Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Consortia Make My Brain Hurt

IHE had an absolutely brilliant piece (not being sarcastic) yesterday about including the registrar's office in many academic policy and program decisions. The administrator in me says “Oh God, Yes!” Failing to look to the very real legal and bureaucratic parameters of possibility can only lead to tears.

My cc currently participates in a few 'consortial' agreements with other cc's, and is now working on a few with a nearby four-year college. Consortia appeal to colleges when enrollments in a given area are relatively small and the costs of a program relatively high; if the costs can be spread between institutions, the thinking goes, then students at both will have access to a program that otherwise wouldn't exist, since neither college would be willing to foot the entire bill itself. As the technologies for distance learning have developed and become more sophisticated, it has become easier, logistically, to assemble one viable section of a course over multiple campuses. (I even saw one large public k-12 district do this with its two high schools. Pooling students from each, it was able to run a single section of Latin.)

So goes the theory, and there's some truth to it.

Behind the scenes, though, consortia are unholy messes. And I say that as somebody actively involved in building a new one.

Some of the hurdles are relatively obvious, and to be expected: transportation costs for faculty, transportation arrangements for students, lab or specialized facilities, and the ever-present attempts at cost-shifting. (“Weren't you going to pay for that?”)

Some of them are less obvious from the outside, but very real in practice. Say that colleges A and B have a consortial arrangement for a program in Obvious Studies. (It's the dumbed-down version of Profgrrrrl's 'complexification studies.') For certain courses, students from college A trundle over to college B, where they're taught by a professor from college B, among students from both. A student from A is accused of cheating on an exam. Whose judicial process do you use? Which Dean of Students keeps the record on file? Where is the penalty assessed? Or a student from A has a seizure in class. Whose health services office has the student records? Who is liable?

It gets harder when you put together arrangements between schools with different degree levels. Right now I'm working on an agreement with a nearby four-year college through which our graduates will take a mix of our gen ed courses and Neighbor's upper-level discipline-specific courses, almost all taught here. It's great for my cc, since it offers our students a way to finish most of a four-year degree without leaving the geographic area, and the gen ed courses count towards our numbers (so we get the tuition, the weighted state aid, etc.). It's great for Neighbor College, since it needs enrollment in those upper-level classes, and it won't incur the facilities cost. If all goes well, everybody wins.

There are several catches, though. The registrar's area is already having nightmares. Our internal ERP system is based on the assumption that we track students until they graduate. Students are coded by curriculum, so we can run 'degree audits' (that is, see which courses they still need to graduate, which obviously depends on which degree they're seeking) based on the assumption that graduation is the end point. Once a student has graduated, the transcript is closed. What do we do with a student who graduated, but is still taking gen eds with us pursuant to the consortium? How do we transcript that? Nothing in our current ERP system allows us to do this, except by manual override. Manual overrides are fine if you're talking about three or four people. If the program takes off like we want it to, though, this system would rapidly become unsustainable.

The financial aid offices are also running into issues. Depending on the mix of courses a student takes in a given semester (two with us and three with them, or vice versa), the tuition will vary. Aid awards are typically determined far in advance of the semester of enrollment. Decisions on which classes to cancel are typically made very late, when it becomes clear which sections have reached the magic number and which haven't. So if a student plans tentatively to do, say, three with us and two with them, then has to switch the proportion for whatever reason, the financial aid will either fall short (wreaking havoc with the student) or come in too high (wreaking havoc with reporting agencies).

One of the benefits of having worked at Proprietary U when I did was that I was immersed in nuts-and-bolts issues like this for several years. Having been through that wringer, I knew enough to anticipate some of these questions when the idea of the latest consortium came up. Before heading over to Neighbor College to put ink to paper, I gave a 'heads up' to the student services area, and actually convened a meeting that included financial aid, registrar, health services, and the like. (I dragged along my long-suffering department chair for the relevant area, who spent the entire meeting looking vaguely nauseous.) The meeting went for about an hour and a half, almost entirely spent talking about dummy curriculum codes for the ERP system, disciplinary jurisdiction, transcripting, parking, and the like. The academic part was the easy part – the logistics were the hard part. I'm sure we'll discover wrinkles nobody thought of yet, but at least we have some idea of the implications of what we're going to sign.

Most of the behind-the-scenes support systems at colleges have been built on the assumption – mostly true, historically – that individual colleges are essentially self-contained. Transfer students are nothing new, but they've usually involved clean breaks – leave college A, go on to college B. As part of the effort to provide access to a broad array of programs while still keeping costs in line, though, we've had to move increasingly to shared delivery, which we were never really built to do. The technology is there, but the policies largely aren't. And that's why consortia make my brain hurt.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Yes, Virginia, CC Students Do Transfer

According to the Chronicle, the state (commonwealth?) of Virginia is considering a pretty comprehensive plan to encourage in-state high school grads to use community colleges as feeders to the four-year colleges.

The grant program, proposed by two leading lawmakers, would allow qualifying transfer students to pay the same tuition and fees at public four-year institutions that they paid at a community college. Each student who transfers to an in-state private college after graduating from a community college would initially receive a voucher worth about $2,150 a year.

The measure is part of a broader effort to encourage more students to start their college careers at two-year colleges, a shift that lawmakers estimate would help accommodate an expected 20-percent to 25-percent increase in college enrollment in the state over the next six years.

Obviously, the devil is in the details. That said, I like the overall idea.

Apparently, students have to graduate cc's with 3.0 or better GPA's. Their credits will carry over, and the students will be allowed to finish their four-year degrees at cc tuition rates.

This strikes me as a good idea on a number of levels.

  • CC's would get more academically-prepared students. (Grammatically, that sentence is ambiguous; I intend both meanings.) This would raise the bar for achievement in the colleges that are the most accessible to everybody, to everyone's benefit.

  • CC's already exist. Instead of pouring billions into new construction that would be unnecessary after the pig gets through the higher ed python, the money that would have gone into capital can find other uses.

  • Families could save substantial amounts of money. This is especially true of the huge cohort trapped in that no-man's-land of being too wealthy for really helpful financial aid, but too poor to really afford tuition. Right now, those folks either borrow to the teeth or just don't go. Families with several kids could really benefit. A former co-worker of The Wife was the seventh out of eight kids (or something like that), perfectly bright, but on her own financially when it came to college. I imagine kids like her benefiting from something like this.

  • I like the GPA requirement, since it implies some reciprocity for the gift. We'll help you get started, but further help is contingent on you stepping up academically. This will not be subsidized loafing. If you skate through your cc career, you're on your own after that.

  • In a way, the cut rate at the four-year school actually provides an incentive for the four-year school not to be too miserly about granting transfer credits. If they lose money on each student, better to cut their losses by not making students repeat courses they've already taken elsewhere. In my state, Flagship State gives the cc's fits with its arbitrary, finicky, and inconsistent transfer-credit practices. (I won't even accord it the dignity of calling it a 'policy.')

  • Given the relative lack of bread-and-circuses at most cc's (bigtime sports, lavish student centers, dorm life generally), students at the most vulnerable part of their life-cycle would be spared the distractions that claim so many. By the time they get to Four-Year College, they've already been at the college level for two years. As the Rolling Stones put it, they got their ya-ya's out.

  • At cc's, intro courses tend to run smaller than they do at larger schools. It's not at all clear to me that a kid taking General Psych with 34 other students and a full-time prof at a cc gets a worse education than a kid taking General Psych with 300 other students in an auditorium at Flagship U.

All of that said, I foresee a few complications:

  • The four-year schools will need to find ways to make up the difference between cc tuition and their own for two years per student. This is not a trivial sum of money. Absent a bequest from the state, this could get sticky.

  • I'm guessing that it will take a while for some parents to get over the cc stigma, if they ever do. While this plan should take some pressure off, I don't foresee the kind of numbers Virginia is talking about. It will help somewhat, but they'll probably still need to add some capacity at the four-year level.

  • Depending on the culture of higher ed in Virginia, there may or may not be spirited resistance to mandated transfer of credits. (I don't know Virginia's higher ed scene well enough to say.) I'd expect the usual elitist huffing and puffing from the Old Guard at Flagship U.

Those complications granted, though, I like it overall. Unlike, say, Wisconsin's plan to use higher ed as a sort of roach motel for its talented youth, this plan respects the ambitions of its target group. It offers an option, which the residents would be free to take or leave. And it makes the higher echelons of college seem like live options to the students for whom it might now seem out of reach. Good thinking, Virginia.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Mental Trip Wires, or, A Challenging Letter to Write

Over at Aspazia's place, there's a good discussion of some of the issues that younger female faculty often face in terms of classroom control, respect from students, and the like. It strikes me as taking a little too much for granted – as a young male professor, I was challenged all the time – but the basic gist of it seems right.

