Friday, August 31, 2007

Slack or Squeeze?

As those last few students trickle in to last-minute registration, those of us who throw ourselves into the scrum at in-person registration have to get increasingly creative to help them assemble schedules.

Between flat-to-retreating public funding and an unexpected (and welcome!) enrollment bump, we're suddenly completely full in some of the evergreen disciplines. This is a good problem to have, but it's still a problem.

Late in-person registration is a different animal at a cc. This is when we get students who actually went away, but who quickly turned tail and came home when confronted with the reality of wherever it was that they went. (I asked a colleague who works very closely with many of these students if she could figure out what drove so many of them to retreat in a week. She mentioned several factors – homesickness, sticker shock, a sense of being completely overwhelmed – but no one factor dominated.) Although they didn't want to be where they went, they don't want to lose time, either, so we're the fallback option. We're cheap, we're local, and our credits transfer. The idea is to take some gen eds with us, get their lives back in order, then try again in a year or two.

There's considerable wisdom in this. Unfortunately, it only works when we still have seats.

Anybody who believes in tightly-constructed curricula should spend a day at late in-person registration.

What do you do with the student who places 'remedial' in both math and English when all of the remedial sections are full? What do you do with the prospective Nursing major when all of the biology and chemistry labs are full? What do you do with the kid who really doesn't care what he takes, as long as it's all transferable, but all of the usual suspects (psych, history, math, English, etc.) are stuffed?

Eric Klinenberg wrote a brilliant book a few years ago – Heat Wave – about a devastating heat wave in Chicago in the mid-1990's. (After Katrina, it seems eerily prescient.) Although the book was far more sophisticated than I can gloss here, one of his arguments was that many years of starving the human-services side of the public sector – in the name of either small government or more prisons – has left many agencies incapable of dealing with extraordinary circumstances. They've adapted to the point that they can typically still deliver adequate responses to ordinary cases, but anything non-routine throws them into chaos, since any slack in the budget was cut a long time ago. In normal times, slack looks like waste, and it makes a tempting target. But an agency without spare resources is unable to respond when the demands on it suddenly jump beyond the ordinary.

We're in an admittedly much less dire version of that dilemma. After years of shaky public support, we've squeezed most of the slack out of many of our systems. (For present purposes, I'll just 'bracket' tenure.) So when we get an unexpected enrollment bump – desperately needed, eagerly anticipated, and highly welcome – we don't have the resources to handle it as well as we should. It's as if the universe is calling our bluff. “You want more students? I'll give you more students. Now what are you gonna do?”

If we hadn't already ratcheted up our adjunct percentages, we could just hire a few more adjuncts in strategic areas and see if the new levels are spikes or plateaus. But we've already squeezed that resource just about as far as it will go. When I asked my English chair about adding a few sections, the response was “and they'd be taught by whom?” I didn't have an answer for that.

The squeeze on us, unfortunately, becomes a squeeze on the students. Academic advisors who can see around corners a little bit can help, but there are limits to that. A savvy advisor can juggle a few electives and maybe work around some prereqs, but at some point, the student needs what the student needs.

Late in-person registration is always about short-term fixes, but it's easy to lose sight of the long term. Over time, the way to handle extraordinary circumstances is to have enough slack in the system that you can deploy it when needed. That means avoiding the temptation to avoid difficult programmatic decisions by just cutting slack. If we didn't rely so heavily on adjuncts in normal times, we'd have the resource to call on when students appear out of nowhere at the last minute. But we've avoided those tough calls and followed the path of least short-term resistance. Now, when we're finally in a position to catch a demographic break, we're scrambling not to drop it.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Trying to Remember 18

In an aside last week, I mentioned that my first semester at Snooty Liberal Arts College was an academic belly-flop. A few folks commented and/or wrote to say that they experienced the same thing: after a relatively strong academic performance in high school, they hit the wall in the first semester of college. They (and I) bounced back after that first semester, but the first semester wasn't pretty.

All these years (ahem) later, it's still hard to reconstruct just exactly what happened.

I can rule out one of the usual suspects: I wasn't partying my days and nights away. I discovered early on that I'm prone to hangovers of Biblical proportions (“and God said let there be Old Milwaukee, and there was a great weeping and gnashing of teeth...”), so that quickly kept the drinking within pretty strict limits. Drugs were out of the question. I even got a relatively decent amount of sleep, by college freshman standards. I didn't join a cult or get into an obsessive relationship or generate unusual drama.

Granted, my initial course selections were, well, stupid, and that didn't help. But I even got my butt kicked in classes that I had every reason to expect to do well in. In one memorable case, a professor returned a paper with a full page of red ink, angrily attacking my exegetical skills and accusing me of sophistry. I had to look up 'exegetical' and 'sophistry.' (I shared that story with him shortly before graduation, by which point I had redeemed myself academically, at least to him. He got a good chuckle out of it.)

Part of it, I think, involved learning how to throw myself into material. In high school, I was far enough ahead of the curve in certain subjects that I could sort of skate, and skate I did. This wasn't true for every class – my calc teacher must have thought I was a moron, and my physics teacher was mystified as to why the smart kids treated me as one of their own despite abundant evidence to the contrary – but in what I considered my wheelhouse, I could top the curve without working too hard. At some level, then, 'hard work' was actually associated with 'failure.' In the courses in which I had to bust it, I didn't do well anyway, and in the ones in which I succeeded, hard work was pretty much beside the point. From a time management perspective, hard work didn't make much sense.

Hitting college, it took me a little while to realize that the rules had changed. I couldn't count on my peers' even-greater-incomprehension-than-my-own when something didn't click. Since a ridiculous percentage of them hailed from Snooty Boarding Schools and Old Money, they had perfected the art of working hard in secret while maintaining a dashing public nonchalance. The public nonchalance lulled me, at first, into thinking that nothing had fundamentally changed.

The first semester GPA was a wake-up call. I had enough pride to be insulted by it, and to want to prove that I could do better. But in other circumstances, it wouldn't be that hard to imagine the opposite reaction – a defeated sigh, and a sulking retreat. Folks who study these things usually find that the highest attrition rates happen in the first year, and it makes sense to me. That's when it's easy to feel overwhelmed in an entirely new way, since the rules changed abruptly and nobody told you in a way that got through to you.

In my more libertarian moments, I sometimes wonder about the wisdom of 'distribution requirements.' Students do best in the courses they care most about, and they're most vulnerable in their first year. So why push courses they don't want on them at their most vulnerable point? Why make them slog through difficult-and-obligatory courses before they've had time to find their respective grooves? I don't know if I ever would have aced calculus, but I might have had a better shot a couple of years in than I did in those first few confused months of college. Any teacher can tell you that students who love what they're studying are easier to teach. Why make students at their most impressionable moment take courses they don't want?

As I've grown older, I've come back to that high school lesson about hard work and success. I see it from a different angle now, but the core of it still strikes me as true. If you have to force yourself to slog through it, you probably shouldn't. If you bust your hump because you enjoy what you're doing, then the work will pay off. The trick is not to eat your disgusting vegetables; it's to find vegetables that you like, then go with those.

Anyway, those are a few thoughts on trying to reconstruct my academic belly-flop at 18. Fellow floppers – what did it for you?

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Great Ideas in the Garden State

New Jersey has been all over the higher ed headlines this week. Two pieces of great news:

  • The prosecutor who indicted the Dean of Students at Rider College in connection with an alcohol poisoning death at a frat party has dropped the charges. (See my earlier post here.) Apparently, he figured out what the rest of us figured out a long time ago: failure to persuade a frat to mature is not a felony. Kudos to the prosecutor for finally grasping the obvious.

  • According to this article, the faculty union at Rutgers agreed to a deal with the university whereby the incumbent faculty agreed to set aside some of the money that would have gone to its own raises to establish a fund (with the university matching) to hire 100 new tenure-track faculty over the next several years. The intent is to reverse the losses-by-attrition that have occurred over the last several years as the university has endured substantial cuts in state support. Kudos to both the union and the administration for taking the long view.

If Rutgers is really smart, it will take a fresh look at where those 100 positions could best be used now, rather than simply going back and filling in, say, the last 100 cuts. Use the resources strategically, rather than reactively. It's harder than just resorting to take-a-number, but it's the right thing to do.

Strikingly, even the union representing part-time lecturers, which theoretically stands to lose membership, supports the deal.

