Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Pricing by Major, Revisited

I don't usually do back-to-back posts on the New York Times, but this Sunday's issue provided atypically fine fodder.

According to this article, more colleges and universities are setting different tuition levels for different majors.

I've weighed in on the subject before (here and here), so longtime readers know that I'm broadly supportive of differential pricing, as long as it's based on the actual cost of providing the service. I'm essentially endorsing taking the 'lab fees' model and using it to capture more of the true cost of certain areas, such as Nursing. My theory is that limiting the institutional losses on a given program will make it easier for the institution to provide enough seats in that program to meet (or almost meet) demand. (More subtly, the cost premium attending to Honors programs will allow those programs to continue, which is important to the extent that they bring in the offspring of the affluent. Without a meaningful connection to the elites, public institutions become typecast as institutionalized welfare, and suffer funding shortfalls accordingly. If we can attract Muffy and Skip with some premium programs, we can use that leverage with their parents to maintain or improve our quality levels for everybody else. It's the same logic behind sending Social Security checks to rich people.) The alternatives are waitlists, which strike me as far less desirable, and a continued hollowing-out of the liberal arts, which strikes me as both immoral and eventually self-defeating.

According to the article, though, two areas that are getting price hikes are business and journalism.

I'll admit being surprised at both, though more so at journalism. (And I'll admit that my perspective is informed by being at a two-year college, so my sense of what's needed in those fields reflects what's needed in the first two years.) Entry-level journalists don't make much at all, and it's an intensely competitive field, so the folks being asked to shoulder premium tuition will almost certainly be ill-equipped to pay it back. As one blogger aptly put it, nobody says “yeah, I make good money, but it's not newspaper money.” George Will's paycheck is impressive, but also unrepresentative.

(If I were king of the world, I'd require prospective journalists to get solid backgrounds in history, economics, political science, and sociology. Learn something about the world, so your sense of what's unusual enough to bear scrutiny will be grounded in something. Have some basis for independent judgment when The Powers That Be hand you their press releases. But that's another post altogether.)

At least with business, I could imagine an argument that the market will bear it, and that's the first lesson business students should learn. (The article says the premium is needed to pay six-figure salaries to assistant professors. I'll just say that's not my world and leave it at that.) The courses taught in the first two years have pretty low direct costs, but I'd guess the grads could be assumed to have a reasonable shot at higher salaries, so premium tuition would be an argument from prospective progressivity.

That argument strikes me as very slippery, though. At least with lab sciences and nursing clinicals and studio art workshops, it's fairly easy to point to what the student is getting now to justify paying extra now. (The same would be true of Honors programs with very small classes.) Whether the student goes on to succeed in the field or not, at least she's getting some value for the money upfront. It's not clear to me what the business major would be getting above and beyond what she gets now, at least at this level.

One of the officials interviewed in the article notes, correctly, that the shift to differential tuition is, in part, a recognition of the cultural shift from viewing higher ed as a public good to viewing it as a private good. If it's truly a private good, then it should be priced accordingly. (This does not bode well for public institutions generally.) We publics have our work cut out for us. If we act in acknowledgement of a cultural shift that has already occurred, we grease the skids. If we act as if nothing has happened, we hit progressively tougher funding limits every year.

Nobody said this would be easy.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Notes on Nerds

According to this article in the New York Times, the question of nerd-dom is finally starting to receive a tiny fraction of the attention it deserves.

A linguist at UCSB has identified the essence of nerdiness as “hyperwhiteness,” or a refusal to engage in the cherry-picking of African-American culture that cooler white kids do to bond. Of course, Weird Al Yankovic figured this out already and set it to music; his “White and Nerdy” became an instant classic by encapsulating white nerddom in a series of painfully accurate vignettes. (“My rims don't spin/to the contrary/I think you'll find that they're quite stationary”)

As shorthand, it's recognizable, but there's so much more to it than that. (For that matter, the paradigmatic nerd is the Asian math whiz, not the white kid. Do your research, people!)

Back in the early 80's, when my nerdiness could actually be seen from space, the cool white kids didn't know from rap. The whole 'acting black' thing didn't catch on until the late 80's at the very earliest. Depending on income, the cool white kids listened to either Future Lite Rock (Hall and Oates, Huey Lewis, Phil Collins) or Burnout Metal (Rush, Pink Floyd, Ozzy). When trying to attract girls, they'd fuse the two into the unholy musical synthesis of the Power Ballad. (“Every rose has its thorn/Just as every night has its dawrn/Just as every cowboy sings the same sad sorng...”) As Butthead explained to Beavis ten years later, “sometimes cool bands have to do wuss songs to get chicks.”

Meanwhile, my nerd friends and I quoted Tom Lehrer tunes (a kid singing “Poisoning Pigeons in the Park” would probably trigger a lockdown now) and entire Monty Python sketches. The girls were, mysteriously, unimpressed, and therefore mostly absent.

Looking back, my nerd posse was a gumbo of late bloomers (hi!), closeted gays, and conservative Christians. (Those categories weren't mutually exclusive.) What we all shared was a discomfort with the dominant social scene, if for different reasons. So we cobbled together what we could, often in idiosyncratic ways. And if there's one thing that the teenage shock troops of gender conformity can't abide, it's genuine idiosyncracy. (This is not to be confused with Approved Idiosyncracy, like getting a mohawk, or dressing Goth, or tattoos. Those are accepted as flourishes within approved categories.)

As they mature, nerds can go in different directions. Dumb nerds have a tough row to hoe; in my observation, they usually wind up as druggies or Trekkers or captives of some strange and random enthusiasm they take much too far.. (The “Worst. Episode. Ever.” guy on The Simpsons pretty much captures it.)

The closeted gay nerds often weren't really nerds at all, so once they come out, that's that. The closeted gay conservative Christians deserve a study of their own.

Some of the smarter nerds become relatively high-functioning over time (hi!). We tend to age with relative equanimity, since we don't experience aging as the loss of coolness, never having been cool in the first place. With kids and a mortgage, certain topics that would have been unforgivably nerdly at earlier ages become, if not cool, at least relevant. With a little effort, we can pass ourselves off as “on the quiet end of normal,” rather than as the repulsive pariahs we once were and never quite forget being. With age and experience, some of the sharper edges get sanded down, and some of us manage to fill in some of the personality gaps with life wisdom that we once filled in with brittle bluster.

The Wife has advised her single friends to seek out the high-functioning nerds, since we tend to treat our wives better. Besides, there are times in life when a guy who hasn't been anybody's babydaddy can hold a certain appeal. I once posted an essay on the “nice guy syndrome,” or the rejection of high-functioning nerds in favor of blustery assholes, only to be soundly flamed by women readers who suggested that self-proclaimed 'nice guys' are creepy narcissists with overdeveloped senses of entitlement. I considered the objection off-point, since true nerds lack much sense of entitlement at all. But it may well be the case that creepy manipulators like to try to pass themselves off as high-functioning nerds. I consider this an affront to the honor of both nerds and women.

(Female nerds have very different experiences. I'll have to ask my battle-scarred readers to shed light on that.)

My Grand Theory of Nerdiness – every true nerd has at least one – is that it reflects having different parts of the personality mature at different rates. If you combine an introverted streak, a slow-growing social sense, and a fast-growing sense of risk aversion, you get a nerd. If the nerd is lucky, over time, the underdeveloped parts of the personality mostly catch up, and you wind up with a fairly functional, if chastened, adult. 'Acting black' is relevant only insofar as it's the trend at that moment for the cool kids. The UCSB study has mistaken a transitory symptom for the essence of the thing.

Wise and worldly readers – your thoughts?

Friday, July 27, 2007

Ask the Administrator: Ambition and Decorum

A tenured, Canadian correspondent writes:

I never used to have ambition to reach "full" level as it seemed beyond the reach of most women academics. Now, however, I am rethinking my view. I have sole Canadian authorship on a US/ Canada textbook project, and I will keep doing new editions for the Canadian market for at least 2 more rounds (for a total of 3 editions). I have a monograph in press now with a US press, and I have an edited collection with a UK Press. I publish on average one short (10-12 PAGE) and one long (25-30 PAGE) article per year, and generally a book chapter for a collection every year or so (maybe 18 months).

I am a member of grad faculty, and this year I will travel to Ireland as a visiting scholar. In short, I already have the kind of international profile that can garner promotions to Full Prof for those "old boys" now being promoted. I know I'm not an old boy, and I don't have the years and years of accumulated service yet. I've only been a full time prof since 2001, and only finished my PhD in 2000. I'm not quite 40, but will be this year.

