Friday, September 28, 2007

Ask the Administrator: ABD Seeks JOB

A returning correspondent writes:

I am in the midst of completing my dissertation,
wrestling with 250 pages of text at the moment but I
should have everything wrapped up this spring. I
didn't plan on going on the job market until I was
well and truly done, but a job has just been
advertised that is so bang-on that I'd be a fool not
to apply. The place (just a shy of ivy league) is a
long shot but what they've advertised has me written
all over it and I'm wondering how best to deal with
some issues that, field and expertise aside, might
make me look less-than-ideal.

1. I am a citizen of the country (USA) where the
position is located, but I don't live there now and
without stating it I won't look like a citizen (none
of my post-secondary education is in the US). Should I
state that I am a citizen up front just so that it is
clear that there aren't any immigration issues?

2. It has taken me longer than average to complete my
PhD because of a series of life events over which I
had no control (deaths, illness, that sort of thing).
How do I address the gap in my record (no pubs, no
conferences, no progress, but I did teach), or do I
even mention it at all? Would this be something to
address in an interview if I am lucky enough to get

3. How does one deal with the ABD thing? What phrases
do I use that convey that I really am chugging along
and almost done?

Thank you Dean Dad and anyone else who can help answer
these questions!

Since the questions are numbered, I'll address them in order.

1. Yes.
2. Don't mention it. Save it for the interview.
3. There's the rub...

"I'm almost done with the dissertation" ranks right up there with "the check is in the mail" and "I did not have sexual relations with that woman." It could be true. Or it could be sincere, but mistaken (the most common one, I think). Or it could be a flat-out lie.

In my time at PU, we sometimes simply culled any ABD candidates from the pool, period. We had seen enough (and known enough) people who came on board (there or elsewhere) swearing to high heaven that they were this close, only to have it drag out for years. Some places have adopted a de facto degree-in-hand requirement. (At my cc, we don't require Ph.D.'s, though we do prefer them.) I once posted my binary typology of dissertations:

The Two Types of Dissertations:

1. Done, defended, degree in hand.

2. Other.

That may seem cold, but it's based in fact.

The places that don't actually disqualify ABD's will still, in all likelihood, have a "show me" attitude towards them. Have you published any of your chapters anywhere? How many chapters are completed? Is the defense actually scheduled (meaning, a specific date)? Other than sincere assurances, what proof can you offer that you're actually "chugging along and almost done"?

More broadly, don't go in with excuses, assurances, or apologies. For heaven's sake, don't tell shaggy dog stories about your life to justify your lack of production. Go in like you own the place. Show them how wonderfully interesting, connected, and productive you are, and don't play defense until you're forced to. And even then, change the subject as quickly as possible.

One of the harder psychological shifts in this line of work is going abruptly from grad student peon to Professor. You need to walk the walk if you're going to do this.

Which raises another possibility. There's no such thing as The Dream Job. Job openings come and go. (Too few come, but that's another issue.) Applying for jobs takes time and psychic energy away from other things, like, say, finishing your dissertation. If your funding has run out and you just plain need the work, then the point is moot, but if you have the option to stay off the market until you're done, I'd recommend giving it serious thought.

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers -- have you found an effective way around the ABD issue? Or should she finish first?

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

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Ask the Administrator: Adjunct Course Development

A new correspondent writes:

I am a recovering adjunct. I still teach a few
courses but I am now doing more and more work as a freelance writer and
loving it. The college (trying hard to a be a university with a few new
graduate degree programs) where I teach has long relied on the R1 down
the street (and where I got my Ph.D) as an adjunct factory. Most of the
general core curriculum and the courses that help them meet their lofty
mission statement are taught by adjuncts. It is the lowest paid adjunct
gig in town but they will hire you back semester after semester. Anyway,
nothing new there.

BUT, and this is the crazy part to me. They rely on adjuncts to do a
huge part of their course development. There may be a course development
meeting in the spring (which they compensate us for) but then adjuncts
are supposed to pick textbooks, plan assignments, etc to meet the
general course requirements and incorporate their specific interests.
Fun and often interesting but a huge amount of uncompensated work.

This week I received the following email:
> BSS is hoping to offer a brand new course this Spring for the Global
> Studies (formerly International Relations) major. It will be a
> multi-disciplinary survey of the Middle East (and presumably North
> Africa) that will serve as the gateway course for those interested
> pursuing a (yet-to-be-developed) Middle Eastern track. Would you be
> interested?

BSS is Behavioral and Social Sciences. And yes, they do not have a
syllabus, texts, or course description for this class developed. That
would all be expected from me. Free! They imply a promise of further
work and perhaps a full-time job further down the line. (It is not
unheard of for such things to happen here). But really, I have better
things to do with my time.

Anyway, I just wanted to touch base with someone and see if this is a
common practice to farm out not just the teaching to adjuncts but course
development too.

I'll start by making distinctions among 'syllabus,' 'texts,' and 'course descriptions.'

Every professor here does her own syllabus, including adjuncts. We have past syllabi for guidance, and the syllabi in certain courses (English Comp, Gen Psych, etc.) are fairly standard. But I don't think it's out of bounds to ask an adjunct to customize the contact information and suchlike. And in the less-heavily-trodden areas, it's not unusual for adjuncts to customize assignments.

Textbooks are generally assigned by the department. That's not a universal yet, but we're moving increasingly in that direction to make it easier for students to buy (and return!) used textbooks. It's a cost-control effort. Admittedly, success there has been mixed, and it will probably never catch in the really rapidly changing fields, like immunology or IT. And there have been cases in which adjuncts have chosen their own textbooks, though they nearly always have the option of a 'default' choice.

Course descriptions are another matter entirely. (Stephen Karlson likes to say that syllabi are course descriptions, and that what we usually call syllabi are actually something like 'work plans.' For clarity's sake, I'll use the terms as they're generally understood.) Those are part of the curricular hard-wiring of the institution. We have a fairly long (okay, too long) and thorough (!) process for vetting course descriptions, including approval by the college-wide curriculum committee. The idea is that course descriptions go into the catalog, and establish a permanent record of what we do. Transfer-of-credit decisions are often made based on course descriptions.

That's not to say that we haven't had adjuncts create courses for us in the past. That has happened when somebody brought unique expertise in a specific area. But when that happened, it was the adjunct's idea. We don't turn away good ideas just because they came from adjuncts. But when we need something developed, we look to our full-time faculty. The courses that adjuncts have developed have been cases of folks trying to create jobs for themselves: let me teach this, it'll be a hit, then you'll need to hire me full-time to keep up with the demand! That has worked more than once, in areas of specific, narrow expertise and high student demand. (That is, never in the evergreen disciplines.)

We do pay for faculty -- both full-time and adjunct -- to convert traditional classes to an online format. The initial change is very labor-intensive, so we compensate for it. (We probably don't compensate enough, but that's endemic to the cc world.)

My usual advice to adjuncts who are looking for f-t jobs holds here, too: don't get trapped by false hope. If the gig makes sense on its own terms, then great, but don't endure it as a form of dues-paying. The odds against that working are just too long, and the folks who've fallen into that trap are, in my observation, pretty miserable. Best to avoid it in the first place.