What's so especially welcome in the Rutgers deal, from my perspective, is that the union has moved from 'reaction' and 'protest' and 'lines in the sand' to actually taking part in developing a solution, and that the administration has seen fit to recognize that with a matching grant of its own. Both sides are (at least now) getting past the fantasy that the legislature will have a change of heart and shower them with money to buy off any local conflict.

Of course, there's something in it for both sides. The administration is effectively getting a subsidy for its new hires, and the union is gaining membership. That's fine; deals that involve mutual self-interest are typically sturdier than deals that don't. But what makes this so refreshing is that both sides have found ways to tie their own self-interest to the good of both the university and the profession. To the extent that new spending is involved (the matching grant), it will go straight to the classroom. Honestly, I'm tremendously impressed. Well done. I hope the example spreads and takes root elsewhere.

(I admit being surprised at the level of overall spending increase to which the university has committed itself. Unless New Jersey's budget is running major surpluses, Rutgers may be in for a rude shock in another year or two. But the direction is right, even if the sails eventually need to be trimmed.)

Quibbles aside, this is genuinely impressive. I strongly encourage administrations and unions across the country to take serious notice. A little attention to the long term is long overdue.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

New Occupational Certificates

In a never-ending quest to serve demonstrated needs, we're considering developing certificate programs in some newly emerging professions:

  1. Celebrity Gossip Blogger. Make big bucks while sitting at home by copying and pasting pictures of Britney and Lindsay and TomKat and saying catty things about them! Learn to coin nicknames, dodge lawsuits, and snark your way onto daytime tv. No composition courses required!

  1. Help Line Expert. Master the phrase “have you tried rebooting?” Blame the software. Blame the peripherals. Blame the user. No computer science courses required!

  1. Fox News Blonde. 1/3 hair and makeup, 1/3 Pilates, 1/3 Republican talking points. No history, political science, or economics courses required!

  1. HMO Claims Rejecter. Learn to do battle with the sick and dying, and make money while doing it! Master such non-sequiturs as “your daughter's birth wasn't covered, since her name wasn't on the original enrollment form.” Keep a straight face while saying that unconsciousness is no excuse for failing to get a referral from a primary-care physician. Learn the difference between 'authorizing' a test and 'paying for it.' No Ethics courses required!

  2. Mortgage Risk Assessor. Learn to hum “Don't Worry, Be Happy” when borrowers don't document their income. What could possibly go wrong? No math required!

  1. Airline Price Setter. Ideal career for folks with untreated ADHD, or absurdist senses of humor. Opportunities for advancement include Itinerary Maker – Columbus to Boston via Phoenix? Why not? Absolutely no geography or math required!

Wise and worldly readers – what would you add?

Monday, August 27, 2007

Ask the Administrator: Setting Up Base Camp

A new correspondent writes:

After ten years or so of adjuncting around, I've quite happily been awarded a "full-time one year" appointment as an Assistant Professor in an established state school. The union-strong faculty have successfully lobbied their provost to convert a dozen or so part-time adjunct instructorships into a few full-time positions. All good--there's hope. Seems like a really smart, savvy, and healthy department, teaching focused, and a very good fit for me. I, of course, hope to stay longer than a single year, but the department will need to want me, and the provost will want to re-appoint (or convert to regular ladder faculty) the position. Tips? Suggestions? How would you suggest I proceed to increase the likelihood of being able to stay a bit? Do tell.

First, congratulations on your new status! My free advice – use the medical insurance while you have it. Get the head-to-toes checkup. Seriously. Stuff can sneak up on you if you don't look. And kudos to the faculty union and the provost there for looking out for the profession. I hope they can keep that long view and eventually convert those positions from one-year gigs to tenure-track ones, or at least to multi-year ones.

All of that said, I'd suggest re-thinking what you're trying to do.

You can't control what the department, or the union, or the provost will do. (Or, for that matter, what the voters of your state will do.) You can do the usual things to make yourself appealing – teach well, be a good colleague, pick up some of the assignments (whether committee or teaching) that nobody else wants, play well with others, etc, and you should. But you could knock every single one of those out of the park and still find yourself without a job next year.

Selfless devotion to the profession is a lovely sentiment, but you'll have bills to pay. My suggestion is to use the travel and professional development funding now available to you to the hilt. You finally have a decent perch from which to make yourself visible in the profession. Use it. Start planning now which conferences you'll travel to over the coming year, and budget accordingly. (You may need to supplement departmental travel money with some of your own. Start budgeting now.) If you've been adjuncting for ten years, and you aren't independently wealthy, you may well have had to adopt a lean travel schedule. That's understandable, but it doesn't make sense now. Look around aggressively, put yourself out there, and use every relevant perk at your disposal to do it.

The obvious upside to this strategy is that it increases the chances of getting an offer from someplace else.

The less-obvious upside is that it also increases the chances of getting an offer from your current home.

The stereotype of long-term adjuncts is that they're often excellent teachers, but their professional development has been stunted. (That's not their fault, but it's not about 'fault.') I emphasize that that's a stereotype, as opposed to a universal truth, but it's out there. If you want to be seen less as an ex-adjunct and more as a rising star they'd want to hire permanently, you'll need to walk the walk, and to do it in relatively conspicuous ways. Don't be so grateful for the new position that you forget to claim your due. Work those resources, and do it without guilt or hesitation. That's what they're for.

In making a new permanent hire, departments frequently use different criteria than they would a temp. In a temp, you want someone who teaches well, doesn't cause drama, and is willing to take the timeslots available. In a permanent hire, you want all that, but you also want some confidence that the person will grow with the job. If you want to cross over, I'd advise showing the ability to do that by stepping up in the profession. Whether it will work at your current home, I don't know, but it will increase the chances of you finding a permanent home somewhere.

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers – your thoughts?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Ask My Readers: Grade Appeals

(I'm thinking out loud in this post, looking for constructive suggestions. This is not some sort of position paper.)

How does your college handle grade appeals by students? Has it found a fair, reasonable, and aboveboard way?

I ask because we're going through another catalog revision, and having taken a fresh look at some sections that nobody has looked at in a while, I found a pretty untenable grade appeal process. I've called it to my colleagues' attention, who agree that the existing policy doesn't make sense, but we aren't quite sure what to propose to replace it.

(A policy like this would have to be approved by the Academic Standards Committee, which is composed primarily of faculty, so there's no spectre of administrative micromanagement here. We can propose or suggest, but we can't enact. But I don't want to propose anything stupid, since that doesn't solve anything.)

I'm thinking that some of the parameters for a reasonable policy might be:

  • Above the department level, there will be no 'content' judgment. To carry an appeal over a department chair, there would have to be a claim of some sort of process irregularity (a computation or recording error, a meaningful deviation from the syllabus, favoritism, bias). My thinking on that is that you need subject-matter expertise to judge content, and the higher you go, the farther removed from any given subject you get. If a student claims that his Spanish professor graded his oral presentation incorrectly, I'm in no position to make sense of it one way or the other.

  • The burden of proof is on the student bringing the appeal. A professor's grade is presumed valid until the student shows that it isn't. The benefit of the doubt goes to the professor.

  • There should be a pretty strict statute of limitations on grade appeals. I'm thinking a semester or a year, though I'm not wedded to that. But asking a professor to recall the details of an oral presentation four years after the fact strikes me as nuts.

  • In cases in which the professor is no longer present to be asked, the department chair may make the call. (I've had professors die mid-semester before. You need to have a contingency plan for this sort of thing.)

  • But...if a student follows the entire process and manages to show convincingly that her position is correct, the grade should, in fact, be changed. This is even true if it happens over the objections of the professor. While the professor's determination of the grade is given great deference, it is not inviolate.

Has your college found a reasonable balance that gives faculty the confidence that it won't be sold out at every complaint, but that still offers a wronged student a remedy? If so, how does that work?

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Ranking CC's

An alert reader sent me a link to the Washington Monthly's rating of the top 30 community colleges in America.

Ranking schemes like this invariably lead to a two-track response; I know they're flawed, but I want to do well on them, anyway. Every year I check the U.S. News rankings, just to make sure that my alma mater still outranks its hated rival (which it does). The folks who do rankings like these are banking on exactly that kind of response, in much the same way that the folks who make a living tracking, say, Lindsay Lohan's every move know that we think less of ourselves for caring, but care we do, despite ourselves.

(Aside: do regular people ever 'suffer from exhaustion'? What does that even mean? Is it like neurasthenia? The vapors? Angst? Or is it just a euphemism for 'detox'?)

