and follow your own sense of what's right, consequences be damned. Or leave.

Most of the management books out there are written from the point of view of a CEO. To me, that's a copout. It's easy to be bold when you have the autonomy to act. The real story of management, to my mind, is what to do when you're in the middle, and those above you are getting some really fundamental things fundamentally wrong.

At my previous college, this happened almost daily. Proprietary U was shrinking fast during the last year or so I was there, so it was in full-on panic mode. Since it was essentially built on the corporate model, dictats would come down from Home Office, and the job of local management was to execute them. The catch was that Home Office lived in its own little world, completely divorced from Objective F-ing Reality (OFR). As the insanity ramped up, I switched among the first three strategies for coping as circumstances and my energy level warranted. Eventually, it got to be too much, and I left for this job.

There's a fundamental disconnect between the skills of a loyal soldier and the skills of a leader – this is what strikes me as the glaring, tragic flaw of the corporate and military models. A loyal soldier does what he's told. If the brass wants to take the company to hell in a handbasket, your job is to get it there as quickly as possible. I think of it as the Eichmann defense, albeit in a vastly milder context. Upon rising to leadership, someone who has always blindly followed orders is suddenly expected to start seeing, and acting on, the big picture. A few do, but most don't. The fate of older, bureaucratized corporations is usually to slow to a crawl as loyal soldiers are promoted above their competence.

When the loyal soldiers climb too high, they typically fall prey to one of two pathologies: either they just maintain tradition and hope for the best, since that's what got them there in the first place, or they adopt the shiny new fad of the moment out of a desire to do something new that's still safe. What they don't do is think seriously and strategically about the long term, since they've never had to before and they simply don't know how. When threatened, they regress to the behavior they know best, which is fear-based reacting.

Girardi presents the opposite problem. He's a very good long-term thinker reporting (until recently) to an egotistical micromanager.

It's possible, in some cases, for the Girardis of the world to get by on a combination of people skills, guile, and discretion, until they finally reach a level where they have the autonomy they want or find something else to do. More often, though, they're driven away, blamed internally for being arrogant and externally for failing to 'manage up.'

Have you found a good strategy for 'managing up'?

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Why Blog?

Some of my favorite bloggers have been addressing the 'why blog' question lately, so I thought I'd chime in.

Blogging pseudonymously allows me to be much more truthful, and to many more people, than I can be in real life. Dean Dad can make it plain in a way that Dean Myname can't.

I like to write, but my job and life don't allow for sustained attention to a research project. Bite-size blog entries, though, can fit in the interstices of a life spent managing and parenting.

Blogging lets me stay connected to academics of my own generation (and younger!). This is not realistically possible on my campus, or in my day-to-day life.

On the blog, I can think out loud without inadvertently sending what some would hear as coded political signals.

I enjoy reading others' blogs, and feel a moral obligation to keep up my end of the deal.

Like Ginsberg, I have seen the best minds of my generation fucked up the ass, only in my case, it was by economics. I'm not much of a howler, so I blog. If my blogging dissuades some good people from jumping into the sausage grinder, I will have accomplished something.

In a very conservative county, I'm starved for intelligent liberalism. Academic bloggers are awfully good at that.

I get tired of some of the myths about administration that I read in grad student/faculty blogs and remember from my own grad student/faculty days.

To a classically-trained academic, there's something absolutely intoxicating about the “Publish This!” button. I never get tired of clicking on that.

In the words of Billy Bragg, “if no one out there understands, start your own revolution and cut out the middleman.” There's something incredibly exciting going on in the academic blogosphere, and dammit, I want to be in on it. We bloggers are actually shifting the conversation. One of my recurring fantasies is to attend and participate in a regional academic bloggers' conference. Putting people to author-functions would be a real hoot. The DIY aesthetic of blogging strikes me as refreshing and desperately needed.

It's fun.

I've learned quite a bit through the exchanges with commenters and the conversations around the “Ask the Administrator” entries. When I get bogged down in administrivia, the intellectual stimulation of blogging is no small attraction.

The chicks, man...

At this point, I feel like I'm pretty good at it. There's a pride of craft in putting new stuff out there five days a week, knowing that at least a few of them are pretty good. Calvin Trillin calls himself the deadline poet; I think of myself as a deadline blogger. Besides, in middle management, most of your job satisfaction has to be vicarious. This, I can do myself.

My fellow bloggers – why do you blog?

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Fun with the Budget Director

BD: In the past, any savings from retirements stayed in academic affairs, forming the contingency for unanticipated expenses. Now, those savings will revert to the general fund.

DD (hopefully): So we should just replace people, then.