Good luck!

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

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

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Freedom of Speech in Administration

(The confusion evident in this post isn't just a function of sloppy editing; it's an accurate reflection of my actual confusion on this issue.)

The recent dustup over the hiring, then non-hiring, then hiring of a law school dean who had published an op-ed critical of the Bush administration got me thinking about academic freedom, and freedom of speech more generally, for administrators.

Faculty are supposed – rightly – to have considerable leeway in expressing views on controversial issues. In the classroom, that's supposed to be restricted to topics that are relevant to the course, though in practice most of us give “relevant” a pretty loose reading. Outside of the classroom, the standard freedom of speech protections are supposed to apply. The idea is that educators have to be free to follow their inquiries to what appears to them to be truth, even if that truth is unpopular or even silly. Given the speed with which popular opinion can change – those of us who opposed the Iraq war even before it started have gone from 'hippies' and 'paleo-liberals' to 'prescient' in just a few short years – and given the stubborn tenacity of truth, the policy of shielding good-faith inquiry from political interference strikes me as wise.

(I don't buy the usual argument that tenure is a prerequisite for academic freedom, but that's another post altogether. There's also another set of issues around academic freedom at denominational colleges, but I'll just confess being out of my element there.)

If academic freedom, broadly conceived, is a prerequisite for the pursuit of truth, then it seems to me that one of two conclusions must follow: either administrators have academic freedom too, or administrators aren't supposed to be bound to the truth.

I prefer the first option.

One hitch, of course, is that management requires discretion and even, in many cases, confidentiality. Confidentiality and academic freedom co-exist tensely at best. Many of the issues we deal with involve personnel matters, where confidentiality has to hold sway, even when it's inconvenient. (The bane of my existence is the persistent rumor that I know to be false, but can't refute without violating confidentiality. What the rumor mill paints as “the administration knows about this, but is covering it up” is often really “the administration knows this rumor is crap, but can't reveal why it's crap without violating confidentiality.”) Given the realities of how shared governance actually works (as opposed to its ideal, theoretical workings), a dean who thinks out loud will have his musings held against him later, even if he himself eventually came down on the other side. (This is the single most compelling reason I maintain a pseudonym for my blog. Given some of what I've written about tenure, I'd fully expect the faculty union to crusade to have me fired at the first opportunity. They'd read my “in my ideal world” musings, incorrectly, as concrete plans for action.)

A second hitch has to do with the 'ambassador' or 'public face' function of administrators. I've been attacked by faculty for having political bumper stickers on my car. I've been told that the bumper stickers revealed my 'real' agenda, which was presumed to include some sort of ideological purge of the tenured ranks. (As if!) To the extent that there's an argument in there, I think, it's that it can be difficult to separate, say, a dean's personal views from the views of the college for which he works. On the fringes, there's some truth to that. If I declared in public that I supported the Klan, it would be difficult for my college to keep me around. (I don't, btw.) Even if I managed to keep my views separate from my official decisions, the suspicion of contamination would probably eventually prove prohibitive. That said, I've decided that I didn't give up my rights as a citizen when I took this job, so if I want to have a sign on my lawn or my car for my favored candidate, that's my call. I've contributed to campaigns, distributed leaflets door-to-door, and voted on a regular basis, and I make no apology for any of those.

As annoying as it is, the reality of the situation is that the 'public face' side of administration carries a burden of prudence when it comes to public opinion. It would be naive to think that a local college's leadership could go around picking fights with the local government and not bring unwelcome consequences. It would also be naive to think that a local college's leadership could be wildly out of touch with local culture and still enjoy broad political support. If the voters decide that we're just a nest of vipers, the fiscal consequences are likely to be swift and severe. That's not to say that I'm about to go peel off the bumper stickers -- I'm not -- but it is to say that some bumper stickers are within the realm of tolerable disagreement, and some probably aren't. In my perfect world, we'd all be sophisticated enough to separate personal views from job performance, but it's not a perfect world.

Anyway, those are my first, somewhat confused, thoughts on the subject. Wise and worldly readers -- what do you think?

Tuesday, September 25, 2007


Garrison Keillor recently wrote something to the effect that it's shocking to wake up one morning and realize that the guys you knew in school as “Lumpy” and “Numbnuts” are now running the country.

I'm not there yet, but I'm starting to see my contemporaries pop up in some pretty prominent places.

It's always a shock to see new pictures of folks you knew many years ago. They look so...grown up. Which means, by extension...

Humph. Yes. Well.

I laughed out loud when I read Penelope Trunk's post about wanting to kill her guest columnist, because he wrote about bridging the gap between Boomers and Gen Y as if Gen X didn't even exist. Yes, we're a smaller group than the ones on either side of us, but it's a bit early to consign us to obscurity. In academia, we're the generation that didn't get hired, so the pre-Boomers and early Boomers could ride out their life tenure undisturbed. (On campus, I've literally been the generational translator a few times. It's a disconcerting role.) But if we're not taken seriously, I foresee some pretty major leadership vacuums in a few years.

The signs of middle age are there. On the young side, I blog, I download music, and I don't consider the 1960's to have been the apotheosis of human civilization. On the old side, I don't 'text,' I actually pay for the music I download, and I have adult memory of the Clinton administration. As Gen X hits middle age, our numerical invisibility becomes a cultural invisibility, too. Where have you gone, Winona Ryder? A generation turns its lonely eyes to you...

But then I remember some of the drama of the twenties, and give thanks to be done with that. Adolescent angst doesn't age terribly well. (Just ask Winona!) Every cohort gets its window, and every window eventually closes. I don't intend to miss mine with endless hand-wringing.

Folks of a certain age will appreciate this: I remember, as a kid, watching reruns of One Day at a Time. (For the younger readers: that was Valerie Bertinelli's initial claim to fame.) On one episode, the Mom was upset that she was middle-aged. She was 36. At the time, I thought she was right. After all, as the ever-helpful older daughter pointed out, the average life expectancy at the time was 72, so 36 is midway there. That's the definition of middle age. Halfway there.

Yes, Boomers like to say that fifty is the new thirty, but they're Boomers. We expect that kind of thing from them. They mean well, but honestly.

It's our turn to step up to the plate. Yes, I'm a little mortified when I read my alumni update and see that Lumpy is starting to wield real power in this world. But I'm also proud of the folks I've known who are actually making a positive difference. I'm proud to be that boringly square Dad who rushes home to spend time with his bride and his kids. And I'm increasingly okay with letting go of the dramas of youth, like so much unnecessary hair.

That's my story, and I'm sticking to it.

Monday, September 24, 2007

The Sounds of Silence

Evil HR Lady gave me a heads-up regarding a question she received about adjoining faculty offices, when the respective faculty have very different levels of noise tolerance. The original conversation is well worth checking out.

It brought back memories.

In my faculty days, my (shared) office was directly across the hall from a LOUD TALKER who loved to listen to his voicemails on SPEAKERPHONE AT HIGH VOLUME and enjoyed pontificating at great length on current events, always incorrectly and always with unshakable certainty. For a while, I thought he was just trying to bait me, but it became clear over time that my presence made no difference one way or the other. He simply felt entitled to all of the oxygen in any given room at any given time.