So here's my question:

Given that I already have more research results than those recently promoted to full status at my (now changing from primarily undergrad to comprehensive research U);

assuming that my research pace continues at roughly the rate outlined;

and that earlier promotion means better income and benefits for a longer period of time...

I would like to hear your thoughts on the appearance of being indecorous in applying too early for promotion. I am thinking that I'd like to apply for full prof inside of 8 years, but my PhD advisor (who just acquired her own promotion to full prof) admonished me for even speaking of it at this stage (reminding me that I am but a child in the academy).

There was an issue about going forward early for tenure, and I was discouraged so strongly from going in year 3 (when they said I would appear arrogant before senate) that I waited for year 4 (which is still one year "early" in the sense that it's prior to our school terms that require we apply by year 5. We get only one shot at tenure; you either succeed or must resign).

Do I really have to be at least 50 before I can apply?

This is a wee bit close to home.

The short answer is, go for it. Apply on your merits, accept victory as your due, and let those of lesser vision cluck and mutter. Their bitterness is not your problem.

As for the longer answer...

Real achievement never happens without ruffling feathers. There is no such thing as a famous, high-achieving person who is also universally loved. If you stand out, you will command attention, and some of it will be negative. Mascots are universally loved. Leaders are not.

Put differently, nobody will tap you on the shoulder and say 'it's time.' It's never time. You have to make it time.

I think of the extreme concern about decorum as culturally female – the 'good girl' – and I suspect that it's probably one of the most powerful obstacles holding high-potential women back. (Just this week, the Chronicle reported on a study that showed that obese high school girls are far less likely to attend college than their thinner counterparts, but it also showed absolutely no relation between obesity and college attendance in high school boys. Tellingly, the effect was most pronounced in districts with the least obesity – in other words, where it stands out most. The hostility directed at the 'fat chick' gradually becomes self-doubt, which becomes self-fulfilling, with real long-term consequences. It was one of the most disturbing things I've read in a long time.)

I'm all for civility, but to see a term like 'decorum' used to keep people in their place strikes me as fundamentally perverse. To suggest that a young woman with ambition is somehow unseemly strikes me as, well, what's the word I'm looking for, completely f-ing insane. To suggest that it's arrogant to ask for what you're actually worth, well, you get the idea. Using self-effacement to win approval doesn't make a hell of a lot of sense over the long term. The better you are at self-effacement, the less there is to approve of.

(And yes, I'm aware of the irony of bashing self-effacement while using a pseudonym.)

On a prudential level, it's at least possible that someone might look at you cross-eyed for being 'too young' to apply, and vote against you. But if that happens, you have other options. You can walk. You can appeal, and sue the person who applied an illegal category. (I'll admit not knowing how Canadian law treats age discrimination.) You can try again the next year, and offer the bigoted morons a chance to save face by righting a wrong. After all, if they say 'no' the first time, you're no worse off than if you hadn't applied. Or you can let them win by not trying.

More basically, you may need to allow yourself to break away from the sway of your advisor. If you want to sit at the grownups table, someone may have to move over to make room. That's okay. Let them move. You're a professor now, every bit as much as your advisor is. Your advisor can be wrong and you can be right. Conflict doesn't imply failure. Step up.

In my teaching days, two of my proudest moments came when I noticed that the written work of a couple of very quiet female students far outshone everything else everyone else produced. I told them so (these were two separate classes), asked them to contribute to class discussions, and the rest of the semester (in both cases) was a sight to behold. All they needed was permission to show how good they actually were. They didn't want to call undue attention to themselves. I had to assure them that it was, in fact, due.

It's due. Claim it, and claim it without apology.

Wise and worldly readers – your thoughts?

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

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Ask My Readers: First Time Teaching at a CC

A grad student in psychology writes:

I am an ABD grad student and am teaching my first class at a local CC this summer. I am also teaching an upper division class on the same topic at my large state university in 2 weeks. I have a few questions about teaching for you and your readers:

First, what should the difference be in teaching a CC class (that transfers for lower-division units) and an upper division class? Should it be more challenging, more material, more difficult exams, more detail? I asked a colleague who teaches full time at another CC and adjuncts at my university. He told me that he teaches his CC class and the upper division class exactly the same way - down to the same tests. That doesn't sound quite right, does it?

Second, how do I help students who are struggling? I understand and like the idea of "meeting students where they are and taking them where they want to go." But it is difficult to teach a class when I have some college graduates who have come back to get prereqs for nursing school and some students who barely finished high school. How do I put the ideal into practice? How can I reach out to these students without dumbing down the rest of the class?

My last question is indicative of my newbie adjunct status. How do I award failing grades for students who look like they are really trying? I have a student who sits up front, asks good questions, stayed for the optional review session, and seems to put effort into learning the material. But he is still barely passing.

I'll ask my readers to chime in in the comments section, since I certainly claim no monopoly on pedagogical wisdom.

In answer to your first question, as an old professor of mine used to say, nothing is too good for the proletariat. On moral grounds, I'd argue that cc students deserve the same level of care and rigor as do students with more money. On pragmatic grounds, I'd argue that many of those cc students will eventually transfer to four-year schools, where they'll have to compete head-to-head with 'native' students. If they got watered-down preparation at the cc, they will have been set up to fail, which doesn't help anybody.

(I'll add that the first question seems to vacillate between comparing levels of college and comparing levels of course. I'd say that an Intro class at a cc should be comparable to an Intro class at a four-year college. An upper-level class (300 level?) should be more focused, wherever it's taught.)

In answer to your second question, I'll suggest that you have 100 points per student to play with, and you shouldn't be shy about cutting those 100 into some very small bits. Lots of small, quick-turnaround assignments of different genres will allow students with different learning styles and levels of preparation to gain purchase – and therefore confidence – at some point. There's also a weird cultural norm among some students – I saw this in its full glory at Proprietary U – wherein to do any work that doesn't immediately result in points is seen as selling out. If you 'justify' keeping up with the reading by giving quizzes, you'll increase the likelihood that they'll read. It's kind of a pain, but it makes a difference. (The idea, of course, is that once they've actually invested some effort, they'll develop a taste for it. And on pragmatic grounds, the least-prepared students are also the ones least likely to be able to catch up by cramming.)

There's also something to be said for switching styles of presentation. To the extent that you can do this without violating either the content of the course or the nature of your personality, it's good to build in a mix of lecture, large-group discussion, small-group discussion, simulations, presentations, etc. Folks who may not 'get it' in one format may get it in another. Time constraints can't be ignored, and you shouldn't water down the content, but some forethought here can pay off. (I always had great results with mock courts.)

In response to the last question, my personal stand is that sometimes failing a student is the best thing you can do for him. (I'll admit that some colleges have formal or informal 'nobody fails' policies, which I consider a form of prostitution. Try to get a sense of the local culture on this issue.) College isn't the 13th grade. Again, think about transfer; if you pass a kid who was simply overmatched by the intro course, what will happen to him down the line? Better to give the student an honest reading of his performance, even if it occasionally breaks your heart.

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers – your thoughts?

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

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

"I've Done Everything You've Asked Me To Do!"

One of the less lovely aspects of my job is talking with faculty whose promotion applications have been denied. There's usually some bitterness, occasionally some self-awareness, and, in a few blessed cases, a pragmatic approach to determine what would make a successful application the next time.

And there's a lot of defensiveness.

The most common defensive line is “but I've done everything you've asked me to do!”

Well, yes. And that's the problem.

The structure of tenured faculty jobs is such that direct supervision is remarkably light and rare, compared to most other jobs. (Keep in mind, I'm talking about community colleges here. I'm not so familiar with the logistics of, say, running a research laboratory.) While a full-time professor here is absolutely working a full week, much of that week is unstructured. I don't especially care if a professor does her grading in her office, or at home, or at Starbucks. (In my grad school days, I did some of my best grading at the laundromat.) Three in the afternoon, three in the morning – whatever works, as long as it's done well and promptly. I don't care if a professor decides to switch gears on a research project to take it in a more promising direction, and I certainly don't need to be asked permission. Class prep takes the time it takes – as long as the class itself is good, I don't much care if the professor spent a month on it or just improvised. As long as some really basic minima are met – I expect faculty to show up for class, to keep office hours as specified in the contract, and to attend a few meetings each semester – the rest of the job is really what the professor makes of it.

In the popular imagination, that equates to slacking off, and we've all known some people who've exercised that prerogative from time to time. But creative work requires a certain amount of autonomy, and even a certain amount of slack. I'm fine with that, as long as the end result is strong.

