Friday, December 21, 2007

Settling Down for a Long Winter's Nap

A few highlights of the Christmas preparation season:

- The Girl's Christmas pageant at her preschool. She attends a preschool at a local church, so they're free to use all the religious content they want. They did a Christmas concert with a vaguely nativity-ish stage set. Some of the kids (including TG) were dressed as sheep, complete with too-cute-for-words hoods with vertical ears. TG is frequently misunderstood; she's often quiet in public, but not because she's lazy or tuning out or even shy. She's taking it all in, and waiting for her moment. Apparently, going onstage is her moment. She upstaged the baby Jesus, and sang like it was going out of style. (As far as I'm concerned, she owns "Go Tell It on the Mountain" now.) You go, TG!

- Pizza with Santa. As I've mentioned before, our local Santa is a lovely older man who likes to hold court at a local pizzeria one Saturday each December. We went again this year, with my Mom joining us, and he greeted each of us by name. When asked what he wanted, TB said "I'm sure I'll like whatever you bring. But if you could bring some books, I'd like that." That's my boy! TG was a little more specific, but still charming and polite, and she asked for books, too.

- The downtown tree lighting. Our town has a Norman Rockwell-ish tradition of decorating the tree in front of the town hall with lights, and having a little festival (complete with Santa arriving on a fire truck) culminating in the lighting of the tree. TW and I have gone every year since moving here, including the year before TB was born. This year her parents came with us. It was unspeakably cold, but we had a blast. After the tree lighting, they had carriage rides and ice sculpting on Main Street. We checked out the ice sculpting. TB was fascinated by the chainsaw, which I found slightly unsettling.

- Santa's housecall. The local fire department does a Santa service where you can sign up in advance and bring wrapped and labeled gifts for your kids to the firehouse, and Santa will deliver them, on the fire truck, at an appointed time. We've done that a few times, but this year the weather cooperated and Santa was in a great mood, so he let TB and TG climb on the truck for pictures! When you get a housecall from Santa, a present, and a climb up a fire truck, life is good.

- Getting narc'ed on. I took TB and TG shopping for Mommy a few weekends ago. Sure enough, not a day later: "Mommy, guess what they have at [name of store]!" Sigh.

And thus begins my brief blogging break. I'll be back on January 2.

Merry Christmas, everyone.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Hammer Time

I suppose this was inevitable.

The unholy convergence of unaccountable tenure decisions; the up-or-out nature of tenure; anti-discrimination clauses; and adventuresome lawyers has given birth to this.

As the IHE story tells it, Peter Hammer was denied tenure at the University of Michigan. (As in most tenure systems, denial of tenure meant loss of job. He is now working at Wayne State University.) Hammer is gay, and Michigan law does not prevent discrimination based on sexual orientation. However, the University (eventually) decided that discrimination based on sexual orientation is against its own policies.

Hammer is charging the university with violating its own policies by denying him tenure based on his homosexuality. The university is saying that the tenure decision was based on Hammer's merits.

Here's the good part.

Apparently, Hammer and his attorney have taken to examining the published records of each of the faculty who voted against him, looking for evidence of anti-gay bias. They have also questioned the professors on a number of social issues, such as abortion, probing for evidence of conservatism. Hammer is quoted in the IHE story as saying:

The theory of the case is that you are dealing with this very strong combination of religion and family values. You've got to get inside somebody's mind and present it in a way that can be objectively verified. You are looking for something that is so often invisible and shrouded in secrecy. (emphasis added)

So they're looking at membership in churches that take anti-gay positions, membership in organizations with conservative agendas, and so forth.

I'll admit, this is impressive. Alert readers know my position on tenure, but even I couldn't have come up with something this good. Wow.

Tenure at the U of M, as in most places, is apparently decided by a whole bunch of people, and therefore by no one person. In this case, the vote was 18 to 12 for him, but he needed two-thirds to win. Dollars to donuts, if he had won by 21 to 9, the individual views of the 9 would not have come into question. Which means, I guess, that you're allowed to be hateful, as long as you're relatively isolated. Bias, apparently, is only an issue when it reaches critical mass.

I don't know Hammer or his work. Whether he deserved tenure or not, I don't know. But the issues raised by this case are mind-boggling. It would be easy to pick up the flag of one side (“homophobia is real and despicable”) or the other (“now we have thought police?”), but that would miss the point. Both sides are right. The nature of the tenure system drives this conflict. That's the real story.

Discrimination law is based on an epistemological mistake. As soon as the plaintiff can prove membership in a protected class (in this case, nobody disputes his claim of being gay), and can show some sort of harm (in this case, denial of tenure), the burden of proof shifts to the defense to prove that animus toward the protected class was not the basis for the decision. (Technically, they have to give a reason other than protected class membership for the decision, and prove that the reason is not a pretext.) There is no presumption of innocence; the defense actually has to prove a negative.

How, exactly, do you do that?

Ideally, you have 'bright line' rules and processes that don't lend themselves to subjective decisionmaking. (“Nobody gets tenure without a Ph.D.”) But if that sufficed, we wouldn't need tenure committees. The whole point of calls for openness and transparency is that subjective judgment is an inescapable necessity. (If that weren't the case, we'd never see votes of 18 to 12. They'd all be 30 to 0, or very close to it.)