At times it got so bad that I actually closed my door during office hours just to take the edge off the din. (He was still clearly audible.) Asking him to keep it down was taken as an affront. In meetings, he was an absolute horror. Moving into administration helped, if only because my new office was a couple of hallways away. But I could always hear him coming.

For the life of me, I'll never understand why some people feel the need to crank up the volume on their speakerphones to play voicemails. I find that “picking up the handset” works pretty well. Failing that, one could always listen at a lower volume.

As a card-carrying introvert in a pathologically, almost cartoonishly-extroverted culture, I find myself wishing for a real-life “mute” button every single day. (And now, a moment of silence for Marcel Marceau. Or is that redundant?) People who can't think without speaking are bad enough; people who can't think without TURNING IT UP TO 11 are just abusive.

Of course, in an academic setting, any sort of gesture towards actual supervision is immediately taken as a moral outrage, so it's tough to enforce any sort of written policy. (“Thou shalt not be a douchebag” would be a little too vague.) And the folks who think they're entitled to drown out everybody around them would immediately take a written policy as a challenge. They'd take whatever isn't specifically prohibited as specifically permitted, just to make a point.

Background noise is an increasing issue, as it has become easier to surround oneself with music and suchlike at any given time. The “streaming audio” innovation and the “cubicle” innovation don't play well together. My free advice is that if you don't have solid walls, keep the music down or use earbuds. If you have a shared office, do what you want when your officemate isn't there, but keep a lid on it when he is. This is just common courtesy.

(And a word about buildings, whether office or commercial, that feel compelled to pump the local “Lite Hits” station into every passing moment: stop. Just stop.)

I'm always amazed, too, when people who deal with confidential information are housed in open offices. Thick walls make good neighbors, I say. If I'm in a heated discussion with some professor about some simmering conflict, I really don't need the local voyeurs taking notes. My 'open door policy' doesn't hold when I'm discussing something confidential, which is actually a good deal of the time. Some folks will naturally substitute “conspiratorial” for “confidential,” but that's just a cost of doing business.

(I can remember being told in grad school that male faculty would be well-advised to keep their office doors open anytime they're talking with female students, just to avoid any appearance of impropriety. Now, with FERPA, any discussion involving grades pretty much requires a closed door. Gotta love the wacky world of the law...)

My hunch, which I don't have enough data to verify one way or the other, is that locally acceptable standards for volume vary from campus to campus. (My current campus is unusually soft-spoken, which I consider a point in its favor.) They may also vary by region and by demographic – I'll just have to ask my wise and worldly readers to chime in on that one. But I don't have a magic answer for dealing with the LOUD TALKER in the next office. Has anyone out there found an effective method?

Friday, September 21, 2007

Projects, Promises, and Bank Shots

There's a great pair of posts up over at Bardiac's dealing with frustration over repeated overpromising (and selective guru loyalty) by administration. They're worth checking out.

Via Evil HR Lady, I found a nifty post on mandatory diversity training, and why companies (and colleges) keep doing it even though it has never been shown to work.

The common thread, I think, is that much of what administration deals with has to be dealt with indirectly. When you look at an indirect measure literally, it looks asinine or even insane. (Sometimes, of course, it is.) But some of it makes sense when seen as prevention of some other disaster.

As the post on diversity training explains well, the point of diversity training isn't to sensitize employees to diversity. Anybody with any teaching experience at all can tell you that herding a hundred people into an auditorium for mandatory consciousness-raising for ninety minutes won't work. It's terrible pedagogy, and virtually designed to fail; it's also insulting. If the point of the workshops were to change attitudes and/or behavior, those would be valid objections. But that's not the point of the workshops. The point of the workshops is to be able to answer a legal complaint alleging bias with “we take these issues seriously. See, we run mandatory workshops on them for all employees!” It's about defusing potential liability.

(Admittedly, this implies a shockingly low opinion of the judicial system. But that's another post altogether.)

If deposed, a manager can say “we provide x number of hours of training.” As with credit hours, what gets measured is seat time. Changed behavior and/or attitudes are devilishly hard to quantify, but seat time is remarkably easy. If somebody alleges, say, racism, and can prove some kind of different treatment at something (which is sort of like proving that the sun rose in the East), the burden shifts to the college to show that it isn't racist. (The presumption of innocence is remarkably weak in this area of the law.) You can't prove a negative, so the college has to use proxy measures. (Quick – prove you're not thinking about a polar bear!) Seat time in diversity seminars counts as a proxy measure. If the discrimination laws were more intelligently written and enforced – say, dispense with the requirement to prove a negative -- we could dispense with these Potemkin rituals. But they aren't, so we can't. If we did, we'd lose every case, whether it had any merit or not.

Bardiac's case is a little worse. In that case, the administration promises every so often that it will tie resources to outcomes assessment. It doesn't – that's a stupid, because unkeepable, promise to make – and over time, the faculty figure out that getting caught up in this year's guru isn't worth it.

In that case, I'd say her administration is doing a lousy job of conveying the point of outcomes assessment. It's also making promises it should know it won't be able to keep, which is a great way to burn credibility. (In a tenure-based setting with an enrollment-driven budget, most resource decisions are dictated by circumstance. Discretionary money is maddeningly rare.)

The point of outcomes assessment is twofold: to help students become more successful, and to prevent the NCLB/standardization movement from taking hold in higher ed. It's sort of like the PG/PG-13/R movie ratings system – by voluntarily adopting its own rating system, the movie industry is able to argue that legislated systems (which could be far more restrictive) aren't necessary. If we can develop a reasonably passable internally-generated assessment system, the argument goes, we could avoid having to administer, say, the GRE to every senior.

I'm no more a fan of the 'guru of the month' movement than Bardiac is. A smarter administration than hers would stick to a single style over time, and refrain from making promises it can't keep. Anybody with any social science background can tell you that you don't need to assess every single student to assess the success of a curriculum. Do representative samples; keep data over time; look at the macro trends. And for goodness' sake, don't burn out your best people over this. But to the extent that we can report, with some level of truth, that we're systematically identifying areas of weakness and trying to do something about them, we can (I hope) head off boneheaded standardized testing.

One of the habits of mind I've had to learn while deaning is what pool players call the 'bank shot.' Unfortunately, many managers either don't understand the bank shot and mistake the expedient for the point, or can't communicate it in a way that faculty will understand or respect. (Worse: in the case of the diversity training, if we communicated clearly that the workshop wasn't to be taken literally, we'd defeat its usefulness as a proxy. So we play dumb.) So faculty get herded into auditoriums to hear highly-paid consultants tell them not to be racist, or less-highly-paid administrators make promises that nobody expects to be kept, and wonder why otherwise-intelligent people suddenly drop fifty IQ points when we move into administration. We don't (at least some of us); we're just playing a different game. In my perfect world, most of these measures wouldn't be necessary. But unilateral disarmament doesn't bring peace, and ignoring legal or political dangers doesn't make them go away. I don't like sensitivity training either. But I dislike even more the possible consequences of not doing it.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

After Work

The Girl, her big pink teddy bear, and I are sitting on the couch in the family room.

TG: Let's play hide and seek!

DD: Okay.