Gender sometimes becomes relevant in unexpected ways.

A colleague of mine – a smart, ambitious woman in her thirties – asked me to write her a letter of recommendation for a doctoral program. I was glad to do it; I'm sure she'll do well in the program, and it would fit her desired career path nicely. She's also one of my favorite people here, and it's nice to be able to help good people do constructive things.

Then I tried to write the letter.

Within the first paragraph, I could see that this would be harder than I anticipated. I started by describing her as 'driven,' then as 'dedicated,' then as 'ambitious,' and then realized that those words, applied to a woman you haven't met, are the usual code for 'castrating bitch.' She isn't a castrating bitch at all – if she were, I wouldn't have agreed to write the letter – but it's harder than I thought to find words to praise her strengths without setting off stupid gendered trip wires.

(Eventually, I settled on 'whirlwind' and 'rising star,' figuring that neither was especially gendered and the two in combination captured her fairly well.)

Letters of recommendation are pretty stylized to begin with. They're kind of creepy, in the sense that they're supposed to blend personal knowledge, professional judgment, and sales. Certain topics are off-limits, or extremely dangerous, and different readers read letters differently. (For example, I'm immediately turned off by quantitative statements, like “Beelzebub is among the five best graduate students I've seen in my twenty-two years.” It smacks of false precision, or what I like to call 'bullshit.') I've also noticed that the levels of puffery vary from culture to culture, so letters from overseas have to be read differently than letters from America (by Americans). I'm not a fan of the genre, as I've written before, but I'm not going to refuse to help a friend take a positive step just because of that.

Gender is one source of stupid trip wires; age is another.

Since I'm a couple of standard deviations younger than the median age of my faculty (literally – I did the math), I've endured my share of condescension from the more senior folk. Sometimes it's relatively harmless, as in passing mentions of deans from the 70's followed by “that was before your time.” Sometimes it's to my face. I've been told, to my face, that “you're too inexperienced for this job,” “you'll realize these things as you get older,” and “you remind my of my son.” (I get the last one a lot.) One of my chairs made a habit of calling me “kid” until I reminded her who appoints whom.

Sometimes, though, it goes way over the line. Every so often, somebody goes off her meds long enough to fire off a single-space five-page poison pen memo, cc'ing everybody from the President of the college on down, accusing me of everything short of the JFK assassination. (Every time this has happened, it came out of the blue – it has never followed a conversation or a discernible event.) In any rational organization, that kind of unhinged insubordination would result in summary termination. But since these folks have tenure, I have to let them vent and try to maintain order while swallowing more pride than is healthy.

Learning to swallow pride, to refrain from hitting back, is one of the hardest parts of this job. And that's where the sort of groupthink bias against difference catches you. You get provoked, and provoked, and provoked, but that's all invisible; react, and it's held against you. The extra burden on somebody who represents some sort of threatening difference is in not being threatening, even when anybody else in the same position would be more than forgiven for lashing out.

At least with age, I have the relative luxury of knowing that the threat of difference will fade over time – for example, I'm already ten years older than I was just ten years ago! With other categories, there's no guarantee that the double standard will fade. Aspazia does a nice job of outlining some of the defenses she uses against those standards. Most of them boil down to variations on 'taking the high road.' It's ethically admirable, it often works, and there's a great deal to be said for it. But sometimes taking the high road is exhausting. Real diversity, the kind that prevents groupthink from taking over, can save folks branded as 'different' a lot of emotional energy, and let them focus on work. I could have written the letter a lot faster if I didn't have to dance around gender stereotypes. And my colleague could probably get a lot more done if she didn't constantly have to reassure everyone around her that she didn't represent the Fall of Western Civilization. Biases like these are luxuries of an unhurried time. There's no time for that now. We have work to do.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Workload Equity and the Popularity Penalty

Since we have increasingly limited resources, fluctuating student demand for different courses, and a unionized faculty, one of my semesterly battles involves finding ways to balance teaching loads.

Some of that is done for me by the contract. The contract specifies the ratios of lab to lecture for load purposes (don't ask – it's incredibly complicated, based mostly on who was on the negotiating team that year), so I don't have to reinvent that wheel. The contract also has a provision by which 'independent study' courses are compensated at a fraction of a credit per student. Over the years, this provision has come to be used to run some very small classes.

Running small classes is a financial problem for the college, but it can't always be avoided. With a few exceptions, we generally require any given section to include 12 students in order to run. (Exceptions include nursing clinicals and a few courses with very specific lab needs.) But sometimes you get stuck. For example, some of our majors require two semesters of a language. If we ran, say, Russian 1 in the Fall with 15 students, we're pretty much honor-bound to run Russian 2 in the Spring, even if only 8 or 10 come back for it. In some of the smaller majors, the upper-level (that is, sophomore) level classes are graduation requirements, so we run at least one section of each, whatever the size.

Equity issues abound. The composition and speech courses, for example, carry much lower caps than do the psychology or history courses. We justify the discrepancy by pointing to the different amount (and nature) of grading; since composition courses usually require more student writing than history or psych courses, the argument goes, it's as much work to teach composition to 22 students as it is to teach psych to 35. (This is why 'writing across the curriculum' died on the vine. Importing composition-level grading expectations to psych and history would require drastic reductions in psych and history class sizes, which would be financially prohibitive for the college.) But there, too, the college has a long history, and most of the faculty have accepted that difference simply as a fact of life.

The judgment calls come with the tiny classes. What do you do when, say, four students sign up for a class, and it's the only section?

The per-student rate for running it as an independent study is low enough that most faculty won't bother for fewer than six or seven students, since they still have the same amount of time in class and prep work. Yes, the grading load is lighter, but depending on the class, that may or may not compensate adequately for the reduced pay. If the class was supposed to be part of a professor's regular load (as opposed to an overload), the professor has to pick up another class to compensate, which makes for some very cranky faculty.

There's also the “I saw with my own eyes” problem. Last semester one sharp-eyed professor cornered me, asking why her classes were stuffed at 35 students a pop when just down the hall she saw a colleague teaching (a different course to) a group of five. I assured her that the colleague was only getting the independent study rate, and that we only ran the class because the students needed it to graduate, but I could see the explanation didn't really satisfy her. In a way, I couldn't blame her. It's harder to learn 35 names than 5. Multiply that out by five sections per term, and the differences become astronomical. (Of course, nobody gets 5 sections of 5 students, but emotional impressions are strong.)

The other side of the equity dilemma is the popularity penalty. Professors who become popular with the students find their sections perennially full, which increases their grading load. Professors whom students avoid like a bad smell wind up with fewer students, and therefore lighter grading loads, for the same salary.

Our student turnover is high enough, and ship is tight enough, that we don't have too much of the popularity penalty problem. I saw it at Proprietary U, though, since the student grapevine there was more fully developed. There was one professor in particular who achieved a sort of rock-star status among the students, which meant that his classes were always stuffed to overflowing. He complained regularly that he was effectively penalized for teaching well, which was pretty much true, since the increased grading load was uncompensated. Out of a desire to even out the workload a bit, I tried scheduling him one semester in the death valley time slot, where sections go to die. It didn't help. Students still poured in, only with more of an attitude. That experiment lasted exactly one semester.

From an administrative point of view, the popularity penalty is hard to address. I like to hear that students like their classes, and the soulless bean-counter in me can do the math well enough to realize that the books balance better when the classes are full. That said, there's something perverse about the better teachers having to do more work for free, and the dregs getting a free ride. (At Flagship State, where I got my doctorate, I knew people who openly admitted using the first week of class to scare students away so they wouldn't have to grade as much. That always bothered me.) Professors who earned reputations as ogres, for whatever reason, usually enjoyed much smaller sections, and therefore lighter grading loads. Other than tight control of logistics, such as we have here, I'm not really sure how to work around this.

Has anyone out there found a fair and intelligent way to offset or prevent the popularity penalty?

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Affirmative Action and Ambivalence

One of the bargains I made with myself when I started blogging was that in exchange for the hassle of pseudonymity and its attendant elisions, I would allow myself to be intellectually honest. Sometimes that takes the form of asking open-ended questions of the blogosphere, because I haven't figured something out. Sometimes it involves rude truths, as in my periodic rants against the American health care system or President Bush. And sometimes it involves admitting ambivalence on a hot-button issue. I've written before of my real ambivalence on illegal immigration. This one is about affirmative action.