In this case, part of the point of the enterprise seems to be a sort of 'shaming.' In an explanatory essay, the author uses the relative successes of the higher ranking cc's to argue that four-year schools should accomplish much more than they do, given how much more money they typically have.

Although the magazine doesn't disclose its algorithm, it apparently uses inputs taken from a national survey of student engagement; the folks who developed the survey explicitly reject its use in a comparative context. And it looks like they're right – a quick glance at the table shows that every single one of the top 20 cc's nationally, by this chart, has an enrollment below 3000, and most are below 2000. So we're left with the shocking – shocking, I say – finding that smaller settings are often more close-knit.

Well, yes. And bears crap in the woods. This is a completely useless finding if your cc happens to be bigger than that.

I'm a little alarmed that the number 3 cc – Southern University at Shreveport – lists a graduation rate of 17 percent. (And since when do cc's get to be universities, anyway?) By the magazine's methodology, it outranks Wisconsin Indianhead Technical College, which lists a graduation rate of 54 percent. (The highest ranking large cc, South Texas College, checks in at number 21 with a graduation rate of 10 percent. 10 percent! Valencia cc comes in lower, despite a graduation rate three and a half times higher. But then, it is bigger.)

It's also hard not to notice a certain regional skew – only one of the top thirty is in the Northeast, with heavy representation of Texas and Florida. Given the clear preference for smaller schools, that may just reflect Northeastern population density.. It may also reflect higher Northeastern tuitions, to the extent that 'bang for the buck' was being measured. It's hard to say, given the undisclosed algorithm.

Any national ranking of local institutions will be suspect. In some states, community colleges are largely self-governing, and their service areas consist of one or two counties. Some states have statewide systems. Some states have parallel statewide systems – 'community' colleges on one side (focusing largely on transfer), and 'technical' colleges on the other (focusing largely on employment). Some cc's try to be 'comprehensive,' meaning doing both the transfer and the technical functions.

To my mind, a good cc is well-suited to its service area. In some areas, that will mean a heavier transfer focus; in others, a clear career orientation. It will produce a high number of successful student outcomes, whether that's defined as graduation, early transfer, employment in a relevant field, or certification. A measure like “GPA at subsequent college” would tell me a lot more than would any of the measures used here. If the facts on the ground show that our grads do well at their destination schools, and we don't do it by having a five percent graduation rate, then I say we're doing pretty well. If our grads crash and burn at their destination schools, then we have serious work to do. I wouldn't use “Active and Collaborative Learning” as a measure, since that's a method (or an input, if you prefer). (And I wouldn't use student self-reported scores of “Student Effort” for anything.) I'd look at outcomes. Did the cc foster a whole lot of successful outcomes, or not?

That would be astonishingly hard to do across a national sample, but it would actually lead to useful information. Telling me that teeny-tiny schools foster more close interaction doesn't give me anything I can use. (There's no way in hell the local taxpayers would pony up to break us up into several smaller campuses across the same service area. Would. Not. Happen.) Isolating the schools that tend to foster the most successful outcomes, and then looking for common denominators among them, might actually reveal something useful.

More likely, the comparisons would have to be among demographically-similar areas. Telling me that a rural Texas cc with a largely homogeneous population of 400 students has higher levels of student engagement than mine really doesn't help me. That's a different world. But are there colleges in locations relatively comparable to mine that are doing a better job of helping their students succeed? If so, I want to know how they're doing it.

I concede upfront that my cc has areas for improvement, and that there are almost certainly some better ideas floating around out there that we could usefully steal. But this survey gives me nothing I can use. It might be fun for starting barfights at a League for Innovation conference, but there's nothing in it that helps me improve my college. It doesn't even have the 'guilty pleasure' appeal of yet another article about a Pop Tart on the rocks. Thanks, but no thanks.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Ask the Administrator: A Class Lottery?

A returning correspondent whose pet course got canceled for low enrollment writes:

So, I've been thinking what I might do to make it run this spring, beyond hanging up posters in the fall, talking it up with my students, and so on.

I came up with this: what if an anonymous donor (that is, the instructor) offered to reimburse course tuition for a couple of students, chosen at random, from among the students who pass the course with an A or B, the only passing grades I'd be offering? What if that scholarship offer were publicized all fall so that any sign-ups knew they were entering a lottery with a pretty good chance of winning?

I thought that sort of publicity in school paper, on website, through word-of-mouth, among advisors, and so on might give us the threshold number for running the course.

What do you think?

Wow. Even at cc tuition levels, that's audacious.

Questions like these are what make administration interesting. At my cc, someone would come in and ask “what's our policy on this?” and actually expect me to have an answer, as if we'd have a policy on this sort of thing.

While I admire the panache, I'd recoil from this idea as if from a bad smell. It comes just a little too close to a 'kickback' for my comfort.

The fact that the one assigning the grades is also the one donating the cash rings alarm bells for me. It wouldn't be that hard for some very sticky ethical conflicts to develop. For one thing, you'd actually have a pecuniary incentive to give low grades. Even if that were the farthest thing from your mind, I'd expect some low-performing students to figure out that angle pretty fast, and to use it as a rhetorical battering ram. Not good.

I'd also be worried about precedent-setting. “Pay to play” strikes me as a problematic way for instructors to get the courses they want. It's no secret that faculty often jockey for the most desirable teaching assignments. If an expectation of a sort of tithing became the norm – which is a conceivable long-term consequence of this working – we'd see schedules built in weird ways, and for all the wrong reasons. After all, if your gambit works, what's to stop the next professor, and the next one, and the next one? Once they've picked the plums, those professors who actually need their salaries are stuck with the dregs, or with other kinds of prizes. (“Win a date with the hottest professor on campus!”) We'd take the “student as customer” model to the next level, and allow students to play professors off against each other for more and better perks. This one's giving away ipods! That one's not giving anything? Screw him!

I shudder at the thought of faculty giving away escalating amounts of swag to attract students to their classes. That movie doesn't end well.

There could also be legal issues. In some jurisdictions, raffles are treated as a form of gambling, and the restrictions on that can be pretty tight, depending on location. But imagine that some student who earned an 'A' in the class had a religious objection to what she considered gambling. She could argue that, by virtue of her religious beliefs, she was charged higher effective tuition than everybody else. Now you've got a big, hairy civil rights lawsuit on your hands, as does the college. The publicity could get very, very ugly. I can actually feel the aneurysm form as I think about it.

Pragmatically, the faculty union would have me keel-hauled for even suggesting this. For once, I'd actually agree with the union.

I'm also not sure how this would work for students on financial aid. Aid is awarded based on tuition. If the tuition is subsequently refunded, does the student return the aid? What if it were a Pell grant, and the student graduated upon completing the course? Since the whole student loan mess came to the surface, financial aid rules have come under much stricter scrutiny. I wouldn't want to mess with that, especially in this climate.

There's nothing wrong with talking up your classes, maybe putting a few posters out there, and lobbying your chair for a good time slot. But from an administrative perspective, anything approved sets a precedent, and it's much harder to put on the brakes after something gets going. I'm sure you're working from the purest of motives, and I admire the ingenuity, but I just couldn't let this fly.

Wise and worldly readers – what do you think? Have you found an ethical-and-effective way to attract students to your pet courses?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007


In an unrelated discussion with the registrar at my cc, I learned that her previous college – a respectable-but-not-elite four-year private college – wouldn't give credit for college courses taught at a high school.

“Dual enrollment” courses are a popular way for cc's to pick up enrollments of some students who might otherwise skip us altogether. Essentially, they're cc courses taught at local high schools. They follow the cc curriculum, use the same textbooks and syllabi, and are held to the same grading standards. They receive transcripted credit that typically counts for both high school and college, which explains the 'dual' part of dual enrollment. They give high-achieving high school students a chance to see what college level courses are like while still living at home.

I see a lot of upside to dual enrollment. It can help fight off 'senioritis' in high-achieving high school students. It makes college courses accessible to students who can't afford cars. It gives the students a taste of what's to come, the better to avoid the dreaded freshman wake-up call.

But according to some colleges (though not my own), a college course taught at a high school isn't a college course. The reasoning, apparently, is that the other students in the class aren't college students.


An alert reader sent me* a link to a post at the Freakonomics blog at which a well-meaning writer made the point that the difference between teaching at an elite college and teaching at a cc is that the content actually matters at the cc. According to the author, the students at the elite college are inherently equipped for success anyway, so the coursework is largely beside the point. They're busy networking with each other at keggers. The Admissions office pre-screens, so the professors don't have to. At the cc's, the students don't have those contacts, and networking with each other won't have the same payoff, so for them, the quality of instruction actually matters.