When promotion time rolls around, I don't ask how many hours a week a professor spent doing, well, anything. I ask what she achieved. If she achieved a lot, I'm a happy camper. If not, not. If she happened to work so efficiently that she also had time to maintain a fulfilling personal life, great. If not, then she has some choices to make.

(That's not to deny that exceptions exist for medical conditions, various personal emergencies, and the like. But the basic default assumptions stand.)

Against this background set of assumptions, a statement like “I've done everything you've asked me to do” simply misses the point. If I had to ask, you were already failing.

In a way, a structure like this is almost guaranteed to generate neuroses, since so many of the expectations are unwritten and imprecise. A naïve professor could easily stay out of trouble, do everything he was asked to do, and then come up short at promotion time. It's hard to specify in advance exactly what would be 'enough,' since creative work is, by definition, fluid. My faculty know the general areas that the college cares about, but I really leave it to them to figure out how they'll make their own contributions. I give feedback if asked, but I don't make a point of checking up on people. They're professionals, as am I. I'm not the guy with the stopwatch and the clipboard, and I don't want to be.

In a way, it's almost Calvinist. I'm looking for evidence that a given professor is the sort of professor who doesn't need nagging. If they nag me for specifics as to what that would look like, they're defeating the purpose.

At its best, the system leads to a variation on the wisdom of crowds, in which a cluster of autonomous, educated people develop more and more interesting projects than any one person (say, a dean) could have thought of on his own. Some of the most successful innovations during my tenure have emerged in areas that never would have crossed my mind. That's a good thing.

But the folks with the most ingrained trade-union mentality live in constant paranoia that anything not spelled out to the letter is designed to get them. If I didn't nag them to attend conferences, then how can I complain that they didn't go? I'd flip the question around. If they have to be asked, then what's the point of tenure? If they aren't professionals but are actually line workers, then I'll need the powers of a foreman. (At that point, they usually change the subject.)

My philosophy of management, which I've outlined publicly and repeatedly to my faculty, is that I try to set the background conditions against which people can do their best work. If the best they do with that is to fulfill the minimum, then I know what I need to know. If you want to be left alone while still drawing a full-time salary, you need to produce something to make that trade worthwhile. If you don't, I don't want to hear that it's my fault for not nagging enough.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Ask the Administrator: "We Don't Really Like You, But..."

An already-employed correspondent (it's relevant) writes:

I am not sure, but I think that I may have just received one of the more insulting job offers ever. Technically, it wasn't an offer, the dean called to see if I was still interested in the job so that she/he could pull together the official offer. When she/he called, she/he said, within the first two sentences, "I'll be honest with you, we've had a few people turn us down already." She/he repeated this at the end of the conversation, adding, "just so we are clear." His/her enthusiasm was clearly overwhelming.

Since the interview was over a month ago, I was the last person interviewed, and the committee said that they would make their decision in "a week to ten days," I had kinda sorta figured that I wasn't their star candidate. In fact, I had stopped waiting for the "thank you but no" letter. So, when the dean called and included this rather obvious tidbit, it gave me pause.

Understand that I am not complaining. I find this lack of tact amusing, and it made for a great story over the weekend. I'm just wondering what to make of such a statement. First, why would a dean say such a thing at all, especially given that they are probably becoming rather desperate for a hire? Second, what sort of situation might this imply at that college? Am I being paranoid in thinking that I could potentially be walking into a hostile environment? Finally, can I use their desperation and lack of enthusiasm in courting me in the salary negotiation (which leads to the tangential question, do community colleges negotiate on salaries)?

I am in the ever-so-rare and fortunate situation of being at an acceptable job, with a salary that affords a comfortable living; but this community college is more in the direction that I would like to take my career. If they are telegraphing to me that they will accept me but don't really want me, then I don't want to leave this acceptable situation for one that might be hostile and is in a much more expensive city. I can wait for another opportunity if it means avoiding disaster. (I know, we should all have these dilemmas!)


A few possibilities leap to mind:

  1. The dean doesn't really want you, so he's sending negative messages your way to discourage you from accepting the position. My best guess there would be that the department thought more highly of you than he did, and he's annoyed that, having initially defeated the department by first making offers to his favorites, it may win in the end. So he's trying to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat by making an unmistakably lame offer to the department's candidate. If the search fails and has to be reopened, he has another shot.

  1. The dean wants to undercut your confidence, so you don't exploit your very real bargaining power. If you really are the last woman standing, then you're the only thing standing between them and a failed search. He's trying to get power back by playing mindgames with you. If you're terrified that they don't really want you, you won't press your advantage because you won't be aware that you have it.

  1. The dean was exasperated, and failed to control his frustration. It has nothing in particular to do with you – he's frustrated at other issues at the college, and everything is going wrong, and he's taking this search as yet another example of things flying out of control -- but he seriously needs to get a grip. Part of being a dean is mastering what an ex-girlfriend called “the swan” -- look calm above the water while you paddle like hell underneath.

  1. The dean is a complete #%()%# idiot.

(There may well be fifth and sixth and seventh possibilities – I'll leave it to my wise and worldly readers to chime in with those.)

I prefer to treat explanation 4 as an 'if all else fails' answer, since it pretty much renders further analysis futile. That said, there are times when 4 is the truth. If you believe that 4 is the truth, I'd think twice about working there.

If it's 3, then I wouldn't worry too much about it. (Not having heard his tone, I'll leave it to you to decide if this is relevant.) The dean may be fraying, but that's really not your problem. Make the choice you want to make, and leave his psychodrama to him.

If it's 2, play hardball. Use your advantage to get the best deal you can. (My cc isn't much for negotiating, but I don't know if that's universal.) If the best deal isn't good enough, walk away. Once you sign on, you lose the power, so use it while you have it.

If it's 1, the danger is real, but easily overstated. Deans come and go much more quickly than do department chairs and colleagues (most of the time); if the department likes you and the dean doesn't, chances are that the long-term outlook is actually pretty good. (The initial salary offer may suck, though.) Once you're in, you're probably okay. Getting in will be the hard part.

The good news is that your best course of action probably doesn't depend on reading these tea leaves. Make the call for yourself as to whether or not this is where you want to be, and if so, at what salary. The internal politicking and psychodrama behind the choice to hire you or not is largely moot once you're there. Circumstances change quickly. The dean could be gone in a year, or you could knock the ball out of the park and win him over, or illnesses or retirements could shift the staffing balance and suddenly make you indispensable. (I've seen that last one personally – someone who was very nearly fired early on, abruptly became irreplaceable. It happens.) I've seen much-ballyhooed hires disappoint, and cross-your-fingers hires become stars. Once you're on the bus, how you got on doesn't mean much.

Tune out the silliness, and make the best call for yourself. Even if your mindreading is flawless, circumstances (and personnel) change. If you get and keep a clear sense of what's important to you, and don't get distracted by contingent nonsense, the random stuff should cancel out.

Good luck!

Battle-scarred readers – your thoughts?

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

Monday, July 23, 2007

The Parents Out There Will Understand

I work hard at my job, but after this weekend, I'm looking forward to returning to work so I can get some rest.

We worked for it this weekend.

TW set a goal of giving the kids a great summer, and she's doing just that.

Between the beach, the pool, the hayride, and the science museum, the kids barely broke a sweat. I'm pretty much done.

Photos taken this weekend include:

  • The Boy and The Girl standing under a dinosaur, looking like they're about to be eaten.

  • Me posing next to Cro-Magnon man. Tragically, it's the best picture of me in years. I'll have to photoshop it and see if I can make it into some sort of 'before-and-after.' Otherwise, it could be captioned “evolution hit a brick wall with the advent of Suburban Dads.”

  • A photo essay by The Boy, starring lumps of horse poop left behind on the hayride trail. Boy plus camera plus horse poop equals big fun!

Ah, for the relative calm of managing tenured faculty in a cash-strapped setting...

Friday, July 20, 2007

Ask the Administrator: How to Break In

An adjunct, and returning correspondent, writes:

If I was an English adjunct at your CC, where would you advise me to focus me efforts in order to--
hope hope hope--effectively compete for an eventual tenure track opening? As I only have an MA,
should I give up, go earn a Ph.D., go to local conferences, attempt to write for national journals, push
my own blog, or what? I only have so much time, so I want to put it to wise use.

When replying, please consider I have extremely limited funds, live in a rural area, and do not want to
upset my full-time colleagues. Mucho thanks.

In thinking about this, I have to admit that my knee-jerk answer conflicts with what I've actually seen. Since the voices in my head (or knee) are of no import, I'll just tell you what I've seen.