BD: No, that's a false savings. Switching to adjuncts is cheaper for the college as a whole, even if it doesn't show up in your budget.

DD: But the adjuncts do show up in my budget.

BD: That's correct.

DD: So when someone retires and doesn't get replaced, the college saves money, but my budget takes the hit for the new adjunct courses?

BD: Well, no. Your budget should get reimbursed the cost of adjuncts from the general fund.

DD: I haven't seen that.

BD: Me, neither.


DD: You know, since I've been here, 12 faculty have left, and we've hired six.

BD: That sounds right.

DD: It is. And the college is still looking for money to offset its deficits.

BD: Correct.

DD: What will the college do when it runs out of people to replace?

(sound of crickets)

DD: I mean, if shrinking the faculty is the only strategy we have to balance the books, we'll hit the limits of that awfully fast, don't you think?

(tumbleweed blows gently in the breeze)

DD: Is there some sort of long-term plan to turn this around?

(thousand-yard stare)

DD: Oh.

I have a bad feeling about this...

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

In Praise of Group Meetings

Once in a while, an idea emerges almost inductively from a group meeting that almost certainly would not have emerged from a series of one-on-ones.

My chairs have been a little out-of-sorts this semester, both individually and as a group. Even the most even-keeled ones just haven’t been quite right lately, but I couldn’t put my finger on the reason.

We had a meeting yesterday that I thought would be fairly brief and pedestrian – a quick run-through of a few logistical things, and everyone leaves early. Nope.

In the course of what I thought would be a very quick gloss of agenda item six, which I considered unremarkable in itself, one of my smartest and most level-headed chairs had a complete meltdown. That was surprising enough, but it was compounded when her colleagues joined her.

As the group meltdown progressed, they started connecting issues – some valid, some shaky – that I had considered unconnected. They fed off each other, until one of them found a common theme underlying the disparate issues. When that happened, they started echoing each other.

At that point, I tried repeating their refrain back to them, to make sure I got it right. Once we agreed on what was bothering them, I fell silent for a while as they elaborated variations on the theme. I took copious notes, interrupting only when something was either unclear or patently false. Before we adjourned, I thanked them for connecting those dots for me, and for being as candid as they were.

I don’t know if I’ll be able to solve the issue, or even how or when to address it. It’s pretty fundamental, and far too inflammatory to blog about in any detail. (I also can’t say I agree with them on every count.) But at least now it has a generally definable shape. I have some sense of why they’ve been so edgy, and of why they’ve (in my mind) wildly overreacted to what were really some pretty ordinary things. If they and I got it right, I should be able to predict a little more accurately what’s going to set them off. Best case, I might even be able to shift some frames of reference in some other offices to avoid needless drama (conceding that some drama will always be necessary).

This wouldn’t have happened if we hadn’t met as a group.

In retrospect, a few conditions were necessary: we had to be all in the same place at the same time, we had to have enough respect for each other to speak freely, and I had to be willing to shut the hell up and toss my planned agenda when we obviously went off the rails. (For some reason, the ability to shut the hell up and listen is remarkably rare in both management and faculty ranks.)

The next part is even harder: figuring out how to package it to other parts of the college, to try to preserve what’s of value in their collective insight without tarring anybody (including myself) as merely negative. It won’t be easy. But at least know I know there is a next part.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Tom Toles Nails It

No Sheep

Sunday night, at the dinner table:

The Wife: TB, Daddy and I have a conference with your teacher next week. She'll tell us all about how well you're doing at school.

The Boy: At listening?

TW: Yes, and reading, and math, and being nice to your friends.

TB: And listening?

TW: Yes, and we know you're doing really well.

TB: At listening?

TW: What is the fixation with listening? School is more than listening. We don't want you to be a sheep.

The Girl (sweetly): No sheep.

DD: (muffled laugh)

TW shoots me the “you're not helping” look.

TB: Sheep?

TW: You shouldn't just take orders. School is about learning.

TB: Learning to listen?


I shouldn't worry. TB and I had a good conversation about that on Saturday.

TB: I wish I was six.

DD: Why?

TB: 'Cause if I was older, I'd know more. I want to learn things faster! I'm tired of not knowing things!

That's my boy. No sheep here.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Execution and Audibles

It's a little thing, in itself, but it speaks volumes.

Last Spring, in consultation with the faculty senate, we agreed to shift a semesterly deadline. The discussion started within the administration, but when we floated trial balloons, we found widespread support for it. We consulted with faculty, proposed it formally, and got it passed after healthy discussion. Hearty congratulations all around.

This Fall, I noticed that the deadline didn't change.

I checked the notes from the Spring meeting, to make sure my memory was correct. It was.