Honestly, one of the luxuries of working at an open-admissions college is that you're spared the tedious, tiresome, tendentious posturing over affirmative action in admissions. We don't need to set aside seats for any given group – we take everybody! Multiply-disadvantaged exemplar of the subaltern? Welcome! Pasty McWhiteboy? Welcome! Come one, come all. If we need to add seats, we just add them. The debate over affirmative action in admissions is simply moot, since the basic premise of the debate – that there is a limited and finite number of seats far below total demand – doesn't hold.

From this angle, in fact, the animating principle of affirmative action in admissions strikes me as staggeringly elitist. It's only relevant at the fairly small number of colleges and universities that actually turn applicants away. The more exclusive the institution, the more relevant affirmative action becomes; at the vast majority of colleges in America – that is, community colleges and lower-tier four-year colleges – it's simply beside the point. Although the MLA and the Chronicle and the judicial branch and Fox News love to jaw on about affirmative action, it's really a live question only in a fairly small number of places. For the rest of us, the very terms of debate are false. When the press and the professional associations cast this as the central issue facing higher education, they're implying that most of American higher education doesn't matter. To which I say, fuck you. We matter a great deal.

Sadly, we can't be nearly as open in our hiring as we are in our admissions. In hiring, the assumption of scarcity actually holds. In the evergreen disciplines, we get far more applicants than we can possibly hire, even after the initial bozo filter screening. Hiring usually comes down to choosing from among several highly-qualified people; put differently, it involves turning down several highly-qualified people at every round. This is where questions of diversity, affirmative action, inbreeding, the proper administration role in hiring, and so on, become relevant. Hell, they're unavoidable.

And here's where I get ambivalent. I'm absolutely convinced that departmental inbreeding is a major issue, made so very much worse by the flies-in-amber rate of turnover of tenured faculty without a mandatory retirement age. Left to their own devices, I've seen departments try to engage in a sick sort of asexual reproduction, in which they try to hire slightly dimmer versions of themselves, insisting that nobody trained in the last, say, twenty years is any good. I've brought down the heavy hand of administration in a few searches when the inbreeding was particularly obvious and absurd, and I make no apology for that. I argued for diversity, which, to my mind, meant bringing in people who bring something new to the table. Without new perspectives, groupthink elevates to gospel, and improvement becomes impossible.

To the extent that the move to diversify dovetails with the goals of affirmative action, great. And there are certainly times when it does. But in the political battles, 'diversity' has come to be understood as a code word for 'affirmative action,' which it shouldn't be. In fact, there are times when the two conflict.

Age is the most obvious example. The federal laws on age discrimination assume that age discrimination takes place only against people over 40. People over 40 are legally a 'protected class,' meaning that they're eligible to trigger the stricter scrutiny of a discrimination claim when they believe themselves wronged. In much of private industry, this assumption is probably fairly accurate. In academia, it's often dead wrong. I've seen too many cases of departments writing off newly-minted Ph.D.'s as 'too green,' instead going with less-qualified candidates closer to the department's median age. But affirmative action for the young would be classified as age discrimination, even when the standards they've had to meet to get hired have been demonstrably harder.

Gender is a tricky case. If an English department is mostly female, but the college faculty as a whole still tilts male, is hiring another woman for the English department really striking a blow for diversity? I say no, but the law says yes. To my mind, diversity is about 'casting against type.' Bringing the first or second woman into a male-dominated department satisfies both affirmative action and diversity; making an already female-dominated department even more so satisfies the former but not the latter. (The same is true in reverse. Hiring a man to a nursing department fits my definition of diversity, even if it flagrantly violates affirmative action as it's usually understood.)

Race is even trickier, since it's increasingly harder to isolate or define. I had a colleague at Proprietary U whose father was Costa Rican and mother Japanese. So was she Asian (not covered) or Latina (covered)? (To make matters more complicated, she looked white.) I've started to see the inevitable, and utterly disheartening, arguments over whether Barack Obama is 'black enough.' Ugh. Given the rapid increases in intermarriage, I just don't see these categories holding cleanly enough to form the basis of decisions that could be defended in court.

Some folks are trying to shift the debate to class. Class has been one of my pet obsessions for years. All I'll say to that is once Americans get good at defining class, which first involves admitting its existence, we can have that conversation. Until then, it's a pipe dream. As hard as race is to define, class is that much harder.

Some conservatives have argued that liberal or leftist domination of academia entitles conservatives to special preference. This strikes me as a truly horrible idea, since once you've been hired to fill a certain ideological slot, your thinking has been done for you. If academic freedom means anything at all, it should mean the freedom to follow your inquiries where they lead you, even if you wind up being surprised. This is even worse than the other kinds of preference, since this cuts to the core of the job itself. If I'm hired to a poli sci department to be the token conservative and I become disenchanted with Bush, is my job in trouble? What if you don't fit cleanly in any given political camp? What if you do, but the prospect of a loyalty oath to that camp is itself offensive? To me, this is a non-starter.

The new perspectives I refer to are generational, or geographic, or stylistic, or even religious. (I'm a HUGE proponent of bringing non-believers to the staffs of religious colleges. Keep everybody honest. When groupthink is actually written into your college mission statement, you have a SERIOUS problem.) Sometimes it's a matter of balancing personalities – if a given department is chockablock with outsize personalities prone to battle, I'm much more interested in a levelheaded peacemaker than I am in any racial or gender category.

To me, the strongest argument for affirmative action is that it can be necessary to break the inbreeding of the old boy network. Sometimes that's true. But it seems to me that the logic of breaking inbreeding doesn't necessarily track cleanly with affirmative action as it's usually practiced. So I'm ambivalent.

Diversity, yes. Affirmative action, sometimes. More opportunities for everybody so we can get past zero-sum bickering, absolutely.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007


The Chronicle has yet another article on the 'boy crisis' in education, this time focusing on colleges. Female undergraduate enrollment nationally passed male enrollment a couple decades ago, and the gap is growing steadily wider. Apparently, some colleges are so afraid of reaching a sort of gender tipping point (at which, say, the dating scene becomes problematic due to skewed ratios) that they're doing special outreach to male students, whether by purging pastels from their catalogs, adding football and engineering, or even lowering admissions standards for men.

This is one of those issues for which context is everything. Male enrollment in colleges hasn't dropped; female enrollment has climbed. That this is a 'problem' strikes me as questionable.

The 'solutions' range from constructive to harmless to awful. There's nothing wrong with adding engineering programs, and toning down the pastels is fine with me. Lower admissions standards won't help, though. CC's have open admissions, and our students are mostly female.

In my own teaching experience, the major gender difference I saw was on the lower end of the grade scale. Bright students could be either. Low-achieving women usually slogged through and passed, even if only with a C or a D. Low-achieving men more often just disappeared. I don't have a handy explanation for that, but it does seem to fit the national data. If you disaggregate the numbers, the gender gap appears most strongly at the lower-income, lower-gpa end of the scale. Among the affluent, it's negligible.

The paradox, of course, is that the numbers flip around once you get to income distribution, corporate America, the 'real world', or whatever other term you care to use. Women get higher GPA's, on average, but men make more money. Occupational choice probably has something to do with that – our Early Childhood Ed majors are almost entirely female, and that profession pays diddlysquat – but it's not as if the CEO's of the Fortune 500 are 50% women.

I suspect that we're seeing the unintended and incidental outcome of a number of otherwise-unrelated phenomena. Young men – especially low-income young men – are vastly overrepresented in our criminal justice system, which I would expect to impact college enrollments. (I suspect, though I haven't looked at the figures, that the military also skews male.) Guys in prison aren't enrolling at the local cc, but their girlfriends are. ADD and ADHD are disproportionately 'male' disorders, and would have direct effects on academic success, especially if undiagnosed. Certain male-dominated jobs don't require college degrees, but if you have the right connections, you can get in.

I hesitate to go to 'human nature' arguments, only because the gender balance didn't tip until the 1980's. I'm reasonably sure that human nature hasn't changed meaningfully since then, so the pop-Jungian “boys will be boys” line doesn't persuade me. The change can be linked to a specific historic moment, and needs to be explained accordingly. For example, the military is probably less male-dominated now than it was in the past, so I don't give that explanation too much weight. The male-dominated but good-paying occupations that don't require college degrees have largely declined since the 1980's. However, the great incarceration boom started in the early 1980's, so that looks like a likelier suspect.

More interesting, to me, is the disconnect between disproportionate female success in college, and disproportionate male success in the economy.

A while back, I did a piece on the three kinds of “A” students: the dutiful, the gifted, and the maniacal. The dutiful are the ones who make flashcards and read with highlighters and turn in papers in snazzy covers. They are almost always female. The gifted can be either. The maniacal are the ones with less stellar GPA's overall, but they hit it out of the park in the areas they care about. They can be either, though they're often male.