TG: I know a good hiding place!

DD: Okay. I'll count! (I hide my eyes)

TG: (giggles)

DD: one...two...three...

TG: (giggles)

DD: nine..ten! (Eyes open) Ready or not, here I come!

Next to me, I spy a recumbent girl with a big pink teddy bear covering her face. Her legs are crossed and knees up, so one foot is almost in my face.

DD: (laugh out loud)


TG: (giggles)

DD: Bear, do you know where TG is?

TG (voicing the bear): No.

DD: Hmm...Is she on the chair? Noooo....

TG: (giggles harder)

DD: I wonder whose feet these are? (Start tickling her foot.) They seem to move a lot when I tickle them...

TG: (laughing)

DD: Bear, do you know whose feet these are?

TG (triumphantly): Here I am!

DD: There you are!

TG: You silly! I was right here!

In a few years, I won't know anything, and she'll greet me with a roll of the eyes and a contemptuous “Da-a-ad.” But for now, I'm a silly Daddy who can't see a little girl behind a big pink teddy bear.

Best after-work decompression ever.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Ask the Administrator: What Fresh Hell is This?

A new correspondent asks for help decoding a job ad:

I would like to solicit input from you and your audience concerning a position posted recently by my employer, a medium- community college in a rural area. They are looking for someone to coordinate services for adjunct faculty. This is a new position, so there’s not any track record about how serving in that capacity might affect one’s career path. Salary/benefits, while not great, are consistent (as near as I can tell) with other positions of similar rank/function at the college.

One issue worth considering is the overall climate at my institution. The college is undergoing a lot of change, both at the very top and within various divisions. For example, the dean over the division where this job resides is retiring. Other areas of the college also have lame ducks or brand-new leaders. All these changes have created a great deal of turmoil. My current position keeps me out of the loop to some extent, which has the advantage of keeping me out of the line of fire, but it also leaves me with less information than I’d like.

My interest in this position is fueled mainly by the fact that it is full-time, which my current position is not. I would bring to the table 4 years of adjunct teaching experience plus a previous (full-time) position as a faculty trainer in a grant position, and I have the requested educational background.

My question is twofold:

1) Do I even want this job? Yes, it’s full-time with benefits (no small thing), but it has the potential to be a chance to be the whipping boy for everyone’s frustrations with the system, with no real funding or authority to make any changes of substance. Moreover, the job would include visits to satellite centers, so there would be some degree of road time. I could be stepping on to an exhausting treadmill. Alternately, it might be a vehicle for real change within the limits of the possible, but it’s not clear which.

2) If pursuing this IS a good idea, what would be points I should raise during an interview? Include both points I should raise when selling myself for the job, and points I should mention so they can sell themselves to me.

In addition to all the leadership mess, an additional complication would be the fiscal climate at the state level. State leadership has been abysmal, with our leaders spending more time posturing and stabbing one another in the back than doing anything to benefit the citizenry. (An earlier version of this email gave far too much detail. Sadly, however, the above statement does NOT rule out very many locations).

I'll admit, I've never seen quite this combination of duties before. It looks like a cross between “evening/weekend dean” and “instructional specialist,” maybe laced with some wishful thinking.

At Proprietary U, the full-time faculty reported to academic deans, each of whom specialized in one part of the curriculum. (I was the token liberal arts guy. Among other duties, I became the unofficial proofreader for most official documents. In a parallel universe, I'm a pretty good copy editor.) In addition to the academic deans, there were 'evening and weekend' deans, whose job it was to keep a lid on the evening and weekend programs. The lines of jurisdiction there got murky, since the evening and weekend deans were responsible across every curriculum, but couldn't be experts in everything. So the daytime curricular deans (often with the help of faculty coordinators in specialized areas) would make the adjunct hires, but the evening/weekend admins had to deal with them. Over time, their jobs morphed into something like 'keepers of the adjuncts.' That's a terminal position, really, since doing it well involves nobody noticing, but mistakes are conspicuous. The usual upward path on the academic side typically involves moving through content areas.

That said, if you're at a college in a great degree of flux, it's always possible to make your mark and move in ways that ordinarily couldn't be done. And you're certainly right that salary-and-benefits is much more attractive than adjunct pay and praying for good health.

What I wouldn't do is look at the job as an opportunity to effect change from the inside. Unless I'm misreading badly (which is possible), this doesn't look like a policymaking position. It looks more like an operational position, where your job is to smooth out the quotidian details so the adjuncts can focus on teaching. That's no small thing; even the most brilliant pedagogue can be derailed by a book order gone missing, a contract misplaced, or the ever-present Temperamental Photocopier. I'm guessing that your college has made the policy decision (for all the usual reasons) to go with a substantial adjunct population, so it's trying to make that work as best it can. Your job would be to make that happen.

If you go in thinking that you'll persuade the college to see the light and make everybody full-time, I foresee doom. But if you can see the daily good of smoothing the road for the faculty you do have, and you're willing to see this as an experiment that may or may not lead somewhere, then give it a shot.

Your experience adjuncting there is an excellent source to draw upon for the interview. What daily logistical issues got in your way? Other than crappy pay and job insecurity, what did the adjuncts gripe about to each other? What could you imagine fixing without a huge new infusion of money? If you can cast yourself as 'problem solver,' rather than 'crusader,' you'll likely be an attractive candidate.

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers – your thoughts?

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

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

"Me" Movies: Accepted

I enjoy two kinds of movies. The first kind is the “Good Movie.” Good Movies can be identified by such traits as intelligent writing, sensitive direction, quality acting, and the like: Network leaps to mind, or maybe Heathers. Not all good movies are good in every way – watching again as an adult, I was struck at how poor the dialogue and acting were in Star Wars – but they usually have enough good in them that you can endorse them in public and not feel cheap or exposed.

The second kind is the “Me Movie.” These are movies that, by any objective criteria, suck, but that speak to me anyway. Sometimes they're poorly executed, but have a brilliant premise: Grace Quigley, say, or Idiocracy. I'll forgive a lot for a brilliant premise. Sometimes they're horribly sloppy but capture some basic, and specific, truths that most movies just don't: Chasing Amy falls into this category (don't ask), as does Kids in the Hall: Brain Candy (“we kicked penicillin's sorry ass!”). Sometimes they just happen to feature an actress on whom I'm crushing wildly at the time. (I'm not made of stone, people.) And sometimes they have little moments that just jump off the screen, as if they were spliced in from another movie altogether.

Accepted is that last kind of Me Movie.

By any traditional measure, it's a steamer. The “I'm a Mac” guy stretches as an artist by playing a snot-nosed kid with a sense of entitlement. The premise is silly: kids who didn't get into college start one of their own. (Apparently, they've never heard of community colleges, which aren't mentioned once.) They cleverly call it the South Harmon Institute of Technology, generating big laffs from the acronym. The college doesn't have “faculty,” but nobody minds, since the students are all-knowing already. (Just ask them!) Students pay their tuition in full, in advance, without anybody even asking about financial aid. (What planet this takes place on is left unspoken.) When the college goes before the accrediting board to plead for its continued existence, The I'm-a-Mac guy delivers a self-indulgent rant to the board, winning their hearts with his plea for, um, artistic truth or something. (At least when the frat in Animal House made its plea, the members knew they were shoveling. The I'm-a-Mac guy seems to actually believe it.) The neighboring college is stuffy and intolerant, and the hero gets the girl with his authentic, um, artistic truth or something. Bleah.