I started asking around. What happened? Why didn't it move?

After the initial “yeah, that sounds familiar..” and “did we really do that?” and “hmm,” it became clear that the problem was that it crossed jurisdictions, and no one person was in charge of getting it done. So nobody did, and the separate silos of the organization just kept doing what they've always done.

Now, of course, it's too late to get it moved for this semester. In fact, we plan so far ahead that by the time it gets included in the next plan, we probably will have lost a year.

Sometimes planning is actually the enemy of execution.

In football, sometimes the quarterback notices that the defense is lining up in a way that would likely thwart the play originally announced in the huddle. When that happens, he “calls an audible,” meaning he yells out a new play at the line of scrimmage to adjust to the defense. (Peyton Manning goes so far as to do a 'chicken dance,' adding to the entertainment value for the fans.) Audibles don't always work, of course, but the idea is that sometimes you run into an unanticipated hurdle and need to adjust on the fly.

When you plan everything a year in advance, and delegate execution to fifteen different silos, and insist on consulting anybody and everybody, it's impossible to call audibles. If the plan falls flat, so be it.

It's frustrating on a number of levels. Any call for empowering somebody to call audibles would immediately be taken as an assault on shared governance, as if there's no discretion in execution. And the ideals that stand in the way are, in themselves, good: wide involvement, respect for jurisdictional boundaries, transparency of procedure. In the abstract, they've hard to argue against. The counterargument to the 'audibles' model is easy to conjure: 'discretion' is a blank check, this is a naked power grab, you people should have done it right the first time, etc. There's enough truth in each of those, separately and together, that they can't just be dismissed.

But it's silly to assume that a plan either has to be perfect and complete at the outset, or killed. The kind of continuous improvement that serious organizations strive for is based on a recursive pattern, in which quick feedback brings adjustments, which brings new feedback, which brings new adjustments, and so on. Our procedures are designed almost perfectly to defeat that, even if for all the right reasons. If the initial plan turns out to be flawed, there's always next year – if we're quick – or the year after that. Assuming we remember.

There's a copious literature on making change in large organizations, but it's almost all based on the private sector, where criteria for success are clearer, a competitive market is a given, and it's at least permissible to tie pay to performance. Academia is a different ballgame. If you called a quarterback sneak and the defense is stacked at the line, well, tough. Plow forward anyway, and try not to drop the ball. It's your fault for not calling it right in the first place.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Ask the Administrator: Preferring Idiots

A director of a career services office writes:

We have an opening for a career counselor position. I've talked to a number of people and forwarded with a recommendation a person who has more experience than me in career counseling. He's trained career counselors; he's written books about it; he's got a PhD. The dean doesn't want him. The dean complained that my candidates for career counseling positions have experience career counseling. . . . I kid you not. He wants me to look for other candidates.

Do you suppose that he'd hire a physicist for the economics department? Or how about an architect for accounting? Does this make any sense to you?

Yes and no. It could make sense in the presence of other variables, none of which help you.

A few possibilities leap to mind. First, the dean might already have someone in mind for the position, but knowing that his 'pet' candidate isn't all that strong, he has to tank the upfront search to make his choice plausible.

Second, the dean might not want to fund the position at all, but rather than being upfront about it, might find it politically easier to just nitpick each candidate until you just give up. If this is the case, then I'd nominate your dean for 'moron' status. There are much better ways to do business.

Third, this position might have been unofficially designated somewhere as an affirmative action hire, so you'll have to keep going until you find someone who allows them to check off the desired box. If this is the case, there's not much to be done about it, though I would expect the dean to give some sort of hint about which box is desired.

Fourth, the dean might fear 'flight risk' from a strong candidate. If there have been multiple recent departures, he might be spooked about people leaving, so he'd avoid anybody that anybody else would want (that is, anybody who's conspicuously qualified). On the upside, you could expect loyalty from the new hire. On the downside, the new hire will probably suck, at least at first.

Fifth, and probably the likeliest, the dean might want to be able to lowball on salary, and assumes (probably correctly) that anybody well-qualified wouldn't accept a low salary. Somebody who's just grateful for an incredible break, on the other hand, might be willing to accept a lowball offer.

Finally, your dean might just be a blithering idiot. I prefer to treat this as a 'residual' explanation; that is, don't resort to it until all else has failed. It tends to short-circuit understanding, since there's really no understanding a blithering idiot. That's not to say it's never true, just that you shouldn't go to it too quickly.