My impression is that the mismatch between the gender distribution of good grades and the gender distribution of money is a function of the relative values of the dutiful and the maniacal. The dutiful are stars in school, but limited in the real world. The maniacal are more problematic in school, but the highest (and the lowest) parts of the economic ladder are mostly theirs. The maniacal have a single-mindedness that makes them incredibly strong in one area, but kind of peculiar overall. They are often horrible human beings, on an ethical level, since their single-mindedness allows them to discount other points of view. They make great CEO's.

It may be that with the dwindling of the mid-century behemoth of capital, the General Motors in which The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit and The Organization Man prospered, the social reward for dutiful behavior has dwindled relative to the social reward for maniacal behavior. Put differently, the traits rewarded in academia are less and less the traits rewarded in the economy. As a popular saying puts it, and the President of the United States has himself confirmed, the world is run by 'C' students.

For maniacs, as I use the term, it's entirely understandable to reduce education to its economic payoff. It's all about the Benjamins, as they say. For the dutiful, a certain payoff is expected, but too much focus on it is unseemly. (For the gifted, it's sort of irrelevant.)

Or maybe I've gone wildly afield. But I'm guessing that a mismatch between academia and the economy, combined with increased incarceration rates, provides a much better explanation than, say, Human Nature or feminists gone wild. Political correctness isn't much of an issue in the cc's of the world, as far as I've seen, but our enrollments are mostly female, too. Follow the money, and check the prisons.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Ask the Administrator: Standard Syllabi

A new correspondent writes:

One of my neighbors was hired to teach two courses
as an adjunct at a very large 2-year college. Three days
before the semester began the dean sent her syllabi for the
courses. Of course my neighbor had prepared her own syllabi--but
was told by the dean that she had to use the standardized syllabi
provided by the college. These allow for different book
selections but every other aspect ---grading scale, exams, learning
goals, assignments--- is set by the college. She lost the job
when she declined to use the standardized syllabi. I've never heard of
this before. Has anyone else? Are the terms of academic
freedom set by individual institutions?

It's a great question, but it needs to be addressed carefully. I see it as two questions: is this legal, and is this a good idea? I'd answer 'yes' and 'it depends,' respectively.

Colleges routinely construct course sequences with prerequisites built-in, so that somebody teaching, say, Calculus II has a pretty good idea of what the students will bring with them from Calculus 1. One way that many colleges ensure the relevance of the prereqs is by being very prescriptive about their content. If Calc 1 is whatever any given professor says it is, then students will enter Calc II with wildly varying levels of preparation, independent of their own ability and effort.

Standard syllabi give departments a relatively easy way to ensure that different sections are covering substantially the same material, even allowing for differences in personality or style among instructors. In my experience, this has been relatively common practice in disciplines like math, certain sciences, and foreign languages.

From a legal perspective, I believe the college is on solid ground. The Supreme Court addressed the issue of academic freedom in the Bakke case in 1978, ruling that colleges – note the term – have the right to determine what shall be taught, and how it shall be taught. (Note that it did not say 'individual professors.') If a given college decides that, say, Composition 1 shall consist of five graded papers, it is within its rights to do so.

(I've written before on standard textbooks for given courses, taking the position that they can be a good idea. I got flamed pretty good for that, which is fine, but it strikes me as the kind of decision that should be made on local and pragmatic grounds, rather than theological ones. I don't believe that a college is overstepping its bounds legally in saying 'this is our textbook for General Psych.' Whether a given choice makes sense in a given case is a different issue.)

Because something is legal doesn't necessarily mean that it's wise. In many cases, it may be wiser for a college (or, more frequently, an academic department) to set the 'learning goals' for a given course, then leave it to the instructor to figure out how to meet them. This is probably particularly true once you get beyond the freshman/101 level. One of the quirks of knowledge workers, as opposed to some other kinds of workers, is that you can get better results from (most of) them by not managing them too closely. I've observed professors doing things in class that never would have occurred to me, but that worked. I'm counting on them to innovate that way, to come up with methods for engaging and educating students that make sense for their own teaching styles, disciplines, and students.

(Folks who have taught at multiple institutions, as I have, may also notice that an exercise that works like gangbusters at college A falls flat at college B. It takes a semester or two, in my experience, to get the feel of the local culture.)

Certainly, I've seen some cases of unwise prescription. Since I left Proprietary U, friends there have told me that everybody teaching Contemporary Literature has to use the same novels. This strikes me as insane, since the point of the class is not to be a historical survey, but instead to be an introduction to literary analysis. I'd much rather let each professor pick the novels with which she can do the best job. But that's a judgment call, as opposed to a legal requirement. I think PU is being stupid, but it isn't breaking any law.

I hate to hear of someone losing a job over this kind of thing, but I don't think the college was out of bounds in defining its own courses as it saw fit.

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

Monday, January 22, 2007


A few nights ago, at dinner:

The Boy: I'm full.

DD: You barely touched your food.

TB: But I'm full! (heavy sigh)

DD: Okay...


TB: I want ice cream!

DD: I thought you were full.

TB: I'm full of this, not full of ice cream!


Friday, January 19, 2007

Predictions, Vocations, and Charles Murray

A reader sent me a copy of a recent article by Charles Murray (located here) in which Murray makes a series of claims about higher education, IQ, and the role of vocational ed.

(A quick aside: yes, I know Murray has a history as a public figure, most prominently for The Bell Curve. I never read The Bell Curve, so I'll limit my comments to this article.)

Murray's position is based on the assumption that IQ is fixed, precise, and correlated perfectly with the potential for academic success. (To be fair, he concedes that high IQ people with low motivation can fail as well.) That doesn't fit the basic fact that IQ scores have been rising steadily for decades to such a degree that the tests have to be re-centered every ten years to keep the average at 100. (Steven Johnson's Everything Bad is Good for You makes some interesting arguments based on that.) Nor does it fit what most of us know about margins of error on standardized tests. But never mind that. He asserts:

There is no magic point at which a genuine college-level education becomes an option, but anything below an IQ of 110 is problematic. If you want to do well, you should have an IQ of 115 or higher. Put another way, it makes sense for only about 15% of the population, 25% if one stretches it, to get a college education. And yet more than 45% of recent high school graduates enroll in four-year colleges. Adjust that percentage to account for high school dropouts, and more than 40% of all persons in their late teens are trying to go to a four-year college – enough people to absorb everyone down through an IQ of 104.

Where he gets his figures is beyond me. He doesn't cite any sources for any of them, so we're just supposed to take him at his word.

(I also have no idea of what it means to say that “more than 40% of all persons in their late teens are trying to go to a four-year college.” Either you're enrolled, or you're not. There is no 'try.')

But never mind all that; it's actually peripheral to his main point. He's really arguing that true higher education – whatever that is – is appropriate only for nature's aristocrats, and that nature's proles should content themselves with vocational education. That's okay, though; the aristocrats need the proles to fix everything in their McMansions. Murray again:

Finding a good lawyer or physician is easy. Finding a good carpenter, painter, glazier, mason – the list goes on and on – is difficult, and it is a seller's market. Journeymen craftsmen routinely make incomes in the top half of the income distribution while master craftsmen can make six figures. They have work even in a soft economy. Their jobs cannot be outsourced to India. And the craftsman's job provides wonderful intrinsic rewards that come from mastery of a challenging skill that produces tangible results. How many white-collar jobs provide nearly as much satisfaction?

Those lucky, manly, salt-of-the-earth proles! They get to build stuff! It's a good thing the aristocrats are making all the income gains – those marble countertops won't install themselves! And the idea that higher education could also be intrinsically satisfying goes oddly unaddressed. Higher education is cast purely as job preparation – real satisfaction only comes from manly guy stuff involving hammers and power tools and honest manly guy sweat.

It gets weirder. Murray asserts that “the nation's two-year colleges...are more honest than the four-year institutions about what their students want and provide courses that meet their needs more explicitly.” Okay, here's where I seriously have to assert specialized knowledge. The single largest major at my cc is the transfer major. By Murray's logic, then, what my cc students want most is four-year degrees. The second largest major is business, which is also built for transfer. The single occupation for which the career services office on campus gets the most inquiries from employers is office help – administrative assistants and the like. We had to shut down the automotive repair program twenty years ago for persistent lack of enrollment. We place more Early Childhood Ed majors (that is, daycare providers) in a year than we placed in the entire history of the automotive repair program. We have more art majors than engineering majors – if the students are all about jobs, that doesn't make a hell of a lot of sense. (In fact, the only reason we haven't dropped CAD altogether is that the interior designers are taking it!) The manly male guy stuff – other than criminal justice – doesn't sell.