Lewis Black as the Dean? Oh, hell yes.

Anybody familiar with Mr. Black's oeuvre will be unsurprised to learn that his character is irascible, profane, and vaguely unhinged, but with alarming vocal stamina. He's also even more unkempt (less kempt?) than he is on The Daily Show, apparently going for a sort of Jimmy-Buffett-the-morning-after look.

His meeting with the I'm-a-Mac guy's parents was pure genius. He cavalierly (and obscenely) dismissed all the usual highfalutin' justifications for higher education, finally settling on a really blunt invocation of high starting salaries. When he concluded the meeting with “Fuckin' A!”, I nearly fell off the couch. A dean who screams obscenities at parents, delivers drunken tirades in public to the approval of all, and visibly does not care one iota about appearances, propriety, or even sobriety is great fun to watch. It did my heart good.

It's a straight-up wish fulfillment kind of pleasure, but what the hell. A world in which deans are allowed to rant at such velocity that their hapless interlocutors emerge showered with spittle, gaping in open-mouthed disbelief? Yes, please.

I give Accepted three mortarboards, but I really couldn't argue with anyone who pronounced it craptacular. It's a Me Movie.

What's your Me Movie?

Monday, September 17, 2007

Credits Where They're Due

According to this article (and check out the comments!), the governor of New Jersey just signed a law mandating that the four-year public colleges there recognize the academic credits students earn at the state's community colleges. The idea, apparently, is to allow a student who graduates a cc with a two-year degree to complete the remainder of a four-year degree in two more years.

This is one of those “well, duh” laws that makes you wonder why it wasn't passed years ago.

There's an obvious argument from fairness. If a student has successfully completed accredited coursework, and doesn't change majors, it seems clear that she should get credit for that coursework. This is especially the case for the courses in the first two years, which are largely the general education courses that aren't unique to any given major. (I'm thinking here of English comp, general psych, etc.) Anybody who got a doctorate at a public flagship (hi!) can attest that those intro courses are often taught by graduate students with minimal training and no experience.

(True story: shortly before my first session as a t.a., my fellow t.a.'s and I met with the professor to get a sense of what he wanted us to do. I was hoping for some sense of structure, maybe some teaching tips, perhaps even some wisdom of experience, or, failing all that, at least a pep talk. We were told – and I remember this like it was yesterday -- “you'll be fine.” That was the extent of my pedagogical training before teaching a course that carried greater prestige than anything taught by thirty-year professors here. Makes ya wonder...)

There's also an argument from economics. Since the same taxpayers subsidize both the cc's and the public colleges, it seems to me they have a reasonable objection to paying twice for the same courses.

There's some predictable huffing and puffing in the comments to the IHE piece, essentially taking the line that cc's are of lower quality – no evidence for this is offered – so the governor has sold out academic virtue. If this were the case, of course, I'd imagine it would be easy for the four-year colleges to demonstrate. All they'd have to do is produce the records of transfer students and show that they have a higher attrition rate than 'native' students. That's all it would take.

They haven't done that. Because – ahem – it isn't true.

Cc's specialize. By dint of focusing exclusively on the first two years, we get pretty good at them. That's all we do. We don't do the upper-level undergrad courses, or the graduate courses, or the research fellows, or any of that. We only do one thing. Our tenured faculty can't farm out their intro classes to adjuncts; without intro classes, they wouldn't have jobs. I simply don't understand why we should automatically assume that a 23-year-old grad student whose entire training consists of “you'll be fine” would produce better educational outcomes than would, say, somebody who has been teaching the intro course for decades, at a college that actually values and supports teaching. I just don't get it.

There's also an objection from 'fit.' Simply put, my crystal ball tells me that some schools will come up with bizarre major requirements to relegate credits they don't want to the dreaded “free elective” status. (“Free elective” status is where credits go to die.) So they wind up telling students that the cc courses 'count,' just not toward any actual major. Depending on how the legislation is written, this may or may not become a problem; if it does, though, I'd expect to see the screws tighten over time. Since any tightening of the screws threatens to impact other areas, too, I'd advise the four-year schools not to push this angle too far. They could win the battle, but lose the war.

The more intelligent objection is that mandatory recognition will lead to course standardization, with all that standardization implies. But if it's handled reasonably intelligently – set common course objectives, but allow freedom in how to meet those objectives – this doesn't strike me as a fatal objection. If anything, it may bring enough focus to a suddenly-common set of issues that 'best practices' will finally become transferable between institutions, which is all to the good. A statewide conversation about the best ways to help students succeed in, say, first-year writing courses might be kind of refreshing. It's certainly worth a try.

Kudos to New Jersey for recognizing both fiscal and academic reality. The devil is in the details, to be sure, but this strikes me as an obvious and long-overdue step in the right direction.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

On the Road Again...

A program note: life has intervened, so I don't anticipate being able to post again until Monday.

See ya then!

Attracting Adults

Like many cc's, mine is banging its head against the wall trying to reverse a long-term decline in the number of adult students.

Contrary to stereotype, most of our enrollment growth has been in students age 19 and under. Our enrollments in the 22-and-up demographic have been slipping for some time.

Part of that, I think, can be traced to the cost of living in our service area. It's sufficiently expensive to live here at this point that if you aren't still living with Mom and Dad, you've moved away. The struggling 30-year-old single Mom doesn't live here anymore, even if she still works here. The adults who live here tend to have advanced degrees already.

(There's a consistent correlation between age and gender among our students. In the 19-and-under group, it's majority male, if by a narrow margin. In the 22-and-over group, it's majority female by an overwhelming margin. The overall student body is majority female.)

Still, even with some unfavorable demographics working against us, we could probably mitigate the impact of the exodus if we did a better job of attracting and keeping the (potential) older students who are here.

We've taken some of the obvious steps: we've implemented open hours in the evenings at the bookstore, the registrar's office, student services, and the like. We have academic advisors on duty in the evenings. We schedule courses to allow degree or certificate completion entirely at night, entirely online, or through a combination of evening and weekend classes. We advertise our occupational programs, and have developed some fairly short occupational certificate programs in high-demand areas. We have special Open Houses for adult students, non-credit programs in areas of special interest (art, culinary, etc.), and even days devoted entirely to senior citizens, who pay no tuition.

Yet the slide continues.

So I'm going to use my bloggy soapbox to make a cry for help. Has your college found a successful and replicable way to reach adult students? For the adult students (or adult former students, or potential adult students) out there: are there barriers to your enrollment that it would be practical for a college to address? My colleagues and I are starting to run low on ideas, but it's a big world out there. Help!

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Unearthing the Rules

Yesterday, I advised cultivating a certain indifference to the unwritten rules.

Today's post is about the written ones.

Folks who haven't worked in management frequently respond to managers' frustration with common-sense questions, like “why can't they just get it right the first time?” Questions like these are often based on invalid assumptions, such as the commonplace assumption that somewhere, someone has an up-to-date book with all of the rules and procedures in it.