One of my continuing frustrations in administration is that I keep seeing very intelligent, savvy, hardworking people making boneheaded decisions. (I've worked under enough different regimes at this point to have some comparative perspective on this.) Often, a boneheaded decision reflects some underlying variable to which you don't have access. Sometimes it reflects personal connections and/or weaknesses (family ties, personal loyalties, blind spots generally). And yes, sometimes it's just a brain cramp. Usually, though, if a smart person gets called on a brain cramp, s/he'll admit it.

I've heard worse. A friend of mine at a department in the midwest reported that one faculty search almost wound up hiring the candidate everybody acknowledged as weaker, just to screw over the faction within the department that the candidate would join. Cooler heads eventually prevailed, but it was close, and it took a fight.

I'm suspicious of any manager who always has to be the smartest one in the room. As a manager, if you don't have the self-confidence to hire people smarter than you, you're in the wrong job.

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

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Two Words I've Wanted to Say to Rick "Man-on-Dog" Santorum Since 1994



Damn, that felt good.

So this is what it feels like to open a can of electoral whoop-ass! No wonder Republicans are always so giddy.

It's time to get to work preparing a big #*%#%)#% can opener for 2008.

Ask the Blogosphere: Warning Professors about Absences

A cc student asked me to get feedback from the active faculty out there on the following:

I am an adult student in my final year of CC and will graduate with an AA degree in May. Next semester I am taking two night classes which each meet once per week. Unfortunately I will be out of town the first week of classes. I am considering my options, but am extremely nervous about consulting my potential professors regarding this. I am an avid reader of academic blogs (hoping to become a professor myself someday), and it seems many professors do not take kindly to these types of "issues" in regards to their students.

If I knew any students in the classes, I would ask them to fill me in, but since it's the first night, I don't have any "study buddies" yet. So here are the options as I see them (I cannot change my travel schedule):

#1) Email the professors now and let them know that I am excited about taking their class next semester, even though I am not happy about needing to miss that first week. I would then ask if they would be willing to mail me any materials handed out the first class (such as a syllabus) and advise me of any assignments due that following week, so I would be able to turn them in on time when I return. I would, of course, provide them with a SASE to do this.

#2) Call the professors on the phone and continue with #1.

#3) Go to the professor's office hours, and proceed with #1 and #2. In the case of at least one of the two professors, I would need to take time off work to do so - not a simple prospect in my line of work.

#4) Do not inform the professors of anything, and just show up to the second class unprepared and completely clueless about what happened the previous week. Then bug them asking for a syllabus and such.

How does the blogosphere of professors suggest I proceed? Would any of these be offensive, or just slightly annoying. Would any of these be welcome? Somehow I doubt it.

If it makes any difference, I have a 4.0, am very serious about school, etc. Blah, blah, blah.......

For my money, option 4 is the most common and least desirable way to go. Options 2 and 3 strike me as within reason. Option 1 isn’t awful, but it’s kind of impersonal. If I were on the receiving end of a letter like that, I’d want to talk with the student directly.

Whatever you do, don’t miss a class, go incommunicado, then waltz in and ask “did I miss anything?” That’s like fingernails on a chalkboard to an instructor. In a fit of pique, I once answered it “No. We sat on our hands for the entire class period, waiting for you.”

Although different personalities handle it differently, I tend to be more inclined to cut slack when the absence is announced well in advance. Excuses after the fact just aren’t as convincing, most of the time.

Professors of the blogosphere – what do you think?

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Candor Day

I have my share of weird and sick fantasies, most of which I won't blog about. But there's one that I think could actually be socially constructive, as well as psychologically healthy: Candor Day.

Candor Day would be one day each year when truly free speech would reign; it would be an 'off the record' day during which raw truth could be told. Speech on Candor Day would be given a free pass legally, like Congressional immunity. It would be the day on which the usual layers of etiquette would be suspended, and actual truth would roam free. It would 'ground' the meanings underneath the usual bureaucratic phrasings, so people wouldn't get too terribly lost in euphemisms.

For example, for one day a year, this:

Mike, I have some concerns based on some student reports about you missing class. Please drop by so we can clear this up.

could become this:

Mike, you lazy sack of shit, show up for your damn job. Christ, if not for tenure, I would have fired your sorry ass long ago.

Much better. This way, Mike actually knows what's going on, and knows that I know, too.

In a way, Candor Day would simply level the playing field. For tenured faculty, every day is Candor Day. For one day a year, it would be nice for administrators to enjoy similar impunity. Hell, it might even provide an incentive for tenured folk to think a minute before popping off the rest of the year, since they'd actually run the risk of getting a fraction of it back.

It would prove useful for any number of issues. For example, classroom observations. This:

Prof. X's lecture was wide-ranging and allusive

could become this:

Prof. X went wildly off-topic for most of the class. I suspect he missed a pill again, the smug bastard. He's a tragic waste of a six-figure salary, and who wears black suits with brown shoes, anyway?