In corporate settings, each hiring (or firing) decision is credited to or blamed on a single person (the "hiring manager"). If I fire Bob, and Bob takes issue with it, I'm accountable. It's true that you sometimes see class actions against entire companies based on broad patterns of bias, but each individual decision was made by a single person. (Companywide layoffs are another issue, since they aren't about individual merit.) Individual tenure cases, by contrast, are made by committees. In fact, they're often made by multiple committees, each with varying expectations of deference from the others.

So in a tenure case, an entire committee – or at least a plurality of sufficient size to win – has to be able to show that it wasn't motivated by the wrong ideas. And someone challenging that committee's decision would be well-advised, in a very short term sense, in trying to find proof otherwise. You would do that exactly the way that Hammer and his attorney are: dig through the paper trail, look for smoking guns or suspicious clues, and even infer individual views from group membership. For example, the Catholic church is opposed to the death penalty, so surely no Catholics support the death penalty, right? And given the Catholic church's position on homosexuality, surely having too many Catholics on the committee would amount to institutionalized homophobia, right?

(Idea for fledgling administrators out there: convert to Unitarianism. If membership in a Catholic church establishes a presumption of, say, homophobia, then obviously membership in a Unitarian congregation would establish a presumption of openness to diversity. Unitarian Universalism: A Great Career Move! But wait...there's not supposed to be a religious test for public employment. So you can be held liable for having employees in the wrong churches, but you can't hire for the 'right' ones. The mind reels.)

Compounding matters is the up-or-out nature of tenure. There's no middle ground in a tenure case. You either get your job for life, or you hit the bricks. Up or out. So a divided committee still has to reach an all-or-nothing decision, and the results of that decision are assumed to be permanent.

I simply don't know how you combine 'proving purity of motive' with 'committees of thirty.' Proving a negative for a single person is dicey enough; proving it for thirty people is simply impossible. And while it would be easy to caricature Hammer as the PC police, he's only doing what the incentives of the tenure system make it rational for him to do. He's guilty only of playing the game well.

The game is the problem.

Unaccountable power will be abused. Committees defeat accountability. Do the math.

Expect to see more cases like this. Personally, I prefer the presumption of innocence to a need to “get inside somebody's mind.” And I prefer accountable decisionmakers making decisions with expiration dates. The tenure-committee-as-star-chamber model is as outmoded as tenure itself.

Or we can stick with an unsustainable tradition, and paper over the reality gap with ad hominem attacks ("homophobe!" "thought police!") on those who fall into the gap anyway.

Stay tuned...

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Ad Hoc Extra Credit


Oh God, no.

No, no, no.

Nein. Nyet. Non. Huh-uh. Negative.

I'll qualify that. Extra credit that's built into the syllabus from day one, available to all students equally and in advance, can be defensible. I'd worry if it counted for very much -- a course grade should ultimately reflect performance on the core of the course, rather than the periphery -- but I can see an argument for moving a B to a B-plus in an art history class if the student does (and documents) some museum trips, say.

But this is the time of year when the kid who has been slacking or failing shows up, filled with sudden enthusiasm, begging for extra credit to make up for the work he either didn't do or did badly earlier.

From an administrator's perspective, this is a lawsuit waiting to happen. Don't do it!

Imagine: Johnny and Suzy are both on the cusp of failing. Johnny shows up and asks for extra credit assignments, and the prof. gives them. Suzy doesn't, believing that the grading system outlined on the syllabus is to be taken literally. Johnny passes with the extra points, and Suzy fails. Suzy finds out next semester that Johnny had an option she didn't have. She files suit, claiming disparate treatment. Your defense is...what, exactly?

Assume that Suzy has a couple of the magical 'protected class' memberships, too. Now we're talking civil rights lawsuits, with adverse publicity, multiplied damages, political overtones, etc.

Yuck, yuck, yuck.

Or: Johnny writes an extra credit paper, which turns out to be plagiarized. Can you fail him for cheating on an assignment that wasn't supposed to be part of the course grade in the first place? (If not, then doesn't Johnny have every incentive in the world to take a shot, gambling that he won't get caught?) Or maybe it isn't plagiarized, but it's a real steamer. Do you ignore it on the grounds that it's awful, or do you give something in recognition that it was extra work (even if the extra work stunk)?

I worry, too, about the cumulative effect of students encountering multiple extra-credit bailouts over the years. If students start to expect end-of-semester freebies to bail out three months of slacking, what, exactly, are we teaching them? Sometimes I think "suck it up" is one of the most valuable lessons we can teach. It's certainly an important life skill, and one that comes in handy at entry-level jobs. A kid who hasn't learned to suck it up is in for a rude shock when he gets to his first real job.

(I have a similar worry about makeup exams. A wise erstwhile colleague once shared her secret for getting around makeup exams: she'd give, say, four tests in her class, and count the best three. The students either stepped up or dropped the class. It struck me as brilliant, and I used it in my own classes to wonderful effect. Not having to distinguish 'excused' from 'unexcused' absences meant that I had to stop playing 'lie detector' when students told me stories about their lives. Grades reflected actual performance, rather than creative whining. Students either got their drama under control, or dropped the class and tried again when they were ready.)

Even-handedness can sometimes seem cold, and it can require saying 'no' when it would be easier not to. But the costs of ad hoc special favors are just too high to sustain. Fight the temptation!

Tuesday, December 18, 2007


There has to be a better way.

I have what seems like thirty thousand logins, each requiring its own username and password combination. (That's not even counting PIN numbers.) Since the identity theft awareness campaigns have gained steam, some of these systems have changed their password rules to prevent anything easy to remember.