Having misconstrued cc's, Murray also misconstrues craftsmen. The reason they're well paid is that they're unionized. The unions are hard to break into, and not at all shy about flexing their muscle to keep uncertified competition away. If a flood of new people arrived on the scene, we'd either see a lot of unemployed new people or the salaries drop like stones. On top of that, it takes brains to be a good electrician or HVAC technician or carpenter. If we funnel the intellectually-weak – assuming, for a moment, that we can isolate that category – into skilled trades, most of them won't cut it there, either.

Hey, here's a vocational category for which colleges used to be criticized for not producing enough people: computer programmers! How's that job market working out? To assume that we know which fields will experience labor shortages ten years from now flies in the face of the dead-wrong predictions we were making ten years ago. Proprietary U rode the tech wave up, and it rode the tech wave down. Vocational fields are like that. If Murray paid the slightest attention, he'd know that.

(For that matter, there was supposed to be a terrible shortage of college faculty by now. Remember the prediction of a "great wave of retirements"? How'd that work out?)

The shame of it all is that Murray's apparent ideology overwhelms what could have been a valuable discussion. Doc cited a study a while back showing that liberal arts grads – those poor, benighted souls whose degrees, according to Murray, “do not qualify the graduate for anything,” actually catch up to their more vocationally-minded peers in terms of annual salaries fairly quickly. Could it be that those 'soft' skills actually amount to something? Could it be that the economic elite want the liberal arts to themselves for a reason? The last time I checked, the progeny of the elites were climbing all over each other to get into Williams and Swarthmore and Yale, none of which offer undergraduate degrees in vocational fields. Could it be that they know something Murray doesn't?

Where Murray could have gone with his piece – and where there really is a productive discussion to be had – is on the question of what the academically mediocre or disinclined should do to make a middle-class living in the new economy. That's what the real question is. There will be only so many glaziers. Construction, as anyone who has paid attention can tell you, is a manic-depressive industry, and some people don't savor the thought of life on a boom-bust cycle. The old unionized heavy-industrial jobs aren't as common, or as lucrative, as they used to be, and the service sector – the one reliably booming vocational area – generally pays quite badly. (That is, except for all those 'easy to find' lawyers and doctors.) Given that higher education is one of the few reliable hedges against disposability, students are acting quite rationally in seeking degrees. Yes, many of them will drop out --- it's called standards – and many graduates have a tough time getting the first real job upon graduation. The real issues are around income distribution, and economic security, and the ability to handle changes the nature of which nobody can predict. Telling a kid whose IQ tests at 108 to give up on college and get busy building additions onto the houses of all of those easily-found cardiologists is simply absurd. Colleges (and high schools, for the love of pete) shouldn't pretend greater predictive powers than they actually have. I don't know what the Next Big Thing is going to be. (If I did, I'd buy stock in it.) Neither does Murray. Consigning the majority of the population to narrow skill sets when the one constant is change is indefensible, except as bald-faced elitism. Just ask all those laid-off programmers.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Ask the Administrator: Documenting Good Teaching

A new correspondent writes:

I am a 4th year grad student in (science discipline) and a 2nd year grad student in (complicated related discipline) at a major research school (for these fields at least). Though I'm a big fan of doing research, I am also (*gasp*) a big fan of teaching. And teaching well. Despite the fact that my department divvies out TA-ships with priority toward those who have less experience (don't even ask), I have managed to get two years of TA funding (6 appointments). This good fortune is largely due to two professors being very adamant that I was the only qualified candidate, which should outweigh the priority toward less experience.

A group of students, profs and alumni--I suspect led by the two aforementioned profs--have nominated me for a university-wide teaching award. I have advanced to the candidacy stage, and am now faced with some vague guidelines. You know the drill: 1) the department chair was contacted, but she has no idea what I teach, so she 2) contacted my chair, who has no idea what I teach, so he 3) has sent me the following criteria. I must turn in a CV, list of courses taught, and materials that "demonstrate my teaching excellence totaling no more than 20 pages from the last 2 years." In addition, there will be 2 faculty, 2 student, and 1 department chair recommendation letter.

So my question is basically, how do I demonstrate my teaching excellence? I have positive student evaluations, both the scantron-type, and some written comments. Is it appropriate to present the numerical totals and then present selected comments, rather than just photocopy the comment sheets (which strikes me as a waste of space)? Do student evaluations really demonstrate teaching excellence or do they just demonstrate that I was well-liked? I have two courses for which I was the primary instructor, from which I can provide the syllabi. However, for those courses for which I was a TA, what do I show? As a TA, one must follow the teaching philosophies of the instructor, as well as his/her content plan. So being a good TA isn't necessarily the same as being a good teacher. Are there other sorts of materials that could potentially "demonstrate teaching excellence?" Sadly, our university does not have a peer-review system, so I have no peer evaluations. Is it appropriate for me to write something about my teaching philosophy and/or teaching experiences?

Mostly, I'm trying to understand the perspective of an evaluator looking at my information packet. If you were granting such an award (or hiring a teacher) what would you look for? Specifics are much appreciated.

To further complicate matters, I'm trying to walk a fine line between putting everything I have toward winning the award/being a good teacher, and being a graduate student at a research university. I was told in December by my subdiscipline head that "teaching has no value" and that I'm "wasting my time worrying about teaching." I'm inclined to ignore this and be the best I can be at teaching (in addition to my research, blah, blah, blah) but as I have no power in the department, I worry that this might be stupid in the long term. This award application (even if I don't win) will be a very public declaration of my teaching. Perhaps my I'm paranoid after years of grad school, and this is all irrelevant.

There's a lot here.

First off, I'm constantly amazed that we socialize our science Ph.D.'s to avoid teaching like the plague, and then we can't figure out why science education in America sucks. Seems to me that if we really wanted better science education, we'd reward scientists who took teaching seriously. Over the long term, better science education might actually pay off in more and better scientists, thereby repaying the opportunity cost with interest. But that's me.

(Of course, that assumes plenty of teaching gigs for scientists. Round and round we go...)

Bravo to you for knowing what you want, and for rejecting the dogma that teaching is for those who can't cut it in the lab. Your future students are lucky.

That said, the heart of your question is how to prove that you're actually good at teaching. Since the teaching in question has already happened, it's too late to design a class to include, say, pre- and post-tests. You probably don't have access to student pass rates in subsequent courses, which, all else being equal, would strike me as very persuasive evidence.

Although your skepticism about student evaluations has some merit, you use the evidence you have. I'm partial to statistical totals over selected comments, only because almost anybody can find a positive comment here or there. If you have departmental or course norms against which to compare your totals, all the better. Even better than that: if you have departmental and/or course grade distributions, and your own. If you have strong student evaluations and you can show that you didn't get them by grading easily, that, too, would strike me as persuasive.

Depending on which office the request came from, you might be able to gain access to applications from previous years, just to see what they've included.

I'll second your distinction between being a good TA and being a good teacher. I vividly recall interviewing a job candidate at Proprietary U whose answer to almost every question about teaching started with “My Big Name Advisor would...” After several of those, I actually cut her off and reminded her we weren't interviewing her advisor. She did a double-take, but then started giving much more interesting answers. In my TA experience, much of my job involved either decoding the words of the Great Man for the students, or covering material that the Great Man didn't bother covering because he was too busy spinning anecdotes about his travels. It's hard to be the ringmaster when you're also cleaning up after the elephant.

The fact that you pretty much have to invent an answer to this out of whole cloth gives some indication as to how important it is to your department. That said, I'm a firm believer in “to thine own self, be true.” If you're a dedicated and talented teacher, be a dedicated and talented teacher. Your department is not the sum of the known universe. There are departments out there – not enough, but they exist – that actually appreciate good teaching. Some of them even appreciate it enough to try to develop intelligent ways to encourage and measure it. If you market yourself as what you really are, the odds of finding a good fit – even if it involves looking in places you might not think of at first – are better.

Talented and underappreciated readers – any ideas out there?

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

Wednesday, January 17, 2007


In the comments to yesterday’s post, it became clear that some of the crabbiness out there results from a faulty assumption: if something bad is happening, it's because someone bad is making it happen. There must be a villain somewhere, and he must be defeated; once that happens, all will be well. Too much righteous outrage, deprived of an outlet, is bound to curdle. Best to find someone to embody all that is wrong and beat the crap out of him.

But it doesn't always work that way.