Much better!

Or this:

Steve, I share your concerns about the time involved in adapting to ever-shifting web platforms, but we really have to do what's best for the students...

could become this:

Steve, quit whining and try working for a living. You'd last ten minutes in the real world. And don't even get me started on the factual errors in your lectures...

Finally, this chestnut:

Sam, I know you're no fan of committee work, but we really need your input...

would become:

Sam, I already have faculty who only teach classes and go home. They're called “adjuncts.” Hint, hint.

Speaking truth to power is easy. I'd like to speak truth to tenure.

How might Candor Day work for you?

(Closed-caption for the irony-challenged: this is venting for comic effect. It is not a serious proposal. Please spare me the indignant flaming. Thank you.)

Monday, November 06, 2006

Charlie Brown and the Football

No electoral fraud this time! Nope, this time will be different! The Republicans couldn't possibly steal another one!

Run run run...



IHE had a piece last week about how long it takes for states' funding of higher ed to return to pre-recession levels after a recession ends. The gist of the report is that for the last twenty-five years or so, each post-recession recovery ends at a slightly lower level than the previous one in most states, with the net result that most states have cut their higher ed funding in real terms over the years. The effects on, say, faculty hiring are utterly predictable.

Why would this be?

For all of the conspiracy theories I've heard (It's an attack on critical thought! It's the religious right out to get liberal academics!), the easiest explanation still strikes me as the most persuasive: unlike most other agencies of the state, we have alternate revenue sources. We charge tuition.

Looking at the cost items facing state and local governments, very few offer alternative revenue sources. There's a limit, politically, to how many speeding tickets and parking tickets can be issued. Prisons aren't exactly self-sustaining, and the incarceration binge of the last 25 years has taken its toll on state and local government budgets. The K-12 system doesn't charge tuition. Most public parks are free. Most roads don't charge tolls (especially once you get off the East Coast). The health sector consumes ever-more-resources, both upfront (public employee benefits) and through the back door (paying for emergency treatment for the uninsured, medicaid/medicare, etc.). Public colleges and universities are among the few agencies of the state (or county) that have substantial sources of outside revenue.

During tough times, we get cut because they aren't about to let prisoners out or shut down kindergartens (and rightly so). During better times, we get some funding restored, but the faster-than-inflation rates of growth in prison populations and health-care costs squeeze us. So we get told to find other ways to stay afloat, then incur the public wrath for seemingly out-of-control tuition increases.

Absent some strikingly far-sighted public leadership and/or a long economic boom, it's hard to imagine what would reverse this trend. Add to this trend the well-known rigidities of academia (tenure) and the less-well-understood quirk of academia and healthcare that we have to incorporate technology whether it improves productivity or not, and you get a bleak financial picture.

Last week I attended yet another of those circular-table chicken-in-white-sauce events in which Very Important Figures get together to 'network' and listen to Even More Important Figures talk about The World Today. (One of the speakers was a very well-known politician for whom I have voted more than once. He gave possibly the worst, least-organized speech I've ever seen a public figure give. I was embarrassed for him.) The most interesting speaker was an economist from one of the major banks. She did a presentation on the keys to economic development in this region, and it was revealing to see what 'counted' and what didn't. She dwelled extensively on tax rates, business regulations, and the cost of living. Left unmentioned were Richard Florida's “3 t's” of technology, talent, and tolerance.

Nobody commented on her choices. They seemed to be received as if they were all common sense, which, in a way, they are, and that's the problem.

If tax rates were all-determining, then I'd expect to see New York City circling the drain and Jackson, Mississippi thriving. Boston would be dying and Little Rock exploding. Well, no.

There's an economic development case to be made for higher ed that goes beyond 'training the high-tech workforce' and 'technology incubators,' although those both have value. Places like Madison and Ann Arbor thrive not just because they attract federal funding, although that's certainly not to be sneezed at. They also attract young people with ambition because they see action there. The upper reaches of higher ed are a kind of regional bait for talented, ambitious young people. (Imagine Boston without colleges!) The lower echelons of higher ed, such as community colleges, are great assets for workforce development and low-cost access to transfer courses; in some states, cc's are consciously used as feeders for the state four-year systems, since we're cheaper. All of higher ed helps attract (and/or keep) talented young people in an area. Without that, the best a region can do is coast on capital, which is getting harder as technological change accelerates.

Economic development helps pay for all those other public goods over the long run, but at a short-term cost. As we slough more of that short-term cost off onto students, I'm concerned that we'll have to start watering-down what we do to meet what they can afford. As that happens, we lose our reason to exist.