As the number of username/password combinations has metastasized, I've found exactly three ways of dealing with the information cascade, none satisfactory.

The first is to use the same combination (or one of the same two combinations) for everything. It's relatively easy to remember, which is no small thing, but it isn't terribly secure. Someone who could hack into one account could hack into many, many others without any effort. The problem with trying to do the electronic equivalent of the James Spader character in Sex, Lies, and Videotape ("I only want one key") is that once that one key is lost, all is lost.

(I've seen programs that remember your passwords for you. This strikes me as an accident waiting to happen. It's literally the one key that rules them all.)

The second is to write them all down, and keep the list handy by the computer. Leaving aside my, um, distinctive handwriting, it raises a fairly obvious security issue. It also raises an issue with updating. Passwords expire at different times, but too many cross-outs make the list useless, and too-intensive updating means I just won't do it.

The third is simply to accept that, at any given moment, a disconcerting amount of my personal information is inaccessible to me. Besides, system admins love nothing better than frantic calls from users who can't remember their passwords. They live for that stuff.

I've done passwords in series -- all the characters from a particular show, important historical dates, hurtful childhood nicknames, that sort of thing. I've taken lines from Great Works of Western Thought and used them as series. (My fave: at Proprietary U, the ERP system made us change passwords every 30 days, and would remember a year-long cycle, so you couldn't re-use any of your previous eleven passwords. Towards the end, I started a series: "Workers" "World" "Unite" "Nothing" "Lose" "Chains." It was good for a chuckle.) But it's embarrassing when your system hiccups, and you get the tech guru in there with wing of bat and eye of newt, and he asks you your password, and it's something like "Winona8675309" or "Scalia666." It's important to maintain some basic level of surface banality.

I've heard talk of 'biometrics,' where you have to get a retinal scan or a fingerprint reading instead of entering a password. It may very well be more accurate and secure, but the 'creepy' factor is pretty high. It's also incredibly vulnerable, in the sense that once somebody figures out how to pirate a retinal scan, you're done. If someone steals my password, I can change it. If someone steals my retinal scan or fingerprint, I'm pretty much out of luck.

Is there a better way? Am I missing the obvious? The number of logins I have to remember at any given time just keeps growing, and there are other things on my mind.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Christmas Eve Day

This year, Christmas falls on a Tuesday, so Christmas Eve Day is on a Monday. The college closes for Christmas, in recognition of a larger cultural reality, but will be open on Christmas Eve Day. Exams will already have finished well before that, and grades will have been posted.

The faculty, I'm reasonably certain, will be long gone. Entire hallways will be deserted. But we'll heat the whole place anyway, and a few benighted souls will be on hand to field anybody who theoretically could show up.

You should hear the grumbling. Nearly everybody -- myself included -- is burning a vacation day on the 24th. We have real 'skeleton crew' representation, consisting of a few good sports.

The human side of me thinks this is kind of asinine, and wishes the college would just be closed on the 24th. But the administrator in me actually gets it. (That's not to deny that some of us administrators also happen to be human. It's just that we have to be able to turn it on and off.)

One reason is precedent. In a collective bargaining environment in which people are quick to assert 'past practice' status for anything ever done, this year's mercy closing becomes next year's entitlement. And when the 24th is a given, the 23rd starts to look kind of silly. The college could try to argue that the 24th was special for falling on a Monday, but being right is no guarantee of winning.

So to avoid a series of future arguments, the college is playing Scrooge and staying officially open -- if mostly dark -- on the 24th. There's a certain Dilbertish quality to it, and I'm sure the folks who actually show up will be bored out of their minds, and it's a criminal waste of natural resources to heat all those empty buildings, but it solves a real problem. If you don't hold to some lines in the sand, even when they seem a little silly, 'past practice' can become nearly unstoppable.

"Aha!," I hear my astute readers saying. "There you go again, blaming the unions. What about working out memoranda of understanding with the relevant unions in advance, stipulating that this isn't setting a precedent? That way, everybody wins!" Sadly, no.

The answer has to do with how it would play in the press. If the college grants an 'extra' day off in the name of saving heat and electricity, the local papers would play it as featherbedding. The usual suspects would start grumbling about public employees goofing off on your tax dime, and how we have to get tough on all those overpaid administrative assistants. ("Don't they get lots of paid vacation already?") If we were a private college, the 'memorandum of understanding' route would make sense, and might even come off as statesmanlike. But as a public institution, that move would look like a conspiracy to rip off the long-suffering taxpayers. Even if the 24th is demonstrably an utterly unproductive day. Even if the money saved in utilities alone more than made up for it.

The featherbedding angle would be especially damaging when our local public sector is facing some pretty nasty financial issues already. It's hard to plead poverty to the taxpayers, then turn around and grant 'extra' days off to unionized employees, many of whom get better benefits than do most taxpayers. (One of those benefits is a buyout of unused vacation days upon retirement. Requiring people to take a vacation day actually reduces the cost of future buyouts, so there really is a financial impact to this.) The folks who like to demagogue such things would beat this to death.

So even though exams will be long over, grades will have been posted, and there won't be a professor to be found, we'll be open. Your tax dollars at work!

Friday, December 14, 2007

Public Scholarship at CC's

This is really an exercise in idea-stealing, rather than a developed thought.

Have you seen (or do you work at) a cc that does a consistently good job of presenting its faculty in public settings as local experts?