In the public sector, getting anything new done requires jumping from one jurisdiction to another to another, each with its own set of rules, assumptions, and timelines. Anything new, pretty much by definition, will involve combining those rules in ways that weren't foreseen when the rules were made. If the organization has any kind of maturity – and public sector ones absolutely do – then the folks who wrote the initial sets of rules are long gone, and the current staff has inherited a legacy of rules scattered hither and yon. Some of those rules have been honored in the breach; some originated as exceptions; some are internally contradictory; some were never written but have taken on the force of rule by 'past practice'. Simply putting together a list of the relevant rules for something new requires a sort of archeological expedition across multiple sites, with varying levels of cooperation.

If you happen to be in a relatively decentralized system, multiply this issue by the number of sites.

It's maddening, because the only time you find out about the rules is after you've (allegedly) violated them. Sometimes the allegation turns out to be true, sometimes not, but either way it costs time. Since there's virtually no cost for making a false allegation, folks who want to shoot a proposal down frequently resort to claiming recovered repressed memories of long-ago rulings.

Keeping the rules obscure is one way that some long-entrenched folks hold power. They're the ones who (claim to) remember the origin of such-and-such a policy twenty years ago, which they won't bother sharing until there's something to torpedo. (I admit taking a perverse glee in those rare occasions when I can prove one of those claims false.)

In other industries, there's an entire class of people – usually called “lawyers” -- whose entire job it is to go marching through rules to make things happen (or not happen). It's their full-time job, for which the most prominent ones are exceedingly well-paid. If the rule book were clearer, these folks wouldn't be nearly as necessary as they are.

In my world, we don't have the resources to keep an army of attorneys at the ready to do the digging every time we come up with something. So we have to act as amateur ad hoc attorneys, which is a remarkably frustrating experience. It's all the more frustrating when there's no such thing as a law library or a central, single administrative code. Things are just all over the place.

I've seen two responses to this dilemma, neither satisfying. At Proprietary U, the answer was to change the rules from the top down every time the wind shifted. It had the advantage of speed, and cutting through red tape was remarkably easy, but there was a certain arbitrariness to it that made working there frustrating beyond belief. Here, we have the opposite problem. We have multiple processes, plenty of involvement, and 'veto groups' everywhere. It makes stupid and arbitrary changes harder, but it also makes plainly necessary changes harder. Worse, without some sort of parliamentarian or umpire, the processes frequently devolve into interest-group politics, at which point precedents are set based not on what makes sense, but on who was in the room at the time.


Sorry for the whine. I just don't like playing emergency archeologist.

Monday, September 10, 2007

"Supposed To"

Oso and Bitch have posts up addressing, in different ways, the whys and wherefores of using your degree in ways you're not “supposed to.”

As a graduate of a Snooty Liberal Arts College with a Phud from an R1 Flagship, who is working in administration at a community college, I'll just say I have a more-than-passing interest in this issue.

From the perspective of my graduate program, I have failed. They count full-time faculty placements, with extra credit for tenure-track and/or high prestige locales. By their measures, I've fallen off the radar. (This was even true in my faculty days, since Proprietary U didn't have tenure, so it didn't have a tenure track. I was permanent full-time faculty, but I wasn't tenure-track, so I didn't count.) I don't feel like I've failed – honestly, I think I've done a pretty good job of “lemons into lemonade” -- but by the measures used in grad school, and which most of us internalized to one degree or another, there it is.

(It doesn't stop in grad school, either. For the administrators out there – do you get sick of faculty assuming that administrators are failed faculty? Me, too!)

Oso confesses to Googling former colleagues to see whose career is where. He has a little more faith than I do in the fairness of long-term outcomes, but he notices too that, even just a few years out, some of the early 'stars' turned out to be flashes in the pan. Sometimes the rules for what you're 'supposed to' do change abruptly, leaving the stars of an earlier period stranded someplace nobody wants to go. When what looked like the future becomes a tired fad, some very hardworking people are bound to look pretty silly.

The people I admire, both in and outside of academia, are frequently the ones who followed their own senses of what they should do.

Faddism in academia bothers me more than it does in many other industries because, unlike in many other industries, it defeats our reason to exist. To my mind, part of the point of academia is to be the place to try off-the-beaten-path ideas. This is where you can ask “what if...” and actually work on providing an answer. If the answer is already given – whether by a fad-driven job market, a theology, a political platform, groupthink, or popular opinion – then I don't see what value we add.

That freedom of inquiry is premised on boringly solid institutional backing. If you're reasonably sure that hard and honest inquiry will be supported, regardless of where it leads, then you're free to inquire. (There's a difference between 'reasonably sure' and 'tenured,' but I'll leave it at that.) The current academic job market in most disciplines simply does not offer that kind of assurance. Grad students are routinely advised (I know I was) to pick a dissertation topic based on its marketability. The same is true in getting articles published – you want to pick something 'hot,' so the 'right' journals take your stuff. Marketability can mean faddism, or demographic specificity (the whole 'embody what you teach' part of identity politics strikes me as immoral in the extreme), or outright intellectual dishonesty.

I'm much more impressed by the folks who blow off the market demands and just do – assiduously – what they think is right. Part of my ongoing fascination with the blogosphere is that it's still evolving; the rules haven't calcified yet. This is not true in the rest of academe. At my academic discipline's annual conference, the 'community college' name on my nametag precludes me from being taken seriously. I was treated much more respectfully when I went as a grad student, since I had the R1 name on the tag back then. (The last time I went, I saw the facial expressions as people read my nametag. I would have been more politely received had it read “inmate” or “unhinged loner.”) In the blog world, some folks trade on already-established star credentials, but some have developed their own street cred through nothing more than their writing. Pity that the mainstream of the profession isn't like that.

It's supposed to be.

What I think I share with Bitch and Oso, even granting our obvious differences, is a strong sense that the traditional rules just don't work anymore. Unfortunately, the folks at the top of the pecking order are the ones most vested in those traditional rules, and therefore most blind to their failures. The “opinion leaders” are far behind reality.

My words of wisdom, such as they are: go ahead and break the rules. There isn't much payoff in playing by them anymore, and they certainly don't make sense intrinsically. Cross disciplinary boundaries; blog; select topics that are interesting to you; have a kid; have a life; move into and out of administration; contradict or ignore your advisor when he's wrong. The old rules about what you're supposed to do were developed in a world that doesn't exist anymore, and that isn't coming back.

My quest is to help rewrite the rules from the inside to make it possible for folks with passion and independent thought to find a real home in the academy. Progress is glacial – almost imperceptibly slow, but drastic over time – but that's okay. Like Oso, I'm not in this for the hit single. I'm in this for the duration. That may not be what I was supposed to do, but it's what I'm doing.

Friday, September 07, 2007

Tenure and Spinach

New Kid has a great post, taking to task a particularly annoying “First Person” column in the Chronicle. The column in question was written by someone about to go up for tenure. He claimed that the tenure process is like working out or eating your vegetables; essentially, it's short-term pain for long-term gain. He chides a few of his unsuccessful colleagues for failing to defer gratification sufficiently, and sort of congratulates himself on having endured hateful work for so many years that he's soon to be free of it all.