I don't have an easy answer to this one. Perversely, the main consolation is that there's a limit to how low budget cuts can go. As the government's share of a college's budget goes lower and lower, the prospective future damage of additional cuts starts to become, well, finite. We've had our state support cut, again, and it hurts. But the more it drops, the less relevant it becomes. At some point, given current trends, state government won't be able to cut us any more, because its support will be zero. (Some colleges in some states have already started talking about emancipating themselves in a sort of academic secession.) I think a state would be insane to let that happen, but that doesn't mean it won't.

Recessions are short, but the payoff from higher ed shows up over time. We need to find ways to make that clear, rather than just diluting our product until there's no gain to show.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Glamour and Amplified Virtue: Fumbling Towards a Thought

One of my favorite writers noted, back in the late 1940's, that when 'glamour' attaches to a phenomenon, we can expect two simultaneous and seemingly-contradictory developments: greater attention paid to those who do it 'well,' and fewer people doing it. The higher levels of performance to which we're exposed as spectators actually work to discourage participation, since most of us don't sound as good as Pavarotti or look as good as Angelina Jolie.

I'm beginning to think there's something to this.

Start with the increasing distance between what celebrities look like and what the rest of us look like. At a time when Americans are, statistically speaking, fatter than we've ever been, our celebrities are almost scarily thin. At a time when Americans are less physically active than we've ever been, our athletes are becoming freakishly large and strong. (During the World Series, which the wrong team won, I saw a few clips of games from the 70's and 80's, and was struck by how much smaller the players were then. And it wasn't all that long ago, evolutionarily speaking.) It's like we outsource our physical pulchritude to a small cluster of people, at whom we spend much of our time staring.

Now comes a study showing that dramatically-increased access to porn, especially for teenagers, brings dramatically decreased incidents of rape. (Intriguingly, weekends for which the highest-grossing movie was especially violent had lower rates of violent crime than weekends for which the highest-grossing movie wasn't violent. This strikes me as much the same phenomenon.)

If anything, I think the study stops too soon. Rape isn't the only variable that's dropping. Teen pregnancy rates, early first marriage, abortion rates, and single-parenthood rates are also dropping. More strikingly, the more 'secular' the state, the greater the decline in each of these categories. 'Blue' states have lower divorce rates than 'red' states, with 'liberal' Massachusetts among the lowest and Bible-belt Mississippi among the highest. With greater toleration of different choices comes fewer bad choices. It's almost as if forbidden fruit is somehow harder to resist.

I've noticed, anecdotally, that preachers' kids and psychologists' kids are usually messed up. The kinkiest sex scandals almost always happen to family-values Republicans. (Compared to Mark Foley, Bill Clinton was almost pedestrian. And check out Pennsylvania's Don Sherwood!) In the early 90's, something similar happened in England, with some really weird sex scandals breaking out among the most self-righteous Tories. You know who our only divorced President was? Reagan.

Even on a much more quotidian level, I've noticed that the people who bloviate the loudest about 'integrity' are almost always the most malicious practitioners of office politics.

It isn't just the greater appeal of 'man bites dog' stories, either. Any particular celebrity might be explained that way, but statewide statistics can't be.

Thinking about the people I've known whose morality or ethics I've most admired, I don't think any of them ever got on a high horse about it. Those who walk the walk seem to feel less need to talk the talk. Those who get swept up in the talk usually need to be.

I think this is why I react so negatively terms like “values voters” or “people of faith.” It seems to me that someone who has to identify as a “person of faith” is compensating pretty hard. There's a brittleness to that kind of amplified virtue, which is probably why it's nearly impossible to engage folks like that in actual debate. The slightest attack, and the whole edifice crumbles.

There's a wisdom in a certain kind of liberalism. It's easy to have self-control when there isn't any other option; the problem is that temptations always manage to sneak around corners. Real self-control consists in maintaining your balance when temptations are plainly present. Balance isn't the same as total purity; I try to eat reasonably well, most of the time, but I'll admit to a sweet tooth. The trick is in not fetishizing sweets as The Devil, because once you do, it's just a matter of time before you cave completely and wind up like Kirstie Alley. (For present purposes, I'll draw a distinction between the devil and Kirstie Alley.) If eating a cookie is falling from grace, you can bet that you'll scarf the whole row. Sometimes a cookie is just a cookie.