I've been frustrated with the inequities of visibility from discipline to discipline. Some of the evergreen disciplines – including my scholarly home, the social sciences – are virtually invisible to the larger community. I'd love to get a sort of in-house speakers' series going, with members of our faculty presenting one-off public talks on topics that combine their own expertise with popular appeal.

We've done a little of that, and the little we've done has been gratifyingly well-received. But I'd love to encourage a higher profile in this area, since it strikes me as exactly the sort of thing that a community college ought to do. If we can bring local people to campus for talks they'd find interesting, everybody wins. The college gains some local support, the faculty get to show off a little (and make a few bucks), and the community gets access to a wonderful resource that it's already paying for.

If you've seen this done well, what was the trick? I'm casting about for portable best practices, which is a fancy way of saying I'm looking to steal/imitate some good ideas that have worked. We have some wonderful faculty with expertise in areas of wide interest, and I'm tired of that being a relatively well-kept secret.

Wise and worldly readers – your thoughts?

Thursday, December 13, 2007


This week I ran into another of those “the policies make sense, but the application is silly” scenarios. A wonderful, well-credentialed, hardworking, and well-respected leader of the full-time staff asked me about redefining her job so that it would include a half-time teaching component in her field of expertise. (It's a relatively specialized area, and her academic credentials are more than good enough. She has taught courses for us on an adjunct basis, and done an outstanding job.) We're currently doing a search in her field of expertise, so it wouldn't involve creating a job out of thin air.

Under our current system, it can't be done. You can be faculty with release time to do some admin work on the side, or you can be admin/staff and teach as an adjunct. But you can't be half and half. (That's why deans here don't carry faculty rank or tenure. When I teach a class, it's on an adjunct basis.) Your primary function has to be on one side or the other.


Tenure is the single biggest sticking point. Under our system, any full-time employee for whom teaching is a part of their regular job – as opposed to something additional – accrues credits towards tenure. At a certain point, that employee is either awarded tenure or fired. Someone whose job is half faculty and half staff would get tenure in half her job (or get fired from half her job). If the other half of her job didn't work out, she'd have half a job, but with full benefits and lifetime security. From the college's perspective, that doesn't work.

There's also an issue with dual union membership. The staff has one union, and the faculty another. (Each is affiliated with a different larger union, too.) Someone who is half-and-half would be under separate and sometimes conflicting contracts. (She'd also have to pay two sets of dues, though I file that under 'her problem.')

Defining workload would be tricky. It couldn't just be a matter of setting aside, say, six hours a week from the office job to teach. Full-time faculty teach fifteen hours per week, yet get full-time status. We don't count teaching hours on a one-to-one basis towards workload. I don't begrudge that; having been faculty, I understand that class prep and grading and committees take time. As long as someone is purely in a faculty role, it's really a non-issue. But straddling the two camps means having to convert – literally, mathematically, convert – class time to total hours of worktime per week. Nobody really wants to have that conversation, since there's no elegant way to do it. Do you only count semester weeks, or do you factor in summer and winter vacations, too, since staff don't get those? What about preparation days? Sabbaticals? I get a headache just thinking about it.

(These issues don't arise when the staffer works a full-time staff job, then picks up an adjunct course at night. In that case, the adjunct course is paid at the adjunct rate, and that's that. She has done that, but is trying to avoid it to avoid a crushing overall workload.)

The shame of it is that, in many ways, it's a great idea. The students would get the benefit of learning from someone in the field. We'd get the benefit of keeping a great staff person who is also excellent in the classroom. She'd get the benefit of doing what she loves and still getting home at a reasonable hour. And over the long term, I suspect the college as a whole would benefit as some of the negative stereotypes that faculty and staff have of each other would melt away.

But nooo.

The optimist in me says that 'halfway' positions like this make too much sense not to happen eventually. But the realist in me isn't holding my breath.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

The Walk of Shame

This is a dirty little industry secret.

In some necks of the woods – moneyed ones, especially – this is the time of year when we start to see a parade of young men and women with hangdog expressions and very angry parents. The students went 'away' to expensive residential colleges in September, and partied their way to a GPA that starts with a zero. Come December or January, their parents drag them to the local cc as a sort of combination boot camp and purgatory, usually with some sort of “improve or else” mandate to the student.

(I've had some remarkably frank discussions with parents who say things like “I'm not paying twenty thousand dollars per semester for him to cut class! He can cut class here for much less!” It's hard to argue with logic like that.)

It's a delicate situation. We take all comers, including those who haven't quite pulled their stuff together yet. We're all about second chances, knowing full well that 18 year olds sometimes overdo it a bit when they get their first escape from parental supervision. Some will prosper with the second chance, and some won't. We know that from the start.

But there's really no graceful way to advertise this.

“Repent Your Sins! Start Over at Nearby CC!”

“What Happened at Snooty U Stays at Snooty U.”

“Dorm-Free since 1963!”

And it doesn't do much for office morale when students and their parents openly refer to enrolling at your college as a form of punishment. It's often followed by the always endearing “if you do well here, you can transfer to a real college.”


Serving these students is part of our mission. We're glad to do it, and I'm sure that some of these students actually use the second chance productively and get back on track. (I haven't seen any numbers on this group specifically, and I imagine the data gathering would be a bit delicate.) But it's a mission we really don't discuss much, and that few folks are comfortable embracing publicly.