The people I've seen make the jump at the same campus – and that's how I got my start, too – did it by offering the college or department something it didn't already have. Most English departments already have people with Ph.D.'s, and people who go to local conferences. It would be a very progressive department indeed that saw a blog as a hiring credential.

Instead, you have to show that you can solve a persistent problem of theirs. What that problem is will vary from locale to locale. It might be techno-phobia, so developing online expertise for the evergreen courses (i.e. Composition) could make you attractive. It could be the lack of coverage of a given subfield, in which case making yourself (or presenting yourself convincingly as) conversant in that field – while also being perfectly capable of covering the courses you're covering now – would make you attractive. (That's how I got my first f-t faculty gig. Although hired as an adjunct in one area, I showed that I could also cover another area that had been a persistent problem for them.) It could even be an unusual preference. At Proprietary U, the most commonly-taught math courses were the algebra-to-precalc sequence, but the faculty regarded anything below calculus as slow torture. One adjunct crossed over by making it abundantly clear that his first love was the remedial math and first-level algebra – he actually loved teaching the courses everyone else loathed teaching. Hiring him solved a major staffing problem, since it allowed the 'purists' to spend more time on the courses they actually cared about, and his palpable love of the first-tier classes resulted in more successful students there. I wouldn't advise faking this, but to the extent that you can highlight an honest and unusual and useful preference, you make yourself more appealing.

This is a particularly good strategy in a rural area, since 'utility infielders' – people who can play several different positions passably well – are at a premium when the hiring pool is thin.

The trick, really, is to try to imagine what would make you appealingly different from all the other adjuncts who can also cover the basics. You're good at teaching composition and literature? Great. So are most of your colleagues. What useful thing do you do that they don't, or won't, or can't? Do you have a background in industry that you can bring to bear on courses in technical or professional writing? I'm not talking about scholarly specializations, since cc's typically don't teach courses above the sophomore level. I'm talking about breadth, rather than depth.

There are other ways, but I haven't seen them succeed very often. Some people believe in the “affix your lips to the chair's ass” method. It's risky, though, in that you're relying entirely on the whims of a single person, and that person may or may not still be in that role by the time it matters. (You may also find the chair's ass crowded with the faces of other supplicants, some with greater suction than you.) And even if it works, now you're the chair's plaything until tenure, and your life will be hell. Some take a different approach and threaten to leave if they aren't hired full-time – I call it “play me or trade me” -- but usually an adjunct who threatens to leave is allowed to leave. You need more leverage than most people have, if you hope to pull this off. (Hint: never make a threat you aren't prepared to fulfill.)

You can also try indignant moral suasion. Good luck with that.

Wise and worldly readers – what have you seen work?

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

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Ask the Administrator: The Best?

A new correspondent writes:

Are community colleges required, either by policy or law, to always
hire the job candidate who is most qualified? And what are their
responsibilities to conduct a fair, expedited search which respects the

My husband applied (this past winter) for a CC faculty position.
He had a telephone interview (this Spring) which he felt went very well. He was
told at that time he would be notified if he was one of three applicants
chosen for a face-to-face interview.

He has still not been notified if he will be chosen for a second interview.

However, we have heard "through the grapevine" that the interviews were
conducted and the job was offered to the part-time incumbent who has held
the position for a couple years.

My husband's credentials and experience met and far exceeded what was
required of the position, in every area, including degrees (terminal). The
person hired is a few classes shy of a master's.

The lack of consideration and communication throughout this process leads us
to believe they were dragging it out, hoping that the job candidates would
drop out. My husband, however, very much wanted the opportunity to interview
and we made (or didn't make) many life changing decisions in these many
months based on his pending job application.

Aside from the gross inconsiderateness, it is obvious they did not hire the
"best" candidate, if best means educational and professional experience
required for the position. Is there any recourse for my husband, other than
a well-thought out letter expressing his opinions on their hiring practices?

We are aware that educational and professional experience must also be
accompanied by "fit" - we don't believe that this would have been an issue
in his application - he felt it would have been a perfect fit.

I'm not a lawyer, and policies vary from college to college. That said, there's a difference between 'not discriminating' and 'hiring the best.' Public colleges aren't allowed to discriminate based on race, age, sex, veterans' status, disabilties, pregnancy, and a few others. (In some states, that list is expanded – rightly, in my view -- to include sexual orientation.) That means that they aren't allowed to use these factors in making hiring decisions. It doesn't mean that judgment, or even error, is forbidden. It just means that the judgments (and errors) can't be based on those factors.

In this market, it's not at all unusual to have to turn down people who exceed the qualifications for a given position. (That's why I'm a little alarmed that you “made (or didn't make) many life-changing decisions...based on his pending job application.” That's a lot of eggs for one abstract basket!) For one fairly recent hire, we had 120 applications, several of which were far beyond anything we had dreamed of anticipating. As good as they were, we had to turn down all but one. The ones who came closest without actually getting it were outstanding, and I couldn't argue with any other college that wanted to hire them. It's just that we only had the one position. (Several of the top candidates brought credentials far beyond what the incumbent faculty had when they were first hired. This is why I don't buy the “academia is a meritocracy” line. In a meritocracy, incumbents would have to defend their positions against newcomers. With tenured faculty, that doesn't happen.)

Some qualifications are easier to quantify than others. Degree status and years of teaching experience are easy to put on a grid. Performance at an interview – and make no mistake, interviews are performances – is tougher. That may sound sinister, but having done and/or sat in on dozens of interviews, I can attest that some people who seem great on paper just don't get it done 'live,' whether in person or on the telephone. I've seen exceptionally well-credentialed candidates stumble on the simplest questions, simply because their priorities were wildly different from ours. I've seen candidates adopt the attitude that they're doing us a favor by deigning to consider working here: that's always the kiss of death. And there are always those mystifying failures of basic communication skills – monosyllabic answers to everything, answering questions other than the ones that were asked, or basic incomprehensibility. None of those show up on paper, but they're all crucial. Even granting the limits of the interview format, I don't want to put somebody incomprehensible in front of a classroom.

All of that said, there are other legitimate (or semi-legitimate) factors that could come into play in any given case. There may be salary constraints such that the topmost candidate is essentially priced out of the job. (That can easily happen in a collective bargaining environment, in which starting salaries are determined by a pretty mechanistic grid. If you score too high on the grid, the college might decide it can't afford you, and if it did a lowball offer, it would lose the grievance.) In some cases, a college might be spooked by 'flight risk.' If a college has lost several rising stars recently to raids, it may decide to lower its sights for a while in hopes of retaining people without raising its pay scale. I'm philosophically opposed to that, but it happens. Sometimes they're doing what I call the “job and a half” search, in which they're looking for someone who can fill the immediate need, but who can also grow into another role in the near future. Say you're hiring a Spanish professor, but you also know that there's growing demand for Italian, and you're thinking about adding a program in Italian in a couple years. Candidate A is the better Spanish teacher, but Candidate B is a perfectly capable Spanish and Italian teacher. Who do you hire? (Either would strike me as defensible.)

There's also affirmative action, which can be a wild card. I don't want to get into that debate; I'll just acknowledge its existence as a variable.

And then there are all the usual human failings. Some colleges have cultures of “waiting your turn,” in which longterm adjuncts are kept loyal through implied promises of being “next.” Some committees won't take seriously anybody who isn't already there. Some chairs reward personal loyalty over performance, or don't perceive the difference between the two. Sometimes committees split, and the minimally-acceptable-to-all “dark horse” candidate wins, despite being nobody's first choice. Sometimes a formally-open job is given to a trailing spouse in order to maintain local comity, or to reduce flight risk.

And sometimes people just get it wrong. It happens.

I agree that candidates are owed respectful treatment and timely notification. But the requirements I've seen for hiring processes are more about what goes into a decision than how it ends up. To do otherwise, you'd have to know the 'right' decision in advance, at which point there wouldn't be any need to go through a process in the first place. It's frustrating, but given the number of unknowable variables out there, it's what has to be done.

Good luck on your next search. The market is brutal enough that any given rejection shouldn't be taken as a reflection on the candidate.

Wise and worldly readers – your thoughts?

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

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Ask My Readers: Students Who Outplace

When they apply for admission at my cc, prospective students who haven't placed out already with SAT/ACT scores or AP credit have to take placement tests in math and English. The English exam includes a hand-graded essay. For simplicity, I'll just address the English.

Depending on how they score, one of several things will happen. The student might place directly into intro to composition, at which point, all is well. The student might place into remedial English, but that's okay, since we have that well in hand and we're pretty good at it. (Specialization has its rewards.) The student might reveal him/herself to be ESL, at which point, s/he takes ESL coursework; again, not ideal, but we know what to do and students have a real shot at success. Or the student can “outplace,” scoring too low even for remediation.