It struck me as much the same point, if with the goalposts moved.

There's some truth to this. When I was in junior high, my Mom moved my brother and me to a different and much more competitive school district. Academically, I went from 'always standing out' to 'one of many.' When I went to my Snooty Liberal Arts College, I spent my first semester getting my ass handed to me over and over again. It took several months for me to step up my game to the level of my new peers. In each case, an initial humbling was followed, eventually, by greater effort. The long-term effect, I think, was generally good, even if it was sometimes a bumpy ride.

One of the uncomfortable truths of education in America is that educational outcomes track incredibly cleanly with the socio-economic class level of the students. To get a distressingly frank assessment of this, talk to a Realtor. When you buy into a 'good' school district, you aren't buying into better teaching; you're buying into better peers. The same is true of 'exclusive' colleges and universities. The point of a Princeton degree is that not everybody gets one. The implications for an open-admissions college, I think, are clear.

Although the narrow mission of a typical cc – teach the first two years of college, and don't focus on anything after that, or on research – can (and does) allow for the benefits of specialization, the open-door mission means that most of the time, the academic quality (and/or family income) of peers will be scattershot. Some cc's have Honors programs to mitigate the problem, and I support that wholeheartedly, but there are real limits to even an Honors program in a commuter environment. We can try to improve the peer pool by attracting more high-achieving students; some states have even formalized this with scholarship programs, if with mixed results. But at the end of the day, we can't sell exclusivity. It's not our mission. As long as 'caliber of peers' is part of what high-end schools can sell, we'll be at a handicap.

On a day-to-day level, I don't worry too much about this. My job is to ensure the best educational environment possible for the students who are here, within the resources the voters are willing to provide. (And yes, my job would be easier if the voters would provide more.) And in a perverse way, cc's are reaping some benefit from the absurd escalation of tuition elsewhere – the average age of our students is actually dropping, as we're getting more 18-year-olds who could have gone elsewhere but didn't want (or whose parents didn't want) to pay the premium. As our student body captures more high-achievers, the caliber of classroom interaction slowly improves, to the benefit of all.

But there's a frustrating circularity to the argument from exclusivity. No matter how well our professors (or the dual enrollment teachers) teach, there's still a 'not quite' that some will attach. We can do only what we can do. No matter how well we teach, or how indifferently some of the senior research machines at R1's teach, they'll have a cachet that we just won't. I just hope we do a good enough job that our graduates can eventually make up the difference.

*FYI, I've moved my email. I can be reached at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com. Please direct any “Ask the Administrator” queries there.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Creeping Incrementalism

Over at Bardiac's, there's a thoughtful post on the frustrations of dealing with an administration that makes every class section just a little bit bigger every year. It brought back memories.

At Proprietary U, as the tech boom crested, there were students crawling out of the woodwork. It was a constant struggle to find places for them all, especially given their work schedules and lab constraints. The class schedule was built on a 'cohort' model, but students came in with so many (and so varied) transfer credits that the cohorts blew apart upon arrival. So no matter how much we planned, there would always be a few bottlenecks in the schedule. Given limited time and faculty, sometimes the only way to get them in was to raise course caps. Over time, course caps originally understood to be 'exceptional' became the new 'normal,' allowing the new 'exceptional' to be just a little higher. The cycle repeated a few times before the tech boom crashed and 'too many' students quickly became 'too few.'

From an administrative perspective, this is a very easy mistake to make. Enrollments are never constant, and even if the totals are fairly stable, the distributions aren't. So there are always some anomalies, and you just have to accept that as a cost of doing business. (At my cc, for example, there was an abrupt and very brief burst of interest in a very off-the-beaten-path foreign language a couple of years ago. After a year, the demand settled back to its usual level. I suspect sunspots.) At any given moment, it can be hard to tell if a given bottleneck is the result of an anomaly, or a fundamental and sustainable change. In the absence of good information, it's easier and cheaper (in the very short run) to treat it as an exception, and to cobble together cheap work-arounds.

The problem is that switching from a cheap work-around to a serious solution – that is, going from stuffing a few more students into each class and maybe adding an adjunct to actually making a full-time hire – is abruptly expensive. The need can creep up on you, but the cost hits you all at once. And if you hire a full-timer and turn out to have guessed wrong, you're in budgetary hell for a long, long time. So at any given moment, the temptation to wait for greater clarity – that is, to wait for the problem to solve itself somehow – can be great.

Compound that with larger statewide budget cuts, as is apparently the case in Bardiac's neck of the woods, and the burden of proof for a new full-time hire is that much worse. (Add tenure, which prevents you from cutting full-time faculty in areas with low enrollments, and you have to be just that much more parsimonious everywhere else to make up for it.)

In that kind of situation, the administrative challenge is especially nasty. You need enrollments to keep the college financially viable, but you don't really have the space or staff to handle them. (If you hired, you'd defeat the goal of financial viability.) You'd like to be able to promise anybody who helps you out a quick return to normalcy, but that's contingent on external factors beyond your control. If the situation has been going on for a while, chances are that some folks have already been burned by doing favors, and the “tough budget year” mantra has been spoken enough times that it has lost all credibility.

This is where I differ somewhat from Bardiac's recommendation. She asks for an administrative mea culpa. I understand the temptation, but it wouldn't be true. Is it my fault the state is running a deficit? Is it my fault that previous administrations hired badly, or that student demand fluctuates, or that the cost of health insurance is rising faster than just about anything else, or that some classes have lab constraints and some don't? Besides, in some environments, volunteering to take blame is a textbook way to get fired.

My move in this case – and I'll admit that it requires a certain kind of environment to work – would be (has been) to put it all on the table. If I just blame the faculty for being selfish, nothing good happens. If they just blame me for not magically pulling wads of cash out of my ass, nothing good happens, either. If we all come to grips with what is actually happening, then there's at least a chance of developing a healthier approach. Some folks will simply deny reality or retreat into indignant-narcissistic-accusatory mode, but many will respond to respect with respect.

In my perfect world, that kind of conversation would lead to strategic, rather than incremental, choices. If the downward fiscal trend looks likely to continue, then continuing the patch-here-band-aid-there approach is nuts.

My guess is that the administration that resorts to the death of a thousand cuts is trying to avoid what would inevitably be a tense, emotionally-charged confrontation. That's understandable on a human level, and certainly wise when the challenges at hand are temporary. But when it becomes clear that the challenges aren't going to go away anytime soon, there's a basic choice to be made: either water down everything you do, or do fewer things. The longer you put off that choice, the more you find yourself backing into the former. It sounds like Bardiac's administration is trying to make its problem the faculty's problem. I understand the temptation, but it's a terrible move.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Ask My Readers: Revenue Sharing from Textbooks

A returning correspondent writes:

You and your readers were very helpful in responding to my questions about how to convince my college's leadership to consider my textbook project a professional rather than personal project. In fact, college leadership now officially considers my project to be professional rather than personal. But this has led to another situation. College leadership wants to discuss a "revenue sharing agreement."

What are the precedents in community colleges for "revenue sharing" in this type of situation? (To recap, I am writing the textbook in addition to teaching a full load and fulfilling my service obligations; in other words, I am writing the textbook on my own time. I want to use the following college resources: my office, my email account, my office phone, my college-issued computer, paper, post-it notes, pens, and copy machines.) I don't expect there will be much "revenue" from the project as my textbook will appeal to a fairly small niche of instructors in my discipline. How much revenue should I expect to "share" with the college considering that I will be putting in hundreds of hours of work (on my own time) and the college will be doing very little for the project, all things considered?

There is no faculty union at my institution. As far as I can tell, no other faculty member currently at my institution has published a textbook.

Gee, free Post-Its? You're living the dream!

I'll have to ask my readers about precedent, since I've never asked this question of my colleagues at other schools. At my cc, we don't give release time for textbook writing, but we allow faculty to use their offices and email and suchlike without checking up on them, and we don't ask for a cut of whatever they produce. (Development of online courses is another issue. But 'writing' in the traditional sense – books, articles, etc. -- is owned entirely by the author. In the union contract, it's clear that lecture notes belong to the professor, but syllabi can be kept by the college.)

At Proprietary U, there was an understanding that in return for institutional support, the author(s) would split the royalties from copies sold at Proprietary U. Royalties on copies sold anywhere else went to the author(s). This struck me as reasonable, since the royalties on copies sold at a single campus amounted to roughly enough to spring for donuts once a year.