It's true that certain disasters can be traced to certain, well, deciders. In those cases, it's possible to draw a relatively straight line from the decisions of a single person to a series of horrifying outcomes. But those cases aren't necessarily representative.

I've seen it on my own campus. Last week, one of my chairs called me, utterly indignant, complaining that “someone” had approved exceeding a section cap without her permission. (The fairly clear implication was that I was the miscreant.) Upon doing some detective work, we found a glitch in the online registration system by which a student, acting in good faith, could slip into a closed class. While it answered the direct question – and we're working on patches for the glitch – I could see a certain emotional dissatisfaction with the outcome. She wanted the moral high ground in a fight, and a system error just didn't have the same emotional payoff as an accusation of wrongdoing.

(One of my favorite scenes in film was in the Henry Fonda version of The Grapes of Wrath. In a scene I don't remember being in the book, a farmer brandishes a shotgun at the man on the bulldozer who is about to raze his farm for defaulting on the mortgage. At the key moment, the man on the bulldozer reveals himself to be a neighbor who is just doing his job. Jobs are hard to find, so cut him some slack. Frustrated, the farmer asks “who do I shoot?” Exactly.)

To me, one of the great intellectual contributions of the social sciences in particular has been to shift attention from a search for villains to understanding larger underlying structures. If you want to understand changes in, say, the distribution of wealth, you don't just look at a few plutocrats or the personal attitudes of selected elites. You look at the processes for the production of wealth, changes in taxation, shifts in technology, rising and declining industries, union membership, and so on. Individuals count, obviously, but they make their decisions in the context of shifting constraints that they themselves often don't understand and certainly don't control.

So why has higher education moved so aggressively toward a mostly-adjunct faculty? Who do we shoot?

The idiotic answer is 'administrators,' as if we get commissions from the salaries we would have paid to full-timers. The simple fact of it is that deans, among others, work within given budgets. My college, for example, has a higher adjunct percentage now than it has ever had. It is also running a yearly operating deficit of over a million dollars. Its state allocation for this year is lower than it was in 2001, even before correcting for inflation; in that time, health insurance costs have roughly doubled. None of these is my doing or my preference. Were it up to me, we'd be rolling in money and I could hire a cohort of new faculty of my own generation and younger. It's not up to me. That's the point.

Add to those constraints the realities of increased utility costs, public impatience with continued tuition hikes, a salary scale determined by seniority and a very senior tenured faculty, and you have serious fiscal issues to face. Those issues can be handled well, badly, or not at all, but they can't simply be wished away or taken as the 'true colors' of a power-mad manager showing through. Time spent blaming individuals for systemic issues is time wasted.

How to reverse the trend? If the 'villains' theory held water, all we'd have to do is cashier the current lot of administrators and replace them with, I don't know, Cary Nelson or something. Then the new deans would wave their magic wands, sprinkle some pixie dust, and distribute the millions of dollars that would magically appear.

The shame of it is that educated adults actually think this way.

I'm not counseling 'defeatism,' as one commenter suggested. I'm counseling coming to grips with Objective F-ing Reality. 1965 is long gone, and it's not coming back. The economy has changed in multiple and confusing ways. The political discourse has changed, too. Better to spend time thinking about (and enacting!) alternatives for the future that might prove both worthwhile and sustainable in the new environment than to lament the loss of the old in ever more strident terms. One relatively intelligent writer opined that freedom is the insight into necessity. What he meant, I think, is that there's no such thing as the escape from necessity or the conquest of necessity. It's always there. Only coming to grips with it will allow room for real agency.

The decay of the existing order – and make no mistake, it's decaying – has a silver lining: it creates room to try something new. The rise of the proprietaries, whatever else you might think about it, shows that “growth” and “higher education” aren't mutually exclusive, even in parts of the country where the population isn't growing much. Maybe it's time to take some very serious looks at the proliferation of graduate programs in already-crowded disciplines. Maybe we should take a look at different ways of credentialing, or at ways to shorten the absurdly-long training period for faculty. (A couple of years ago, I proposed a for-profit model that would compete on the high end. I called it “Mercedes U,” and issued an open call for any venture capitalists to email me. The offer still stands. Yo, VC's! Over here!) I don't know what's coming next, but I'd guess that it's not 1965. And that's not because some supervillain absconded with all the money. Don't bother looking for him. There's productive work to do instead.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Ask the Administrator: Why is Everyone so Crabby?

An occasional correspondent writes:

I've been reading along for quite some time and it
seems like a lot of your commentors are, well, unhappy
with their lot in life.

I teach high school right now. I absolutely adore my
job. I'm also finishing my dissertation, have an
article in press, have another in the works, and just
picked up a 58K grant. I do all of these things
because they're fabulously exciting to me. I work way
more than when I was a TT faculty member at a CC, even
if you only count my actual job. But, I wouldn't
trade it for anything else right now.

The adjuncts want TT jobs, the folks with TT jobs want
to actually have 'a month off with pay' or reduced
demands on their time or something so they can, well,
I'm not sure what exactly.

Your comment that you've not had a month off with pay
raised a whole set of comments where people seemed to
play 'one-up' and in the process made it really sound
like they don't like research or the publication

I've always wondered about faculty and administrators
and perhaps you can address this:

How much do you really understand what the job entails
before you start?

If you've done it for a few years and you still seem
to dislike it so much (hi to your commentors) then why
do you keep doing it?

What barriers exist to you just doing what you want?
Heck, do you even know what you want?

I guess this is really two larger questions and you
can provide answers in the context of higher ed should
you like:

If you haven't done a job, how do you know what it
entails? (before you started deaning for example)

Once you've started doing a job how do you decide if
it's actually worth keeping? (as in, why do you keep

One of the lessons of blogging is that meanings, no matter how transparent they may seem to you, will be filtered through other people's experiences, even if those filters change the meanings completely. They won't be aware that they're doing it, though, and they'll blame you for whatever they're projecting onto you. Comes with the gig. (In that sense, blogging and deaning are similar.)

The line about a “month off with pay” is a pretty good example. It's a fair description of some people, and a real misreading of others. I know that, and I assume that others know that, too. Apparently, some folks took great umbrage at the line. If you've worked on different sides of the desk, as I have – adjunct, full-time faculty, and administrator – I know both how common those lines are and how complicated the realities they reflect are. (That's why I included it as part of the 'internal monologue,' rather than something to say in public. It's up there with snarky comments about people's clothes or politics. Most of us have similar thoughts from time to time, but we also 'know better,' so we don't express them. The line was an example of venting for comic effect, which assumes a certain basis of shared understanding between reader and writer.)

The larger point, though, is about discontent with one's lot. It's a great question, and one I think about quite a bit. Every dean's nightmare is the professor who basically retires on the job after receiving tenure. It isn't as common as the popular press seems to assume, but it happens. It's also true that some folks who are honestly motivated for the first ten or fifteen years of their careers get a little stale by twenty, and positively curdled by thirty. Given the deadly combination of high intelligence and heavy repetition, it's not all that surprising.

I think part of the issue is that we have a 'one size fits all' definition of what a professor is, even though different institutions have wildly different expectations. For example, High School Friend is an endowed professor of a physical science at an R1. For him, teaching is a very small part of the job – not quite an afterthought, but pretty close – and research is all-consuming. To a colleague at my cc, his teaching schedule would look positively leisurely, and in a very narrow sense, it is. But he works insane hours, since by his (and his university's) definition, research is where the action is. Professors at my cc have far heavier teaching loads, and with much greater repetition of preps (maybe 8 sections of Intro to...every year, plus two of whatever else), so the prospect of boredom is much greater. On the other hand, research expectations are minimal. In my observation, many of the senior, tenured people really do have a month off with pay at Christmas, and three in the summer. They defend it by saying, largely correctly, that they need it to stay fresh from year to year. (I know there's some truth to this because I did a few years as full-time faculty at Proprietary U, where we had a twelve-month teaching calendar with cc-level teaching loads each semester. After a few years, most of us were pretty fried.)

So which one is the 'real' professor? Both, and neither.

I worked with a colleague at Proprietary U who was constantly angry that it wasn't, and didn't try to be, Harvard. When I moved into administration, I made him a deal: don't be a pain in my ass, and you can use me as a reference to get a job you actually want. After a year, he decamped for a place more to his liking, to the relief of all concerned. Last I heard, he's doing quite well in his new digs, having found a college whose definition of 'professor' comes much closer to his own.