This is where the dilemmas get ugly, and where we're struggling to devise an intelligent system.

The first step is usually to find a way around the problem. Was the student hung over at test time? Take it again. Was the student actually ESL? We can handle that. Did the student simply blow off the test out of misplaced arrogance? Give The Talk, and a retest. Some students are saved this way.

But some native-speaker students did their level best, and just didn't show enough academic strength to suggest that even remediation would be worthwhile.

(I'd insert my usual “what the hell are the high schools thinking?” rant here, but it doesn't really help.)

This is where “community” and “college” can crash into each other.

The stiff-backed academic in me likes to think that the value of a degree only holds insofar as it suggests the ability to perform at a college level. So if a kid just isn't in the ballpark, well, college isn't for everyone. Let the student find another field of endeavor, one more suited to his strengths, and let us provide higher education. Even in my most bleeding-heart moments, I see real validity to this position.

But there's that pesky “open-door admissions” side of our mission. And I'm just social scientist enough to bristle at the idea that a single test, even if given twice, can tell you that a given student will never succeed at college-level work. (I think the issue is called “ecological inference,” which, if I remember right, refers to the inability to predict or ascribe individual traits or behavior based on larger statistical trends. It's one thing to say a student's chances of passing are low; it's another to pronounce the enterprise futile.) I don't want to trap a kid in endless remediation and take his money for what will very likely be a quixotic enterprise, but I don't want to slam the open door entirely shut, either. And my dissatisfaction with the existing options is fairly widely shared on campus.

(The libertarian option of presenting students with the statistics and leaving it to them to decide whether to try remediation doesn't quite cut it for me. To the extent that we're taxpayer funded, we have a fiduciary obligation to use those resources where they have a reasonable chance of doing some good. Giving a kid a blank check to remediate until the cows come home strikes me as a betrayal of the taxpayers. It could also potentially poison the classroom atmosphere in the remedial classes, if the backlog of multiple-attempters grows large.)

So, I'm turning to my wise and worldly readers for advice.

Do you have – or have you seen – a reasonably fair and effective system for handling the prospective students who outplace? We're batting ideas around, but none of them strikes me as obviously correct, and I claim no monopoly on good ideas. I've heard talk – all of it speculative -- of individual tutoring, group tutoring, non-credit classes, alliances with vocational schools, and simply throwing up our hands and sending students away. The goal is to neither ignore the real students who actually show up, nor to water down the quality of the degree, but to get students who start out far behind their peers to catch up, and to do it in a fiscally and academically responsible way. Any useful ideas would be greatly appreciated. Your thoughts?

Tuesday, July 17, 2007


During the academic year, there's a pretty good degree of synchronization on campus. Most people are around frequently enough that it's not terribly hard to complete the usual bureaucratic errands, and getting in touch with folks is relatively easy. There's some stress around final exam time, when faculty are especially frazzled (and rightly so), but other than that, it isn't too bad.

In the summer, though, even the simplest bureaucratic task falls victim to syncopated calendars.

Most of the faculty are nowhere to be found. Those who are around are around on idiosyncratic schedules, so it's hard to predict. Staff usually schedule their vacations during the summer, but different people go at different times. (There's no single week during which the entire college shuts down, so there's always something going on.) Worse, the reality of delegating tasks means that sometimes a given task is only done by one person in an office – when that person is on vacation, that task goes undone. Multiply that by the number of offices on campus, and even relatively routine processes become challenging.

This is especially true for those processes that involve locally-crafted 'patches' for systems that don't quite work. It's not unusual for longtime incumbents to find ways to improvise Rube Goldberg solutions to square the various circles that come around. The catch, though, is that those patches are often the specialized knowledge of those incumbents – put a temp in there, and the same stuff can't get done.

This week I'm running from office to office to office to try to get some fairly important stuff through all the necessary hoops before some pretty unforgiving deadlines hit. It's a game of “hurry up and wait,” since some folks are around only for brief windows, some aren't here at all, and some aren't here but did some scattershot delegating before leaving. Things that would normally be relatively routine are suddenly quite challenging.

The frustrating part is that, as urgent as some of this stuff is, much of it has to sit and wait until whomever gets back from wherever. It's very much a “spinning my wheels” feeling.

In a way, I'd expect summer to be more productive, since it's relatively free of day-to-day crises and the usual stream of interruptions. As it happens, that relative calm comes at a price.

Monday, July 16, 2007

The Girl at Three

The Girl turned three last week.

She's very different from her brother. With The Boy, you can see the man he will be. The adult is clearly visible in the child, and has been ever since he was just a wee sprout. With The Girl, it's harder to picture. She's more baby-ish than he was at this age, and also harder to read.

She's usually quieter than he is, though when provoked, she's capable of pitching some impressive diva fits. She gives great bear hugs, often with a running start – if you've ever seen a catcher jump on a pitcher after a perfect game, you have the idea. She loves to be read to, and to do whatever TB is doing at any given moment.

Like me, her reaction to stress is to limit input. When she falls or otherwise hurts herself, she doesn't want a fuss made. She'll actually show Mommy the hand when Mommy tries to comfort her, since TW comforts by talking. I'll give her a silent bear hug and just sway gently, not speaking, until she gets her composure enough to deal with other people. One introvert to another, I get it. (To her credit, TW has noticed the pattern and adjusted.)

One afternoon last weekend we were at a friend's house, along with some other folks the hosts knew. Among the others was an older couple, I'm guessing 70ish. Before we left, TG insisted on hugging the older man, who was visibly moved by it. She has a way of melting people's defenses. The older ladies at church make quite the fuss over her.

She has a new favorite question -- “are you ginking what I'm ginking?” It's a little unnerving, coming from a three-year-old. So far, we haven't guessed right once.

It's hard to know which toys will be a hit (other than Curious George). Her current fave is a little medical kit one of her friends gave her. She likes to use the stethoscope on her teddy bears. As toys go, I'm all for it. She isn't allergic to girly toys, but isn't especially into them, either. I see a scientist or doctor in her; she has that observant quality.

And a mind like a steel trap. After TB sang “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” at the stadium a few weeks ago, TG hasn't stopped singing it. She eliminates the contraction -- “three strikes and you are out,” which throws off the phrasing terribly – but somehow makes it work. Once those lyrics are in her brain, that's it.

When she's at home, and it's just us without any guests, she lets her guard down in a way that adults just don't. There's something bittersweet about it. It just doesn't occur to her not to be secure. I know that won't always be true – junior high is secular hell – so I try to savor it now. At home, there just isn't a trace of self-consciousness in her. As an adult, it's easy to forget what it's like to be completely carefree and secure. Reminding us of what that feels like is a gift she gives to us. Letting her continue to feel that way is a gift we try really hard to keep giving to her.

This Fall she starts preschool. She's more than capable, but I still have trouble imagining it. It will be the first of many steps – a small one, but an important one – she takes into the world. I know she'll be great, and we'll be rooting for her. But we'll miss the way that her whole world can be a safe and secure home, filled only with people who love her.

Happy birthday, TG.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Ask the Administrator: Sports at Community Colleges

A new correspondent writes:

Here at Way Up North CC, our little gym just died, and we're renovating it from top to bottom next year. During that year, no intercollegiate athletics...and no weightroom for me. I posted the following on our campus discussion board and wondered if you had any thoughts on small cc's (with live-in students) involvement with sports. Obviously, I'm far from disinterested....

Why do we have intercollegiate athletics at WUNCC?

The traditional reasons:

* athletics bring money, prestige, alumni loyalty, publicity to the school.

* athletics offer athletes the chance to learn leadership and teamwork.

* athletics give the school a 'face' and 'personality' students can identify with.

* athletics offer students the chance to develop their bodies and skills--'sound mind in a sound body'--and a healthy way to mitigate the pressures of work and school.

I wonder how many of those obtain at WUNCC.

Do athletics make money for the school or cost money? What percentage of students directly benefit from the program? How many of our student athletes show leadership outside of the gym? What percentage of students are coming to games?

My impression is that most of our students are far too busy to participate in sports and that, although sports are very important to the few people who do play, sports are far less important to the non-participants than to non-participants in high school.

My further impression from 20 years of using the weight room and observing the J-- Gym goings-on is that fewer students today are pumping iron, shooting hoops, playing badminton and pingpong, or in the gym at all. That's a shame, because the best justification for diverting resources from education is that an athletic program exists to develop lifelong participants, lifelong players, lifelong exercisers, lifelong healthy people--just as we say our educational program exists to develop lifelong learners.