So I'll just float it on the internet, and hope that readers who see students in this situation think of the local cc as a viable option for a do-over. Just be very, very diplomatic when you make the suggestion.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

"An Enormous Wave of Philanthropy"

In a story in yesterday's IHE about for-profit companies taking over nonprofit colleges -- the gist of the story was that the 'trend' is tiny and unlikely to grow anytime soon -- a particular quote really jumped out at me.

Palmer also predicted an "enormous wave of philanthropy" as baby boomers move into their 60s and begin to donate to their alma maters. That influx of capital, he suggested, would provide financial stability to institutions that would otherwise find themselves looking for a potential for-profit suitor.

(The "Palmer" in the quote is identified in the article as "Bradley Palmer, the founder and managing partner of Palm Ventures.")

I'll admit, this angle simply never occurred to me. I've read many a piece about for-profit higher ed, and I've worked in for-profit higher ed, and this is the first time I've ever encountered this argument.

I can't decide if it's loopy or brilliant.

Admittedly, part of my blind spot may have to do with working at a cc. One of the frustrations of the cc sector is that our most successful alums generally -- with exceptions -- identify primarily as alums of wherever they went after they graduated. Someone who graduated the local cc and went on to Midtier State for the B.A. will more likely identify as an alum of Midtier State than as an alum of the local cc. This has predictable -- and dampening -- effects on giving. We're working on that, and we absolutely need to improve in that area, but there's a blind spot that's hard to overcome.

(Besides, as someone who was fed the "great wave of retirements" line upon entering grad school, I tend to treat projections like these with a wee tad of skepticism. They have a way of ending in tears.)

That said, the colleges to which the article referred were -- I think -- primarily small, private, economically marginal four-year schools. The recent efforts -- on which the jury is still out -- by alumni to resuscitate Antioch is presumably the kind of thing Palmer had in mind.

Unless there's a pretty drastic change in the way colleges use philanthropic money, though, I don't see this working for colleges in trouble.

First, the most successful fundraisers are the schools that are already wealthy. Nothing succeeds like success, and philanthropists like to believe that they'll be able to see the fruits of their generosity for years to come. If the college is on life support, that may smack of "throwing good money after bad." In one sense, that's perverse, but it's also the way the game is played. You can raise money by showing that you don't actually need it.

Beyond that, though, it's incredibly rare to see donations used for operating funding. Operating funding covers the day-to-day expenses of a college, like payroll and utilities. Donors usually designate their funds for either 'capital' funding -- buildings and suchlike -- or scholarships. (Endowed chairs are a limited exception.) Colleges don't go under for lack of buildings or lack of scholarships. They go under when they can't make payroll. To the extent that a college can offload some of its payroll onto endowed chairs, that could help, but the ratio of 'gift' to 'offset' is much higher than one-to-one, given the nature of an endowment. Endowed chairs can also come with strings that may or may not comport with the mission of the college, as it understands it. (Then again, a financial gun to the head has a way of clarifying matters.)

Until you hit the critical mass of a really massive endowment -- where you can pretty much live off the interest -- philanthropic money will be more cyclical, and even capricious, than money from almost any other source. A college that relies on non-endowed philanthropy to balance the books has to be incredibly assiduous in courting donors, and has to hope against hope that nothing else comes along (a natural disaster, a conspicuous disease, etc.) to divert that money.

I'm guessing that if there actually is an enormous wave of philanthropy, it will actually widen the class divide in higher ed, rather than work to the benefit of the marginal colleges. The colleges that produced the wealthiest alumni have the easiest donor base, and the easiest case to make that the donors will be able to see the fruits of their gifts for years to come. The more marginal schools -- the ones that produce teachers and cops and nurses, rather than financial services gurus and cardiologists -- will benefit much less, if at all. They'll need it more, of course, but that's not what philanthropy is about.

Hint to my well-intentioned, gloriously-wealthy readers: endow some professorships at your local community college. If you don't like that, pay for nursing labs. The human good you'll accomplish with that will far outstrip yet another plaque at Snooty U.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Lousy Christmas Music: A Seasonal Snark

Bowing to the inevitable, I've spent far too much time lately shopping. Which means...

The aural assault of cheesy Christmas music has begun.

I'll admit, having been raised in a musically unfortunate household (Neil Diamond, Anne Murray, Rita Coolidge, Air Supply), I'm a little jumpy when it comes to awful music. Part of the reason I grabbed onto satellite radio the way drowning people grab onto life preservers was that it offered the prospect of escaping the tyranny of Lite Hits and NPR pledge drives.

But this time of year, there is no escape. And the Lite Hits stations are at their worst, replacing the boring-but-tolerable (Avril Lavigne, Matchbox Twenty) with music so awful that I have an actual physical reaction.

The worst, I think, is “Christmas in Sarajevo,” by Mannheim Steamroller. When I hear this, I actually feel capable of violence. Mostly against Mannheim Steamroller. It's as if you took the soundtrack to a series of beer commercials, ran it through a blender, and added chimes. It's like John Tesh meets Yanni, without the subtlety. Every time a radio station plays this, the baby Jesus cries.

“Feliz Navidad,” by Jose Feliciano, gets my hand to the 'off' button at warp speed. I'm all for cultural inclusiveness, but crap is crap.

And that #*(%&)#% Paul McCartney song – the one where he keeps repeating “simply, simply” -- simply induces nausea. That's not hyperbole. I actually feel sick to my stomach when I hear that song.

Honesty, I'd rather hear the dogs bark “Jingle Bells.”