Good luck. If you don't mind my saying so, I'm not overly impressed with your administration.

Wise and battle-scarred readers: what arrangements have you seen?

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

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Ask the Administrator: Following Up on an Application

A new correspondent writes:

I'm in need of some advice regarding a CC job that I applied for. I'm currently a mid-level administrator at a small liberal arts college (SC), trying to solve the 2-body problem with my fiance. After 5+ years of trying, we've determined that we can't move him to my town due to lack of job opportunities in his field (it's a pretty small town), so we're looking elsewhere.

He got an interview in Large City. I"ve applied for a job very similar to what I do here at SC at a CC in LC. The application was submitted to the HR department at the CC and not to the department itself. The CC has an online application process where you can check the status of your application, for the past month it's said only "Search in progress." Is there any way I can know the approximate status of the search? Would it be appropriate to contact the department at LCCC to see what the status of the search is? I'm just a bit nervous as it's taking so long, and my fiance already has his interview set.

Or could it be a problem that I've applied to a CC from a SC? If so, how can I make this argument? I've worked in CCs before and I miss that kind of student that I had then, and I have a strong commitment to working with CCs.

First, an aside: I loathe, loathe, loathe online application systems. I really can't say enough bad about them. They're founded on a big fat honkin' lie – that they're “paperless” -- and they force individual applications into preconceived categories which they often don't fit. (In fact, everybody at every stage simply prints out the information, rendering the “paperless” aspect moot.) For example, they usually require listing each previous job in reverse order, including the dates and responsibilities for each. What if you've held multiple, progressive positions at the same place (which is a good thing)? Your guess is as good as mine.

Were it up to me, which it isn't, we'd consign both online application systems and letters of reference to the dustbin of history. Hell, I'd even do away with “Standard Applications.” (Do I care where you went to high school? Hint: No.) Just post a list of questions that must be answered in the cover letter and/or vita and be done with it. I mean, sheesh.

Now that that's out of the way...

If it has only been a month, I'm not at all surprised that the website isn't telling you much. Between waiting for the advertised deadline (which not every college does, btw, even though it strikes me as courting a lawsuit), assembling the committee, agreeing on how to evaluate, taking time to distribute and read and rank, having the internal committee arguments, settling on candidates, and arranging the logistics of interviews, the mills can grind painfully slowly.

From the college's perspective, you don't want to turn away candidates until you're absolutely sure you don't need them. Even if they've started interviewing, they're unlikely to dismiss the 'backup' candidates until the interviews are over, if then. Even if the committee has a clear first choice, it would be ill-advised to turn the other plausible applicants away until the offer has been made and accepted. Given time for bargaining, and time for the candidate to think it over before responding, this can take a while. If the top one or two choices turn it down, it can go even longer.

So the short answer to the question about updates is that I wouldn't expect to get any good information for a while.

If you simply must ask, go ahead, but be both tactful and infrequent. Making yourself a pest is a losing strategy – at my previous college, I saw one candidate nearly pester herself out of a job.

I'd be less concerned about the shift from a liberal arts college to a community college. From what I've seen, moving down the hierarchy is much easier than moving up. That isn't universally true – some cc admin ads specify a need for cc experience, or for experience in a collective bargaining environment – but it's a pretty good rule of thumb. Of course, any given school could go any given way. Should you reach the interview stage, be sure to say something positive to address the issue, just in case.

Good luck! That two-body problem is a nasty one.

Wise and worldly readers – your thoughts?

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

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Drinking and Deaning

According to this article, Anthony Campbell, the Dean of Students at Rider College (N.J.), has been indicted on charges of “aggravated hazing” in the alcohol poisoning death of a student, Gary DeVercelly, who died while pledging a fraternity.

It's always heartbreaking to hear of an 18 year old dying. As a parent, stories like these scare the hell out of me. But I'm having trouble connecting the dean to the death.

Nobody alleges that the dean was present at the hazing, and nobody alleges that the dean had anything to do with the hazing. In fact, the dean had required frat members to attend anti-hazing workshops.

According to the article, the prosecutor, Joseph Bocchini, stated (correctly) that “Rider University is involved in this today, but it could have been any college or university across the United States.”


There are times I'm glad that my cc doesn't have dorms or frats. By virtue of being a commuter campus, we're spared some of the ugly scenarios confronted by colleges that have students living on campus.

All of that said, there was still something eerily familiar about this story. It was the “what would you have had him do?” that went unasked.

What, exactly, is the dean alleged to have done wrong? He required the frats to go through anti-hazing and alcohol education workshops, he wasn't present at the hazing, he didn't serve anybody anything, and nobody has even suggested that the hazing met with his approval. Yet the prosecutor declares in public that the indictment “sends a clear message.”

Saying what?

The bane of the administrator's existence is the ever-present and always-frustrating “responsibility without authority.” I'm accountable for the performance of faculty who have life tenure and across-the-board salary increases, and are therefore not accountable to me. I'm accountable for policies that I've inherited, and lack the power to change. I'm accountable for the fallout of decisions made at higher levels than my own, without my input, and against my judgment. All of that I accept as the cost of doing business.

But taking Mr. Bocchini's logic, my accountability apparently goes well beyond that.

I know that the whole “students are adults” argument has fallen on hard times, especially in the age of helicopter parents, but there's a persistent truth to it. Unless we're willing to move to a level of surveillance that would make Dick Cheney blush, students are going to have plenty of time away from deanly supervision. That's as it should be. Sometimes, students will use that freedom to make stupid, or even criminal choices. When they do, by all means, hold them accountable. (If there's evidence showing that DeVercelly's drinking was the result of coercion, then I'm all for throwing the book at whoever coerced him.) And if the prosecutor can show that the dean failed to do something he was actually supposed to do, then have at it. But I'm at a loss to say what the dean did wrong.

I've seen some voices compare this overreach to the Duke prosecutor's, but I don't buy it. In the Duke case, the allegation was of an actual crime. Yes, it quickly turned out to be false, and the prosecutor wound up looking ridiculous, but that's a different issue. At least in that case, I could understand what the defendants were charged with, even if the case never seemed all that strong. In this case, I don't understand the charge. The dean is charged with, if I'm getting this right, failing to persuade a fraternity to grow up.

If 'failure to persuade' is a crime, we're all in trouble.

I'll admit upfront that more facts may come out later that will render this post moot. But from all that I've seen so far, this is an appalling, egregious abuse of prosecutorial power. Deans aren't gods, and we shouldn't be expected to be. We can do only what we can do. I don't control what my faculty do at home, and I don't want to. Should I start trying?

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Differences in the Two-Year Sector

There's a nifty piece (and discussion) in yesterday's IHE about a new classification system adopted by the Education Department to distinguish two-year schools from each other. It's worth checking out.

A few responses, acknowledging that there's far more there than I'm responding to:

First, hooray. Community colleges will differ as communities differ; this is to be expected. A cc in an affluent suburban area will probably have different patterns of student demand than one in a struggling city. Acknowledging that can get us past some pretty unproductive conversations.

Second, since nearly half of all college students in the United States attend cc's, it's heartening to see the sector get some actual attention.

The most provocative part of the article, though, came at the very end, where it cited Ed Department data showing higher degree-completion rates for students at for-profit two-year schools than at traditional cc's. Much of the discussion at the IHE site tried to explain that, or to explain it away.

I'll take a shot, having worked as a dean in both a proprietary college and a cc.

At a really basic level, there's a difference of mission. Every proprietary college I've seen has a relatively narrow specialization. Most of them offer relatively little choice of major, and the choices they do offer tend to be in closely related areas. You don't go to a proprietary to find yourself, or to try out different majors to see how they fit; you go to find a job in a given industry. CC's, by contrast, try to be comprehensive, and are often launching pads for students who haven't quite found their niches yet. If we assume that students who know their goals are likelier to complete than students who don't, then the for-profits have an advantage right from the start.

(Based on bitter experience, though, I'll add that specialization can be a double-edged sword. The proprietary at which I worked rode the 90's tech wave up, then rode it down. The crash hurt badly, since it didn't have non-technical majors to cushion the blow.)

For-profits are famously market-sensitive, and, in my experience, generally allergic to tenure and/or faculty unions. While that can be both good and bad, it certainly makes it easier to shut down programs that aren't carrying their weight anymore, and to shift resources to new ones. Faster response to changing market conditions means that what students are confronting at any given time is a fairly current roster of options. A quicker trigger finger on marginal programs frees up more resources for growing ones. (The downside, of course, is that management can get too trigger-happy, and trap everybody in the high-effort, low-payoff part of the learning curve, always changing programs before the folks in the trenches have the chance to get good at them. What can look 'nimble' in one context can look 'capricious' in another.)