But if our institutional focus is on excellence, teams, and intercollegiate play, rather than broad participation and fun, we ignore the best justification for sports in favor of the lesser ones.

We have a year to consider why we promote an athletic program that only a small minority of our students use.

There's a lot here.

My cc doesn't have residential students – most don't – so I don't know to what extent that variable makes a difference. (It does have intercollegiate teams in several sports.) And the issues of gym facilities, phys ed requirements, and intercollegiate athletics are distinct, even if they're related.

From what I've observed of student life here, there isn't much of a culture of fandom. I've never attended a game of any of my cc's teams, nor have most of my colleagues. I couldn't tell you which teams are doing well or badly in a given year. The students don't seem attuned either, other than the athletes themselves and their personal friends. Intercollegiate play here is a very different animal from intercollegiate play in, say, the Big 10.

At the athletic powerhouses, as I understand them, conspicuous teams – football, basketball – have a pronounced effect on both alumni giving and incoming student applications. Neither is true here.

Sports, for us, are a money-losing proposition, but we maintain them out of a sense that even the kid who couldn't afford to go away – or who had a checkered high-school experience – deserves a shot at the full college experience. (We make the same argument for student plays.) I'm firmly agnostic on the claim that sports builds character, but I recognize that involvement in sports can tie students more closely to a college and therefore make eventual graduation likelier. Students on teams form bonds, just as students in a band or club do. Students with bonds at the college are statistically likelier to see their programs through to graduation. The causal link is hard to prove, but intuitively plausible – you're less likely to be intimidated or indifferent if you have friends around. To the extent that we can use, say, the baseball team to give otherwise-indifferent students a reason to stick around and succeed, I'm willing to look past some of the milder excesses of jock culture.

(That said, the relatively low priority of sports at most cc's means that jocks don't get the kind of carte blanche for bad behavior that they might get at a football factory. They just aren't worth it. I've personally been on a committee that voted to expel an athlete for cheating – we greeted the news of his team membership with a collective shrug, and sent him packing.)

I take a weird, maybe contradictory, position on this stuff. I don't mind having some reasonably low-cost teams around – we don't do football, which is a real money-suck – and I'm glad that we have some pretty good workout facilities available on campus for students, faculty, and staff. (I can be found there myself on a pretty regular basis during the school year.) But I don't believe in a campuswide phys ed requirement, and I'm not sold on the argument that making students play badminton at 19 will prevent obesity at 40. (I'm especially not sold on requiring the returning student, the 35-year-old single Mom attending classes at night after work, to take gym class. Something about adding insult to injury.) To me, a good gym open to students is sort of like a good library open to students: it's something a college should make available, but not mandate a set number of hours of use.

I guess where the residential/non-residential split might be relevant would be with intramurals. If most students commute, I don't see those working. With a fair number of students in dorms, they might.

Fair readers – your thoughts?

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

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Ask the Administrator: The Trial Run

A new correspondent writes:

I'm currently ABD in an English Department at an R1 school, working on my dissertation and hoping to defend in December 2008 (but no later than Spring 2009). I'm working on my first chapter now, but I've actually been working with my dissertation ideas for several years because I stumbled upon the project in my first year of PhD coursework. It turned out to be an area that relatively few have studied, and my advisor tells me that it has great potential to be published when the time comes. I will have my first chapter (a.k.a. writing sample)finished and revised, and I'll be working on my next chapter by the end of this Fall semester.

I've been thinking about taking a "trial run" at the job market this year if something is open that would make a really great fit for my family (husband is ABD in history, and we have two children) and I. My husband and I have agreed that we will not even look at post-docs or visiting positions; it's tenure track or bust. My primary field is a fairly decent commodity right now, and my advisor has a 100% placement rating (in addition to being widely known in the area of study). She hasn't directed me against taking a stab at the market, but a few other faculty have, indicating that the market is so bleak, hiring committees are rarely looking at ABDs. I've got a great work ethic, I always make my deadlines, and I actually *like* researching and writing my dissertation, so I have no fear that I'll be finished on time. If I got a position for the 08-09 academic year, I'd probably only have one chapter (plus revisions) left to complete when I started the job, and I'm confident that that's feasible. But what do I know? Do you have any advice on people taking a "trial run" at the market? In your experience, does it disadvantage a person once they've actually finished the dissertation if they've previously had a run at the market with no luck? Or more plainly, can taking a "trial run" hurt anything? Any tips you or your readers have would be most appreciated!

This certainly brings back memories.

Back at Dear Old Grad U, grad student funding was allocated on the assumption that everybody got a job while ABD, so the year in which you finished the dissertation was typically unfunded. Of course, by that point, nobody got jobs at all, so people sort of dropped off a cliff just when they were about to finish. As 'structural flaws' go, it was a pretty bad one. I don't know if they've bothered to correct it in the decade since I finished, but I'm guessing not.

In the searches at Proprietary U, ABD status was regarded with some suspicion. There was a history of applicants claiming to be this close, then taking years to actually seal the deal, if they ever did. After you've been burned that way a few times, you start looking askance at every ABD candidate. (To be fair, I think sometimes the candidates themselves were surprised at how long it took them to finish, esp. with a full-time teaching load. I'm thinking it was one part lying, one part naivete.)

At my cc, though, ABD status isn't a problem. The doctorate is nice to have, but it isn't a position requirement (except for administration).

Either way, though, I've never heard of a penalty for having been on the market before. As long as your letters and application are up-to-date, I don't see the harm in it (other than the opportunity cost of the time and effort each application takes). Depending on your field and a host of other variables, you may or may not stand a very good chance as an ABD, but if it doesn't work this time around, I don't see why you'd be any weaker next year. If anything, it may be useful to make those rookie mistakes when it isn't crucial yet, only so you can be that much more polished when it really matters, if it comes to that.

I'm intrigued by the “tenure track or bust.” There's something admirable in that. My cc actually has the same philosophy – other than last-minute fill-ins for unanticipated medical emergencies, we don't do “temporary” or “visiting” full-time gigs. If you're full-time, you're tenure-track. Certainly with a spouse and two children, hopping from job to job around the country would be nuts. I admire your panache.

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers – your thoughts/observations/experiences?

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

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Ask the Administrator: Letters and Writing Samples

A grad school aspirant writes (edited for length):

Applying for grad school is pretty different than applying for undergrad, and
applying for the specific school I went to was even more different. When I
applied to my college, we had to write a "Why (that college)" essay,
which I wrote as a love letter (curly silly font and overblown
romantic metaphors and all), and we could add as many other things (be
they essays or art projects or cookie baskets) as we wanted to... so I
got to be silly and serious and everything by turns. (Grad U) offers no
such indulgence. They want a 5-10 page personal statement, and a
20-30 page writing sample (and three recommendations, transcripts,
GREs and the usual nonsense) Since they have such strict limitations
for this application, I really want to offer the best (and most
appropriate) pieces I can.

I have an outline for my personal statement, and I keep going back and
forth between a coolly academic/historical tone ('this is what I did,
these are my research interests, this is how they fit with x, y, and z
in your program..') and a more, well, personal one ('this is why I
love what I'm studying, this is what I'm really excited about, this is
what motivates me to study this and not other things' etc.). I
realize that I can cover both sets of subject matter at the same time,
but I'm having a hard time figuring out what level of, hm, intimacy is
proper when applying for graduate school.

My other problem is rather along the same lines. I'm rather confused
about the writing sample. I've heard different things from people
about what sorts of sources are best, and how much rewriting and
editing one is expected to do. My first inclination is to use a
segment of my thesis. That would clearly demonstrate how I write for
academic occasions, and show off some of the research I've done.
Unfortunately, one of the big things about my thesis is that it's
quite long, and a good portion of that length goes to
defining terms and laying out basic evidence. By the time you get to
the analysis and the "good" writing, it's already well over the page
limit...(its data are also somewhat dated.)

My other inclination, which I'm sort of leaning toward, is to rewrite
a paper I wrote while I was in (another place). That paper, currently untitled, was
never quite finished... but it was the subject of my research while I
was there, and covers a lot more ground than my thesis does. Where
the thesis is deep and specific, this paper is broad and very general.
It's also much shorter.

The two problems I foresee with that are that a) it's not at all
finished and was never formally "turned in" for a grade or publication

and thus might not "count" if it's supposed to be an example
of a completed work, and b) it's not nearly as fleshed out as I'd like
it to be, and I would need to add quite a lot of original writing to
it to make it worthy of submission (which brings us right back to the
'how much original work is appropriate?' question).