Certainly, there are some grievances that unite the entire profession: low pay relative to the length of training, indifferent and/or ill-prepared students, and the general crappiness of the market. Paradoxically, given the 'universal' aspirations of the term 'university,' there's also an epidemic of provincialism. I don't mean it in the geographic sense, but in the generic sense: whatever my unspoken idea of higher education is, is right, and everybody else is an ignorant jerk. Since relatively few people hop between different tiers of higher ed as full-time employees, there aren't that many who can really bring a comparative perspective to bear. Given relative inbreeding and, in many cases, an extended lack of hiring, local myths can attain 'unquestionable' status, even while being badly wrong.

I suspect that crabbiness is worse now than in the past, since a relative lack of opportunities (esp. for non-stars and at the entry level) often forces people to choose among options they didn't have in mind when they started. Had my original plan held, I'd be a tenured Associate Professor of (my discipline) at Oberlin by now. Life didn't work that way. It's hard to take ownership of one's career decisions when the available options are so few and so flawed. The sense of powerlessness, I think, contributes to the level of crabbiness.

There's also a real lack of felt options for many academics who tire of academe. By the time the fatigue sets in, it's late in the game to start over again. Maybe you have kids to support, a spouse who's tired of waiting for you to get your #%*! together, or just an impatience to get on with it. For a burned-out but tenured English professor at a community college, in his fifties, making 80-90k, what else is out there? Most of the realistically-available options would involve massive pay cuts, thereby making them unrealistic. (That's the paradox of the academic salary structure. The hardest-working years are usually the lowest-paid.) Some fields have the luxury of being able to move back-and-forth between industry and academe, but the evergreen disciplines largely don't.

Why do I keep deaning? A whole bunch of reasons, but the one I keep coming back to is that I don't trust many other people to do it. Too many academics have absolutely no idea of the realities of running an institution, and too many business-types have absolutely no idea of the realities of higher education. I believe – I'll cop to a certain arrogance on this count – that I have the training, the temperament, and the taste for it, and that relatively few people do. That's not to say that I don't get frustrated – regular readers know all about that – but the frustration is because I actually care about higher ed. If I were only in it for the money, I would have picked up a finance degree and left by now. I want to see higher ed done right, and I think I can make my best contribution to that via administration. I'm a good but not spectacular teacher, and a competent but not prolific researcher – my wheelhouse is in administration. That makes me a rare bird, but that's okay.

Wise and beneficent blogosphere – any contributions to a general theory of academic crabbiness?

Monday, January 15, 2007

Bits o'Blog

A few holiday blog nuggets:

  • What, exactly, is the difference between a songwriter and a composer? This came up in conversation last week, and I couldn't answer it.

  • I had my first phone interview, which was actually a sort of pre-interview. The college has hired a headhunting firm, and the firm is doing a first round of phone interviews, presumably as a sort of 'bozo filter.' I'll be severely bummed if I don't make it past the bozo filter.

  • In the tub, The Boy announced “when I fart, it makes my winkle go up. That's how I teach my winkle to raise its hand!” I had no idea what to say to that.

  • I heard from my brother and his wife this weekend. They're in that awful will-the-sleep-deprivation-ever-end stage with Little One. Hearing them talk about it, the memories came rushing back. I remember being so tired one night that I walked directly into a wall. From an evolutionary perspective, it's utterly amazing that anybody makes it past the first three months.

  • The Boy asked us why MLK was so important. It's kind of hard to explain to a five-year-old, since I don't want to inadvertently introduce him to the idea of racism. Bless his little heart, I don't think the concept has crossed his mind. I know he'll need to learn about it eventually, but I don't know if a five-year-old has the emotional sophistication to grasp the concept without getting self-conscious or otherwise weird about it. His classmates are incredibly multiracial, and the school has been artful about saying that MLK was about treating people the same, even if they look different (and leaving it at that). So far, that's pretty much what we've tried to do, but I'll admit that a statement as anodyne as that loses much of its meaning.

  • I blame the media for not previously altering me to the utter coolness of the following: Amy Rigby, Laura Cantrell, the Wondermints, and Joanna Newsom. is a fine, fine thing.

  • For Christmas, The Boy got a DVD of “Popular Mechanics for Kids,” which was a Canadian tv series showing how lightning worked, or how igloos stay up, or how airplane builders use wind tunnels to test resistance on wings. I put it on one afternoon out of sheer desperation to quiet TB. Lo and behold, it was hosted by a very young, but recognizable, Elisha Cuthbert (from '24'). Apparently, she's Canadian, and she knows how to build an igloo. They should have used that on '24.'

  • That's not to say that all Canadians know how to build igloos. Just want to stave off the inevitable flaming, there.

  • For that matter, not all Canadians have been on '24,' either.

  • I took TB to a planetarium show, and, true to form, fell asleep. In my defense, the seats lean back, and it's dark in there. I mean, honestly.

  • I wish I had fallen asleep during The Holiday,which The Wife and I saw over Christmas break. Verily, 'twas a steamer. In retrospect, the guy in the row behind us who spent five consecutive minutes crinkling cellophane for no discernible reason was actually trying to improve our moviegoing experience. Jack Black's career trajectory is starting to look like Janeane Garofalo's, and no good can come of that. And as much as it pains me to admit it, Cameron Diaz couldn't act her way out of a paper bag. It wasn't even campy-bad, like the old Batman tv show or William Shatner. It was just there-go-two-hours-of-my-life-I'll-never-get-back bad. Sleep would have been a far better use of my time. Or learning how to build an igloo.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Professional Day Address, with Captions

Welcome back.

I hope you enjoyed that month off with pay. I haven't had one of those since 1994.

Let's start by acknowledging our new colleague, Prof. X.

For those keeping score at home, that's three retirements, one replacement.

And also welcome back Profs. A and B from sabbatical leave.

What is this word 'sabbatical'? What is its meaning?

As the President acknowledged this morning, the college faces another difficult year.

You're sick of hearing it, I'm sick of saying it, but it's still true.

We'll be expecting each department to refer to the plans it submitted in its annual report last Fall, and to carry those plans to fruition this Spring.

Betcha didn't think I read those! Gotcha!

As you've probably heard by now

Gotta love the rumor mill

we're considering some changes to the academic calendar for next year, to better line up our offerings with local expectations about vacations.

Yeah, I know, classes before Labor Day are half-empty.

I've asked the department chairs to lead discussions about the impact that shifting the calendar would have, to see if there are any complications we'd need to work around.

Don't say you weren't included...

I've also asked the chairs

They love it when I do that

to get back to me in a few weeks with requests for funding for any major activities you're planning on for the Spring, so we can get the budgets in line in advance.

Hope springs eternal...

As you know, we have a reaccreditation visit in the not-too-distant future

here it comes...

which means that we'll need to be up to speed in every department, in terms of outcomes assessment.

I'm looking at you, Prof. K...

It's not enough anymore just to do the assessments and gather the data;

though it wouldn't physically kill you to start, Prof. K...

now we have to show that we're making curricular and teaching decisions based on that data.

I've already lost them.

In other words, show that we're using what we've found to improve what we're doing.

I shoulda worn a flak jacket

Because if we don't do thoughtful assessments, we'll wind up with thoughtless, standardized ones from the outside.

No stipends for you!

We'll also be revisiting our Honors program this Spring

because I am a masochist

so if you have any ideas on how to improve that, please tell me or your chair.

not holding my breath...

Just to follow up on some points raised at the Fall meeting

thank God my secretary takes good notes

I'm pleased to report that all classrooms have been equipped with (name the equipment)

bringing us kicking and screaming into the 1990's

We've also expanded our outreach into local high schools

you'd think we would have thought of that before...

with particular help from departments B and C

mention the names, mention the names...



what are your concerns?


Thursday, January 11, 2007

Bullpens and Emergency Adjuncts

Most department chairs, if you press hard enough, will admit to having an Emergency Adjunct. The Emergency Adjunct is somebody who can be relied on to show up for whatever timeslot, even on short notice, and not cause trouble. The EA is typically a not-very-good teacher – if he were good, he'd be a regular – but he's just good enough to throw into that last unstaffed section without feeling irredeemably guilty about it.

At my previous school, where I had to do staffing, I had an EA I'll call Beige. Beige was uninspired, kind of shlumpy, somewhat disorganized, and only so-so with students. (His student evals ranged from below-average to you-don't-want-to-know). I saw his syllabus once, and was compelled to correct for grammar. But he had a few undeniable virtues: he would take any timeslot at all, he would show up for class faithfully, and he wouldn't do anything bad enough to warrant summary termination. He was just, well, Beige.

Since enrollments at Proprietary U were constantly changing, anomalies developed in the schedule almost every semester. One section would have to be doubled, another wouldn't fill, and we'd have to shuffle multiple schedules to make loads. Inevitably, there'd be an orphan section sitting out there, full of students and bereft of teacher. I'd do what I could do avoid it, but when all else failed and the first day of class loomed, I'd make the call to Beige.