I also wonder about the impact of the academic calendar. Most non-profit higher ed, as far as I've seen, still sticks with some variation on two-semesters-on (or three trimesters on), and summers off. Summer courses are scheduled separately from Fall and Spring, with the assumption that most degree-seeking students will either go away during the summer, or at least scale back considerably.

At PU, the teaching calendar ran twelve months, full steam. There was no light season. A student could complete eight semesters in slightly less than three years (8/3, for those keeping score at home), or four semesters in just over one (4/3). It was absolutely brutal on the faculty, but there was a real selling point for students in being able to say that you'll get out a year earlier than you otherwise would. For students whose primary focus was vocational, rather than philosophical, 'getting it over with' held a powerful appeal.

This is especially true, I think, for students with children. Time spent in class, and doing classwork, is time taken away from some other, very compelling, demand. Knocking a year off that looks pretty good to some folks. But the only way to get that extra year is to stick with the program to completion.

(Yes, it can sometimes be done at cc's, but it takes extra effort and some luck. At PU, it was the default setting.)

There's also the issue of teaching quality. If a professor went off the rails at PU, it wasn't all that hard to fire him. (They were “at will” employees.) At my cc, where he has both tenure and a union, good luck with that. I tend to think the overall impact of this is small, since very few established professors are that bad, but I'd put the number above zero. (The obvious flip side is that at PU, there wasn't much to stop a stupid management decision. Sometimes gridlock is actually the lesser evil.) That said, recruiting good faculty was sometimes harder at PU, since the job was more draining than at just about any other place.

CC's are dramatically cheaper, but the proprietaries are very good at bundling financial aid so the students don't really see the difference upfront. By the time the difference is painfully clear – when the loan deferments run out – the damage is done.

“Intrusive advisement” was the coin of the realm at PU, where faculty were expected to track student attendance religiously, to issue all manner of attendance warnings, and to do everything possible to save every student they possibly could. I was never comfortable with that, and grew less so as the reins got tighter, but some people respond to it.

To my mind, there's a real opportunity here to take from the best of each. Avoid the Scylla of “at will” and the Charybdis of tenure with renewable multi-year contracts. Make accelerated degree completion easier by running a more robust summer program, but recognize faculty burnout by staggering semesters off. I suspect that many cc's would be well-advised to take another look at the “comprehensive” ideal, even if only in modest ways. And for the love of all that is good, don't be shy about educating students about the real cost of tuition. CC's are legitimately cheaper – use that!

But that's for another day. Hooray that cc's are finally starting to attract some of the nuanced attention historically reserved for their four-year brethren.

Wise and worldly readers – your thoughts?

Monday, August 13, 2007

Chop Chop, and It's Off to Lunch We Go

This weekend, TW and I attended a wedding at City Hall in New York, followed the next day by a reception closer to us (and open to TB and TG). (I've known the groom since early grad school. To give you some idea of just how long ago that was, George Bush was President, the price of gas shot up, and we were at war with Iraq. Good times...) Vignettes from the weekend:

  • As we herded into the wedding area, the groom announced “we just need to fill out some paperwork, then chop chop, and it's off to lunch we go!” I advised him that he probably shouldn't dismiss his impending nuptials with 'chop chop.' Thinking Like a Husband takes practice.

  • The wedding holding tank (as opposed to the chapel) in City Hall has to be the happiest place on earth. Five or six wedding parties would be there at one time. The couples were giddy, the brides were beautiful, and the parents and friends were beaming. You couldn't turn around without walking into somebody's photo shoot. The couples were a heartwarming mix of races, ages, and, well, personal styles. As people-watching spots go, they don't get much better.

- After the ceremony, as we came into the hallway, the groom's brother stood nonchalantly quaffing a can of diet peach Snapple. Somehow, it didn't quite fit.

  • Attempting to drive out of Manhattan at rush hour on a Friday afternoon should get you time off purgatory. The only viable means is by airlift. (Our last NYC trip involved seven – count 'em! -- trains, as well as the inevitable driving to and from the nearest station. We swore never again. There's just no winning this one.) Apparently, the NYPD busies itself by blocking off random streets without warning, which is good, since it has eliminated crime and has nothing better to do. Also, signs like “(escape route) exit here” are apparently meant to be understood to mean “(escape route) exit a few blocks down, then turn twice.” Silly me, using 'words' to correspond to 'external reality.' (Somewhere, Richard Rorty is having a hearty chuckle at me.)

  • When we told TB and TG about the reception, they had identical reactions: “will there be cake?”

  • There was. Ice cream cake, in fact, but not Cookie Puss. Cookie Puss just isn't wedding material.

  • The reception was the following day, which actually worked out quite well. It was at the groom's parents' house, which was much closer to us, and kid-friendly. Most of the folks who have kids brought them, so TB was utterly in his element. He led an expedition into the woods to search for golf balls, since the house abuts a golf course. He filled a bucket with them, which I thought was pretty impressive. He also found an enigmatic rock, which was explained variously as a fossil, dessicated deer poop, a meteorite, and the byproduct of a long-bulldozed foundry. History will decide.

  • The bride and groom got a real good look at their future, as various kid-related emergencies drew adults away from the table, often for twenty minutes at a pop. Adult-length attention spans are the first casualties of parenthood.

  • I hadn't seen most of the groom's family since the 90's. They were utterly lovely, and they couldn't have been more gracious with the kids. At one point during the dinner, TB rose to announce Sunday night's meteor shower. This won public approval.

  • Never give a best man toast without notes. I actually left off the punchline, and didn't even have drunkenness as an excuse. On the bright side, it was brief. Brevity is a virtue at these things.

  • At one point, three of us got into a conversation about P.G. Wodehouse. I consider Wodehouse one of the gods of English prose, and trading favorite lines time well-spent. (“Although not entirely disgruntled, he was certainly far from gruntled.” I'd give major organs to be able to toss off lines like that.) I came away with a recommendation for another author of similar bent, which is no small thing.

  • The Groom paid some serious relationship dues over the years. He has never been one to do things the easy way, but oh, my. He took a pretty circuitous route to this one – they met when they were on different hemispheres – but he done found himself a winner. Well played, sir.

Friday, August 10, 2007

"You're Not Wrong, But..."

I was in one of those discussions recently at which phrases like “you're not wrong, but...” got tossed around.

That happens a lot.

In trying to bring clarity to some fairly shaggy but long-established processes (the legal term is “past practice”), we're frequently running into conflicts between what would actually make sense and what we can realistically expect to achieve, given the different understandings held by various stakeholders.

It's a hazard of a place with a long history and lots of long memories.

We have some policies and practices which have outlived their creators, and for which nobody can give a compelling explanation. But individual stakeholders see their own roles, and don't want those challenged. (There are plenty of compelling explanations for this or that little piece of the picture, but nobody can explain how it's supposed to hang together.) It's sort of like a cargo cult, except that the cultees have graduate degrees.

The problem is that some of these historical holdovers might not hold up to legal challenges. So we're trying to find ways to protect the college from exposure, without causing local mutinies.

It's a tough sell, given that a term like “liability” is terribly abstract, until it becomes terribly concrete, at which point it's too late. There's rarely any warning. You're just humming along, doing what you've always done, and bam!, you're subpoenaed and effectively hosed. It's hard to convey the possibility convincingly to folks who've been humming along, undisturbed, for many years. But it would be a failure of duty not to.

The challenge of it comes from trying to anticipate objections.

Since nobody ever wrote down the original rationales, people with roles to play in any given process have come up with their own explanations. (Creative minds abhor a vacuum.) Many of these explanations are partially or entirely implausible, and some of them are mutually exclusive. But since they haven't been tested in a very long time, they've fallen into the “goes without saying” category. And there's no quicker way to raise people's hackles than to violate a “goes without saying.”

Having bumped, hard, into some indignant “how could you possibly”'s based on some very weird personal understandings, we've learned to try to anticipate them. It's harder than you think. Quick: what do you think goes without saying? Chances are, most of it you wouldn't even think of until it's violated. We've had multiple instances of running multiple drafts by many people individually, hearing no objections, and then getting picked apart by those very same people at meetings. I don't think it's (usually) a conscious attempt to ambush; they just don't fully perceive the implications of change until it's suddenly concrete, at which point the accusations fly.