Honestly, I'm much more excited about the prospect of rewriting that
paper than editing my thesis, even though it would probably entail
more work. My thesis was a lot of fun, and dovetails really nicely
with the research (in the program at Grad U). It's just so *big* and *specific*
that I'd feel like I couldn't adequately convey anything of meaning in
such a short space.

So I'm sort of stuck, and was wondering if you could offer any advice.

First, the obligatory warning: Not Grad School! Noooo! Run for hills!

That out of the way, on to your question.

I've never worked in graduate admissions, and cc's are open admissions, so I may not be the best person for this. Any readers with experience in graduate admissions are invited to chime in, since I'm basically speculating on this one.

That said, my understanding of the function of the writing sample is less to show what you're going to do -- which, by definition, you haven't done yet -- than what you're capable of doing. In other words, it's all well and good to have big plans, but if you can't write your way out of a paper bag, then it ain't gonna happen. The letter is to express future directions; the writing sample is to show capability. If you show competence with the sample and ambition with the letter, I think you're pretty much on target.

I'd say that if you're facing a tight deadline, go with the already-written piece, maybe with an asterisk noting when it was written. If you have the time to work up the piece you're more passionate about, do that. Time is really the critical variable.

The closest analogue to this I've experienced has been on faculty search committees, where writing samples were basically reality checks to make sure that phrases like “the dissertation is nearly complete” had more substance than “the check is in the mail.” If a candidate couldn't produce a presentable completed chapter, that was a pretty convincing sign that she was deeply lost in ABD land. The content of the sample was far less important than the fact that it was done, and done well.

Wise and worldly readers – does this track with what you've seen? Any killer ideas for graduate applications floating around out there?

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

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Opening Offers, Counteroffers, and a Tip for the Newbies

At my cc, some terms simply don't get used. Some are the predictable grad school-ish buzzwords: “counterhegemonic,” say, or “problematic (used as a noun).” But others are more pedestrian: “surplus,” “abundance,” “counteroffer,” “merit raise.”

We don't do counteroffers or merit raises. Salaries rise for the just and the unjust alike.

In some ways, it's a great system. I don't have the agonizing decisions about whom to alienate, and we're spared all manner of really dreary conversations. Raises are negotiated at union contract time, and that's that. From the union's perspective, it's good for solidarity, and it ensures that a pinhead manager can do only so much damage. (More cynically, it also protects the employees who carry the least weight.) From the college's perspective, it makes budgeting relatively straightforward, and it allows us to redirect energy from invidious distinctions – however merited – to efforts to improve the college as a whole.

But there's a nasty little catch.

If a new hire doesn't play relative hardball at the moment of first hire, that's it. Once you're tracked, you're tracked. If your starting salary is, say, 3k lower than it could have been, that difference will never – never – be made up as long as you're here. If anything, it will slowly compound. If you do a just-good-enough-not-to-get-fired job, you'll get your contractual raise; if you routinely walk on water, same raise.

I've seen other systems, and there's something to be said for them. Some do a pure merit system, wherein everything is up for grabs at any moment. I'll admit even I find that a little scary, since a single bonehead chair or dean could screw up a department for years in one fell swoop. Some divide the salaries into a “cost of living” increment that everybody gets, and a “merit” increment on top of that to be distributed by performance. That strikes me as much more reasonable, since nobody gets left completely in the cold, but there's still an incentive not to retire on the job. Some do across-the-board raises, but have a separate pool of money for counteroffers.

Counteroffers are offers you make to incumbent employees not to leave when someone else is trying to hire them. The market logic of them is clear, even if the morality (rewarding disloyalty) is a bit off. The idea is that somebody's market price can only be assessed by actual offers – once an actual offer has been made, you can either counteroffer or say goodbye. Those who aren't good enough (or aggressive enough, or disloyal enough) to solicit outside offers don't need extra enticements to stay.

I've read that once somebody accepts a counteroffer and stays, the median length of subsequent stay is 18 months. That makes sense to me intuitively. Generally, you don't look if you're satisfied; looking is a sign that something is wrong. Unless money is the only issue, which is seldom the case, then after the glow of the raise wears off, you're still dissatisfied. Honestly, one of my prouder moments as a manager occurred at Proprietary U, where I had a wonderful professor – and a friend – who was desperately unhappy there. He complained repeatedly about how unfairly he was treated, about how the institution was beneath his Ivy League Ph.D., and so on. I made him an offer: if he put a sock in it for a while and stayed on his good behavior, I'd give him every glowing reference he wanted. In return for not being a pain in my neck, I'd help him escape. He accepted, I held up my end of the deal, and he was gone for greener pastures within the year. I got a good, low-maintenance year out of him, and he got a job he actually wanted. It was better for everybody, even though part of me was sad to see him go.

I'd rather go with an internal merit system than a counteroffer system, given the choice. Better to reward loyalty and institutional service than really aggressive job-searching.

But I'd almost rather have either than a pure same-raises-for-all system. Given the dramatic mismatch between our starting salaries and the cost of housing in the area, I don't have any tools at my disposal with which I can say to a prospective hire, “yes, the opening salary is low, but we'll bring you up in a few years.” The salary will go up in modest increments and no more.

I can imagine an obvious retort -- “so raise the opening offers, dummy!” -- but neither the budget nor the union would allow it. To the union, 'salary compression' is unfair to incumbent employees, who are, after all, the union's constituency. And the degree to which we'd have to increase our opening offers to come within range of local house prices is simply prohibitive, even if we were to tough it out with the union.

It's frustrating. To my mind, hiring well is one of the best things we can do to position the college for the long term. But it's hard to hire well when the best you can offer is not just low, but fated to remain low for the foreseeable future. We can't go back and “correct” lowball hires, and we can't raise the floor now to go over the heads of the lower-paid incumbents. We can't even hold out the hope that outstanding performance will be recognized financially. We can highlight the various other benefits of the job, which are real and desirable, but which don't pay the rent or the mortgage.

My tip for the newbies: if the college doesn't do merit raises, go for broke on the opening offer. If you don't, you'll never stop paying for it.

Monday, July 09, 2007

When You've Got It, You've Got It

The Girl's birthday is coming up, and we're at a loss for ideas for presents, so the whole group piled into the car and headed to a nearby toy store, seeking inspiration.

If you've ever taken young children to a toy store, you know that it's a participatory, hands-on experience.

At one point we were in the back of the store, in the bicycle/tricycle area, checking out the wares. The Boy found the big motorized jeeps and trucks – the kind the kid actually sits in and drives – and immediately started climbing into the driver's seat of each in sequence.

After a few minutes, he settled into the driver's seat of a jeep in camouflage colors.

Next to the jeep was a pink Barbie Cadillac Escalade. (The SUV thing starts early in the burbs.) A little blonde moppet climbed into the driver's seat of that. She noticed TB, and immediately tried to strike up a conversation with him. (He was more interested in trying to make the steering wheel turn.) She asked him his name, told him hers, then pretended to hand him her phone number. She even told him to call her!


The Boy was unimpressed. I was floored. As we walked away, The Wife mentioned “that girl gave you her phone number.” TB responded, deadpan, “yeah.”

When you've got it, you've got it. Where he got it, I don't know. But good for him.

Friday, July 06, 2007

Where Are My Manners? A Belated Thank You

A belated "thank you!" to Dictyranger, who designed and donated the new logo for my blog over at IHE.

Check it out!

8 Things

I'm not usually one for memes, but having been tagged by both Dr. Pion and Lesboprof, here goes.

  • I have to post these rules before I give you the facts.

  • Each player starts with eight random facts/habits about themselves.

  • People who are tagged need to write their own blog about their eight things and post these rules.

  • At the end of your blog, you need to choose eight people to get tagged and list their names.

  • Don’t forget to leave them a comment telling them they’re tagged, and to read your blog.

  1. I've long held a strange fascination for the later/lesser works of otherwise great artists. What happens when the Great Ones miss? I've never seen a systematic examination of this question, and I don't have the tools to do it myself, but if there's one out there, I'd love to see it. (This may be at the root of my love of baseball, since even the best hitters make 'outs' more often than hits.)

  2. Although I love tomato-heavy Italian food, I don't like tomatoes. I have no explanation for this.

  3. I once threw a rod outside Binghamton, NY. If you ever get the chance, don't.

  4. The one time I led a cheer at a high-school football game, I misspelled it. I just wasn't meant to cheerlead. I am okay with that.

  5. I once lived in a second-story apartment next to a church with a short steeple. This was in grad school, when I'd usually roll out of bed around 9:30. Except that the #&*(%)@ church would start ringing its bells at 9, and go for a solid 15 minutes. The church was a far more vexing neighbor than the drug dealer on the first floor, since he slept late and mostly kept to himself.