New Kid does an outstanding job of dissection, so I won't insult her by watering it down here. Check it out.

That said, my objection to the Chronicle piece has a lot less to do with any authorial smugness than with what the piece implies about tenure.

Regular readers know that I favor a system of long-term renewable contracts, rather than tenure. This First Person column really illustrates why.

From a college's perspective, granting tenure means gambling that the person you've tenured will remain a productive presence for the next several decades, even without any threat of termination or demotion. (Granting a full professorship even takes 'reward' out of the equation for the rest of the person's career.) In other words, it's betting that the usual cost-benefit analyses that most people apply to work won't apply in this person's case. It's betting that the professor doesn't think of his work as a distasteful obligation to be endured only until the reward is attained.

That's an extraordinarily risky bet, and I can say with the cold confidence of experience that the colleges sometimes lose.

Part of the squishiness that inherently attaches to tenure decisions – and that drives junior faculty absolutely insane – comes from the necessary effort to discern not just productivity, but motivation. If the professor is just eating his vegetables until he gets the chance to never eat another one again, then granting tenure would be a catastrophic mistake. From the institution's perspective, and to the extent that you can do this and still stay within the confines of the law, you want to tenure the intrinsically motivated, and kick out the extrinsically motivated. If the professor in question has only been working hard to get the brass ring so he can retire on the job, you don't want him.

From my perspective, in all but the most obvious cases (as when the professor admits it in the Chronicle), efforts to discern the motivation behind production are doomed to fail. I don't want to play armchair psychologist. But to reduce tenure to a transaction – the usual goal behind junior faculty calls for 'transparency' – would be to put all of the risk on one side. It would be like a marriage in which only one partner has the power to file for divorce.. Once you've specified the minimum number of vegetables that must be eaten, some folks will do exactly that. (You'd also see an entirely predictable compensatory ratcheting-up of requirements to absurd levels, in the name of avoiding bad bets.) To the extent that tenure comes to be seen as the finish line, colleges (and the students!) lose.

I fully agree with those who object to being psychoanalyzed. If my hard work is dismissed with “yes, you produced a lot, but you just did it for the external reward,” I wouldn't know how to disprove that in time to make a difference. (“Would you rather I didn't work hard?”) But from this side of the desk, it's hard to distinguish well-meaning calls for transparency and fairness from self-serving attempts to minimize current work in the name of really aggressively minimizing future work. Honestly, they're both out there.

Rather than the usual back-and-forth volleys of accusations of bad faith, I'd rather take the 'lifetime bet' out of the equation. Ratchet down the unreasonable expectations to something more realistic, but nobody gets to be bulletproof. Instead of aiming an entire career at a single up-or-out moment, make renewal contingent on meeting agreed-upon goals, which can safely be specified in writing. Academic freedom can be specified in the contract, as well, so a violation of academic freedom would be actionable as breach of contract. Yes, there will still be judgment calls, as there will be in any personnel issues, but both sides will have fair warning as to the criteria, and standards, on which those judgments will be based. Contracts can be reduced to transactions, since they're reciprocal; lifetime immunity isn't reciprocal, and therefore doesn't make sense as a transaction.

Predicting whether someone will still be busting her hump thirty years from now strikes me as a fool's errand. Our predictive powers just aren't that good, and I don't trust either side to be clairvoyant. Using shorter-but-not-ridiculous time horizons – I'm thinking three years at the point of hire, followed by five-year renewals (with shorter renewals for folks who are floundering) – and explicit criteria that don't require being superhuman, seems to me a reasonable move. If you're doing your job well, your work should be allowed to speak for itself. If you're retired on the job, and you don't respond to warnings, then you should be kicked to the curb to make room for someone who will actually produce. (This would also have the happy effect of opening up more positions at senior ranks, the better to offset the place-boundedness characteristic of so many jobs now.) Either way, though, you should be spared the indignity of having your mind read.

The alternative is to continue to fill scarce tenure-track lines with folks who vow, in the manner of Scarlet O'Hara, never to eat another vegetable again. No, thanks.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Notes on the First Week Back

  • The Wife's birthday was this past weekend. She continues to look dramatically younger than her age, which I'll admit taking a certain piggish male pleasure in noticing.

  • The Boy took a nasty tumble off his bike and displayed iffy acting skills. He skinned his knee, which I'm sure wasn't fun, but spent the next several days alternately forgetting and remembering to limp. At one point, as we were walking back home from the drugstore having bought batteries for a new game, he was so excited that he ran. He also limped on the wrong leg a few times. I'm thinking he's fine. His limp was sort of like Dick Van Dyke's accent in Mary Poppins – he'd remember, then forget, then remember.

  • The Girl was flipping through The Easter Story the other day. (Although she can't read yet, she likes to flip through picture books and tell herself the stories.) The Boy started to read over her shoulder. Annoyed, she turned to him and said “He dies in the end.”

  • TB starts first grade today. He's oddly matter-of-fact about it. Kindergarten was a huge deal; this just seems like another day at the office.

  • A few days ago as we were watching tv, one of those 'back to school sale' ads came on, and TW commented that we don't have to buy school supplies. Our district actually supplies the K-5 students with everything they need, other than backpacks. Folders, pencils, crayons, etc., are provided. I think the idea is to make sure the lower-income kids aren't disadvantaged, but it's pretty convenient for the rest of us, too. Hell, for the taxes we pay, the school can damn well afford some pencils. Gotta admit, I don't miss doing battle with the crowds to get the right folders, binders, etc. It's a remarkably civilized policy.

  • A confession of techno-lust: those new iMacs are awfully tempting. We don't have anything resembling the disposable income right now to justify the purchase, but jeez, they're nice. (This is especially true with the Deanmobile showing some troubling signs of late. I am not in the mood to start making car payments again.) No good can come of browsing in the Apple store. You'd think I would have learned that by now.

  • The Wodehouse line I'm going to have to try to slip into conversation this week: “He shriveled like a salted snail.” Love the image.

  • Two great posts recently from two great academic bloggers: Tim Burke on anger at academia, and Bitch PhD on making a living. Maybe it's the social scientist in me, but I'm a big fan of getting real about costs. It has a wonderfully clarifying effect. In the comments to Burke's piece, several folks point out that academics – to a greater degree than most – choose a place based on a job, rather than the other way around. Once you're ensconced in East Nowhere, that's where you are; it's incredibly difficult for non-superstars, once they have tenure, to move. So some very smart people feel trapped in some very inhospitable places, with predictable effects on morale. Nobody told me that when I arrived in grad school – I got the “great wave of retirements” line, as did everybody else.

  • Bitch breaks the final cultural taboo and posts concrete info about her income and expenses, essentially to wonder how it's possible to make six figures (!) and still feel strapped. If you can put a sock in the easy snark (“that's a problem I'd like to have!”), the discussion is actually incredibly valuable. What it boils down to is exactly what Elizabeth Warren and Amelia Warren-Tyagi wrote about in their last couple of books: you can cut out all the lattes you want, the real culprit is housing costs. (At least our property taxes cover our trapper keepers!) Given that most academics are place-bound, there's no elegant way around that.