I thought of Beige today as I was discussing a similar situation with one of my chairs. She mentioned that in the 70's and 80's they had very little need for Emergency Adjuncts, since the full-time faculty then were different. They were mostly men, mostly primary breadwinners, and mostly young. This meant that they were always eager to pick up extra sections for the extra pay. Now the men are older and better paid, the women faculty usually have husbands or partners who work, almost nobody is young, and nobody wants to pick up extra sections. Where before there was an informal bullpen, a sort of reserve army of the employed, now we need EA's.

I found her analysis trenchant and disturbing. Descriptively, I think it's on the money – I've heard plenty of the older guys say that they used to pick up extra classes when they were just starting out and their kids were younger, but they can't be bothered now. The women who were hired after them typically don't need the extra money, for various reasons, so they content themselves with regular courseloads. (There are exceptions, but fewer than I'd expect.) The youngest faculty are so badly underpaid relative to the local cost of living that the marginal increase for an extra course isn't worth the effort. So we've lost the informal bullpen.

Morally, though, it bothers me. Equality among the tenured is made possible by absolutely horrific exploitation of emergency adjuncts (and, indirectly, of the students who get the EA's sections). I could content myself with the libertarian line that EA's accept their lots voluntarily, which is true in the sense that nobody holds guns to their heads, but it seems to me that that line of reasoning can excuse a great many sins. Besides, if we assume that quality matters, and I assume it does, then a pure race to the bottom is bound to be self-defeating over time.

We don't have the slack in the budget to grant release time for makework projects and build a de facto bullpen that way, although I'd love to try it. (I actually proposed that once at Proprietary U, and was greeted with stunned silence.) As long as the high-salary, high-seniority types stick around, I don't have the openings to bring in hungry young faculty, and our entry-level salaries are so low (to subsidize the high-end ones) that we mostly get trailing spouses or folks who've lived here forever.

Some schools – NYU leaps to mind – have elaborated multiple tiers of faculty, effectively integrating the bullpen into the budget. This strikes me as vastly preferable to the EA 'system,' though the long-term threat to tenure would probably compel the faculty union to torpedo it.

Has your school found a more humane and/or effective way to fill last-minute vacancies?

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Scenes from In-Person Registration

“You're wearing a suit, so I figure I can ask you a question.”

“I'm a math major.”

I look at his transcript.

“You got a D in pre-calc.”

“Yeah, but I'm good at math. I just do badly on the tests.”

“Calc has tests, too.”



“I'm going to change the world.”


“So can I get into (closed class)?”

“What's your major?”

“First it was chemistry, then criminal justice, then I switched to childhood education, then psychology.”

“What do you want to do?”

“Blow less than the 40 thousand I blew at (other school).”

“I want to get into Comp II.”

“Did you take Comp 1?”

“Yeah, at my last college.”
“Do you have a transcript?”


“Like a report card.”

“Oh. Don't you have it?”

We check online and print out an unofficial transcript.

“I don't see an English course.”

“Uh, it's that one.” (points)

“That says History.”

“Yeah, but I wrote a lot of papers.”

“It looks like you need to take Comp 1.”

“I took that last semester!”

“Yes, but you failed it.”
“But I took it!”

“I want a full-time schedule. Can we add some more?”

“Maybe. Do you have a job?”

“How many hours?”

“Full time, Monday to Friday.”

“Oh. Any other obligations?”

“I have two kids.”

“I'm thinking maybe we start you off part-time so you can get some momentum going. I'd rather you pass two classes than fail four.”

And, not to be outdone, three from my department chairs:

“We found the tuba!”

“The kiln exploded.”

“I lost an adjunct, but I got a replacement.”

“I called her on her cell. She took the call as she was being wheeled into surgery.”


“She'll be here Tuesday.”


Tuesday, January 09, 2007


Lesboprof has a thought-provoking post on cursing in the classroom. It's honestly conflicted, which I think is probably about right.

I'm of divided mind on this, too. Back in my teaching assistant days at Flagship State, I had an early-morning class in a ground-floor classroom in the back of a building. The dumpsters were immediately outside the window. Every so often, the scooper trucks would come and pour the contents of the dumpsters into something else, right in the middle of class. They were shockingly loud, randomly-spaced, and maddeningly slow. (No, there weren't any other classrooms available. I tried.) Although I'm not proud of this, I'll admit that the third time it happened, I let fly a blue streak worthy of Chris Rock on a good day. Nobody complained, I think because the sentiment was clearly directed at something getting in the way of actually conducting the class. I wouldn't handle it that way now, but hey, I was 26 and making a big 10k per year, so there you go.

That said, I think classroom cursing can fall under 'useful,' 'excusable,' 'distracting,' or 'harassing,' depending on context.

Useful cursing can include very rare and strong emphasis; extraordinary passion for a given argument; disarming humor (be VERY careful here, though); direct quoting; or making a connection from something seemingly abstract to something very real. The key here is that it has to be either very, very rare, or inextricable from the subject matter. A single curse dropped over the course of a semester is memorable; curses dropped every twenty minutes are simply tedious. As with comedians, I don't think there should be a categorical rule against it, but outside of a few narrow contexts, it's usually a sign of laziness. As my confidence and fluency in my field have grown, I've noticed my cursing diminish dramatically.

Excusable cursing would cover things like the dumpster incident. (I recall a math teacher in high school letting one rip when a projector screen fell down while he was writing on the board. Nobody complained, as far as I know, since we all probably would have done the same thing.) It doesn't really help, but I couldn't really blame someone for it, either. On 9/11, as we watched the towers fall over and over again on tv, I recall some usually-decorous folks letting their guard down, but I really couldn't blame them. Obscenity as a response to obscenity made sense.

Most in-class cursing, I think, is distracting. It's bad form in the sense that anything distracting is bad form when you're trying to get people to concentrate and focus. I'd put it in the same category as fidgetiness or a weakness for digressions about the local team. On balance, it probably detracts from the overall effectiveness of the teacher, though most of the time it falls short of anything I'd consider actionable.

Harassing is different, although in any given case folks can disagree on exactly where that line is. To me, cursing directed at a particular student would cross this line, as would anything lecherous. In practice, I also think that simple repetition can eventually cross over from annoying to unprofessional, though again, the line is fuzzy.

(Outside of class is another matter altogether. If somebody were to bug my car on the drive home, they'd hear a WASPy version of Sam Kinison with Tourette's. I find that a bracing round of profanity on the drive home cleanses the palate, and readies me for dealing with young children.)

(I may be wasting my efforts. Yesterday The Girl got impatient waiting for The Boy. TG – all of two and a half – yelled “Open the damn door!” Adolescence is going to be a hoot.)

There are times when nothing short of cursing really rises to the occasion. When you hit a deer on the highway at night with your young children in the car, “fiddlesticks” doesn't quite cut it. I find hanging curtain rods uniquely frustrating – don't ask me why – and any task along those lines usually leads to a blistering tirade questioning the parentage and chromosomal makeup of whomever crosses my mind at the moment. And of course, there's President George W. Bush. I won't go into detail about the viewing ritual The Wife and I have developed for the State of the Union address, other than to say that it involves language that would make a British MP blush, and some partial nudity.

Masters of the form often develop intricate curses of their own, or become amateur curators of cool curses they've heard elsewhere. (My fave is “son of a motherless goat!,” though I don't remember where it came from.) I've long envied the bilingual, since they always have a batch of useful curses at the ready. (Since I grew up in a largely Italian neighborhood, I've heard my fair share of Italian curses. Judging by the body language, they're pretty florid.) A single, sardonic curse, surgically applied, can be absolutely devastating – think of Bill Murray saying “you slut” in Tootsie. Done well, it works.

Lesboprof couches her sense of cursing context in racial and gendered terms, and there's certainly something to that. Different disciplines are probably different, too; all else being equal, I'd expect more latitude for cursing in a sociology class than in a math class (although it's probably reversed among the students). Comic timing and a sense of the moment are key, and relatively few academics, in my experience, have much of either. I suspect, too, that different regions of the country probably have different expectations – I'd guess that Brooklyn is more indifferent to it than Salt Lake City – and that very religious colleges probably have stricter rules. Since I'm a denizen of the Northeast, ensconced in a secular institution, I can assume a certain level of indifference.

Have you seen a case of classroom cursing in which it really helped? Alternately, do you know of a really creative curse that, well, gets the job done? The State of the Union is coming up, and I need to expand my repertoire.