It takes a certain maturity to accept that there's an admirable and worthwhile space between 'abstinence' and 'Keith Richards,' but there is. And in real life, that space is where most people are, most of the time. Values, to me, consist in acknowledging the reality of temptations, negotiating one's own way through them, and maintaining one's own integrity all the while. Faith consists in believing that you'll make it through, and/or that your kids will. Wisdom consists in still going to the gym, even after accepting the fact that six-pack abs simply ain't gonna happen. In a values-voter mindset, if I don't look like Brad Pitt, there's no point in exercising at all. In the real world, that's crap. In a values-voter mindset, it's a fast slide from seeing porn to committing rape; in the real world, the correlation is actually negative.

It's hard to embrace the messy and uncertain real world over the clean and easy prepackaged virtues. I can see the glamour, the temptation, of certainties, and yes, sometimes I fall prey to a few of them myself. (I can be quite dogmatic about driving techniques, say, or getting places on time.) But resisting the siren call of certitude takes a kind of faith, one more demanding than just passing judgment on other people. It involves being willing to exercise when you know you'll never Be Like Mike, being willing to look the other way when people make what seem like glaring mistakes, and taking comfort in knowing that you can, and often will, be wrong about what won't work. Celebrities can be fun to watch, but there's work to do.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Getting Off the List

In the comments to the “Everybody Knows” post last week, someone asked about how to get off the “Problem” list when Everybody Knows (incorrectly) that you belong on it.

I've been mulling that one over for a while. It's a tough one.

The easiest piece of advice is to periodically act against type, and then call attention to it. For example, since I'm considerably younger than most of my faculty, some of them assume that I automatically prefer younger candidates for faculty positions. I don't, so when we hire someone relatively senior (40's or 50's, typically), I point it out, albeit indirectly. (Prof. X comes to us from Wherever State, where he taught for 11 years in the Opacity Department.) When we do the introductions of new faculty at the start of each semester, I make a point of highlighting whatever information would give a clue that I'm acting against type. Having done that several times now, I've noticed that the presumption that I'm all about age discrimination is fading.

Calling attention is the hard part. One of the reasons that many faculty assume that most academic administrators are knuckle-dragging, mouth-breathing morons (other than its sometime truth) is that we're often spread too thin to notice everything. I don't have the luxury of attending only to my own classes or my own discipline; I have to keep tabs on folks in disciplines about which I know little to nothing. This is true of any administrator above the level of department chair, and, in some disciplines, sometimes even at the chair level. (My languages department teaches languages that the chair doesn't speak.) Since the administrative field of vision has to be broader, it is often shallower.

The mistake that many people make is in allowing themselves to get swift-boated. As long-suffering Democrats no doubt recall, John Kerry allowed some ridiculous charges to go largely un-rebutted for an extended period in the summer of 2004, sustaining serious damage to his campaign. If you think of being on the Bad List as being swift-boated, learn from Kerry's failure. Respond early and often. If you accomplish something good (especially if its counter to the stereotype of you), don't assume that it speaks for itself. Most times, it doesn't. Call attention to it, and frame it as you want it framed. Yes, there is such a thing as too much self-promotion, but I've found most academics err on the side of too little. (Easy visual clue if you're doing too much: watch for eye-rolling.)

The more frustrating case is when a trait that you perceive as a virtue is taken as a failing. I'm a relatively soft-spoken sort, and there have been times when that has been held against me. I can't really argue with the description – it's true and pretty obvious – but I do take issue with the way it's sometimes interpreted. Some people naively equate volume with passion, and assume that softspoken is another word for 'indifferent.' These people are wrong, but the assumption sometimes runs so deep that there's no realistic hope of changing their minds.

When that happens, you have to make some decisions. Sometimes you can point out successes that wouldn't be expected if your shortcoming was actually a shortcoming; once in a while, that can work. Sometimes you can just plow forward. And sometimes, in the worst cases, you have to start looking for another place to work.

Another variation is the demographic inference. If you're a white guy, some will take your employment as further evidence, as if any more were needed, that the institution is racist, sexist, and plugged into an old-boy network. If you're anything other than a white guy, some will take your employment as further evidence, as if any more were needed, that the institution is in thrall to the diversity police, political correctness run amok, etc. In either case, the common denominator is that you will be blamed for being who you are.

In dealing with this one, I've found a two-pronged strategy most effective. Take the high road, and assume that there will always be a bitter and nasty remnant who will hate you for breathing. Do the job as best you can, be fair, listen to people's complaints, and show that, whatever the circumstances of your hire, you're damn good at your job. It's hard to argue with that. (At my previous college, when I first crossed over into administration, a feminist professor who worked there for about ten minutes told me, to my face, that I would do well in the organization because I'm a white guy. What do you say to that? It's sort of like when Pat Schroeder ran for President in the 1980's, and a reporter asked her why she was running 'as a woman.' She responded that she didn't know there was another option.) Define 'success' as proving to any fair-minded person that you're good at what you do, and accept the frustrating reality that not everybody is fair-minded.