  • She may be a pain in the neck, but Lily Allen's album has to be the funniest music I've heard in many a year. Anybody who can deadpan a line like “you've got to be joking me/if you think you'll be poking me” is worth a listen. And her song to her brother – imagine Dr. Phil as rendered by a bratty ten-year-old on a sugar rush – is an instant classic. (For the younger readers: imagine a cross between Amy Winehouse and the Powerpuff Girls.) I rarely laugh at loud at music, but her stuff works every time. Well done.

  • Signs it's going to be a tough year: yesterday I used the phrase “Kubler-Ross” as a verb, as in, “we have to give them time to Kubler-Ross it.” (We're at the 'bargaining' stage now.) In my defense, at least I didn't append the -ize suffix...

Wednesday, September 05, 2007


The New York Times ran a front-page article yesterday with the shocking – shocking, I say – news that colleges with reduced state funding and regulated tuition levels have made up part of the difference by jacking up the fees they actually control. The article specified one college charging a 'curriculum fee,' which I thought was especially creative. (There's one college near me – pseudonymity prevents my revealing it – that charges a per-credit parking fee, whether you register a car or not. If you take the bus to school, you still pay the parking fee. To my mind, that's tuition.)

It's a maddening piece to read, but not for the reasons the authors obviously intend.

The purpose of the article, if you read it closely, is to pressure colleges for greater transparency of fees. From the way the article is written, you'd think the fees came up at the last minute as surprises, like those last minute closing costs on a house. There may be cases in which that's true, but they strike me as very much the exception. Most public colleges and universities publish their tuition and fee levels.

To my mind, the real irritation felt by the students has little to do with transparency, and much to do with actual cost. They don't want to pay that much, whether you call it tuition, fees, taxes, or anything else. (There's a secondary but very real issue with scholarships that cover 'tuition' but not fees; in those cases, reclassing certain costs as fees will hit certain students pretty hard.)

This strikes me as of a piece with a story I read recently in which some enterprising social scientists discovered a correlation between tight municipal budgets and the rate at which local police ticketed out-of-town and out-of-state drivers. (Essentially, strapped towns ticketed at much higher rates, effectively displacing their revenue sources from taxes on locals to tickets on non-locals.) In both cases, the moral is the same: needs don't go away just because we wish they would.

I used to believe in 'transparency' as an ideal. Then I got a credit card. About once a month, I get some two-point font, sixteen-page foldout detailing the fourteen new ways they'll try to screw me over this month. If I don't cancel the card, the changes take effect. The 'disclosures' are absurdly long and confusing, and, I believe, deliberately so. They're counting on the opportunity cost of the time it would take to wade through everything outweighing the cost of what you think they'd try to pull. The foldouts meet the legal threshold of 'transparency,' but they do so in such a way that unless you make it a major life quest, you'll never figure out what's going on. Too much information can obscure as easily as too little. (This is why I pay mine off in full every month; I don't want to give the bastards the satisfaction.)

(And don't even get me started on the 'full disclosure' documents from my HMO. Anyone who objects to single-payer health care on the grounds that it's 'bureaucratic' is invited to navigate the phone tree at my HMO. Kafka would consider it 'over the top.')

As public institutions, cc's (and other public colleges) are subject to the political winds. When some folks decide they can make political hay by passing Sweeping Reforms, like tuition freezes or taxpayer bills of rights, they characteristically do so without paying any meaningful attention to why tuition increases were needed in the first place. So the laws get passed, but the needs don't go away. Colleges muddle through by splitting the difference – a few more needs are shorted, and a few more creative funding sources are cultivated. It's utterly predictable. Then students complain about shorted needs, parents complain about increased fees, and the legislators cast about in vain for the next Ward Churchill to blame everything on. This ain't rocket science, people.

If you're serious – truly serious – about getting tuition and fees under control, there's no shortage of ways to do it. You could restrict the range of programs offered (thereby shorting an educational need); you could redirect your mission to serve only the economic and academic elites (thereby shorting an educational need); you could pass universal single-payer health care and get those costs down to the level of, I don't know, every other advanced country (thereby solving an actual need); or you could engineer some sustainable, predictable level of public and/or philanthropic funding for the long term (thereby solving several actual needs). Those are just off the top of my head – it's certainly not an exhaustive list. Or you could say 'to hell with it' and jack up tuition, like the private colleges do.

But to call for 'transparency' and assume that you're solving the problem is just naïve. As long as the underlying needs are still there and the public funding still isn't, a ban on fees amounts to nothing more than a call for a new euphemism. And we academics are very, very good at euphemisms.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Ask My Readers: One-Year Gigs and Undergraduate Research

A returning correspondent writes:

I have been skimming the latest crop of advertisements for physics
faculty, and every so often I run across one that is for a one-year
appointment. The ads ask for candidates that will teach
undergraduates *and* involve them in research.

I ignore these ads, but lately they've started to nag at me... Who
wants to accept a one-year position and start sending out
applications in the first months of the new job? Are the ads not
really intended for non-local candidates? Who in the blazes can
teach and involve undergraduates in research in one year (start
research, maybe; finish a project, no way)? Does this mean the
department actually wants a candidate for longer than a year, but
prefers to keep their options open by giving themselves the option of
not renewing their appointment? Or is the reference to undergraduate
research just a throw-away phrase?

I've seen you answer similar questions on your blog, and generally it
comes down to, "Well, it all depends on the department and the search
committee; things could mean *this*, or things could mean that
somebody is behaving very strangely." I think this may be the case
here, but perhaps you can shed some light on what these limited
appointments can be intended for (and who might want to apply for them)?

I have to admit being a little out of my element here, so I'll throw it open to readers who know this field better than I do. (In the cases I know, undergraduate research occurs at the junior and senior level, beyond the reach of cc's.)

Whether this is a good thing or a bad thing, I'm not sure, but my cc doesn't do one-year positions. One-semester positions occur when somebody falls ill at the last minute, and we basically annoint a native adjunct to finish out the term. But we don't make a habit of it, and we don't post for temporary gigs. In terms of full-time faculty, you're either on the bus or off the bus.

The context in which I could see a one-year position making sense is a sabbatical replacement. At institutions at which sabbaticals are a full year, I can see the logic. But the part about involving undergrads in research doesn't fit my sense of a one-year position.

It's possible that the folks posting the position are actually trolling for a full-timer and using this as a first screen. I've gone on record opposing that as unethical, since it winnows the applicant pool with irrelevant criteria, but that doesn't mean it never happens. Even with tenure-track faculty, non-renewal is an option prior to tenure, so I don't think the ability not to renew is the critical variable.

My guess, honestly, is that they took the desiderata for a tenure-track hire and simply duplicated it for the one-year hire. If they had taken the time to reflect on what they were doing, they'd realize pretty quickly that the job they've posted doesn't make sense. But critical reflection – like self-awareness – is distressingly rare, even among very intelligent people. They may simply have a sense of “this is what professors do,” and gone with that, not stopping to ask whether it made sense in a one-year gig. It isn't conspiratorial or sinister or even dishonest; it's just thoughtless, in the literal meaning of the word.

Wise and worldly readers – especially folks in the sciences – what do you make of this?

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