  6. The first album I ever bought was Are We Not Men? We Are Devo! I learned about Devo from a feature on P.M. Magazine. That tells you all you need to know about growing up in the suburbs.

  7. In my teens and early twenties, I was pretty un-squeamish. Shots didn't bother me, giving blood didn't bother me, and it took something pretty extreme to cause motion sickness. Sometime in my late twenties, I started the process my brother lovingly termed “wussification,” and now I'm terribly skittish about shots or blood, and I have to avoid the cool rides at amusement parks. As concessions to age go, it's pretty mild, but it's also counterintuitive. I'd expect to get desensitized with age, not extra-sensitized. Bummer.

  8. I once had an extended conversation at brunch with the pianist Jaki Byard at Birdland. He talked about his painting – he preferred realism – and his kid, who was in and out of rehab. The trick to getting a musician to sit down with you is to be in the company of an attractive young woman.

Most folks out there have already been tagged, so if you haven't yet, and it looks like fun, consider yourself tagged.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Ask the Administrator: Job-Hunting While Pregnant

A new correspondent writes:

I'm wondering if you or your readers can shed any light on the issue of
women being pregnant while on the job market. Every academic woman planning
to become a mother has to weigh the timing of a pregnancy very carefully,
and the general assumption is that you never want to be pregnant while
you're on the job market. When you think about it from the perspective of
the woman, however, we're often weighing many issues that can conflict with
each-other: for example, whether a pregnancy is more feasible during
graduate school--even with dissertation writing and teaching--than it is
when you've gotten a tenure-track job, the question of when we can count on
having health insurance, and the possibilities for any maternity leave. Most
of the time, I think women try to time pregnancies so they can deliver a
baby at the beginning of the summer and extend their time at home, but the
timing of the (lengthy) academic job market process kills this possibility
since anyone getting pregnant in the late summer would be very visibly
pregnant during job interviews.

My main question is how much a pregnancy factors into a hiring decision. I'm
going on the market this year and have thought about waiting to get pregnant
with my second child until next year, but that makes no real sense to me
because then I'll have to go through the rigors of my first year while
dealing with all the variables of pregnancy. Plus, I'll be older, there's no
guarantee I'll find a job, and I don't really want to wait. Having already
had one child, I feel that taking a summer off to be with a newborn before I
start a full-time job would be so much better than taking the following
summer to do it, when I'm bound to have more responsibilities in a new
department. I know that there are a lot of factors that go into any woman's
decision to try to get pregnant, but for me this job-market question is a
big one, so any help would be appreciated.

Nope, no hot-button issues here! I don't have a general theory of academic fertility, but I can offer a few points, and I'll just ask readers who've negotiated these issues themselves to chime in with what they've found.

The easiest point first: it's illegal to hold pregnancy against a candidate. That isn't to say it never happens, or that it's always possible to determine what's going on in someone's head, but the law is on your side. It could be tough to prove in any given case, but you would be well advised to make notes of any inappropriate comments someone on the other side of the table happens to make. From a manager's perspective, the nightmare scenario is someone on the search committee saying something stupid to a candidate who wasn't going to win anyway. That gets ugly fast, because then the burden of proof is on the employer to show that its own boneheaded conduct was harmless. Typically, a committee stupid enough to say something out-of-bounds is also stupid enough not to keep really good records of how it made decisions. Good luck defending that in court.

In terms of trying to 'time' pregnancies so children are born in time for summer break, I'll just gently mention that not every couple conceives the first time out. Given the brevity of summer breaks, missing by just a couple of months could upset the apple cart pretty drastically. If you happen to hit the perfect time of year, congratulations, but I wouldn't advise building a plan that depends on it.

As unpredictable as fertility can be, the same can be said of the academic job market. You might get a great gig your first time out, or you might not. You might land a one-year position somewhere, so you're right back where you started next year at this time, but a little older. People have been known to hop from temporary job to temporary job for years.

In terms of how search committees view pregnancy, the best I can say is each committee is different. Ideally, none of them will consider it. And that's almost certainly true at the first screening stage, when the committee is just winnowing down the slush pile to pick the group to invite (or call) for first interviews. At that point, they simply wouldn't know. Once they've seen you, it may be impossible for them not to know.

Based on the demographic information I've seen over the years, the rule of thumb seems to be that the more research-oriented places are likelier to balk than the more teaching-oriented ones. But that's painting with a very broad stroke – as they say in the NFL, any given Sunday.

If you're at an interview, and you're at the point at which there's simply no way not to notice, I'd advise owning the issue and asking upfront about maternity leaves and the tenure clock. If you're not clearly showing, it's entirely your call what to do.

More broadly, I wouldn't advise making either decision – job or pregnancy – contingent on the other. Live your life, and let the chips fall where they may. There's no perfect time, and there never will be. If anything, waiting for the perfect time may push you to a point at which the issue is suddenly and mercilessly moot. This profession can be unspeakably inhuman in any number of ways. A little pressure on it to remember that people are complicated isn't a bad thing.

Wise and worldly readers – what do you think? What have you seen?

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

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Freezing in Florida

This is part three in what has become a series.

Last year, the University of Florida attempted to come to grips with the reality of budget crunches and misaligned resources by announcing a five-year plan to trim certain departments and expand others. The idea was to use resources strategically – rather than inertially – to get more bang for the buck.

The faculty in the newly-disfavored areas went predictably ballistic, got a dean fired, raised all manner of objections (both procedural and substantive), and got the administration to cave completely, going so far as to charge the new interim dean with mollifying everybody by spending more money. So some change could occur, but only by adding; 'shared governance' took 'subtracting' off the table. The resources for this were to come from a new 'charge' that would get around legislative limits on spending.


Sure enough, this week we have word that the U of Florida has imposed a hiring freeze to deal with a $30 million deficit and the governor's veto of a proposed tuition increase. No word on the fate of the 'charge,' though I suspect it landed in the same bin as the original five-year plan. The University will appoint a panel of faculty, staff, and students to help identify ways to reduce costs.

That would be the same faculty that ran a dean out of town for daring to suggest that continuing to grow the pool of future underemployed composition adjuncts might not be the best use of taxpayer money.

So now, instead of cutting in some areas and using the savings to grow others, the U will cut by attrition and grow nothing, preserving existing imbalances in amber. And any strategic decisions will be made by the already-present, which is to say, those who benefit from the existing imbalances.

I'm not much of a drinker, but if I worked there, I'd drink every single day.

A pretty smart fellow once wrote that freedom is the insight into necessity. The U of Florida seems to be operating on the denial of necessity. Cuts cause conflict? Screw cuts! We'll just conjure more money from, uh, well, somewhere! That didn't work? Uh...it's the governor's fault! Yeah, that's it! After all, who elected him?

Oh. Right.

The point of the university is to serve the people of Florida. It is not to serve the faculty. If we grant that fundamental truth, then 'shared governance' should come with some pretty glaring restraints on it. Otherwise, people with obviously vested interests – that is, faculty with life tenure – will use their power to pervert the university to serve them instead. Astoundingly, they will have the gall to claim the moral high ground while they feather their own nests. When the irresistible force of angry tenured faculty crashes headfirst into the immovable object of Objective F-ing Reality – in this case, the governor's veto – bad things will happen. Like hiring freezes. Underfunded areas will continue to languish; overstaffed areas will continue to produce graduates for already-overcrowded fields.

Inertia kills. Just in the last month we've had word of two colleges dying, and of several more on life support. In many states, public higher ed has been the go-to budget line any time there has been a shortfall – the tenured faculty may or may not feel the pain, but the underemployed adjuncts certainly do. Most of higher education is still nonprofit, but that doesn't mean it's immune to economics. We can choose to try to get a grip on those realities, or we can continue to let them buffet us in the name of conflict avoidance. But the Florida approach of closing your eyes real tight, clicking your heels together, and waiting for the unaccountable windfall to pay everybody off just ain't working.

A hiring freeze is an abdication of strategy. It's exactly the wrong move. You can't wait for flush times to start trying to make changes. If anything, you need those changes all the more when budgets are tight. Now that nobody – nobody – can deny the reality of the budget shortfall, this is the time to get serious about reallocation. That means not setting up processes that will inevitably ratify existing imbalances. It may mean sucking it up and having some nasty political battles. That's what leaders have to be willing to do.

Good luck, Florida. If you figure out where that secret 'windfall' tree is, let me know. I've been doing this for a while now, and haven't found it yet.