The Christmas songs that don't bother me are the ones clearly intended for kids. “Frosty the Snowman,” especially the original, is disarmingly sweet, as is “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” The Charlie Brown songs are lovely. And there's nothing wrong with “All I Want for Christmas is My Two Front Teeth.”

For adults, the classic carols are perfectly fine, if a bit predictable. And some songs just sound like Christmas songs, even if they aren't. (“Better Days,” by the Goo Goo Dolls, sounds like a Christmas song to me.) I'll even cop to liking Adam Sandler's “Hanukkah Song,” though I think slightly less of myself for it. And Bob and Doug McKenzie's version of “The Twelve Days of Christmas” is a neglected classic.

But if I hear that #*%@)% McCartney song one more time...

What Christmas songs drive you around the bend? What's your nominee for Most Annoying Christmas Song?

Friday, December 07, 2007

The True Cost of Rubber Chicken

The Fall rubber chicken circuit is in full swing again. Lots of evening events, celebrating all manner of good things. Each one worthwhile in itself, though they add up.

This morning, at home:

The Boy (weakly): I didn't get to play with you last night.


I'm going in late today, so we can walk to school together.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Stuck in Adjunct Hell

A long-suffering correspondent writes:

I'm an adjunct . . . everywhere. Note that I am sending this from the
Ringling College of Something Specific, where I have been teaching a 67
percent load for six years. I am also teaching for a local community
college that has several branches. The CC pays literally half what
Ringling does, and I am not treated nearly as well in a general-person
kind of way. Furthermore, the CC has to abide by certain state
regulations, which translates into significantly more work for me at
far less pay. My boss at the CC has made it abundantly clear to me
that I am his favorite choice. And why wouldn't I be? I am really,
really good at my job, the students like me, some of them fear me, I'm
very qualified, experienced, I always say yes and in the past I have
done some really Herculean favors for the school overall. Two years
ago, I was about fifteen minutes' pregnant and discovered I was to
fill in for a full-timer on sabbatical (at adjunct pay!), which meant
driving between three campuses in one day, teaching out of three
textbooks in one week, AND they changed the textbooks on me without
telling me, so I had to do entirely new prep from scratch in the midst
of all this joy, too. I did it, and I did it well, but I loathed it
the entire time. The only reason I continue to work there is because
they offer summer classes and Ringling doesn't, and we need the summer
money just to keep from being homeless. I could go on, but I gather
you are familiar with the plight of adjuncts generally.

Right now I am slated to teach one class there next term, from 7 to 10
at night about 30 miles south of where I live, and it will mean a) I
will get home at nearly 11, and can't see my husband, bathe the baby,
etc. and b) the other college had to rearrange my schedule in a very
inconvenient way to accommodate it. Now Happy Boss wants me to teach
another course (not a section, another course) on another night from 7
to 10. I so desperately want to say no that it's keeping me up at
night, seriously. But I'm afraid if I do, I won't be offered summer
teaching. He has shopped this class to every other adjunct he has, and
they've all refused it, so if I say no it's going to be cancelled, oy
the guilt. I have to give him an answer this week, and I don't want to
be rash. I should also add I'm in school (trying to make a better
future so I never have to do this again.) Furthermore, this semester I
had the delight of teaching a seriously disturbed student and I am
worried about my physical safety on campus late at night next term.
I've had a security detail assigned to my classroom, hooray.

What to do? I know this was overly long - I just wanted to illustrate
the egregiousness of how they treat me, and how I stupidly keep saying
yes in spite of it. I'm like . . . a really dumb girlfriend!

Wow. No sticky issues here!

I don't know your Happy Boss, so I can't say this with any finality, but I can guess both why he likes you and why things won't improve unless you make them.

You're solving his problems for him. He's grateful, and relieved, and he has learned to turn to you when he has a problem class. He probably does respect your ability, which is precisely why he's happy that you keep saying yes. He's getting quality and flexibility on the cheap. From his perspective, what's not to like?

And why, exactly, do you expect that to change?

He may sincerely mean it when he says he'd love to hire you full-time. Or he may not. Even if he does mean it, it may not matter. He may not get a line to fill for many years, and when he finally does, he'll have to do an open search, at which point his opinion will be one of many, and you'll be up against candidates you aren't up against now.

As I interpret it, you have two goals you're trying to attain:

  1. Non-starvation in the short term.

  2. A full-time job in the long term.

These are both worthy goals, but your chase of goal 1 is short-circuiting your prospects for goal 2.

More adjuncting at the same place won't improve your chances of a full-time position anywhere. At best, it will keep you fed. But there are other ways of keeping yourself fed. And those other ways might leave you more time to make yourself a more attractive candidate for full-time positions.

Good, hardworking people sometimes believe a little too strongly in the 'virtue will be rewarded' theory. It could be, but colleges don't hire to reward virtue; they hire to meet needs. If they don't need you, your dazzling endurance and heroic selflessness and general wonderfulness are simply irrelevant. That's not nice, but it's true.

(True example: my cc didn't hire anybody in my scholarly discipline for 35 years. I refuse to believe it was for lack of qualified people.)

With childcare, financial stresses, and the hassles of working at two colleges, it sounds like you haven't had the chance to step back and think about the long term. It's time to do that. Whatever you do, you need to break out of your rut.

My recommendation – and wise and worldly readers, if you have better ideas, don't be shy – is to turn down these classes, and take some idiotic (and definitely non-academic) job in the meantime if you have to to eat. Get some distance on your situation. After a couple of months, when your brain starts to snap back to its original shape, ask yourself again what you actually want. It may be that tenure-track job; if it is, then start organizing the short term around improving your chances of that. Or you may discover that, while you like teaching and you're good at it, stepping away isn't the end of the world. There are other rewarding and valid – and often more lucrative – ways to make a living.