So administrative meetings are becoming, by necessity, exercises in preventive ventriloquism. What would such-and-such say about this? Why? Is there any validity to that? Can we get around that without losing what we really care about? Can we at least establish an explicit process that will gradually lead, over time, to what we really care about? Since foot-dragging and passive-aggressive sabotage are incredibly easy, we can't just push policies through without buy-in. But we won't get buy-in – however deserved – if we don't take account of the worldviews of the various snipers who don't know the war is over. So we look for 'better,' rather than 'best.' 'Defensible,' as opposed to 'correct.' Not being wrong doesn't necessarily mean you're right.


If nothing else, pushing some 'pretty good' solutions should at least force some discussion, and get some of those 'goes without saying's out into the open. If we can clear out some of the twisted theoretical underbrush that has been allowed to grow unchecked over the years, maybe we can actually start to make some progress. If not, at least I'm getting better at doing characters.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Ask the Administrator: Nobody Wants to Chair!

A savvy correspondent writes:

My department at a small private liberal arts
college has a dramatic generational split, with three senior faculty
who have been around for twenty years or more, and three junior
faculty who have been tenured in the last three years. We're currently
in the middle of an argument about who will have to be Chair next
year, when the current Chair's term runs out.

The problem is that the senior faculty have a personal feud that has
gone on long enough that none of the junior people have any idea how
it started. It's sufficiently bad that they do not speak directly to
one another if it can be avoided, and five years ago, the current
Chair was hired in an external search, to bring a little stability to
the process. The agreed term was six years as chair, which expires
next year, and somebody else will need to take the job after that.

All of the senior faculty have been Chair in the past, with varying
degrees of success, and none of them can be made Chair without one or
more of the others causing a problem. There have apparently been
threats to quit if the job goes to the "wrong" person.

All of the junior faculty have good reasons why they shouldn't have to
take the job, primarily because of the damage that would be done to
their research careers, which are in an early but highly productive
stage. Tenure, promotion, and merit pay decisions are very heavily
research-driven, and being Chair would dramatically reduce the ability
of any of the junior people to do research. Plus, there's the danger
of being drawn into the senior faculty squabbles-- in addition to all
the usual academic duties, the Chair is often forced to act as a sort
of referee in new outbreaks of old arguments.

The situation seems to have reached an impasse, but a new Chair needs
to be found, and the Dean is pressing for an answer. If you were the
Dean, what would you do? Smack the senior people around and tell them
to stop acting like children? Smack the junior people around and order
one of them to take the job? Bribe one of the junior people with extra
money or release time (the Chair currently gets a 40% reduction in
teaching load, which is not enough to be worth the hassle for the
junior faculty).? Appoint someone from another department as Acting
Chair for a few years?

Thanks in advance for any help you and your readers can provide.

Oooh, I like this one. (And the answer, as you'll see, is 'none of the above.')

This wouldn't happen in exactly this way at my cc, since here, chairs are appointed by deans. In practice, of course, that only happens when a vacancy occurs for natural causes, since removing a chair is considered an abuse of power. The logic eludes me, but there it is.

Back in the day, when confronted with a situation like this, someone would say “Turn back! It's a trap!”

Since you apparently go by an election system, I'd take a subtle tack. A good-hearted but naïve dean would try to resolve the situation by sparing the department the difficult choice by making it himself. It would solve the immediate problem, but the new chair would be instantly despised by all as the dean's lackey, and other departments would notice that they could possibly finagle more release time (there would be a sudden epidemic of reluctance to serve, which could only be palliated by increased release time and other perks) by creating crises. Once you fall into crisis management mode, you're prey to all manner of savvy predators. Reward bickering, and you'll get more of it. No, thanks.

Instead, I'd press the department into a corner. Either you pick a chair by the deadline, or I fold you into another department. If nobody is willing to step up, then clearly the department has ceased to function as a department, and it needs to be reorganized. Bwa-ha-ha-ha-ha! (Meanwhile, by reorganizing, I save most of the cost of release time for one chair, even after giving the 'receiving' chair a compensatory bump. A dean's office win-win!)

That way, the department has to decide which is more important: its feuds or its autonomy. I'm okay either way. What I won't do is make myself the common enemy. Been there, done that. In a nutshell, my message would be: You can come to any answer you want, but you can't change the subject.

Admittedly, this approach presses the innocent into a tight cage with the guilty. But such is the nature of department life.

Early in my admin career, I probably would have fallen into the trap of trying to recruit somebody. But sometimes you have to force the issue. If the kids can't play nicely in the sandbox, I won't hover over them; I'll just take away the sandbox. If they know that, and know that I'm not bluffing, then they have a choice to make.

As I've mentioned before in the context of victim bullies, tenured faculty sometimes use intransigence as a way to escape both supervision and responsibility. Much of the time, my hands are tied, and they get away with it. In this case, though, no. Step up or step off.

Wise and worldly readers – what do you think?

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

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Ask My Readers: How to Make a Career Decision?

A new correspondent writes:

I have a career decision dilemma, and I'm not sure where to
go for help/advice.

After receiving my BA from a Snooty Liberal Arts College, I went on to
an MFA program. I attended the MFA program simply because I wanted to
spend some time focusing on writing. While there, I taught some
classes as part of my fellowship and found that I loved teaching and
working with college students.

I knew that if I wanted to make teaching in higher-ed my career, I
would need more than the MFA; however, I was drained after my final
semester (along with teaching two classes, I was also taking courses,
finishing my thesis, and working as the managing editor for an
international literary journal). I needed to take some time off before
jumping into a Ph.D. program.

I moved back to the area where I grew up and got a job adjuncting at
the local CC (I also have another job, so adjuncting is not my sole
support). I have been adjuncting for two years now, with
ever-increasing teaching loads--I'm now up to four classes with three
different preps. I think after this upcoming year of adjuncting I will
be ready to go back to school.

However, here is my dilemma: I don't know what direction I want to take
with my career; I have always been interested in many fields and
focused on writing because I could constantly research different topics
to inform my writing. I have looked at three different types of Ph.D.
programs (Rhet and Comp; Literature; Creative Writing), and I could
enter any of the three fields and be happy. To further complicate my
decision, I have, over the past few months, become increasingly
interested in working toward a position like Dean of Students. If I
wanted to go that route, I would have to look at a completely different
type of program.

I don't know what to do. I want to move forward with my career, which
means that I need to apply for programs this winter so I could begin
next fall, but I also don't want to begin a program only to find that I
actually should have been in another field. I need some advice, but I
don't know where to go for that advice. The former mentors I have
spoken with all want me to go into their particular field (I've talked
with people from Rhet and Comp, Literature, and Creative Writing

Do you or your readers have any suggestions for how to make this

I like the way you end the letter – rather than asking for the answer, you're asking how to figure out the answer for yourself. Already, that's a good sign.

(For what it's worth, my impression is that tenure-track jobs are much easier to find in rhet/comp than in literature or creative writing, but that assumes you know what you want. Off the top of my head, the mix of enthusiasms and skills you mention screams “Writing Center Director,” since that combines writing, working with students, and managing, but that's just a first impression. If that's accurate, the route is through rhet/comp, to writing faculty, to director. Sorry, couldn't resist.)

Since you have several months before application deadlines hit, I'd advise taking advantage of your contacts at your current cc. Schedule appointments with the Dean and/or Assistant Dean of Students, tell them what you're thinking, and get a sense of what they actually do from day to day. Many of the events in which they're involved can be great fun, but the jobs are twelve months a year, often six or seven days a week, and frequently at the cost of your personal life. (Apparently, these days, Deans of Students can be indicted for “aggressive hazing” if the kids in the frat get out of control. That deserves a post of its own, but for the moment, I'll just say it's a breathtakingly bad idea.) Do you want to be the 'go-to' person for plagiarism charges, allegations of date rape, and angry parents demanding to know why they don't get monthly progress reports on their kids? As with many administrative roles, this is as much about temperament as about talent. But someone in that role can give you much more detail than I could. And since they aren't trying to recruit for their own graduate programs, they can be reasonably objective.

If you're honestly neutral in terms of content when it comes to picking a subfield of English, I'd suggest looking at employability and/or the nature of the job you want. Would a cc be okay with you? Is geographic rootedness a priority, or would you be willing to hop from visiting gig to visiting gig? I'll ask my readers in the English subfields for their impressions on the differences among the subfields. Since my degree isn't in English, I have no dog in that fight.