Wise readers – have you found an effective strategy for getting off the list?

Wednesday, November 01, 2006


The Boy and The Girl have been looking forward to Halloween since the summer. Starting sometime around July, any time one of us would ask The Girl what she wanted to be for Halloween, she'd meow. She was admirably consistent, so we went for it. The packaged kittycat costumes for little girls in stores and catalogs were generally much too vampy, so The Wife put together a great cat costume for her, with matching black velour top and bottom, white ruffle at the neck and wrists, a tail, and ears worn like deelyboppers. She also did some face painting, blackening her nose and adding whiskers.

The Boy decided pretty early on to be a race car driver. (I think seeing the movie Cars clinched it.) So, defeating any stereotype of the brie-eating, latte-drinking academic family, we got him a Tony Stewart-NASCAR ensemble, in the orange Home Depot colors.

I took the afternoon off so I could make it to TB's school for the Kindergarten Halloween parade. The kids and teachers dressed up and did a circular march outside the building while the parents beamed with pride and pointed cameras at everything. TB was clearly the tallest kid in the entire Kindergarten (over 100 kids), and, in my objective and unbiased opinion, also the best-looking. Judging by the parade, the big news this year in 5-year-old Halloween fashion was Mr. Incredible, Supergirl, Batman, and princesses. TB's evil sidekick dressed as a John Deere tractor, which was much cooler than it sounds; his Mom had assembled a tractor out of boxes, then spray-painted it and affixed bumper stickers. She also fashioned a carrier for it out of his younger sister's stroller.

We're lucky to have found a few other families locally with kids the same ages as TB and TG, so we've formed a little posse. The posse assembled at 5:30 for trick-or-treating. Six adults, six kids, two strollers, a NASCAR driver, a kittycat, a Tigger, a My Little Pony, a cowboy, and a Care Bear. (The John Deere tractor was vetoed at the last minute as being too likely to lead to a face-plant when encountering uneven pavement. Good call, I say.) The posse assembled at the home of TB's girlfriend (Tigger), and marched around her neighborhood. It's a classic suburban grid with sidewalks and competitive outdoor lighting display and annoying teenagers who ignore the “no trick-or-treating after puberty” rule that all well-bred people understand intuitively.

If you've never done it, there's something priceless about watching the scrum of two-to-five year olds approach a door for treats. TG was consistently the last one to get there, trundling determinedly and plaintively saying “me, too!” She stood her ground, though, and usually got something. TB and TG were both on their good behavior, as were the other kids, though there was a constant tension between minding manners (saying 'thank you' at each door) and blowing off kid-energy on Halloween (the spirited choruses of 'trick or treat, smell my feet' between houses). Cowboy/John Deere started inventing verses to add to the 'trick or treat, smell my feet' song, mostly involving underwear, which sent TB over the edge. I could tell it made an impression, because when I read him stories before bed, he asked when we could start reading the Captain Underpants series. (Very soon, btw.)

The posse is close enough, and the kids comfortable enough, that it was a tossup which kid's hand you were holding at any given moment. It may or may not take a village, but having a cluster of parents watch a cluster of kids is much easier than just having Mom and Dad watch their own. The kids played off each other, allowing the parents to drop the draining man-to-man defense and instead play the zone. The interpersonal dynamics of the kids are fun to watch in their own right. Cowboy has a crush on TG, which he acts on by being disarmingly sweet to her. TB and Tigger have pretty much coupled up. TG is sort of the mascot of the group, since she's younger than Care Bear and Little Pony. Tigger always keeps an eye on TG, and of course any time you mix three sibling relationships with a night out, holiday excitement, and sugar, there's bound to be some energy.

I don't envy TB's teacher on the day after Halloween. If TB is any indication, those kids will be completely wiped. But in a good way.

The night was tiring, and a little overlong. We were all pretty much exhausted when we got home, and I'll admit to being a little curt with the 17-year-old trick-or-treaters who came by at 8:30 in nothing resembling costumes. But this is the good stuff. I remember having a great time on Halloween as a kid, and I want my kids to have that, too. TB is quite the little gentleman, for his age, and TG is cuter than allowed by law. They had a blast, and so did we. I don't know how much longer trick-or-treating will survive as a tradition – there's something almost alarmingly archaic about allowing your children to ask strangers for candy – but I really hope we can get at least one more generation through. The world is your candy store when you're five, the street stretches out before you, and you're leading a parade of friends (and parents) on a mission of such innocent debauchery. Every kid should know what that feels like.