Either way, it's not selfish to take a time out and step back. It's self-preservation. You're allowed.

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers – your thoughts?

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

Wednesday, December 05, 2007


I've found a few pieces recently in blogland that are so on-target that the only way to do justice to them is with annotated links. So if you haven't seen these already, check them out:

Reverse Age Discrimination

Chad Orzel does a masterful job of slicing and dicing the single silliest argument I've read in a long time. When I read the IHE piece he attacks, I remember thinking that I couldn't really respond to it without seeming mean. But Chad manages to take the high road, even while artfully tearing the original author a richly-deserved new one. Nicely done.

Masculinism 101

Regular readers know that I consider Aunt B., at Tiny Cat Pants, a national treasure. In this post about gender politics and rape she makes so much sense that all I can do is tip my cap. As a father of a son and a daughter, I can only hope they grow up in the world she advocates.

With Idiocy Like This, Who Can I Vote For?

Aunt B. is on a roll. (Maybe it's the effect of some good sleep?) Here she points out -- with the all-too-rare gift she has of grasping what should be obvious -- that attaining universal health coverage through individual mandates is, what's the word I'm looking for, colossally insane. Sometimes when struggling young people don't buy health insurance, it's because...wait for's too f-ing expensive! Who woulda thunk it? Then, when the young and healthy don't dilute the risk level of the pool, the cost for the rest of us goes up.

If only (single payer) there were some way (single payer) to cover everybody (single payer) that has been shown to work (single payer) at lower cost (single payer) in other countries (single payer). Not to worry -- our best minds in Washington are hard at work!


Happy reading!

Reading Evaluations

A new correspondent -- and apparently the kind of student we'd all like to have -- writes:

As a student, I have gotten a lot more careful over the years with how I
fill out student evaluations, because I know more about what they mean
for the instructors. I've read a lot of complaints on academic blogs
that students do not carefully fill out the evaluations and that their
criticism is sometimes unfair. I try hard to be both constructive and
fair. I almost always include written comments, unless I've got
absolutely nothing to say.

My question relates to how the evaluations are used by administrators.
The form usually asks for separate written comments addressing such
things as what could be improved about the course, how useful the
readings and assignments were, etc. Thinking that the feedback could be
useful to the instructors -- especially brand-new, inexperienced ones --
I've always answered them honestly, identifying both strengths and

But I find myself wondering: if the way evaluations are used is as
abusive as some academic bloggers feel it is, maybe I should just opt
out, or bubble in all 5's and leave it at that.

If I give an instructor generally high numerical marks, and note in the
written comments that the instructor's assignments are clearly written,
obviously well thought out, and very helpful; the readings are
informative; and the class exposed me to concepts I hadn't been familiar
with but which were very important -- but that his lectures are somewhat
confusing due to disorganization and a lack of "signposts" -- have I
just hosed someone's (by all indications very promising) career by
pointing out a weakness?

Likewise, if I give extremely low ratings to a department-designed
cookie-cutter course, but not to the instructor herself, and make it
very clear in the written comments that it's the course itself I feel is
valueless, is the instructor going to be penalized for this?

If there's anything I've learned about course evaluations in my time blogging, it's that different administrators (and different colleges) treat them differently. I'll discuss how I treat them, and how I've seen them treated, and how I think they ought to be treated. It's entirely possible that not everybody treats them as thoughtfully as they should.

The evaluations we use separate questions into three categories: numerical about the instructor, numerical about the course, and open-ended.

When considering applications for promotion, we look at the first and third categories. The second category is mostly ignored. If I had my druthers, we'd include data from the second category in outcomes assessment exercises -- in which we look at the curriculum, rather than the instructors -- but we're not there yet. Maybe someday.

The first category lends itself easily to a single summary score, which is reported up the chain. The single summary score is relatively unhelpful for most faculty, but it does help you spot outliers. If one professor is coming in several standard deviations below everybody else -- it happens -- that's a red flag. It's not dispositive by itself, but it suggests taking a closer look.

The open-ended answers take the longest to read, but are by far the most useful. Some of them, I'll admit, I just tune out: "professor was mean she wouldn't let me do extra credit." Good for her. "Too much work." If everyone says that, I'd take a look; if a few do, I write it off to standard student griping. Some are just mean -- comments about clothes or hair or accents. And some are just inappropriate -- "she's hot!" Thanks for sharing.

The ones I've seen that have piqued my attention are the ones like "he takes two months to grade papers." That's a specific complaint about something relevant that is usually within the professor's control. If that one pops up a lot, I check it out. If it's true, then that's something the professor needs to address. I recall one professor at PU whose students commented, almost uniformly, "he changes the rules every week. We never know what the deadlines are." To me, that's a serious charge. Similarly, anything like "professor is often very late to class" or "professor misses class a lot" is a bright red flag. If those are true, then we have a very real issue.

The comment about signposts in lectures wouldn't really register with me either way; I'd read that as intended for the prof, rather than for me.

All of that said, I've heard of some people with 'bright line' rules about numerical scores, and of adjuncts being non-renewed for trivial complaints. I've never done that, and I've never seen it done at either of the colleges at which I've worked in administration. But I can't say it has never happened anywhere.