Career decisions are a funny blend of analysis, gut, and happenstance. So much of what you'll later realize you 'needed' to know is currently unknowable. That's okay; it's the nature of the thing. If you can pick up some clues now, keep straight what's a core conviction and what's negotiable, and can catch a break somewhere, the unknowables should cancel each other out.

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers – what do you think?

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

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Adjuncting Your Way In?: An E-pistolary Exchange

This originated as a private email exchange, but after it developed, my correspondent asked me to post it to the blog for a wider range of feedback, so here goes.

A newly-relocated correspondent writes:

Do I have any leverage negotiating salary as an incoming adjunct instructor of composition at a private University? I am coming in with 37 hours of teaching experience over two years and a terminal (MFA) degree. I have good references, a lot of professional development, and publications. The school has offered (pathetically low) per credit hour for eight credit hours. Unfortunately, I was earning precisely twice that amount in a sleepy Midwestern city where my rent was half of what I pay (here).

Essentially, I am at a crossroads where I am being virtually forced out of my profession due to this adjunct compensation. I didn't bother complaining to the writing department chair during what amounted to a vigorous interview. I am being asked to hold adjunct meetings, develop new curriculum, etc. It looks like it will be a big commitment.

I meet with (the dean) shortly to sign the contract. Is there any way I can speak the language of a budget-strapped dean when it comes to asking for better pay? I am ready, willing, and able to perform more tasks, to take on a greater responsibility in the department, if even in a non-faculty capacity.

What flexibility does a dean have in balancing compensation with keeping a quality candidate and getting the most out of them? At this pay rate, I don't just need another part-time job, I need another full-time.

My response:

Private universities are different, so it's at least conceivable that there could be some wiggle room for the dean. Having said that, composition is a crowded field, and you're an unknown quantity to them.

Put differently: if I were in that dean's shoes, and you asked for double the usual adjunct rate, I'd laugh you out of my office. That's no reflection on you, since I don't know you; it's just the reality of the market.

Your best shot would be to ask for some sort of per diem or stipend for the non-teaching work (adjunct meetings, curriculum development, etc.) you mentioned. Even there, though, I'd be surprised if you got very much.

Adjunct gigs were never designed to be lived on. Some people try it, but it's incredibly hard, and it was never meant to be done in the first place. If you can find some other way to support yourself, I'd strongly recommend it.

His answer:

Part of the problem is that I very much enjoy teaching, and I'm willing to work hard/excessively in order to build a career as a teacher. The problem is that I CAN find other means of income, at what I have been calling an 'adult' salary. Calling off a year of further developing my teaching expertise and CV over a few thousand dollars feels like it would be a mistake. So I guess what I'm saying is that this was not the answer I wanted to hear!

Let me try to put this in a question: Will a year of adjunct work help bolster my CV for future opportunities? Is this sacrifice worth making, even if just for a year?

My response:

I guess whether it's worth it or not depends on how much you enjoy the work intrinsically. If teaching is so much fun that the thought of not doing it fills you with gloom, then by all means, go ahead...If by 'worth it' you mean 'likely to lead to a tenure-track position,' then no. It happens, but it's so rare that to count on it would be foolish.

Once you've established some teaching experience beyond grad school, diminishing returns (at least as far as the CV goes) set in pretty fast. I've gone on record many, many times advising people not to romanticize adjuncting. The adjunct role makes sense in some contexts, but it was never meant to be – and isn't – a reliable backdoor entrance to the tenure track. Asking it to be that is courting heartbreak. If adjunct conditions are going to improve meaningfully, it will take a dramatic reduction of the ranks to bring supply and demand in closer balance. If you need to make a living, make a living. If you need (emotionally) to adjunct, do that. But don't mistake the second for the first.

His reply (shortened):

(He turned down the job.)

I do find teaching intrinsically satisfying. I'm not ashamed to admit this, despite the constant academic derision I receive for doing so...But I must be honest with myself. Why do I REALLY like teaching? Well, it is satisfying, but that's a small part of it. I like teaching because it is related to my professional field and it pays me money while allowing me and encouraging me to pursue my scholarly and professional goals...I get paid to talk literature, read literature, develop course material related to literature, and perhaps even receive compensation for editing and, further, composing my own literature.

However...filling out all my free time with section after section of composition will ill-afford me the luxury of those aforementioned pursuits.

I've had my say and he's had his. (In hindsight, I should have added the possibility of taking a full-time job for the salary and picking up a single adjunct course, just to stay in the game.) Fair readers, what are your thoughts?

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

Monday, August 06, 2007

Monday Musings

  • I'm not proud of this, but a few nights ago TB and I were reading Pirates Past Noon, an installment in the Magic Tree House series, and I dissolved into helpless laughter when I saw the heading for chapter 4: “Vile Booty.”

  • I had to make up a cover story, fast.

  • Last weekend we saw The Niece, who is now seven months old. She's a cutie, with those ice-blue eyes that only little kids and movie stars have. My brother – her father – and I had a long talk about the various shocks of fatherhood, not the least of which is the lack of a phase-in. Once the kid comes home for the first time, it's “game on.” (Watching him try to control her at brunch while also eating his own food brought it all back. I miss those days, but not enough to try again.) The Niece was utterly fascinated by The Boy, who was very sweet with her. The Girl was much more interested in the cat.

  • In a sudden burst of awareness, I signed TW and me up for more life insurance. The rep on the phone said “yeah, a lot of guys your age, you know, around 40, suddenly think of this.” Thanks for that.

  • That said, I'll admit that my winter boots are now old enough to drink. (Seriously. I bought them in 1986. They were 'out,' then 'in,' and now 'out' again. Soon enough, they'll be 'retro-chic.') At this point, they've cost about three dollars a year. I'm hoping to get them down to two.

  • Although the XM/Sirius merger strikes me as a bad idea – if years of being the local cable monopoly's bitch taught me anything, it's that unregulated monopolies behave horribly – I was heartened to see the combined company offer an “a la carte” channel option as a sweetener. Now if only I could get the tv companies to follow suit. I'll happily pay for Comedy Central, Noggin, and the Food Network, but I feel no need to pay for Fox News, QVC, or Telemundo.

  • My brilliant concept for The Food Network: Bachelor Top Chef. Take chefs from the elite of the elite, and allow them to use only what is found in some representative bachelor's kitchen. No more than one pot may be used. (“I liked the concept of dressing up the microwave burrito with the Cap'n Crunch, but it's a fine line between 'carmelized' and 'set fire to.' And I think I would have used the Peanut Butter Cap'n Crunch, to give it a Thai flair.”)

  • I have to stop reading The Oil Drum. I can actually feel my blood pressure spike when I look at the five-year projections. I know enough history to know that neo-Malthusians usually wind up looking foolish in the long run, but I also don't see the easy resource substitution for oil, esp. for transportation. Planes don't run on coal, and ethanol is little more than a sop to agribusiness. My modest proposal for hitting al-Queda where it really hurts: invest in alternative energies and technologies. Hit the bin Ladens in the bank account. Get those plug-in hybrids moving, stat!

  • I also have to stop listening to Marketplace. They reported the other day that the Chinese are looking at buying some British investment banks. The reporter explained that it would make it easier for China to denominate its current-account surpluses in Euros, rather than dollars. This is a Bad Thing. It would force us to raise interest rates to prevent total currency collapse, just as the subprime mortgage crunch is gaining steam. I believe the economist's term for this is “stagflation-a-go-go.”

  • The Boy has basketball camp this week, and he couldn't wait to get started, so he begged me to take him to the court at the nearby park and get him started. He's at an early enough stage that my miniscule knowledge of basketball (“you have to dribble the ball if you want to move with it” “shoot overhand”) is still news to him. By the end of this week, he will have already surpassed what I know. When we returned, The Wife asked if I taught him to do a layup. Uh, that would be 'no.' On the bright side, my hamstring remains miraculously unpulled.

  • For reasons I'll leave to the experts, it seems that people walk more slowly in the Costco parking lot than in any other non-funeral-related setting. They also seem to move with less sense of direction than you'd expect a sensate being to have. I have no explanation for this. They can't all have pulled hamstrings.

  • Note to the guy down the street: blasting hardcore rap while pruning your shrubbery isn't fooling anybody. You're still pruning your shrubbery. Deal with it. (Word you never hear in rap: azalea.)

  • It's all about the food coloring: The Boy picked up a little plastic volcano, ideal for stuffing with baking soda and pouring vinegar in through the top. Not content with that, I suggested adding red food coloring. Much fun was had by all. Quoth The Boy: “I love science.”