I've noticed a strong 'halo effect' in the numerical questions. If the students like the professor, they'll forgive many flaws. If they don't, they'll nitpick every little thing. An evaluation in which the student draws a straight line down the 'poor' column doesn't suggest 'bad professor' so much as 'disgruntled student.' An evaluation with mostly 'fair's and 'poor's, somewhat interspersed, is actually far more damning, since it suggests actual thought.

To my mind, student evaluations should be an element in evaluating teaching, but they can't be the only element. Some classes will consistently 'score' relatively low, no matter who teaches them. (Remedial classes almost always score low, as do required math classes for humanities majors.) And it's certainly true that most of us with any kind of experience have had some classes that just 'clicked' and some that just didn't. My standard for myself as a teacher was that on good days, I should be really good, and on bad days, I should be at least professional. Any professor who claims never to have had a lesson fall flat just isn't very self-aware.

All of that said, I'll fall back on the rule I use when I write up class observations: write what you saw. Ultimately, you can't control how it's read or used, and you don't control your professor's career. If your professor has an idiot dean or department chair or provost, that's beyond your control. If your comments are honest and thoughtful and constructive, you're doing your part.

I'm almost afraid to ask, but...wise and worldly readers, what do you think? What have you seen?

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

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Attack of the Grinch

A new correspondent writes:

I am a new department chair. The staff love to decorate for any and
all holidays. Recently they have put up the tree, tinsel and various
other baubles. One of my faculty members has objected to the
"religious" decorating. I am aware that the supreme court ruled that
the tree is not a religious symbol and the staff haven't put up angels
or anything of that sort. However, I am sympathetic to the complaint.
What would you do?

It's a great question, and I hate it.

I hate it because it's no-win, at least at a public institution. (Sectarian schools have an advantage here.) You're supposed to protect both free speech and free exercise of religion, but not 'establish' a religion. So what do you do when underlings decorate in ways that are obviously, if indirectly, related to a distinctly Christian holiday? Do you stifle their free expression to avoid seeming to endorse their view, or do you allow their free expression and seem indirectly to endorse it?

Yuck, yuck, yuck.

As far as I know, there's no graceful and elegant way around this one.* There are, though, some reasonably tolerable, slightly weaselly ways.

One is to keep out specifically religious content, and instead focus on winter themes. Snowflakes, snowmen, sleigh bells, etc. It snows on the just and the unjust alike, so focusing on snow and suchlike is pretty safe. (Of course, this works better in Northern climes. In, say, Los Angeles, I don't know how that would go over. "Let it smog, let it smog, let it smog?") "Jingle Bells" and "Let it Snow" are safer than, say, "Silent Night."

Or you can do the old 'big tent' approach, and lump Christmas in with Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Solstice, New Year's, and anything else you can find. (Bizarrely, nobody ever throws in Saturnalia.) This was the logic behind "Happy Holidays," before the Republicans declared that this was part of a secret liberal war on Christmas. Now some of them think themselves rebels for saying "Merry Christmas." I consider the 'war on Christmas' thesis bizarre, even by Republican standards, but I'll concede that the big tent approach is little more than a convenient compromise.

(Another variation of the big tent approach is to celebrate every little holiday that comes up all year long. Little groundhogs for Groundhog's Day, patriotic displays for the Fourth of July, etc. This would be fine if there wasn't work to do. Besides, there's always an argument. If you celebrate Christmas, why not Rosh Hashanah or Ramadan? If you celebrate St. Patrick's Day, why not Cinco de Mayo or Bastille Day? The tent will never be big enough.)

The Supreme Court has issued a mind-bending series of decisions on this sort of thing, generating much heat but little light. I don't put much stock in trying to parse every last decision, since the current Court doesn't seem overly concerned with precedent, and many of the 'tests' they use are pretty useless in practice. Besides, even if you correctly find the sweet spot in the existing decisions, there's nothing to keep the Court from issuing yet another decision just to complicate things. Lawyers live for that sort of thing. And I wouldn't trust something as sensitive as religion to a Court that could issue a decision like Bush vs. Gore.

Rather than spending my time on angels-on-the-head-of-a-pin exegesis of Court cases, I'd sit down and talk with the staffers. Remind them that the workplace is a diverse setting, including people of different faiths and no faiths at all, and that everybody -- including visitors -- has to feel welcome. And if that doesn't work, remind them that it's a workplace and not a church or a private home. It doesn't need to be sterile, but it can't be home away from home. That may seem cold to the true believers, but I prefer to think of it as something like fairness.

Some of them will think you're the Grinch, and will say so behind your back. Stand your ground. Some of us suspect that the best hope for lasting peace on earth and goodwill towards men and women starts with fairness.

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers -- have you found a graceful way to handle this?

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

*"The Christians and the Pagans," by Dar Williams, comes close.

Monday, December 03, 2007

The Limits of Transparency

Search Committee Chair: The job starts next semester. Can you do that?

Candidate: No problem! Rarin' to go! Woo-hoo!

(skip ahead)

Department Chair: The job starts next semester. Are you okay with that?

Candidate: Great! Can't wait! Let's go!

(skip ahead)

Dean: The job starts next semester. Are you okay with that?

Candidate: You betcha! Ayup! All systems go!

(skip ahead)

VP: The job starts next semester. You're sure you're okay with that?

Candidate: Abso-freakin'-lutely! Bring it on!

(skip ahead)

VP: You're the one. Here are the details of the offer. Do you accept?

Candidate: I don't know. I can't start next semester.